“This Is A Book For The Parents Of Gay Kids”: A Coming Out Conversation with Bruce and Phyllis

This Is A Book For The Parents of Gay Kids is “A Question and Answer Guide for Everyday Life” by Autostraddle friends and all-around superheroes Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo. The book came out of a need for parents that they saw in their work at Everyone Is Gay, where they provide advice and promote conversation among LGBTQ youth.

“LGBTQ youth across the world were itching for a place to ask questions… soon we began to receive questions… not only from kids, but also from their parents, teachers, community members, aunts, boyfriends and others.”

The book covers a lot of ground related to sexual orientation and things parents might have to negotiate in relation to their kids’ lives: first reactions, community reactions, religion, sleepovers, sex, health and concerns about their kids’ safety and futures. There’s straight-up advice, peppered with anecdotes from kids and parents, and from Kristin and Dannielle’s own lives. The book touches on gender identity, but that’s not the book’s focus, and so while I wouldn’t disregard it as a resource for the parents of trans or gender non-conforming kids, it probably wouldn’t be the first thing I’d recommend.

The book is carefully done, gently meeting parents where they’re at, and providing them or prodding them towards the resources they need to go further. The question and answer format sometimes reads like a choose-your-own-adventure situation for parents who are trying to figure out what they need to be doing or not doing, based on their particular circumstances. (There’s even a flow-chart to help parents figure out when/if they should tell other people about their kid’s sexual orientation.) I was especially impressed with Dannielle and Kristin’s navigation of language while answering questions from the perspective of parents who react to their kids’ sexual orientation with more hesitation or resistance. The book is at once empathetic and firm, acknowledging and validating how deeply rooted these feelings can be, while also challenging them and offering alternative perspectives.

The book also always encourages dialogue between parents and kids, which brings us to the next thing:

I emailed my dad, Bruce, and my grandma (his mom), Phyllis, both Autostraddle readers and recent comment award winners, and asked if they’d like to have a three-generational conversation inspired by the book. They agreed, and so we all read it and converged on my dad’s house to discuss. This is a book that speaks to families from a diverse range of experiences. Not every section will be applicable or relevant to every family, and so our conversation springs from a few passages that resonated with the three of us.

bruce_phyllis_maddie_gay_kids


M: So, what did you think of the book?

Phyllis: I felt like book’s main theme was for parents and families to be supportive.

Bruce: I think it’s a lot of common sense things you should do if you’re decent and reasonable. But I think it’s interesting to see other parents’ perspectives. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think that one parent’s reaction is to think their child is going to hell, or how do I tell my friends or co-workers? And I guess a lot of things would be different if we’d been in a different community. I didn’t worry about you in school, and that could have been a huge concern. The “Is this just a phase?” question was something that resonated. And also, “Am I allowed to ask questions?” That’s something that comes up sometimes. I don’t feel like I need a lot of help or guidance in dealing with these other issues that are addressed in the book.

M: I think the book is a helpful conversation starter, particularly regarding the earlier years when I was coming out. What sort of things do you all remember about my coming out?

Bruce: One of the things that really resonated was in the chapter on first reactions. And I know you’ve mentioned a couple of times over the years that your mother’s and my first reaction was, “Are you sure?” which I think is a pretty normal reaction. Because you were pretty young. And there’s one of these little blurbs, under Chapter 2: “I think this is just a phase.” And you were at an age where we didn’t think of you as having any kind of sexuality.

Phyllis: How old was she?

[at the same time, Bruce says, “sixth grade” and Maddie says, “sixteen”]

M: What? No, no, not sixth grade. Fifteen, I think.

Bruce: You were younger than fifteen, weren’t you?

M: Well, what’s your memory of me coming out to you?

Bruce: My memory is that you were still in middle school.

Phyllis: Bruce, you told me sixth grade.

Bruce: I thought you were pretty young.

M: I did not come out to you in sixth grade.

Bruce: Fifteen, really?

M: What I remember is that I told you and mom when I came out to my friend C*, which I had been nervous about. I assumed that you knew or had deduced, but you two were like, “Came out as what??”

Bruce: No we certainly hadn’t deduced anything. And it’s not one of those moments that’s blazoned into my memory. Because what I remember is that you hadn’t talked about any relationships and we hadn’t seen any. And part of it was that in high school, or whenever, you didn’t really fit in very well, socially, in your community, and so one thought we had was that maybe this was something you were doing to establish an identity or something like that. And maybe a way to rebel against those conservative friends you had. But it wasn’t really something that we dwelled on.

