My 12-year-old son just told me he’s gay. How can I help him?

That’s the phrase I searched last December. All the time.

A month earlier he said to me and my older son, “I have an announcement to make to the family. [Pause for dramatic effect.] I’m gay.”

My older son said, “What the fuck! I knew it! Melissa called it!”

I said, “You’re gay?”

He said, “Are you surprised?”

I said, “No. I’m not.”

The first person we called is Melissa. She said, “Oh. Didn’t we already know that?”

When he was six he asked me if people kiss each other’s penises. When he was eight he asked where people put their penises if it’s two boys. When he was ten he started wearing makeup.

I was surprised to hear he had not been sure.

I figured not much would change. Outside of where we used to live, in very rural Wisconsin, I didn’t think I knew anyone who would care one way or the other if someone is gay.

He told his best friend, and she said, “That’s fine. I don’t care if you are gay or straight or whatever. You’re the same person to me.”

I stopped her mom the next day and relayed the conversation. I said, “Her response was perfect. Thank you so much for raising a kid like that.”

At another friend’s house he announced he’s gay at the dinner table. The dad said, “Congratulations!”

I never would have known to say congratulations, but what a lovely thing to say. I texted the dad to thank him.

Everyone he told was supportive except for one adult. My son said, “I have something to say. It’s big news. And it’s important: I’m gay.”

She said, “Are you sure? Are you just saying this to get attention?”

It’s hard for me to even write this. My stomach gets tight and my eyes water. I can remember my son looking over at me, and I knew I had to say something. I said, “That is not a good response.”

I had no idea what else to say. Even now, I don’t know what to write. She said more things, to defend her comment. Which made the situation worse.

But I learned something from my son after that. He knew it was a terrible response and that she was showing that something is wrong with her, not him. He made an eloquent speech to me about people expressing themselves through their discomforts.

I said, “Where do you learn this stuff?” And it turns out he’s been watching YouTube videos about coming out for months. He prepared himself so well.

But then one night a few weeks later he called me into his bedroom. He was crying. He said, “I’m scared of being different.”

How did I not notice that?

I hugged him.

He said, “I don’t wanna to be an outcast.”

I felt so stupid for thinking everything would be fine. Of course he wants to fit in. He’s a joiner. He’s a rule follower. He always wants to make everyone feel comfortable.

I started noticing more. He plays basketball on two local teams and a travel team, and he had always been the fun goofy kid. But now he was a wreck at basketball. He looked like what I’d expect twelve-year-old boy to look like in a roomful of girls. Even though it makes sense, it’s so striking to see the opposite happen. I had never thought of that.

And all his best friends are girls. So he is around lots of girls a lot of the time. But there was a party that was mostly girls and they played truth or dare and one of them dared him to kiss her… he didn’t want to. So he announced to the whole party that he’s gay. And the girl still wanted to kiss him. So he did it. And when he told me this he said, “It was terrible and I didn’t know what to do.”

I started searching again, trying to figure out what to do. Almost everything online was places for kids to go whose parents don’t support them. Then I found a place in Philadelphia that had stuff every day of the week after school for LGBTQ kids: The Attic Youth Center.

I knew it was a big deal to go because my son said to his older brother, “Will you come with? I don’t want to go alone.”

He said, “No! I’m not going, I’m not gay!”

I said, “You are going to support your brother.”

The three of us walked in. I paused. The kids were SO gay. Like, get-beaten-up-at-school gay. I had never seen such young kids being so obviously gay.

My son did not pause at all, so I followed.

One kid introduced himself immediately. Then another. Another kid said he’d give a tour. Other kids joined the tour. They offered him snacks. My son motioned to me and his brother to get lost, and then they all disappeared.

Thirty minutes went by. Forty-five.

He came back glowing. Self-confident like I had never seen him before. Then he asked me if we could go to a cupcake shop: “To celebrate!”

He gushed about how great the kids were. He said he felt so comfortable, and understood. He said, “They walk and talk like me, and they care about what I care about.”

He said they asked him what his preferred pronoun is.

“Really?” I said, “Do you have a pronoun?”

“I didn’t even know what a pronoun is. But they told me. So now I know my pronouns are he and him.”

While he was telling his stories he had way more affect than I had ever seen him have. The visit to The Attic freed him, and I hadn’t even known he needed freeing.

He wanted to go back the next day. So we did. But as soon as we got there they told us he is too young to be there. The laws in Pennsylvania say he has to be 14.

That was a very bad day.

I got the name of a therapist from a friend of a friend.

My son said no.

“Just go once,” I told him.

From her my son learned how to tell girls he doesn’t want to kiss them. But he also learned that it’s okay to want to kiss them. Everything is okay if it feels okay.

