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What’s it like for a child when their mum or dad comes out as gay?

Almost everyone who is gay remembers the profound experience of coming out to their parents, the terror and anxiety of telling people you love that you are not who they think you are. But what about parents who must come out to their children?

That story has been told less often, and is in many ways a lot more complicated. Stigmas around sexual orientation have subsided dramatically in the past two decades, but it is one thing to come out at the beginning of one’s adult life; another thing entirely after you have created a family. David Leavitt explored it powerfully in his debut novel, The Lost Language of the Cranes, in which a young man’s coming out serves as a spur for his father to follow suit, leaving his wife feeling powerless, betrayed and alone. Although it was fiction, Leavitt’s novel underscores the dilemma for the gay parent who comes clean. To live in truth may be a fine and necessary thing, but when that truth breaks up a family the consequences can fester for years, even decades.

A few weeks ago Talia Herman asked her daughter, Gabriela, if she had finally forgiven her for leaving her father for another woman. “I did not know how to react,” recalls Gabriela, who was 15 when her mother came out to her in 1996. “It was such a loaded question. And I didn’t immediately say: ‘Yes.’ I was, like: ‘I don’t know’ and she asked me again, and then she said something funny, and I was, like: ‘Yes! I forgive you! Of course!’ Or something like that, but I was caught off guard.” It was one of the few times in which the subject had come up between them, a reflection of just how painful it remained for both, but especially for Gabriela, the eldest of three children, who has spent much of the past five years neutralising her anguish and confusion by photographing other people like her. She has found her subjects through Colage, a support network for children of gay, lesbian or transgender parents that she was introduced to by her younger sister Paloma, who is also a lesbian.

'I took for granted the fact that I was surrounded by lesbians all the time': Darnell Witt.
‘I took for granted the fact that I was surrounded by lesbians all the time’: Darnell Witt. Photograph: Gabriela Herman for the Observer

Gabriela was 29 before she could bring herself to say out loud: “My mum is gay.” Even today, at 34, her composure wobbles a bit, tears swell in her eyes. Sitting in her bright Brooklyn brownstone, she talks in a rush, words tumbling over one another as she recalls the moment the familiar logic of family life unravelled. She was 15, preparing for a test, when a casual rummage in her parents’ bedroom turned up a stash of lesbian literature. Suddenly a lot of things that had niggled at the periphery of her consciousness began to clarify. Her parents liked to fight but she never saw them kiss. “I don’t really have any memories of my parents being loving towards each other, like seeing my parents kiss or cuddle,” she says. “It’s so shocking to me when I see my friends’ parents who are in their 60s or 70s being intimate with each other. I’m like: ‘Oh, that’s unbelievable!’”

When she was a child, it was easy to rationalise the rows as being just how parents are. Even the fact that her mum’s close friend, Robin, would join them on family vacations didn’t seem out of the ordinary. That changed the day she confronted her mother about the books. “I said: ‘You know, I found the books’ and that’s when she came out and said: ‘Yeah, I’m having a relationship with Robin, blah blah blah.’ I don’t remember exactly what happened, but after that she basically moved to the third floor of our house and lived there for a year.”

It has taken an extraordinary amount of time for Gabriela to move beyond her sense of betrayal, and even now she struggles to talk about it. There’s a kind of willed amnesia around her mother’s coming out that makes her account hazy, almost abstract.

That “blah blah blah” represents a mental wall she has erected to obscure a time when her feelings towards her mother curdled into resentment and rage. For a while she even dreamed of killing Robin. That’s how bad it was. If she answered the phone when Robin called to speak to her mum, she would immediately hang up. “I was very, very mean to her,” she says. At 15 Gabriela felt not only confused by her mother’s new identity but also stung by her infidelity. After all, if Robin had been a man instead of a woman, there’d be no question that making calls to the family home would be seen as thoughtless and crass. “What I hear from a lot of my subjects, and can relate to, is that the gay thing takes precedence over everything else, so very little is dealt with – like, that there was an affair, that our family is breaking up, that we’re going through a divorce, that our family is no longer.”

Gabriela thinks now that part of the problem was the lack of any support system.

'We were more upset about being lied to for a long time than about my dad's sexuality': Vanessa Keller.
‘We were more upset about being lied to for a long time than about my dad’s sexuality’: Vanessa Keller. Photograph: Gabriela Herman for the Observer

Today there are whole networks of families that find themselves in a similar situation and are able to share experiences, but in 1996 families like Gabriela’s operated in a vacuum of silence. “I totally feel like I should have had therapy, and I needed therapy, and I’m so angry that I didn’t have it,” she says. Instead she spent a year studying in France and then returned to find that her mother had moved out. For a while she went to a high-school support group for children of divorced parents, but no one talked about gay parents and she was too nervous to bring it up.

Instead she has found a catharsis through her own photo sessions and interviews with people identified with the help of Colage. Some of her subjects have been raised from birth by gay or lesbian parents, either adopted or through artificial insemination, while others have come from backgrounds like Gabriela’s, where one parent has come out. The process has given rise not only to new friendships but also to new ways of seeing things. In contrast to her own experience, many of her subjects were able to accept their parent’s new life with equanimity, even joy. “For a lot of people I interviewed it’s such a part of their identity and who they are, and they’ve grown up just embracing it and sharing it,” she says.

Despite that, she is only just starting to make peace with her own story. “I have so many questions for my parents that I’ve never asked,” she says. She may get the opportunity to ask them this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, her family’s long-time vacation spot, and a place that unites her childhood with her present. They will all be there: Gabriela and her siblings, her mother and her mother’s wife, Robin, and her father and his new girlfriend – a changed family from the one she knew growing up, but changed for the better by cultural shifts that have broadened America’s definition of what a family can be. There are fewer reasons to keep secrets now, less stigma and shame.

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Recently she gave a talk in New York about her photo project. “It was my first time talking about it, and this guy came up to me afterwards and said: ‘My ex-wife is gay, and we have two adult children, and I never realised what it must have been like for them.’ He was going to go home and talk to his kids for the first time about it.”

Gabriela looks genuinely ecstatic, beaming and tearing up at the same time. “I was like: ‘Whoa, just to have touched that one person is the reason to be doing this.’”


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