M: Grandma, do you remember me coming out to you?

Phyllis: Oh, vividly!

[everyone laughs]

Phyllis: That was because it was such a total shock to me. For me, the whole thing has been sort of an education, because I was really, I guess, quite naive. I remember your room being filled with dolls, and I thought, “That’s the most feminine thing in the whole world!”

M: I also remember it vividly.

Phyllis: My major reaction was I didn’t want to upset you by letting you see how shocked I was, so I was telling myself, “Please — be cool!”

Bruce: I do remember me telling you, Maddie, “You tell Grandma.”

Phyllis: Because I remember asking you, Bruce, “Where are the boyfriends?” And you didn’t really say very much, and the next time you [Maddie] were at my house, that’s when you told me.

M: I remember you saying to me that it never occurred to you that I’d be gay, because I’d always loved dolls and that was so feminine to you.

Phyllis: Yes, right, it never would have occurred to me. So I’m very happy to read all these books.

M: What else came up for you when you were reading it?

Phyllis: Well, I think when you first told me, I somehow didn’t feel free enough to ask you questions, and I don’t know why. When did you become aware you were gay, Maddie? That’s a question I didn’t think I could ask when you came out. That would have occurred to me then, but maybe I was afraid, because I was so surprised, of not seeming accepting. So maybe I was more careful than I should have been.

M: The first gay thoughts I remember having were in sixth grade — which is how I know it wasn’t in sixth grade that I came out to you and Mom, Dad. But I came out to the first people on my fifteenth birthday.

Bruce: Who’d you come out to first?

M: L and A.

Bruce: Oh.

M: But I think, I remember C at some point in 8th grade, talking about how if she knew any gay people that she’d definitely disown them.

Phyllis: And at that time you were suspicious that you…

M: It wasn’t even really suspicion. I walked away from that conversation — and I remember this so vividly, walking up a ramp to leave the middle school cafeteria — and I knew that it hurt me in a way that was more than just my feeling indignant. And then I went to camp and was sort of delighted to learn about the counselors who were gay. And then I met my high school friends. And lots of my high school friends were identifying as not-straight in the early days of high school, though I can’t speak for how they identify now.

Phyllis: So how old were you then?

M: Fourteen. Those first couple years of high school were significant years.

Phyllis: And that’s when you talked to Mom and Dad?

M: Yeah, I mean I just really thought you guys knew in some way or another.

Bruce: No. We hadn’t even talked about that.

M: It was when G and I were being… intense pen-pals. It was definitely a romantic relationship, but it went pretty undefined for a long time. Dad, did you think anything of the question in the book about what to do when kids want to have sleepovers? Because I remember Mom being sort of unsure of what to do about that, especially it had been established that G was my girlfriend and she was coming to visit.

Bruce: I don’t think we did anything, did we?

M: No.

Bruce: It wasn’t something I was too worried about.

M: I remember telling Mom she really didn’t have to be worried about anything happening — and nothing did.

Bruce: So if you were fifteen, you came out a year before Mom died?

M: Like six months.

Bruce: Really? My chronology is all messed up.

Phyllis: Was she shocked?

M: No!

Bruce: We had the exact same reaction.

M: Yes, the two of you had collectively the exact same reaction.

Bruce: We were a little surprised and kinda thought it could be a phase, and that she was flocking.

M: Yeah, I remember being mad about that.

Bruce: Yeah, I know.

Phyllis: You were mad?

M: Yeah!

Bruce [to Phyllis]: We weren’t taking Maddie seriously.

M: No, you weren’t.

Bruce: I understand! But it’s interesting, I didn’t realize you had a whole group.

M: Oh yeah. It was a whole group. Did you ever think about like, beyond the obvious immediate people in the family, how to tell people about my sexual orientation, like with your co-workers, Dad? Especially while I was a student at our school, when you were teaching there. Did things come up with that?

Bruce: I haven’t had a negative reaction from anyone. It sometimes came up at school, like when another teacher wanted to set you up with her son. It was interesting to think about how you’d phrase it. Do I say, “Maddie’s gay?” It sometimes sounds kind of odd, and the other person doesn’t always know what to say.

M: What about you and your friends, Grandma?

Phyllis: Well I had you at school, giving a lecture on gender and sexual orientation. People came and said very nice things to me about you and your talk, but also, remember, this is New York in Greenwich Village.

M: Yeah, I mean, Grandma, I remember saying this to your class — the time and place when I have grown into my queer identity has been probably the best time and place for anyone, anywhere ever. Raised by raging liberals in the New York Metropolitan Area, sent off to Vassar.

