Jennifer Grey with dad Joel. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
When actor Joel Grey, 82, officially came out as a gay man this week, the news made headlines — because while his sexual orientation was no secret to his friends or family, the “Cabaret” star and Oscar winner had never spoken about his sexual orientation publicly.
So it was heartwarming to read the supportive sentiments from his daughter, Jennifer Grey, one of two children Joel had with his ex-wife of 24 years, Jo Wilder: “I feel very happy for my dad that he has come to a point in his life where he feels safe and comfortable enough to declare himself in a public way as a gay man,” Jennifer told People. “Mostly because the more people are free to own their true nature and can hopefully come closer to love and accept themselves as they really are, no matter what age, no matter how long it takes, to finally be free of the lies or half truths, it is freedom.”
Similarly, as news surrounding the reported gender transition of Bruce Jenner and his in-the-works reality series grows, his kids have been publicly embracing him. “He’s our dad so we support him no matter what,” Kim Kardashian said recently.
But while everyone with a gay, lesbian, or transgender parent deals with the information in very different ways, celebrity’s reactions — like that of Jennifer, 54 — are likely carefully crafted for public consumption, notes Robin Marquis, program director for the national network COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere). In other words: If you’re not immediately jumping for joy regarding your own mom or dad’s coming-out, don’t worry, you’re not alone, she tells Yahoo Parenting.
“One thing we hold dearly here is that a person’s reaction to a parent being LGBTQ can be anything — and we support that,” explains Marquis, who was raised by two moms and says her life “completely changed” when she met someone else with two moms at the age of 23. “Oftentimes, people in the public eye are put in a spotlight and have to react in a certain way,” she says, explaining that COLAGE exists to provide community to all kids, of all ages, of gay, lesbian and transgender parents.
Joel Grey with kids Jennifer and James and wife of 24 years, Jo Wilder, in 1964. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.
That’s particularly necessary considering that “external eyes” may judge your parents for their sexuality, leaving the child, at any age, “to protect their image.” And that, Marquis says, may not leave much room for the child’s own reaction.
“For each kid, it really is their own coming out process,” explains Erika Scibelli, 30, a member of Family Equality Council’s Outspoken Generation, which connects and empowers people with a gay or lesbian parent. As an adolescent, Scibelli says she felt quite affected by her mom’s secret. “I knew she was hiding a big piece of herself, and that’s what was most painful,” she recalls. When she was 12, her parents separated and her mom came out — at Scibelli’s urging, since she felt emboldened by the idea when she saw Ellen DeGeneres came out in such a public way. But then, to her surprise, Scibelli “struggled for the next five years,” keeping her mom’s sexuality a secret from friends, because she was “terrified” of what they’d think. “It’s natural for any kid to want to defend their parent,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s my mom. I supported her.”
Kids’ reactions will differ based not only on the individual child and if they’re an adult or not, but on the situation — whether they are learning new information about their parent or whether the parent is about to tell the world what the kid has always known. That’s according to Anna Heller, a Cambridge-based psychotherapist and an early cofounder of COLAGE.
“For some people this is a non-issue. For others it could go as deep as, ‘What does that mean about me?’” Heller tells Yahoo Parenting. Issues can arise for many reasons, she explains, including that “it forces us to have to think about our parents in a sexual way, because culturally, it’s what people think about. So all of a sudden people are thinking about what your parent is doing in the bedroom, and that is a big shift — especially if you’re a teenager.”
Bruce Jenner with his girls. Photo by Instagram/@khloekardashian
Learning that a parent is gay can be confusing, too, as it can shift everything a child has ever known to be true. “You might wonder, ‘Did my parents ever really love each other?’ or ‘How do I understand what love is now?’”
In addition, Heller notes, “If someone has been in the closet for a long time, there are lots of things they’ve been pretending, and it often means you’ve spent time covering for your parent. That makes secrets really complicated, and makes it seem like there must be something wrong with the secret — and, inherently, wrong with you.”
Writer Noelle Howey, author of the memoir “Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods — My Mother’s, My Father’s, and Mine,” recalls feeling a mix of emotions while dealing with her dad’s gender transition to female. “Chances are, your parent won’t look the same, feel the same, smell the same. Losing that sensory connection can be jarring, and sad,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s also difficult — even embarrassing — to see your parent being intensely vulnerable, and perhaps testing out different identities or ways of being in the world.”
Regarding advice for others grappling with a similar situation, she notes, “As far as that jarring feeling goes, time helps — you have to give yourself time to acclimate to the change. It won’t be an overnight adjustment, most likely. But it will come. And over time, what makes that jarring feeling ultimately go away is seeing your parent be happy, at long last.”
Marquis has a simple piece of advice for anyone having trouble coming to terms with his or her parent’s coming out: “Find a community,” she says. “Find somebody you can talk to, and create that space for yourself.”
Scibelli, for her part, advises, “Do your best to love your parent unconditionally. By doing that, it’s hard not to eventually arrive at where you want to be.”