Rembrandt Express: Parents of gay children

Parents of lesbian children (© Ann Larie Valentine)

Rembrandt Express was a weekly magazine show about the Netherlands, hosted by Pete Myers. In the late 1980’s, he introduced the Gay Front, a monthly column about gay social issues. It was long before these subjects were covered by other mainstream media. This edition, dating from 1989, focuses on four Dutch parents and how they came to accept their gay and lesbian children.   

Reporter: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: July 28, 1989 


One of the most important stages in the development of a gay or lesbian person’s life is coming to terms with their nature and coming out. Publicly admitting their homosexuality to friends, colleagues and most difficult of all their family and parents. The fear of rejection of those closest to them always lurks at the back of the mind. For parents, the coming out of their gay children can also be a traumatic experience and to deal with these problems, organisations exist in many Western countries, which counsel parents. For example in the United States, there’s PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. And here in the Netherlands, we have a similar group for parents, as Eric Beauchemin reports.

The self-help group is a national organisation with local branches throughout the Netherlands. It’s made up of parents who have already fully accepted their child’s homosexuality and who are now helping other parents to accept their teenager’s sexual preference. They organise get-togethers and publish material to make adults realise that homosexuality is perfectly normal, and they also organise discussion groups to help parents of gays and lesbians. But before the parents themselves can come out and tell others about their son’s or daughter’s homosexuality, they often have to go through a long and sometimes difficult period of growing to accept their child’s sexual preference. So I asked four parents – Freek Rijbergen, Ineke Dureger and Kor and Greta Slippens – how they had reacted initially to their teenager’s coming out.

It was very shocking. It was a surprise, and I felt very afraid because I couldn’t see the way for him to be happy in his life. He would be rejected, and he would be alone. And I felt very sad because I wouldn’t have grandchildren from him.

My daughter told my wife at the age of 14 that she was lesbian, but we already had some expectations about it, and so it was no shock for us, and we were only pleased that she could talk about it with us. 

My daughter didn’t find out herself until she was 21, and then she told me shortly after. But to me, it came as a complete shock. I felt that I had to accept her being my child. I put on a show because I couldn’t really accept it. I told her that I did but I didn’t. EB: And how long did it take you to accept it? It must have been about two years till I really accepted it. 

EB: Freek, you said that you felt very sad when you found out. How did you come to terms with it? How did you accept it? The first months, I couldn’t talk about it. I could only listen to all talks between my wife and Maarten, my son. And after half a year, there was a meeting of parents of gay and lesbian children in Groningen, and there was the first opening in my heart. And from that moment on, I learned to accept his homosexuality. EB: And how did you go about accepting it? Can you explain some more? Talking about it, reading about it and especially talking about it with other people who had the same experiences and talking about it with him. Through these talks, we came very close together, more close than we were ever before. EB: Children when they find out they are homosexual often, as teenagers do, confide in their peers rather than with their parents. Was that the case with your son also? Yes, yes. I can explain it. The fact that you can be rejected by your parents is very threatening. Then you can try out with friends at first. 

We were glad that she told us. We could accept it because we do not regard this as something unusual. So, when she told us, soon after that she had a girlfriend, and like other things, you also have, you can like or dislike a person’s friend. That is one of the things that is to us a normal situation. But, on the other hand, we had to warn her for the problems she could encounter in the society. When she had told us, she wanted to come out. She wanted to show it to the rest of the world. We had to temper that behaviour. 

My daughter and I were very close, so I was the first one to be told. Afterwards, she talked to her friends. EB: Was it important for you as a parent to be told by your daughter first that she was lesbian? Would it have hurt you if she had told other people first? Yes, I think it would have hurt me. Now I was sad, but I felt very proud that I was the first one to be told. It felt good. It was a bandage on the wound. I think on one side it helped being so  close. On the other side, it was a problem because I was used to think the same way and feel the same way. I could still in a way think the same way, but I couldn’t feel the same way, especially when it came to the sexual feelings. And then I learned with other parents that I wasn’t supposed to feel the same way. I had my own feelings, and I could leave her feelings to her. EB: Has your relationship with your daughter changed now? Is your relationship stronger because of this experience? Yes, it’s only become stronger. We’re very open. Now I can say I’m happy I have a lesbian daughter because I’ve changed myself to the better I think. EB: Was it difficult for you to accept your daughter’s girlfriend? It was very much at first because I felt if she hadn’t met my daughter, my daughter wouldn’t be lesbian, which of course is nonsense, but I felt that way because she had lots of boyfriends before and got along with them fine to a certain extent. But then when this girl came along, all of a sudden it seemed to me, she turned lesbian. 

EB: Now we often hear about how difficult it is for gays and lesbians to come out. But is there also a coming out period for the parents? Yes, I think so. To me, it was not a problem, but when I get for the first time to a parents’ meeting day, I was very shocked about the problems the parents there had. Then came for me the difficult time to accept that other people had problems with the homosexuality of their children. 

Coming out for me was a problem, I think. I had spoken to my daughter. My daughter had spoken to me. That was one thing. And then, for a while, I didn’t talk to anybody. Then I told two close friends. They reacted the same way I did. They had a mental acceptance, but I could feel that they didn’t really accept it. And it made it hard for me to go to neighbours. Although I never met real problems, but it’s something you feel that many people have problems with it. After talking with other parents who had homosexual children, you feel some recognition and that makes it easier. That is the only thing that helps, I think, to talk to other people who have the same problem. And from there on, you feel stronger, and you can go on together. EB: So, in essence, it’s just as difficult for the parent, I mean there’s the same need to talk about it, as there is for the gay child. I think there is. One part is that you’re afraid that they’ll condemn your child. And the other part is that you condemn the homosexuality yourself. EB: Do parents think that because their child is gay or lesbian that that reflects on them as parents? Yes, it does, like everything your child does reflect on you. Even a bad mark in school you have the feeling that it reflects on you. So something so essential as sexuality and homosexuality will reflect on you too. That’s what you feel it does. 

At my work, I know colleagues who have homosexual sons, but they refuse to talk about it, even though they know that I’m working in this group for parents, but also that I have stickers on my car so that they can see what I’m doing, but they still refuse to talk about it. EB: So the Netherlands isn’t as tolerant as we all hear. They’re not tolerant. But people are afraid to talk about it because they fear the non-tolerance of the others. 

So, what we are trying is to get people connected with our movement, parents movement, as a group of solidarity with gay movement. 

Four Dutch parents, refreshingly and frankly discussing their feelings and emotions towards their gay children.