From the therapist I learned that everything I know is outdated. For example, I’m pretty sure kids don’t “come out” anymore, because it’s too binary. And “you’ll change when you get older” is a disrespectful response because we can know our sexual preference for right now and that’s all that matters. I learned that kids are coming out younger and younger because, as said, “Being gay is not about sexuality — it’s an outlook.”

“What?!” That’s what I said when she told me that.

And she said to my son, “I can understand why that doesn’t make sense to your mom. Does it make sense to you?”

My son said, “Yes.”

Now my son goes to the therapist alone. Once every week.

He told some basketball players, and nothing changed. Just as he hoped.

And this morning he said, “Mom, you should write a post. I don’t care who knows I’m gay. And maybe it’ll help someone.”

I worried about telling his story poorly. But actually, I’m telling you my story, of finding out my son is gay. And the story will change. Because that’s what stories do.

Other people have learned the infinite versions of one life lived from stories by Mark Twain or interviews with Susanna Kaysen. From writing resumes, I have learned that the idea of one, true story is a myth. A resume is only one snapshot of your life, and you actually have infinite ways to tell the story of your work.

The best story writers realize that no matter if the story is true or not, it’s a real story for the writer. That relieves an author of pressure to tell “the true story” or “the right story.” And the best resume writers realize that what you leave out may change the arc of the story but does not make it untrue.

I have left so much out of this story. More will come later, when it matters, perhaps. Other characters will emerge. Some will feel not so important. But for now, this is the story of how to have a son who comes out at 12 years old. How to help him. And how to leave a story behind for another mother to add to when she is searching like I did.

117 replies
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  1. Yep
    Yep says:

    It sounds like your son might have been molested previously, given his inappropriately precocious questions about sexual acts.

  2. brooklynchick
    brooklynchick says:

    Definitely your best post ever. HUGS! (well you might not like hugs but you get the sentiment)

  3. Kendall
    Kendall says:

    I have volunteered at LGBTQ youth center, and the story is not uncommon. Just having a safe place where you will not be judged, even for a few hours a week. Although a youth center is empowering to a youth, they don’t place limits. Please don’t forget to place those limits yourself, especially at 12 year old.

    Also, respect the identity that your son wants to use, but also remind him that he does not need to place a label just yet. That way he can explore all aspects of his sexuality. Many times when you attach a label to yourself, it can limit your experiences.

  4. ChristopherATL
    ChristopherATL says:

    You should take a moment to find gratitude in all the things you are about to learn about love. I assume your son has always been a gift to you. You are getting more than you knew. Be happy about that and for him.

  5. Mysticaltyger
    Mysticaltyger says:

    I’m gay and I really don’t get the part about gay being an “outlook”. Sounds odd to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Odd to me, too. I actually love the therapist we are going to, but I didn’t link to her because I’m so worried about misquoting her about the outlook stuff.

      An important part of this new idea is that kids are coming out very early — way before puberty and way before interest in sex. This was probably only okay recently, so we didn’t realize that kids could come out so early. Kids did not have role models – via mass media, social and emotional culture, etc –for what might be normal and acceptable so it took way longer for kids to figure out they are gay and come out.

      I hear a lot of people say they knew they were gay really early, but I don’t hear people say they felt like it would kill them to not say it, so they could live openly as a gay person. But for my son, and for kids way younger (kids are coming out in first grade, really) they feel a huge need to let people know they are gay but they do not have a need to do anything sexual. For them being gay is more than sex and that’s why they don’t wait until they want to be sexually active to come out.

      I’m sure I am getting a lot wrong here — I have a very steep learning curve right now. But I’m sure we will learn something about being gay when we see a generation of kids coming out this young.


  6. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    I’ve been on a metaphysical journey lately and have read a lot about our souls, our energy, and what we are when we aren’t incarnated in humans. The book Journey of Souls changed my life. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a collection of transcripts by Michael Newton of people in very deep theta-state hypnosis who have been regressed back to past lives, then to the death in that life, and they re-enter the spirit would and are reunited with the rest of their energy (their higher selves) and their soul groups. Through this book we get to learn all about how our souls are working to evolve to the point that they are one day reunited with the Source. We are surrounded by highly evolved souls and new souls that are barely evolved at all. We all have our karmic challenges on both sides of good and evil. We all know what it’s like to kill and be killed. We all know what it’s like to abuse and be abused. We all know what it’s like to be a caregiver and to have to be taken care of. Everyone learns it all, one life after another.

    But the book left me wondering about the idea of having one “soul mate” and if homosexuality is part of God’s plan/the Source’s plan/the plans we make for ourselves before we come to Earth.

