Anne Considine bristles when people tell her, if their child was gay, it’d be “no big deal”.
She finds it diminishing. “It’s well meaning, but I feel it disrespects what my boys went through,” she says.
Anne should know. Not one, but two of her sons are gay. Chris, 33, came out to Anne when he was 19. His brother Anthony, 31, came out six years later.
Coming out to your parents is a huge moment in a child’s life, but it can be a difficult mental and emotional shift for parents, too — even if they’ve gone through it before. Families like Anne’s with several gay siblings often grapple with unique challenges as they navigate the coming out process — issues she explores in her new book, From Outside the Closet.
“Until that person is standing in my shoes, they have no idea how they’ll react,” writes Anne.
“As a mother, all I could think about at first was their mental health, discrimination, HIV, the party, alcohol and drug scene and the difficulty of finding a partner in a diminished dating pool.”
The book, which features the stories of 10 men who love men, and the heartache and struggles they’ve overcome to be able to do so, was inspired by a remark from Anne’s eldest son Chris.
“He said, ‘Mum, no way would I have chosen this life’. It was like someone took a knife to my heart and twisted it,” she says. “Try calling that no big deal.”
‘Googling ‘gay’ was a seedy experience’
When Chris came out in 2007, Anne says there was a lack of resources to help her and her husband Paul navigate their “new normal”.
“It was quite seedy Googling ‘gay’ for information back in the early 2000s,” she says. “What I found didn’t make me feel any more confident of the future health and wellbeing of my two boys.”
Six years later, when her son Anthony came out, Paul was particularly affected.
“He was so upset,” Anne says. “It’s one of the only times I’ve seen Paul with tears in his eyes. He told me to let him process it in his own time. He’d been raised on sports and Catholicism; I think those cultures made him ask, what did I do to deserve two gay sons?”
Anne backed off, but remembers feeling confused. “It was the shock, I think. Two gay sons. All I wanted to do was protect my boys,” she says through tears.
“And then I wanted to protect all the men that went through this, being different from what traditional society has expected from its men.”
The experience also gave Anne a surprising sense of purpose.
“I do not believe I was given these two boys to do nothing with it,” she says. “I felt there was a need to educate parents like me and Paul about gay relationships, which is why I wrote From Outside the Closet.”
You’re more likely to be gay if your sibling is
Anne’s story — having two gay sons — sounds extraordinary, but it may be more common than some might think.
A person with a gay or lesbian sibling is about 11 times more likely to be gay or lesbian than someone with a straight sibling, says Dr Brendan Zietsch from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology.
“A precise commonness depends how many siblings there are,” he tells ABC News. “In absolute terms it’s rare because it’s rare for any one sibling to be gay.” (Some studies suggest only about two per cent of the population is gay, he adds.)
The largest ever study of same-sex sexual behavior in 2019 found that five gene variants account for between 8 per cent and 25 per cent of same-sex sexual behaviour, suggesting genetics is responsible for a third of the influence on whether someone is the same- sex attracted.
Anne Considine says that when her second son Anthony came out, it ultimately wasn’t a huge stretch for her because she’d already “been through the process” with Chris.
But she admits she experienced a kind of grief: “Purely selfishly, I’d always envisaged grandchildren. Those odds immediately reduced.”
Suddenly, there was pressure on Laura, Anne’s daughter, who suggested a few years ago she didn’t want to have kids. “Laura said there’s enough children in the world and she wasn’t keen on having any,” Anne says. “I ran down the hallway sobbing.”
But to Anne’s delight, Laura’s views have since changed: “It’s an ongoing family joke now,” she says. “I say, Laura, I’m preparing!”
Anne also believes Anthony traveled the world because — perhaps counterintuitively — having an older gay brother made it harder, not easier, to come out.
“He’s extremely private, so the truth is, I don’t know,” she says.
When two brothers come out together
This is something David Zabell, 32, from Sydney strongly relates to. As a teenager he discovered his older brother Tim, 36, was gay when one of Tim’s friends outed him to David behind his back. David put it to the back of his mind.
“I was fairly sure I was gay then — I was 16 — but I didn’t want it to impact our relationship,” says David. “It wasn’t my place to know ’til he was ready to tell me.”
Four years later, David was ready to come out to his family. But knowing Tim was gay didn’t make it any easier.
“I think if my brother was straight, it’d have been easier on my socially conservative, Catholic-raised parents at the time,” he says.
When David came out to Tim at 20, Tim responded immediately that he was gay too. A week later, they told their parents together.
“I told mum I was gay first, and seconds later, Tim said he was too,” David says. He remembers her looking from one brother to the other, then “lots of questions” while his dad sat in stunned silence.
Their mother, Mary Zabell, from Wollongong, recalls feeling “a little shocked” that both her sons were gay. “I’m a child of the 50s — sexuality was never, ever discussed,” she says.
“I remember feeling sad for a week or two,” — mostly concern about her sons’ safety. “There was a lot of homophobia about; you worry your child will be subjected to slurs.”
Still, Mary admits it might have been easier on her if the boys had come out one after the other, instead of together: “The shock was deeper with them both coming out at once, but you get over it faster.”
Today, though, David feels loved and accepted by his parents.
“I remember the exact moment I knew it wasn’t an issue,” he says. “They bought me, for Christmas, this giant rainbow umbrella!”
Key lessons from 10 gay men
Anne also remembers the moment she knew her husband Paul had accepted both his sons. About a year after Chris had come out, someone close to the family offered to pay to “get Chris fixed”.
Paul responded that there was nothing wrong with his son, and asked them never to bring it up again. He also hid it from his wife, who he knew would be extremely upset by it, instead telling her years later.
“Thank God Paul came round,” Anne says. “Imagine the damage that could’ve done.”
Today she loves having what she describes as a non-traditional family, and hopes the lessons she’s learn along the way might help other parents of LGBTIQ+ kids.
“It’s still not easy to come out in 2022. I don’t think straight people always get that,” she says.
“No matter whether it’s the first or second child coming out: try not to overreact. You might be thinking about how it’s affecting you, but remember how hard it was for them to come out. And coming out isn’t something you do once so keep checking in on their mental health. All 10 of the men I interviewed for my book taught me that.”
For Mary Zabell, having friends with gay children has been helpful. “Find a support group like PFLAG or read a book like Anne’s,” she says.
“It’s encouraging to discover you’re not the lone ranger.”