Campaigner Domhnaill Harkin still remembers how hard it was for him to come out as gay to his mother in 2017.
“I was 23 so it was quite late,” Domhnaill, who is from Donegal, tells PinkNews.
“I came out to my mother first and she accepted me, but she was just so worried. She had so many questions and she was a bit concerned because she hadn’t really known anyone who was LGBTQ+.
She was wondering: Would I be happy? Would I be OK?”
Domhnaill was one of the lucky ones – his relationship with his mother has gone from strength to strength, and they’re now closer than ever before.
But coming out made him keenly aware of the fact that it can be difficult for parents of LGBTQ+ people to understand and embrace their children.
That’s why Domhnaill decided to put together a guide that would “give parents the knowledge and awareness they need on issues they may not be aware of”.
Issued through Irish charity ShoutOut, the guide features contributions from former Irish president Mary McAleese, who has spoken extensively about her son’s experience of coming out as gay, and former children’s minister Katherine Zappone.
It was through volunteering with ShoutOut that Domhnaill realised just how useful a guide for parents of LGBTQ+ young people would be.
“ShoutOut goes to schools and gives workshops to young people primarily,” Domhnaill explains. “Through that work, and from my experience with my own mother, I realised there’s no one-stop shop of information for parents to access.”
She wanted me to be happy, but we worked through it and now we’re closer than we ever were before.
At its core, the guide is practical – it doesn’t shy away from the fact that parents may need time to adjust when their children come out as LGBTQ+.
“When I was coming out, the first person I had to convince I’d be happy and OK was myself, and that took so many years,” Domhnaill says.
“The next person was my mother. She views me as an extension of herself – my pain is her pain and my worry is her worry, so she was just so concerned. She wanted me to be happy, but we worked through it and now we’re closer than we ever were before.”
In writing the guide, Domhnaill spoke to LGBTQ+ friends to learn about their stories, but he also spoke to his own parents to find out what information would have been useful for them when he came out. The result is an in-depth manual with sections on terminology, coming out, bullying and sexual health, as well as sage advice on not burdening your child with your own emotions.
“You have imagined a life for your child which is probably different now that they have come out,” the guide says. “This will take some adjusting to.
“If you are having a hard time with this, it is important you seek advice and help, and it may not be appropriate to involve your child in this. Your child has their journey, and now you may have yours, so it’s very important not to neglect your own personal development in this new reality.”
Fear of coming out can be ‘terrible’ for LGBTQ+ people
Domhnaill is keen to point out that most parents react well to their children coming out as LGBTQ+ but he’s hopeful his guide might make it easier for the next generation.
“I still think back to the fear of coming out. It’s terrible,” Domhnaill says. “Normally we work it up in our heads and think it’ll be worse than it actually is and, when you do it, you find that the response is usually quite positive. It might be that they’re worried, but you’re accepted.”
His advice to LGBTQ+ youth out there is simple: you shouldn’t ever have to feel any shame for being who you really are.
“You’re just living life as your truth and, when someone does that, they’re going to be so much happier in themselves,” Domhnaill says.
“You’re making the right decision by coming out because living a half-life, which I did for so many years, is so damaging. Coming out can be so difficult but, honestly, you won’t regret it for a minute. Every time someone comes out, the first thing they say is: ‘Why did I wait so long? Why did I not do it sooner? I’ve wasted so many years.’”
He continues: “Yes, it can be difficult. Yes, it can be challenging, but it’s so worth it. Your family may have questions; they may have concerns. They may say things they shouldn’t say, but if it’s coming from a place of love, you will work through it. You’ll never regret it and it’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made.”
Domhnaill also has some important advice for parents – normalise LGBTQ+ identities in your home.
“There’s a section in the guide about building inclusive homes,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to mention LGBTQ+ people you know, have age-appropriate literature, films and TV shows in your home. By normalising these different identities you’re setting your child up for a good foundation. Having that foundation very early on with children is absolutely key. It’s about having that positive atmosphere and environment.”
For Domhnaill, the future will be much brighter if children are raised to embrace diversity and to love themselves, no matter who they are.
“If they’re able to be themselves, they’ll have no problem coming out.”
You can access ShoutOut’s guide for parents of LGBTQ+ youth here.