11/15/2013 12:24 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How I Coped When My Son Told Me He Was Gay -- And Suicidal

Four years ago my 16-year-old son announced that he was gay amid a flood of tears, and then skipped his afternoon chores, again, to go volunteer at the local Pridefest BBQ in York Region. I was stunned. When he didn't come home on time and the hours crawled by, I became panic-stricken.

Parenting a teenager is complicated. There are the usual battles over chores, independence, and of course bedroom cleanliness standards. Add onto that the layer of sexual orientation, and it gets extraordinarily complex.

In the following weeks and months, we struggled -- a lot. My son had always been a top student. Suddenly he wasn't interested in school projects or exams because it wasn't going to matter; he wasn't going to be around. We're talking suicidal thoughts -- very scary.

I found PFLAG Canada (Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) by accident. An enlightened guidance counsellor had a PFLAG magnet with a phone number in her office, which I saw while conferring about yet another class skipped, or maybe it was another emotional outburst against authority. Keep in mind, our family was always well behaved with a heavy emphasis on good manners.

At the first few meetings, I didn't talk. Anyone who knows me would know just how out of character that is. My focus wasn't so much on my son's sexual orientation, unlike the majority of parents who come to meetings. No, my concern was keeping him alive; a suicidal gay teenager has a focusing impact on a parent's priorities.

Flash forward four years. My son is now a well-adjusted university student, happily living in another city, regularly in touch with family and friends. His taste in boyfriends is exquisite. I've met a number of them over the years: bright, polite and promising young men who are always welcome in my home, and who socialize so well with my eldest son and his girlfriend.

At support meetings I have learned not to beat myself up about not being more sensitive, not figuring this out sooner and wondering how my parenting should change. Had I done something wrong? What is the right way to parent an LGBT child? These feelings are so typical of other parents I've since met. We didn't do anything wrong! Sometimes we're just not ready to acknowledge what is happening. It takes time to accept, time to learn how to adapt. The important step was telling my son how much I loved him.

Looking back, I realize my son knew he was gay by the time he was 12. He had more time to accept the reality and by the time he came out to his family, he'd been reflecting on this for a while. That didn't make it any easier for him. Adolescence is hard enough. Remember high school? Add to that a layer of being different when all you want to do is belong.

As a parent, I had less time than him to mentally prepare myself for this seismic shift. I became such a regular attendee at the meetings that I was invited to become chapter President. In this role, I have borne witness to other parents on their own unique journeys towards understanding their family member.

In less than eight months, Toronto will host "World Pride 2014." PFLAG Canada chapters around the Greater Toronto Area will participate in the largest event this city has ever hosted. An estimated 2-million people are expected, surpassing the attendance of 850,000 at Pope John Paul's 2002 World Youth Day. There will be events throughout Toronto, the first ever opening and closing ceremonies for Pride, LGBT displays at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Art Gallery, and so much more.

You may not need PFLAG now and may believe that it has no relevance to you. But maybe in the next month or the next year, you or a friend of yours may have a conversation about someone you know and love. Remember it then.


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