by Sarah Rutledge Fischer, (she/they)
My 14-year-old daughter recently confided that she likes girls and has a crush on her best friend (we’ll call her Kate). Shortly after, she told Kate about her crush, and lo and behold, Kate felt the same way. They are so sweet together, and I’m proud of my brave child.
The thing is—Kate’s mother doesn’t know. We live out in the country, so when Kate comes over, her mother drives and stays to visit. I don’t know how accepting Kate’s mother is. She’s very nice and polite, but she’s said a few things that make me think she is much more conservative than I am.
I know I shouldn’t say anything to Kate’s mom about the girls, but why do I feel so uncomfortable sitting with this secret while the girls giggle in the next room? Do I owe Kate’s mother honesty, mother-to-mother?
Uncomfortable Playdate Parent
Oh, I do not envy you the awkward parent-to-parent small talk of a playdate. And nothing makes small talk more awkward than a giant elephant in the room—that thing you cannot stop thinking about, but also cannot mention.
First, let me confirm that you are correct that you should not say anything to Kate’s mother. It is never, ever okay to out someone—especially when that someone is a minor who cannot control their own environment. If Kate’s parents are safe and ready to embrace an LGBTQ+ child, then she will probably discuss it with them in her own time. But if they are not safe, then outing her could result in any number of traumas—
mental and emotional cruelty, physical abuse, conversion therapy—the list of harms that polite-but-bigoted parents have exacted on their LGBTQ+ children goes on and on.
So, now that we agree that you must keep Kate’s confidence, let’s talk a bit about teenagers and secrets. Healthy teenage secrecy is not about engaging in bad behavior or even about not trusting a parent. Keeping secrets is a normal part of an adolescent’s formation of their own, separate identity—a necessary part of growing from a child into a fully functioning adult.
Now, of course, there are secrets we do not want our teens to keep. We want them to always tell us about violations of their bodies, minds, and hearts; we want them to talk with us about alcohol and drugs; we want to know if they are struggling with depression, anxiety, or disordered eating. In this realm, there are many unhealthy reasons a teen might keep secrets, but shame and fear of parental disapproval is almost always part of it.
This is where I think your discomfort comes in. You and I would classify Kate’s secret in the first category—a normal part of teenage identity formation. But, if Kate’s mother is homophobic and considers her daughter’s burgeoning identity to be sinful or dangerous, she would classify Kate’s secret in the second category. You know that Kate’s secret is not harmful, but you also know her mother might think it is, and that could indicate real potential harm for Kate. No wonder you feel uncomfortable. I can’t give you any suggestions for ridding yourself of this discomfort—you may just have to sit with it. And as you do, let it remind you of how important keeping Kate’s secret might be.
So, what else can you do to help Kate? You can be openly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community in your home, your life, and your polite conversation. Even if it isn’t safe to direct your LGBTQ+ support at the girls in front of Kate’s mother, statistics suggest that your mere presence as a supportive adult in Kate’s life could significantly improve her long-term mental health. And you never know, an LGBTQ+ affirming perspective in your polite conversation may even start to change Kate’s mother’s point of view.
That should get you started.
To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@focusmidsouth.com. Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.