By Sandra Fletcher
When Stephanie, a child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, showed up to her mother’s funeral there were police waiting to escort her out of the church. She knew that her mother, who had always been a conservative woman and a fervent Christian, would not have wanted Stephanie to cause a scene at her church. She also knew how much her mother loved her. It was that love and support that her mother had shown to her that let Stephanie walk away.
Why wasn’t she allowed to be there? Stephanie was born a male. “Tom” has over the last five years been living as a woman. When she told her parents that she was a transgendered person and going to be living as Stephanie, both said he was no longer a part of their family. It took five years of hard work, both on Stephanie and her mother’s part, to heal their relationship. Her father never did accept her and made certain that everyone knew she was rejected and not welcome.
For most gay, lesbian and transgendered people the decision to “come out” to friends and family is not an easy one. “Coming out” refers to the idea that homosexuals who don’t tell people about their sexual orientation are “in the closet” and the only way to be free is to come out.
Although parents always love their children, sometimes the difference between their traditional values and their children’s lifestyles is hard to accept. For families of different cultures and religions these issues may be worse.
Attitudes toward homosexuality differ all around the world. Canada is considered extremely moderate in its views on and treatment of homosexuals. In the Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in 2007, Canada was one of the top countries (70 percent of those surveyed) believing that homosexuality should be accepted. Canada was also the second country worldwide to legalize gay marriage.
Some immigrants to Canada may not share these same liberal views. It can be difficult to change the attitudes people have held for a lifetime in order that their values may reflect their new adopted home.
But some people immigrate specifically to Canada to take advantage of our accepting attitudes and legalized gay marriage. Both Steffan and Daniel, for example, moved to Canada, from Germany and the US respectively, to marry their same sex spouses. The acceptance in Canadian society outweighed the stress of learning a new language and moving away from their families and start new careers.
It Affects Families Too
The coming out process is more often than not a struggle for the person who is going to tell their family and friends. While there are organizations to help, most people go through this process alone.
Liam Bailey runs an on-line support group for people who have come out and told their friends and family that they are homosexual. “Coming out can be one of the hardest things to do in someone’s life”, he says.
A family’s acceptance or rejection can be a make-or-break moment for a young person in their coming out journey. “Some of my friends,” says Liam, “had to struggle when, in their family, gay relationships were not talked about or seen on television or the media. Almost all of their families denied it.”
Dealing with religious or cultural prejudices can be challenging.
M, whose family were immigrants from the Middle East, told his parents of his sexual orientation when he was in high school, during the first year they came to Canada. M’s father not only rejected him but kicked him out of the family home at age 17. After telling his family, M become homeless, had to face rejection and find his place among the gay community all at once. To cope with his stress M turned to alcohol and eventually to drugs. As a result he suffered a near fatal overdose. In trouble, he called his parents and it was his father who came to get him at the hospital.
After the incident, his parents and siblings eventually accepted both M and his partner. They are part of the family now but still restricted in some ways, like during religious holidays, from being fully accepted.
Not all cases are the same, though. Joan’s family was very proud when she became a nun in the Catholic Church. When she left the church to start a life with her partner, a fellow nun, the family was stunned for a few weeks but generally accepted thereafter.
Although their church teaches that homosexuality is a sin, Joan’s family chose to accept Joan over the teachings of their religion. Joan said that “it was never a problem for either of my sisters and it was as if my Mom always knew”.
In some families the acceptance of their gay sons or daughters is as natural as accepting any other parts of their children’s lives. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Canada (PFLAG) supports, educates and provides resources to parents, families, friends and colleagues with questions about homosexuality. (More information about them is available at www.pflagcanada.ca)
Supporting the road to acceptance
According to PFLAG's website, “we live in a heterosexist society. This means that our collective thoughts and behaviours are sponsored by the inherent assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual.
Some people will feel uncomfortable observing anything that contradicts this assumption. This discomfort is called homophobia.” It is homophobia – the fear of people who are different because of their sexual orientation – that causes so many homosexuals to remain hidden or “in the closet”. Because of it some of them just never come out. PFLAG provides support groups to everyone dealing with the decision.
Liam Bailey states “if anyone is thinking of coming out, don’t let anyone push you into making that leap. You learn who your true friends are.”
Coming out to your immigrant family, or any family, is a journey of acceptance. Unconditional love and acceptance from the people who support us can make a tough journey easier and a rough road to happiness much smoother.