Q: I'm planning to come out to my parents; I've done all my homework with PFLAG so I have some pamphlets for them and also information on the next chapter meeting and a phone number to call if they want to talk to someone right away. How long do you think it will take them to deal with it?
A: First, you have to keep in mind that parents go through a coming out process with various stages just as you yourself did. It probably took you years to come to the understanding that you were gay, then more time to fully accept it, and even longer to feel really good about yourself so that you were ready to come out to others.
Parents, too, take a similar journey. Often the first response to a child's coming out is denial "no, you can't be gay, after all you took Susie to the prom!" or "are you sure? you just haven't met the right girl yet." My guess is that at least 75% of parents upon being told will utter those magic words "are you sure?" -- I know I did!
Once parents accept that their child hasn't made some awful mistake or decided to be gay on a whim, they may go through a process akin to grieving. It's not that they are mourning you, so much as their own expectations. All of a sudden they have to revise their hopes and dreams for you tempered with the sobering realization that they didn't know you as well as they thought they did. That can be a real blow to the ego for some parents! They may also have worries, both rational and irrational, about threats to your safety, discrimination and your health.
Fortunately, most parents do eventually "get over it" and with varying degrees of enthusiasm either accept their gay child or simply tolerate her or his sexual orientation. This process can take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. It's not as easy as it sounds: parents often have to reject all the lies and stereotypes they held about gay people just when they are at an age when they thought they could settle down and not worry about major changes. They are faced with a contradiction between the reality of their love for you and all the horrid things they may have heard about gay people; all of a sudden their own child is one of "them"!
As for how much time your parents will need, that depends. Even parents who may be very liberal in their views on civil rights for gay and lesbian people can be initially upset when their own child comes out. That's the difference between accepting with the head and with the heart. Many parents confess to having an uncomfortable lump in the pit of the stomach for the first few months while they digest the news.
I've often heard gay people wondering why their parents need so much time to deal with the news. All I can do is point to their own coming out process, to themselves and others. Nobody deals with the whole process in a few weeks or even months, rather it is measured in years. Your parents are going to need almost as much time as you did, but they too always have the option of shutting down and going into denial, which you do not want to happen!
So be patient with them and help them along; give them the information and books they need to help them understand, and encourage them to ask you questions and talk about what's on their minds. Coming out to parents doesn't stop with the initial revelation; there's going to be a lot of hard work on both sides in the months ahead.
For more information on PFLAG and coming out to parents, see the PFLAG-TALK web site at http://www.critpath.org/pflag-talk/