    It turns out there is a second book called Destiny of Souls, and Michael Newton addressed this question. He said that his homosexual clients ended up being very evolved souls once they were back in the spirit world.

    Obviously, it is an extraordinarily difficult challenge to be homosexual on Earth in the 1900s and 2000s. No one would choose this challenge for themselves if they had not already agreed that this was an experience they wanted to learn from, and to make them stronger, and evolve further.

    So yes, congratulations to your son.

  7. sevanetta
    sevanetta says:

    Oh buddy – I knew you were gay when you did that awesome fashion shoot day. Congratulations on knowing yourself so young and being game to talk to everyone about it and letting your mum post about it.

    Penelope, this was the loveliest post. I love your writing but this was a really nice way to write about a big experience for all your family.

  8. Life experience kicked my arse & woke me up
    Life experience kicked my arse & woke me up says:

    (I’m an ex-liberal, used-to-be promiscuous, and currently a non-acting-upon and non-promoting bisexual who would have been touched by this post a few years ago. I’ve been around-the-block and have a hundred regrets.)

    So many kids are raised by the internet now days. It’s so hip to be gay and trans these days in the mainstream crowd.

    My kids aren’t allowed to date until they are 18. And then, dating should be to get to know if the person is someone good enough to marry. How much easier life is when making this parental stance; my kids seemed so relieved when I woke up and declared this.

    As I stated, I have plenty of sexual experience. It didn’t make me a better, more hip and “enlightened” person. It wrecked my body. It tore at my soul and spirit. I can never get back what I gave away.

    Protecting the innocence and dignity of my children is a high priority.

    I have daughters and wonder if there will be any wise, strong, competent men around for them to marry. I’m sick and tired of the agenda to de-masculinize males.

    If I had sons, I’d be telling them to fix cars and do house repairs. Wear themselves out from working hard so that there’s no energy to play on social media and contemplate which pronoun they are or kissing penises. Man up. And if they declared they were gay once they were adults, that’d be out of my hands (but I’d wonder what the heck I did wrong).

    Parents need to buck up and be parents. Kids are raising themselves; and kids raise themselves at-whim and by observing and mimicking trends. And to think there isn’t an agenda to sexualize and destroy our children is to be awfully naïve.

    (P.S. I am a fan of Professor Jordan Peterson. And Paul Washer is spot-on about dating and sensuality. I recommend Passport 2 Purity by FamilyLife–its a kit parents and kids work on together.)

    • Susan
      Susan says:

      And that goes for you, too, “Life Experience” .

      Be a better role model for your own children and stop judging others.

      You’re mistaken if you, Dena, A, Laura, and all other cruel people think your opinion matters. The only benefit is now I know whose posts to skip over in the future.

  9. jackg66
    jackg66 says:

    Thanks, I needed this today. While I am supportive of my boy, I have yet to harness the enthusiasm for his new journey. Well, it’s not his new journey, but I just got invited on it, so it’s new to me.
    I’m the type of guy who fears change…I loath get Iphone updates! So this is kind of a big deal to me. I just don’t want to fail him. I don’t want him to think that my confusion/trepidation, whatever else is running through my mind, is any kind of repudiation of who he is. I am just a little sad.

  10. Sally
    Sally says:

    I’m sure I’m in the vocal minority where I think publishing this post is irresponsible and inappropriate. Your son should certainly be able to talk to his mother about his sexuality but you making this very special conversation public is wrong. What if he realizes as he gets older that he is also attracted to females as chooses to live live as a heterosexual? Why make the admission of a 12 year old who is not not fully developed sexually known? He needs a lot of love and support from people who know him -not anonymous reader’s of your blog.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Something I’ve learned from going to the therapist who specializes in gender issues: We do not need to have a static view of our gender or sexual orientation. What we decide is true for us now can change later and it’s not like saying “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” is a contract. It’s okay for people to change but it’s not okay to tell people they will change or it’s just a phase or they need to be a certain age to know who they are. Each of us only knows who we are for right now; that’s why life is interesting. And we should accept each other for who we are now; that’s what makes kindness.


  11. Kristen Wells
    Kristen Wells says:

    Ha! What a hoot! I’ve been reading you for years and even contacted you by email when we began homeschooling. (We only did it for a year but your insights were helpful.) Now I google “12year old tells he’s gay” because my son came out last night and I’m not sure if we should have a party or what. And you’re on the first page!! Thanks, again. And please tell your son that I’m really glad he told you to post about this.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It makes me happy to hear you found this page. And yes, I think a party is a good idea!


