When Coming Out Makes or Breaks a Family

Cher's lesbian daughter shows coming out can traumatize both parents and kids.

January 08, 2009, 1:31 AM

Jan. 9, 2008 — -- When the glamorous singer and actress Cher -- who had bedded Warren Beatty and other lotharios like Richie Sambora and Gene Simmons -- found out her teenage daughter was a lesbian, she "went ballistic."

Cher threw her daughter out of their New York City apartment and even sent her to a psychiatrist to try to change her orientation, according to two memoirs by Chastity Bono.

The actress -- who had several female trysts in the 1970s and held gay icon status with her over-the-top Bob Mackie costumes -- eventually accepted her daughter's sexual identity.

Now, London's Daily Mail and the gay press are reporting that the mother-daughter duo is pitching a reality show to help gays come out to their parents.

Cher's agent, Liz Rosenberg, said the story is "not true," but the celebrity press is buzzing about the concept -- "Coming out With Cher and Chas."

Bono, who now calls herself, "Chas," has already appeared on a weight-loss reality show. The child actress -- who reportedly also battled an addiction to painkillers -- was outed by the Star tabloid in 1990 but went public about her sexuality in 1995.

Coming out is complicated, especially for teenagers, according to psychologists. While disclosure can strengthen the emotional ties between parent and child, it can also thrust the family into crisis.

"This can be a dramatic and traumatic event, one that can bring them together or make them split," said Lisa Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Utah who has researched sexual orientation.

Mike Neubecker, a Catholic-born field engineer from Detroit, told ABCNEWS.com he felt "like I had been punched in the stomach" when he learned his only child was gay.

In 1991, his son, Lee, was on a full military scholarship at Eastern Michigan University -- before the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. One day during a discussion in class, students broke out into hateful chants, "No fags, no fags, no fags."

Horrified by the military's attitude and afraid of his own urges, Lee tried to obtain a pill that would reputedly make him straight. Once in counseling, he realized he was gay and worked to learn self-acceptance.

Lee, 19, dropped out, but that was only the beginning of his journey. Too afraid to tell his father, he confided in his mother, who encouraged him to leave a pamphlet on coming out in his father's sock drawer, hoping it would spark a conversation.

It did, but not the one Lee expected. Neubecker immediately went out to a Christian bookstore to find guidance. "My son didn't fit the stereotypes," he said. "I needed to get some ammo to convince him he was not gay."

"I kept saying to my son, 'Keep an open mind,'" Neubecker said. "But I didn't have an open mind. I didn't want him to become gay."

Neubecker found an organization that promised to make his son a heterosexual -- but that meant declaring his son was suffering from "severe mental depression." That's when the light went on.

"Our hopes and aspirations included him marrying a nice woman and beautiful grand kids," said Neubecker. "What would my friends in Kiwanis and my golf buddies say? I was being selfish. Finally, it was the love of my son that broke through. I started to think about what he was going through."

When father and son finally talked, Neubecker told him, "You're my son and I love you. Just don't expect me to go on Oprah."

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.

At 25, Jean Marie Navetta was terrified of telling her parents she was a lesbian. Her mother was deeply religious and her father was an old-fashioned Italian. She had been evasive about heterosexual relationships all her life, but when she met the woman she will soon "marry," said Navetta, 'I couldn't hide my feelings.'"

"I had known underneath all the while," she said. "But I was just too scared to have that conversation with my parents."

Navetta approached her brother first. "I think I'm a lesbian," she told him while at a stop light en route to a diner. He sighed and said, "It would have been easier if you told me you were a Communist."

"We laughed," she said. "He was trying to make me feel better."

Later, she wrote an e-mail to her father. "I was crying like a baby," she said. "But my parents deserved to know."

Now 33 and communications director for PFLAG, Navetta said her father's response was the right one: "Unconditional. We love you."

"In the end," she said, "my parents saw me happier than I had ever been in my whole life."

For Navetta, Chastity Bono was a role model. "Her story resonated with me," she said. "You see someone like Cher in the entertainment business, who is exposed to everything, and she still struggled."

Said Navetta, "Parents have a coming out journey, too."

To learn more, visit Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays

Stephanie Dahle contributed to this report.

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