When Coming Out Makes or Breaks a Family

Eventually, with the help of the organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Neubecker did go public. Today, he is the group's vice president.

He also uses his experience in a part-time comedy act. "I tell them, I didn't expect to look for a pair and find a same-socks couple in the drawer," he said. "It's to let them know I am not afraid to talk, and I am proud of my son."

Today at 35, Lee is married to his partner, with full blessing from his parents. "Before, we had a barrier between us," said Neubecker. "But now that issue is out of the way."

No one knows how sexual orientation and gender identity is determined, but experts agree it is driven by genetics, biology, psychological and social factors. While research has not determined a cause, homosexuality and gender variance are not the result of any one factor like parenting or past experiences, according to PFLAG.

For a long time, Cher overlooked her daughter's emerging sexuality, according to Bono's 1998 memoir, "Family Outing." "Instead," writes Bono, "she focused on superficial issues that bothered her: my short hair, my mannish clothes, my weight."

Bono eventually turned to her father. Ironically, Sonny Bono, who was killed in a skiing accident in 1998, would later sponsor the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Eventually Cher turned to PFLAG and accepted her daughter.

PFLAG offers practical advice to gay children. Before coming out, children should evaluate their situation, taking into consideration the relationship with their parents. Will they be supportive and how they will practically respond? Will they withdraw financial support?

They also recommend having resources like brochures and support group contacts available -- as did Neubecker -- to smooth the conversation.

Be patient, they say. Getting a parent to accept a child's sexual orientation may take six months to two years or more.

When families are highly dysfunctional or have a history of abuse, secrecy can be a better option until the child is old enough to be independent, according to psychologist Lisa Diamond. Often, another family member can be a source of help.

"The critical ingredient is to know parents can love and support you," said Diamond. "But it doesn't mean they have to resolve their own feelings. It's OK to say privately you are confused."

New research on sexual orientation shows that there are "no absolutes," she said. Parents are used to relying on developmental milestones, but with sexual identity, there are none. Children can come out at any age.

Psychologists also warn about so-called "repair-ative therapy" or "reorientation." These treatments to change a person's sexual orientation can be harmful and merely teach ways not to act on sexual urges.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have publicly discredited these therapies. Some use shock treatment, drugs that induce vomiting and other nonaccredited techniques that produce feelings of shame.

Many gay youth struggle with their feelings, she said. Indeed, PLFAG cites higher rates of suicide and depression among gay and transgendered youth.

But sometimes, coming out is liberating.

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