  12. Shoba
    Shoba says:

    Penelope, I was just making a quick check on who I follow in Twitter, ( I am not very active online) I saw your tweets were zero, I worried how you are and searched to look about you, so back to reading you after many years, don’t feel like I missed a beat, like meeting an old friend, same familiarity except reading new challenges. Much love to your son. It is wonderful of him to share his experience, I know some whom this will connect with and I will be sharing it.

  13. Brian
    Brian says:

    One area I would like to comment on… being gay is not about an outlook, and yes it IS about sexuality. It means be exclusively attracted to other guys. I realize that that may have been an expression but it is one I am wary of, and I will explain.

    I am a bisexual guy in his early twenties. I am also homoromantic meaning that while I feel sexual desire for both sexes, I feel romantic love for guys and not girls. I have grown up with straight guys for my close friends and was even part of that “cool crowd” that gay guys love to complain about lol. So it is natural then for me to be what they call straight acting, and I also happen to be straight looking (not really how you dress but the general vibe people get when checking you out, also studies have shown that gay guys tend to have certain facial characteristics that the average person will use to correctly guess that they are gay… anyway I do not have those). Note that I’m not at all ashamed of my sexuality or in any way trying to “pass”, I just believe in being myself.

    My nonconforming actually made me very popular in the gay community, almost like a novelty, but I was also heavily desired and came on to as many gays actually desire guys such as myself much more than other “typical” gay guys (of course my boyish good looks and very fit, lean but muscular body and big round butt helped a lot too I’m sure). It was common to see guys staring and I would come and talk to them and they would get all shy and even blush if I said they were cute and his kinda made it harder to make gay friends, one of my actual good gay friends explained it to me as to them it’s like a bunch of straight guys are in a bar and then a hot girl comes in, so some guys get shy. I also was at a gay party where I heard people talking in the kitchen about how the “new kid”- me, was hot and when I walked in one of them yelled “cock grab!” and all ten of them or so started grabbing my crotch and I had to raise a first threaten to punch the next person to touch me to get them to stop… so now I know how girls feel being objectified lol. I wasn’t a huge fan of the gay scene though they could be way more petty and mean to each other than I had ever seen dudes acting like before. Especially the ones highly involved in the scene, the sort who make being gay the defining characteristic of themselves.

    I would much rather see those therapists teaching gay kids that gay is their sexual orientation, but all that means is that they are simply boys who happen to be like other guys and not girls, and from there it can play as little or as much of a role as they like in defining their identity,

    I have dated mostly other bisexuals as we tend to have more in common but I did date and fall in love with one gay freshman as a senior in college… he was mostly masculine acting and he liked masculine but in the sort of boyish way that I love, and a pretty boy but not effete loon to him. He was a good match for me, more gay acting than my other hookups or dates but it didn’t bother me and it was in a way that was kind of cute and made him seem more “soft”, and not a way that defined him or who he was, and his best couple friends were straight guys but unlike me and did have the prolific amount of female friends gays tend to have but was much more balanced than most of them so that helped.

    Now for my point… maybe you are starting to see the problem with gay kids being told it’s an outlook not sexuality. That promotes a view of the gay world as monolithic, assuming that all gays are on the inside the sort of at least somewhat flamboyant and feminine acting gay guys that will later make up most of their local gay scene in their college’s local gay bars and parties, and the more hard core members who wear their orientation on their sleeve definitely seem to like this sort of view… it makes them feel like having their outlook and doing what they do is like the true way to be gay, like they think they have mastered being fabulous or something and that they should be seen as the top dogs of the gays. They like to believe masculine gay guys are putting on a front (likely out of jealousy as masculine acting gays or his are very sought after but relatifely rare among the scene), Funny then how many more times I got hit on or asked out they were getting and I didn’t even try at all to follow their outlook. Or take my boyfriend Matt who I believe was fine being himself- including the mild amount of gay traits inherent to his personality- but without trying like many do on arriving in college to make up lost time in high school of not having a clique and totally embracing the gay scene. Also you should know that there are way more gays out there than people think who are relatively masculine and not flamboyant but they are the ones who tend to avoid the gay bars and parties and “the scene” because they don’t enjoy it, it’s just that the ones in the scene are this visible gays in the community, the masculine ones may be invisible as people can’t tell who they are, so again people falsely assume all gays have that same sort of outlook.

  14. raymond
    raymond says:

    Just be a mom for him and listen him when he talks. I’m old and gay but dream of when I was his age – if I had had a mom who would just listen to me and help me when I was in pain like she’s do when my sister lost a boyfriend… just be there like a mom.

  15. Turnip...
    Turnip... says:

    I love this. I’m 11 and recently started questioning my sexuality. Turns out I’m bi! Could be pan, not sure yet. I hope everyone I tell is as supportive as you are of your son. So far they have been, so fingers crossed…

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