How I Wish I Reacted When I Learned My Brother Was Gay

If I knew then what I know now, here's how I would have better loved and supported my brother—and here's how you can use my mistakes to be a better ally to the queer folks in your family.

Photo of author with her brother

"Are you gay?" I yelled, standing in my baby brother's room as he sat on the bottom level of his bunk bed. He was a teenager at the time. I came into his room to use his computer and found the evidence in his Google search history.

"Are you gay?" I demanded he answer me.

"No. I'm not gay," he said.

I'll never forget that day. It's one of the days I wish I could do over. I was in my early 20s and I'd finished college. I came home regularly to visit my mom and siblings and spent a lot of time with my brother. I never suspected he was gay. He never exhibited the so-called stereotypical characteristics we labeled as gay.

But when he reached high school, everyone in our family started asking questions. We wanted to know why he didn't date. Why didn't he talk about girls or having a girlfriend? Why didn't he have more of a social life? I couldn't understand why he didn't care if he dated or not.

At the time, I didn't think we were overtly homophobic, but our unspoken preference was that our brother, the baby of the family, not be gay. After I demanded that he answer me, I lectured him about "that lifestyle" and warned him of the dangers of homosexual sex. As I think back, my behavior was embarrassing, to say the least. The great harm I caused is what I regret the most. I know it was this day when I damaged my relationship with my most beloved brother and drove a wedge between us. Thankfully, after years of experience, exposure, and education, I know I was wrong. My brother has allowed me to work on repairing our relationship and healing the damage I caused.

I know my brother is not the only LGBTQIA+ person who's suffered—or is suffering—harm from parents and family members. A 2017 study conducted by the Human Rights Campaign surveyed Black and African American youth. A mere 19 percent said they feel like they can be themselves at home. Forty-seven percent said they've been mocked and taunted for being LGBTQ+ by family members. This is more than unfortunate. It is tragic, and we are losing a generation of children and youth because of our fear and ignorance. Black and African-American youth deserve to be loved, affirmed, and supported. The Human Rights Campaign study also discovered that 71 percent of the LGBTQ+ youth they surveyed feel "useless and hopeless." If Black lives really matter, we must start caring about our LGBTQ+ children and youth and creating safe spaces for them in our families and communities.

If I knew then what I know now, here's how I would have better loved and supported my brother.

Create Safe Spaces Free From Homophobic Microaggressions

As I said, I didn't believe our house was overtly homophobic. However, after listening to my brother's experience, which brought me to tears, I learned he lived in a very hostile environment. As a result, he concluded as a middle schooler that he could never come out and be accepted by his family. Sadly, he carried the trauma and hurt inside for years. If parents today want a safe home environment for all children, then they should be intentional about creating one that is free from homophobic microaggressions.

The microaggressions my family doled out in our ignorance were comments made during TV shows like Will and Grace or refusing to allow him to see men we deemed as gay or effeminate. I can only attribute our behavior to ignorance and fear. Now, we know how harmful our comments were and the damage they caused. You can avoid this pitfall and create safe places through education, awareness, and acceptance.

Avoid Reinforcing Heteronormative Narratives and Language

We've all seen those onesies and children's T-shirts that say things like, "Ladykiller" or "Lock your daughters up." You don't have to be blatantly homophobic to reinforce heteronormative narratives or language, which ultimately tells your children there is only one way to live, love, and be. We fell short here, too. Whenever my brother expressed interest in a girl as a child, we celebrated and appeared relieved that he wasn't gay. Whenever we talked to him about being a good man or dating, we only used one set of pronouns, assuming he would be heterosexual.

This made him feel like there was only one way of living. It also suggested if he didn't fall in line, something was wrong with him and he wasn't living up to our expectations. You can avoid this by exposing your children to different kinds of couples and families. Teach them that there are many ways of living, loving, and being in this world. Teach them the history of LBGTQIA+ people. Use neutral pronouns, like "they or them," when speaking about their potential crushes. Say "person" or "people" instead of "he" or "she." Don't make assumptions about who your child might have a crush on. Don't give negative "positive reinforcement" when they display behaviors you deem acceptable.

Protect Loved Ones From Harmful Religious Spaces

Church and religion are major parts of Black communities. However, many of our religious institutions inflict the greatest harm on our LGBTQIA+ youth. One of the main reasons my brother felt ostracized, left out, and condemned by those around him is because of homophobic rhetoric and beliefs at the church we attended. Church is supposed to be a place where all people can get their spiritual needs met.

However, often, that is not the case when it comes to LGBTQIA+ people. If you want your child to grow up in an affirming and loving environment, then you shouldn't expose them to harmful religious spaces, no matter what role that institution plays in your life. If they spew homophobic rhetoric from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, that place is not safe for your family. In fact, it's a dangerous space.

The co-authors together
Lauren Harris

It is our job to protect the hearts and minds of our children. That means removing them from places that cause irreparable harm. It breaks my heart to know my brother sat weekly listening to rhetoric that condemned him. Thankfully, it didn't result in something horrible, like him taking his life, but the damage is done. As an adult, he doesn't feel safe in religious spaces and rightly so.

It is not easy to hear about the damage you've done in your immaturity and ignorance, but you can always change and work to make amends and repair the harm you've caused. That's what I seek to do for my brother. The world should be a safe place for all youth. That world begins with how we treat our LGBTQIA+ children.

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