In the quiet of my office, Noelle whispered, “I’m not here for the reason my parents said. I’m seriously turned on by my best friend.” Listening closely, I heard the story of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually attracted to her friend. Nothing physical had happened between them, but Noelle’s fantasies frightened her. “Does this mean I’m going to be gay?” she asked. I told her the truth—that I didn’t know, that no one could know whether she would be lesbian as an adult. It’s a complicated question.
If your daughter suspects she is gay, she may tell a counselor first, as Noelle did, or a friend or her diary. But sooner or later, she will tell you. As her parent, your reaction may be disbelief or anger. You may realize that you had sensed this already, or you may be totally unprepared. In either case, you will likely be overwhelmed by feelings of grief and guilt. When a girl reveals that she is or might be lesbian, most parents react by wondering if they could have caused her sexual orientation or have done something to prevent it. The answer to both questions is no. We don’t cause our daughters’ sexual orientation, nor can we change it.
Approximately 40% of our daughters experience sexual feelings toward another girl at least once their adolescent or teen years. But this doesn’t mean they will be lesbians. Research indicates that a girl’s sexual orientation is established during early childhood, and that genetics almost certainly plays a role. Lesbian girls usually have an awareness of being different early in childhood. They feel they don’t fit in, but they don’t know why. At about 14, they first identify this difference as being lesbian or bisexual. Even then, a girl’s sexual orientation isn’t necessarily set. For many women, orientation changes over the course of a lifetime, sometimes more than once. Noelle’s feelings for her friend at 15 were no guarantee that she would still have sexual feelings for girls at 18 or 21.
If your daughter has told you she is a lesbian, your feelings of loss are natural. She may not have the kind of adulthood you had planned for her. Whatever your beliefs about homosexuality, this is not likely to be an easy time for you.
Accepting and Learning
After Noelle talked with me, she found courage to talk with her parents. Her mother was deeply worried about the problems Noelle might face, but she let herself listen as her daughter talked. Noelle’s father had more difficulty with her revelation. He believed homosexuality was immoral, and he disapproved of the life he foresaw for her. Later, when Noelle became more certain of her orientation, he joined a support group for the parents of gay children. He was never able to talk directly with her about her orientation. For him, learning more and withholding judgment were the best he could do. This showed Noelle that in his own way, he loved her. If a girl you love identifies herself as lesbian or bisexual, these ideas may help:
Treat her feelings seriously. Listen to her admission with respect. Don’t dismiss her with “This is just a phase,” which amounts to a rejection of who she knows herself to be at this point in her life.
Talk about your fears for her. Many people in our society fear and hate homosexuality. Bisexual and lesbian girls are often targets of verbal and physical abuse. Lesbian girls have higher rates of depression, anxiety, smoking, and alcohol and drug abuse than other girls. Let your daughter know you’re aware of these risks, and emphasize how much you care about her safety.
Find support for both of you. Don’t hesitate to talk with a support group or therapist. This can help both of you cope with your feelings. Above all, remember that your daughter needs your acceptance. You don’t have to agree with everything she tells you, but she depends on you to acknowledge what is true for her.
The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls by Lynn Ponton. Insight into the complicated sexual lives of our daughters and sons.
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