Phyllis: It’s seemed that you were happier every year at Vassar.

M: Yeah, I mean I think the book is directed at families that are having a harder time than we’ve had, but there are definitely things in our lives that I thought were relevant. There are certainly things I would point to that I don’t think my family handled precisely right, as probably anyone would do. But 97% of the time, I’ve felt so supported and embraced. The most interesting and challenging part to me has been wanting to push further and bring all of you also into the queer parts of my life that are more about politics than who I date. I also want you all to feel as comfortable with my friends who are queer and trans as you are around me.

Bruce: Bring them over for Thanksgiving!

Phyllis: Well I feel like you bloomed since you found the gay community. Do you think so?

M: Yeah! And I love that I can share everything I’ve written on AS and that you comment on my articles and win comment awards. That’s really important to me.

Phyllis: I want an Autostraddle Comment Award Winner Button.

M: We should arrange that.

Bruce: Honestly, trans and gender issues aren’t something that I know much about, and when I’ve asked you, you were not the best teacher about that. You kind of lectured me, and sometimes I say things wrong, and it’s really not something I’m that comfortable talking about with you. It’s not fun to talk to you about that stuff, and it’s also not something I’m hugely interested in. I’m much more interested in what your friends do rather than how they define their identity. I’m perfectly interested in talking to them and listening to what they do, but I don’t think talking to them about identity is something that would be considered appropriate, so where do you go with that?

M: You’re right that it’s not appropriate to bring that up, and it’s something I’ve been trying really hard to negotiate myself, because I take the way I talk about gender and gender identity seriously. I feel, as someone who isn’t trans, in a family that’s been totally accepting of everything about me, that I want to bring you guys in and teach you about gender-related issues and be able to refer to my friends who are trans as they want to be referred to.

Bruce: So you’re talking about pronouns and stuff?

M: Yeah, and something that is hard for me to do, and that I have tried to do, with varying success, I guess, is to both respect them and their life and be consistent in how I would act around and treat them in our community, while also trying to increase my family’s awareness and be patient as you all learn.

Phyllis: Do you have close trans friends?

M: Yes.

Bruce: Like I said, that’s not what I want to spend my time on. We can talk about politics or whatever, but identity isn’t really what interests me. I’ll call them whatever they want. It seems like sometimes there are questions that are off-limits, so it makes people uncomfortable because they don’t want to do the wrong thing, because there’s a whole new set of social norms that people aren’t ready for. Sometimes it’s stressful.

M: Well I think it’s also stressful on the other side, to be in a setting where they don’t know how they’re going to be received. And also, it hasn’t always gone smoothly when I’ve tried to have our family refer to my friends how they want to be referred to. Like with my friend, S. When I would try to sort of quickly clarify that S’s pronouns were they and them, suddenly the conversation would shift to questions about what pronouns and name S went by before. I understand that as a matter of curiosity, but it makes it hard that if I want to be talking about S as a person, it becomes a conversation about gender when I refer to them with their correct pronouns.

I don’t want to refer to my friends incorrectly just to avoid having a mildly tense or uncomfortable conversation in which you learn something new about gender. And I also don’t want to exclude you from knowing about important parts of my life if they happen to involve people who do gender differently than you’ve seen before.

Phyllis: See English is such a tough language. I worked for a doctor in genetics, and in his first language, they didn’t have gendered pronouns, so the doctor would be examining babies and would always use the wrong pronouns, so the baby would be laying there naked, and the parents would be horrified. You realize when something like that happens, how powerful those pronouns are.

Bruce: Yeah, it creates a shock.

M: Yes, I mean it’s true, that it’s really embedded in the way we approach the world. “They” pronouns are something I work on constantly, because I need to make it part of my natural vocabulary. Everyone needs to work on extracting all the ways that gender is embedded in the way we see the world. I mess up. I think everyone does.

Bruce: Maybe we should read another book next.

M: Yeah, a regular book club with Bruce and Phyllis. Thanks for having this conversation!

Bruce: You’re welcome.

*All people mentioned in this conversation are referred to by letters which are not their first initials.
**This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


You can buy the book or catch Dannielle and Kristin on tour before the end of the year.

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. Maddie, this is seriously one of my favorite things on Autostraddle in a long time. Your family is so charming and I love the way you talk to them. I’d honestly be head over heels if you reviewing books with them became a regular thing.

