While her classmates were worrying about their first year of high school and the boys they had crushes on, one 15-year-old girl walked through the halls of her school weighed down by a burden that she was desperate to conceal.
“When people started asking ‘who’s that girl with your mom?’ I would get embarrassed and try to change the subject,” said Sydney Raulinaitis, who is from the small, conservative town of Georgetown, Ky.
Alicia Raulinaitis, Sydney’s mother, was married to a man for 18 years and had given birth to two daughters before she came out as a lesbian, which led to a divorce from her husband.
After her parents divorced, Raulinaitis started to notice that her mother was often around another woman, who was her mom’s partner. This realization caused her and her younger sister to develop feelings of anger and betrayal toward their mother.
“All of that happening is kind of traumatizing,” said Sydney Raulinaitis, now a 20-year-old college student. “It’s so much change at a young age, and it’s not like I had friends going through anything similar.”
The structure and strength of familial relationships can be significantly affected when a parent comes out as a member of the LGBTQ community. That revelation can result in psychological and emotional struggles for both children and parents, as well as changes in the ways family members view one another.
Alicia Raulinaitis said that she and her partner struggled with discipline after her daughters became aware of their relationship, due in part to the 20-year age gap between Alicia and her partner, Jen, and the adjustment to the new system of authority in the family.
“There was a struggle with parenting because of the age difference. They basically saw her as a friend and not a parent, which made disciplining very difficult,” Alicia Raulinaitis said.
The mother of two said that she remembers her daughters’ reaction to her sexual orientation as surprised and not negative. But Sydney Raulinaitis remembers her reaction as one of embarrassment and anger and said that there was a lack of communication initially.
Laura Hall, whose father came out as gay when she was 24, also recalls communication problems among family members.
Hall was celebrating Father’s Day with her family in her hometown of San Francisco when her father came out to her in 1975. At the time, Laura thought she was the only member of her family who knew, but several years later she found out that her father also came out to her mother and uncle.
“I had always suspected that my father was unfaithful to my mother, but never in a million years did I suspect that he was gay,” Hall said.
Since she thought she was the only member of her family who knew her father’s sexuality, Hall said she remembers feeling weighed down by the secret and felt that her father used her as a constant outlet to express his feelings. She said she felt that her relationship with her father turned into one similar to a friendship, rather than a parental bond.
“Since he had so much that he hadn’t been able to express, whenever we had our private talks, he mainly talked about himself,” Hall said. “I missed my dad, the fathering part of my dad.”
Hall said that stronger communication in her family would have made the transition easier on her and helped to restore the relationship with her father that she was accustomed to.
“If we could have talked about this as a family, I would have loved that, just loved that,” Hall said.
Ronni Sanlo, a retired LGBT activist and speaker, sighed as she recalled the struggles that accompanied her coming-out process. Sanlo came out as a lesbian in 1979, when her children were 3 and 6 years old. A year earlier, the state of Florida, where she resided, passed anti-gay parenting laws that prevented her from maintaining custody of her children after her sexual orientation was known, despite her husband’s lack of involvement in her children’s lives.
When Sanlo’s husband gained custody of their two children, he refused to allow Sanlo to see them. Sanlo went 10 years without seeing her daughter and 13 years without seeing her son.
“It was the most horrendous experience of my entire life,” Sanlo said.
In addition to decreased communication, Sanlo said that she watched her children struggle with severe abandonment issues, which were triggered by an intense familial divide. She said that her coming out might have intensified the effects of her and her husband’s divorce on her children.
“Luckily, my children were courageous enough to find out who I really was,” Sanlo said.
Sanlo said that despite the changing views on homosexuality, public opinion, particularly when a parent is coming out, could still be a reason that parents conceal their sexual orientation until later in life.
“I believe that the process of coming out is every bit as scary as it was back then,” Sanlo said.
Sanlo said that a fear of being rejected by loved ones and the lack of laws to prevent employers from firing people based on their sexual orientation can also be significant reasons to delay the parental coming-out process.
Phil Crawford, a member of the PFLAG Board of Directors for the San Francisco branch, said that many parents who are coming out struggle to break the cycle of the “traditional” path of life and that social obstacles can make it harder to reveal their true selves to their families.
“I think many people get into the habit of secrecy,” Crawford said. “It can be hard to escape that situation.”
Sydney Raulinaitis has completely adjusted to the change in her family and is supportive of her mother’s relationship with her partner. She said that in the long run, finding out the truth strengthened her relationship with her mother.
“They’re still the same parents they were before you found out, so I don’t see why you would treat them any differently,” Sydney Raulinaitis said. “I just accepted it because I love her more than life.”