Parents often don’t understand why their children are homosexual. Sometimes blood isn’t thick enough.
While some parents accept their children when they come out about their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation, others struggle to contain their feelings of hurt and disappointment. Although sometimes, but not very often, coming out may offer the child some sense of relief at no longer being forced to live a lie. Often parents experience denial, confusion and grief. The love they have for the child they raised can’t just disappear – resulting in an onslaught of mixed emotions. Some parents even react with physical violence.
Often the assumption when parents struggle to accept their children is that they are inherently hostile towards the LGBT+ community. But it’s important to understand that parents need time to deal with their grief. Of the futures and dreams they envisioned for their children – the ones they had mapped out, not materialising in the way they had expected. In the ways they had planned. They may for instance have to accept the male heir meant to continue the bloodline and family name, happens to be gay, and so may not have biological children, or raise a family in the traditional way.
African families have their own values deeply rooted in their various cultures and religions. Homosexuality has often been condemned as being “un-African” and a reluctant import from Western society. With 38 countries on the African continent criminalising same-sex relationships and behaviour this is not a surprising assumption. But based on the Diversity in Human Sexuality – Implications for Policy in Africa Report: Many traditional societies in Africa, and elsewhere, developed ways of ordering and tolerating same-sex attractions and behaviour. Many tolerated some same-sex relationships among men, particularly in age-related cohorts or military units. Large numbers of men practised some same-sex activities while asserting their heterosexuality in other spheres of life.
“Among women, many different African societies record marriage or other kinds of recognised relationships between women, as well as different forms of cross-dressing and role-swapping. These include societies and cultures in Kenya, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lesotho, South Africa and many others.”
Yet in society the opposite seems to ring true and some traditional African beliefs view homosexuality as a symptom of being cursed. Other African families have deep Christian roots that denounce homosexuality. If families are presented with someone who does not live according to their belief, like falling strictly within the two predefined genders, it can really shake up their world.
No matter how much support LGBT+ people get, if their families are not involved, this can be devastating with serious repercussions on the lives of the LGBT+ persons. There is a need to understand the space occupied by unaccepting parents and assist them in the process of healing and acceptance. To help them realise that the challenge is not insurmountable.
One parent, Mathato Hamore, of an LGBT+ community member recalls the day she found out that her son was gay: “I was with his older brother and it was a Sunday afternoon. When my son broke the news to us there was a long moment of silence. My heart fell. I was furious. Questions raced through my mind.” She adds that for days afterwards she felt wounded – like she was “bleeding deep inside”.
Mathato’s husband, Thabo Hamore, was also equally devastated when he was informed about the news. “This came as a shock to me,” he says: Having a gay child means [a] loss of dreams I had for my son. Now [he is] a woman. I still believe this has something to do with the evil spirits and God will intervene. I will never accept that my son has chosen this path. Never in my life.
These parents represent many others who believe that their children have chosen to live as gays. Looking at gender identity as a choice limits the scope of acceptance. Psychology Today argues that if people believe homosexuality is a choice then it’s something that’s influenced solely by external factors and arises from immoral behaviours. Parents who think this way desperately hang on to the hope that through prayer their children will be healed.
“Finding out that your child belongs to the LGBT+ community is agony. It is the same as having [a] death in the family,” a mother named Rebecca Letele explains. “You grieve because there is fear of losing a person you love. As a single parent,
I thought I failed somehow to raise this child. The first thing that came to my mind was my church, my enemies and the community as a whole. I felt disappointed and the dream of becoming a grandmother just disappeared.
I kept asking myself, what went wrong? It took months for me to digest and come to terms with reality. I would spend hours in church praying for my child to become normal again. The effects were devastating,” Rebecca says. She adds that the only way to allow yourself to heal is to allow yourself to grieve.
Unlike other parents who went through denial Mabokang Khetsi was different. She saw and knew her daughter as a “tomboy” and accepted her as such. The trouble started when she saw her daughter growing a beard and telling her that she was going to remove her breasts.
“God is not stupid. He cannot create a female in the body of a man,” is what she’d tell her daughter. She vowed that she would not offer her support. And silently hoped that the procedure would result in complications to prove to her daughter that she cannot compete with the will of the Lord.
In as much as some parents become devastated when their children come out, children who have been rejected by their parents when coming out also go through similar hurt and disappointment. A 21-year-old named Lavo Sentebale* describes how she came out to her parents in 2014.
“There was a lot of anger and drama in my family. It took me years to disclose. I always heard negative comments from my parents, especially from my father, on issues around homosexuality. One day I decided, I am going to tell them. I said, ‘I am lesbian’. My mother stormed out of the house screaming and my father wished me dead. I could not forgive myself and I was haunted by the fact that I was going to lose them. I only had support from my sister. Now my parents have accepted me but still disapprove. It’s so painful. I believe parents should love their children regardless (of their sexuality),” Sentebale explains.
Sefika Moahloli* is a social worker who has been practising for decades now. She says that most parents are not prepared to hear the news. She says it’s normal for parents to feel a sense of grief when the image they have of their child is threatened – when it looks like it’ll be lost forever.
“When confronted with this situation as social worker, we allow parents to grieve,” she explains. “Children should also understand where their parents come from and should not expect acceptance immediately. The child may be relieved to have spoken up, but the parents may feel physical pain. It is therefore important to balance the two.”
*The source’s real name was not used to protect their identity