    • Thanks Mey!! We shall see what comes next. I also have to say I’d love to see something from you and your fam, too. I loved getting to hang out with them and talk with all of you when I was in Pocatello <3

  2. This was so delightful, oh my gosh!

    I have the book, but haven’t read through all of it yet. I’m nervous about telling my parents to read it, since we have a DADT policy about anything related to my gayness, but your interview is making me consider it. 🙂

  3. this is amazing, maddie — even though you interviewed your family and not mine, i still feel like it helped me learn about my own life and my own household, somehow. i am very grateful to you and to phyllis and to bruce for letting this conversation happen on autostraddle!

  4. Maddie, I love this, and I love you! This article made me have so many feels. I feel touched, and happy, and sad in a happy way, and I giggled out loud more times than I can count. As always, I am SO grateful for the perspective you share in your writings. You’re a super special human.

  5. Can someone , please, write a book on how to come out as translesbian to your wife of many years? And have it be a happy story like Maddie’s.
    So happy for you, Maddie’s!! I think we all deserve to be happy as the gender and orientation we are !
    In basketball, there is a saying, ” ball don’t lie”. In life, I think the analogy might be, ” heart don’t lie” !

  6. Adorable!! I love that your Dad admitted having conversations with you around identity are not always comfortable or fun. I think we so easily expect that if our parents are supportive then they will get everything else. I snap at my mom sometimes when were talking about queer issues and I don’t often think of how that affects her experience. Kudos Bruce.

    • The phrase that got me was “you’re not the best teacher.” Yes!

      I have been assuming that just having a queer person in the family means they know everything about queer identities and pronouns and labels. While in fact I have been educating myself around these issues for years and not making an effort with them at all. Of course they might end up being conversations they aren’t interested in having.

      Thanks Maddie! Also, hi from Philadelphia.

  7. This is a lovely conversation! Thanks for sharing @madderka–your family seems wonderful!

    I haven’t read the book, but have read a review which criticizes it for its handling of bisexuality–that it screws up the definition, doesn’t include any specific bi resources, doesn’t discuss biphobia, and a bunch of other pretty serious sounding things.
    (http://bisexual-books.tumblr.com/tagged/reviews) (scroll down a little bit to see the review)

    Anyone who’s read the book able to comment more on this?

  8. Maddie, this was an excellent take on a book that I probably otherwise would never have paid attention to because of the way my own family works and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. <3 I want to make the “Autostraddle Comment Award Winner Button” button happen for your grandmother, yes.

  9. What an awesome discussion to be able to have with your family!

    Are there any resources like this specifically for trans and/or gender non-conforming individuals?
    My family seems quite similar to yours in being very accepting of varying sexualities but having a bit less understanding around gender.

    I’ve been really lucky that my aunt blazed the lesbian trail years ahead of me so my family (immediate and extended) has been fairly chilled and very supportive of me coming out as gay and marrying a woman.
    However my little cousin is only 10, and while assigned male at birth, has been identifying as female for a few years now and my extended family has found it a lot more challenging to get their heads around that. My cousin is lucky in that her mum is my aunt-of-the-lesbian-trail-blazing, and very supportive of my cousin identifying as trans or gender non binary as she grows up. But my grandma and other aunts, uncles and cousins are constantly muddling pronouns and expressing varying degrees of discomfort or amusement at my cousins feminine gender presentation. Even my parents who come along to marriage equality marches etc and are generally pro-queer struggle a bit with it.
    I’d love to learn more about being a better ally to my cousin and to know how to encourage and aid conversation to help my family understand and be more supportive of my cousin’s identity.

  10. Wow, this was so touching. Thanks, Maddie. Also really relevant to where I am right now because I recently decided that I’m going to come out to my grandmother over the Thanksgiving break. I have a feeling she is going to be so confused for the same reason Phyllis was- adding it up in her head, like “but you did musical theatre? you like dresses?” So that will be hard, seeing her idea of me changed.

    Oh, unrelated note- I think it’s totally within my job description to Photoshop Phyllis an “Autostraddle Comment Award Winner” button.

  11. “Well I feel like you bloomed since you found the gay community.”

    and this is when i had to cry. maddie thank you for putting this together! we should have more conversations between generations because this was fascinating and just good. AND PHYLLIS WILL HAVE HER BUTTON. oh yes, she will.

  12. I work at a library and I had a mini heart attack when my co-worker asked me to stamp and label this new acquisition. I’m still debating whether checking it out and giving it to my parents is a good or a very bad way of coming out to them. Nevertheless, it makes me happy to see it on our “new arrivals” shelf across from the circulation desk. What would make me even happier is if people were checking it out. Oh well.

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