Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized groups of people in society. Being different from the heterosexual mainstream is frequently equated with being “deviant” or psychologically disturbed. Research has shown that the greatest difference between LGB individuals and heterosexual individuals is in how they are treated by society. Fortunately, this is changing and GLBT people are no longer viewed as mentally disordered by the field of psychology; rather they are seen as multi-dimensional, fully-functioning people with strengths and talents that contribute significantly to the larger society.

I have over 20 years of experience working with bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, couples and their families. I have done research, written books, chapters and journal articles on LGBT counseling for bisexual, transgender and queer clients, and have presented extensively to students, therapists and lay audiences on many aspects of GLBT culture, identity, and social activism. I use a model of self-acceptance, identity integration, pride, self-empowerment and building community to enhance the lives of bisexual women and men, gay men, lesbians and other queer-identified individuals.

Dr. Firestein writes a monthly Q & A column for the Healthline magazine which is a separate magazine inserted into the Reporter Herald on the 3rd Thursday of each month. It is called Uncommon Sense. Here are some sample questions and answers from previous columns addressing topics of psychological interest to many of the clients she sees in her practice.

Question: I am writing because I am really confused and upset about how deal with a tricky situation involving my sister. I am in my 40s and she is in her late thirties. We used to be very close when we were kids. We shared a bedroom and considered ourselves to be best friends. Over the years we grew apart. We have very different personalities. Part of why we grew apart is that I came out as gay in my twenties and she didn’t approve of my identity and has never let her children get to know me. In fact, she has kept a big distance between me and her family. Now she is getting a divorce and wants me to give her money. We haven’t spoken in years and there is no real relationship between us per se. What do I do?

Answer: This is an extremely thorny family situation probably best dealt with by seeing a therapist who can help you sort out the complexities of your feelings, the relationship, and the different courses of action you can choose in the present situation. That said, I can offer some general comments about your situation and some questions for you to ponder as you work through your decision-making process.

It is hard to come up with meaningful advice in the absence of so much critical information. For example, how do you feel about your sister at this point in time?Have you come to peace with her rejection or do you still hold active anger and resentment toward her? What are your own financial circumstances? Do you have a partner and/or children to support? Do you have any true discretionary funds to lend or gift to your sister should you decide to help her? How truly urgent is her situation and does she have other resources available to meet her short-term needs? These and many other questions will have a direct bearing on how you answer her.

In general, I advise people to give of themselves and their resources when they can do so without feeling resentful or exploited (used) by the person asking the favor. I also encourage people not to answer immediately but to take a bit of time and talk with your partner, your close friends, and/or a therapist to sort out your complicated feelings. Visualize different ways of responding to her in your mind and see how each scenario sits with you emotionally. Which of several scenarios leaves you feeling best about yourself and best about the situation? That is probably the course of action to follow.

This could be an opportunity to initiate healing in your relationship with your sister, or it could be the beginning of a new chapter of painful relating and ongoing financial dependency of your sister upon you and your family. If you choose to make a gift, a loan, or provide ongoing assistance for a period of time, be clear with yourself and clear with her which of these you are choosing to do. If it is a loan, it is best to draw up an appropriate legal contract for a personal loan so that the terms are absolutely clear. If she is not willing to draw up such an agreement, you can be pretty certain that she is really looking for a gift, not a loan. Are you willing to do this?

Finally, although it is very difficult, it may be helpful to separate the unresolved issues in the relationship from the financial issues and decide what you need to address. Do you need the relationship issues to be addressed before considering her request for financial assistance? Are you willing to offer financial assistance regardless of whether the relationship issues are addressed? These are extremely important things for you to get clear about before acting. Then check in with her and see what is possible. Be clear with yourself about your feelings and expectations (both those you are aware of and those you are unconscious of) and ask yourself if your hopes and expectations are realistic.

Ultimately, you are the person you will have to account to for whatever choice you make. It is important that your choice be well-considered, non-destructive, and one you can live with in relative peace after you have made it. I wish you the best.

Question: My husband and I have two children, a girl 14 and a boy 16. They are terrific children. They are both above average students, involved in school athletics and a few other activities. Basically, we have no complaints. We love our children. A couple of weeks ago our son told us that he is gay. It was a total shock to both my husband and me. He doesn’t look or act gay. We are both pretty upset, but want to be supportive. How do we respond to him?

Answer: I’m sure it is indeed a shock to the two of you to have your son come out as gay and it is understandable that you would feel upset and at a loss about how to respond. Many parents have been in your position and whether your child is 13 or 30, there are things you need to process emotionally and things you need to consider in responding to him.

Most kids are terrified to come out to their families. Their biggest concerns are parental disapproval, rejection, and that they may be disappointing you. Some kids have even more drastic fears of being disowned or kicked out of their homes. Fortunately, the latter only happens to a small minority of gay children and teens, but it really does happen to some. The tragedy of this is huge, both for the child and for their family. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like this level of threat is present in your family and that is very good. It makes it a much safer place for your son to discover and share his true self with you.

Young people may know from a very young age, even before puberty, that they are not like their peers. They may find that they are simply not attracted to peers of the other sex and feel much closer to kids of their own sex and gender. While this doesn’t always indicate being gay, it can be so strong and clear to some children that they really do know they are “different” even if they don’t have a word for that difference. Other kids may not recognize their same sex feelings until they come into puberty and find that their sexual feelings don’t mirror the attractions of their heterosexual peers. And some don’t realize their gayness or come to terms with it inside themselves until well into adulthood.

It sounds like your son is one of those who realized his uniqueness at an early age and no doubt it has been a process over time for him to come to terms with being gay. Your son is probably quite certain of his feelings or he would not have taken the risk of disclosing this very private information to the two of you. It is also a compliment to the quality of the parent-child relationship that he felt comfortable enough to share this important and still quite stigmatized part of himself with you.

You may wish to seek out some education and emotional support for yourselves to work through your feelings in the wake of his coming out. You will have many more “coming outs” to go through. Coming out is not a one-time thing. There are decisions both you and he will need to make about coming out to other family members and friends. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has local and regional chapters and it is worth contacting this organization and attending one or more of their meetings. They are of tremendous help to parents, siblings and friends of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth, providing both information and support to families as well as to the gay family member.

Finding out a child is gay is not the end of the world. However, it can feel like it shakes the foundation of your understanding of your child for a time. Give yourself time to adjust, seek information and support, and keep telling and showing your son that you love him. After all, he is still the same person inside; you have just learned that his sexual and romantic attractions are different than you probably assumed. He is still your son and a loved member of your family.

For transgender, lesbian, and gay support for individuals and families, contact Inner Source today! We provide LGBT support to patients in Loveland, Fort Collins, Greeley, and the rest of Northern Colorado.


Bisexuality: The Psychology And Politics Of An Invisible Minority

Beth A. Firestein, Ph.D., Ed. 

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Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan

Beth A. Firestein, Ph.D., Ed. 

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