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Family & Relationship Issues

by Ritch C. Savin-Williams
American Psychological Association, 2001
Review by Glenda M. Russell, Ph.D. on Jun 26th 2002

Mom, Dad, I'm Gay.

            In a discipline that all too often encourages unidimensional models of complex human phenomena, it is a pleasure to read psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams book, Mom, Dad.  I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out.  Savin-Williams offers the reader a generally engrossing report of coming out experiences as seen through the eyes of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth as well as youths who have been involved in same-sex relationships but who reject these labels for themselves.  The book focuses quite specifically on what happens when LGB youths anticipate telling their parents about their sexual orientation and what actually occurs when they make this revelation.  The stories of these revelations form the core of the book and they are as interesting as reports of lives in movement.  They reflect fears and triumphs, rejection and acceptance, human stupidity and human grace – all the ups and downs that one might expect from the stories of significant events in the lives of virtually any group of adolescents.

            Savin-Williams sets up his book by placing sexual-minority youth and their coming out in the context of adolescent development.  He explicitly invites readers to see the similarities and differences among these youths, and he introduces readers to basic terminology (e.g., sexual orientation, sexual identity, homonegativity).  The author then discusses what is known about coming out processes, especially discrepancies between coming out narratives found in popular literature, on the one hand, and narratives based on empirical studies, on the other.  The next four chapters of the book focus on findings from Savin-Williams’ interviews with 164 sexual-minority youths.  The chapters are divided by dyadic pairs: daughters and mothers, daughters and fathers, sons and mothers, and sons and fathers.  Verbatim segments from the interviews provide lively illustrations that enhance what might otherwise have been a fairly straightforward rendition of interview findings, arranged in a predictable order and without much elaboration or contextualization in other research or theory.  The final two chapters address what is known about optimal ways to negotiate coming out to families and raise open questions that need to be addressed in future research.

            Savin-Williams does an outstanding job of offering observations about LGB youths that counter the trend in both popular and psychological literature to homogenize them. The youth in this book are not of a type; their experiences are as varied as are the lives of any group of adolescents. Further, he gives voice to adolescents who are not white or middle-class.  Even more pointedly, Savin-Williams’ research counters the all-too-frequent presentation of sexual-minority youth as leading painful, oppressed lives that universally cause them misery to the point of self-destruction.  While never failing to recognize the painful coming out experiences that some of these youths face, the author gives full exposition to other coming out experiences, some decidedly positive and many quite unremarkable. This is arguably the greatest strength of this book.

Another strength of Mom, Dad. I’m Gay is its accessibility.  It is well written and straightforward, free of the jargon that stamps books as academic and at the same time presents frequently impossible barriers to any but an academic audience.  Clearly, Savin-Williams set out to write a book that might appeal to a broader base of readers; clearly he has succeeded.  His book offers much to other psychologists certainly, but it also has much to say to intelligent readers outside the discipline.  The chapter, “Negotiating healthy relationships among family members,” is extraordinarily good.  The chapter reviews major findings from the author’s study and then translates them into advice about various issues – for example whether to come out to parents; reasons not to disclose sexual orientation to parents; survival tips for living in the closet; and advice to parents.  This chapter is rich in clinical sensitivity, common sense, and appropriate humility.  It alone is worth the price of the book, and I can easily imagine copies of this chapter being passed from therapists and youth workers to LGB youth, from youths to other youths, and from parents of LGB youth to other parents of LGB youth.

Even as this book’s accessibility is one of its greatest assets, its accessibility also stands as one of its weaknesses.  Savin-Williams’ straightforward approach both to his data and to the stories of his respondents all but ignores some of the complexity and depth that one might expect to find in such a data set.  By staying on the surface of these data, the author provides a solid set of stories presented along a single set of dimensions. The reader is left to wonder what else these youthful respondents might have said.  Relatedly, the author’s exposition of the data offers little in the way of critique or analysis. Savin-Williams appropriately relates his results with other research that is close in terms of subject matter.  But he might have written a better and more interesting book – albeit perhaps a less accessible one – if he had offered greater depth of analysis and critique, using a broader base of research and theory to do so.  For instance, the stories of male sexual-minority youth call out for a feminist analysis that touches on the role of gender transgression and might help make sense of some of the unique pressures experienced by some male sexual-minority adolescents.

This limitation notwithstanding, Savin-Williams has written a book that is both interesting and useful.  It will be valuable to the parents of LGB youth, to those who work with these youths and their parents, and to anyone else who wonders what happens when LGB youth come out to their families.  Many youths might find the book accessible as well.  Whoever owns the book should make several copies of the chapter “Negotiating family relationships . . . .” It is a particularly welcomed gift.

 

© 2002 Glenda M. Russell

 

Glenda M. Russell, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Associate and Project Director at the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies in Amherst, Massachusetts.  A psychologist and an activist, she is the author of Voted Out: Psychological Consequences of Anti-Gay Politics and co-author, with Janis S. Bohan, of Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation.