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Andrew Solomon on ‘making your children feel loved’ and the power of parental listening.

Andrew Solomon
John Habich, Andrew Solomon and their son George at their New York City home. Photo: Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

There is a school of thought that children who fall outside the mainstream for identity, behavior and self-expression should never be made to feel different. 

But what if those differences are what unite communities most rather than keep them apart? What if parents of children far different from themselves raised those kids to celebrate, rather than conceal, their uniquenesses? And what if unqualified love and acceptance ultimately delivered enduring family happiness, no matter the struggles along the way? 

These are some of the themes behind author Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, a deeply researched and personal account of families contending with difference that was later made into a documentary film. 

In Solomon’s own case, that difference was sexuality, which he understood at an early age profoundly alienated him from the expectations of his parents. It’s a feeling with which many LGBTQ children are likely to identify, an “otherness” that can set them on a lifelong path of shame, silence and loneliness. 

“Children are always afraid, especially in their earlier lives, of being a disappointment to their parents,” Solomon, 58, told LGBTQ Nation. “Kids can have the feeling that they may not really be what their parents had wanted, may not be the types of kids their parents can truly understand or are prepared to deal with. I certainly felt quite marginalized as a child. I grew up thinking I’d be lonely, but I’m certainly not lonely now. I feel like I’m woven into the fabric of society.”

Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon’s closeted youth inspired a lifetime passion for equality. Photo courtesy Andrew Solomon

Solomon’s 15-year marriage to John Habich Solomon, and their family of four children — George, Blaine, Oliver, and Lucy — clearly suggest a wondrously different outcome. 

In Far From the Tree, Solomon chronicled young people contending with everything from dwarfism and Down syndrome to autism, schizophrenia, physical disabilities and even the pressures of being a prodigy. And while differences rooted in sexuality are not at the book’s core, children who identify as transgender are also among its narratives.

Solomon said LGBTQ children, in particular, may begin to view themselves as different unusually early in their lives. “By age 5 or 6 they may already have articulated to themselves that they feel LGBTQ — that they are unlike other kids.”

“But the key to dealing with this difference is love,” he said. “Making your children feel loved — like they always have a safe haven to return to.”

In light of the nation’s fierce ideological battles over equality for transgender youth, book bans, and “Don’t Say Gay” bills in multiple state legislatures, LGBTQ Nation chatted with Solomon — who teaches clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, lectures in psychiatry at Yale University, is a former president of PEN American Center, and an author of over a dozen books, including the best-selling Noonday Demon, for which he won the National Book Award — about his work, his journey to self-acceptance, and the ways in which parents can raise LGBTQ children to feel as woven into their societies as Solomon feels in his today.

Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon on the terrace of his New York City home. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

Why is it so hard for parents to come to terms with their children’s differences?

Andrew: I think many parents have this notion that they’re going to be much better parents to their children than their own parents were to them. They’re going to provide for their kids all of the things that they did not have themselves growing up.

What’s wrong with that concept?

Andrew: The problem is that parents might not understand that all of the things they wanted or needed as kids can be far different than their own kid’s wants or needs. So the trick is not to provide what you wanted as a kid but what your children absolutely need themselves.

But how do they figure out those needs, especially in young children?

Andrew: I think often parents cannot — and, at times even do not want — to understand that their kids are different from them. But they must attempt to understand this sooner rather than later.

“The trick is not to provide what you wanted as a kid but what your children absolutely need themselves.”
Author Andrew Solomon

Are there cues? How do they figure this process out?

Andrew: Perhaps the best way is to look to their kids themselves, because children can be extraordinary guides for families trying to identify or contend with differences. But don’t forget, this can also be an enormous burden to place on kids.

Why do parents so often miss these cues?

Andrew: Parents are reluctant to ask what’s going on, but they can also create an atmosphere where kids are reluctant to speak up. They may not want to hear their child or even really know what is happening with them. There are also parents who think their child is too young to know they may be different. That their child may be a fantasist, and you just can’t believe everything they say.

What is the price kids pay for this kind of silence? 

Andrew: I think many of the traumas that come from growing up LGBT in our society are rooted in the feeling that you are alone. And this specifically comes from feeling like you are different from your parents.

How do we discuss this core difference for kids?

Andrew: Asking them is a start, but observing them is where it really begins. Being able to see your children and evaluate their feelings even before they’re able to articulate it. Parents really need to be honest with themselves and ask, what might be different about my child? What might make them feel lonely?

What type of toll does this take on kids?

Andrew: From my many conversations I’ve had with gay young people, the feeling that you are different from your families at such a young age — this specific sort of realization — creates a frightening kind of distance for them, a very scary sort of loneliness. 

What can parents do to mitigate these feelings?

Andrew: They must incorporate gay people into their everyday lives. Gay people get married, gay people run for president. These are the kinds of images that families must provide for their kids.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg during a rally to announce his 2020 Democratic presidential candidacy in South Bend, Indiana, on April 14, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock

Is there a model for this?

Andrew: There has been a lot of writing about the issues faced by Black children adopted into white families. That there is an obligation by white parents to ensure their children are exposed to Black people, that the families have Black friends. These are the kinds of things that need to be done in the LGBT world. Yet there is very little of that sort of thing being done for gay kids. 

What are the consequences of this inaction?

Andrew: There is this feeling that if you just love your children then everything will be fine. Which may be fine for a kid growing up in a place like New York City, where there are lots of other gay people around. But this experience can be quite different for a kid growing up on the plains of Nebraska, where it may be far less easy.

How did this dynamic play out in your own family?

Andrew: I was very close to my parents growing up. They were enormously kind people and unbelievably attentive and dedicated parents. But they also expressed surprise when I came out of the closet. Which was very surprising to me.

How did they respond?

Andrew: Well, my mother developed cancer after I came out — when she was 58, which is the age I am now. At one point she said that this kind of cancer in women was triggered by extreme stress — the stress of dealing with my coming out and moving in with my boyfriend.

Andrew Solomon and his mother at his Yale University graduation in 1985. Photo courtesy Andrew Solomon

How did this impact you?

Andrew: Of course, she subsequently apologized and acknowledged that this was a horrible thing to say — but she did say it, and this was something I had to reckon with for quite a long time. I think a lot of the anguish I felt around my identity, anguish that took me years to resolve, grew out of this sense that my sexuality was so shattering to my parents.

What did this do to your life in the long term?

Andrew: I’ve been with John for more than 20 years, but there was a period in my life where I went through a series of rather destructive and ill-advised relationships. I think this may not have happened if I had not had the sense that being gay was already a type of failure.

What has changed the most since your own coming out?

Andrew: I think the fact that gay people can get married has made such a big difference. It makes our relationships seem real in a way that did not exist before.

How so?

Andrew: Because for so long, gay people had to explain themselves to straight people — explain their lives. But with marriage, there is this duality to [parent-child] relationships that did not exist before. One of the most important experiences one can have in common with their parents is marriage, and now gay people can share this commonality as well. This is not to say that all gay people must get married, but marriage equality broadens people’s appreciation of our lives.

“The fact that gay people can get married has made such a big difference. It makes our relationships seem real in a way that did not exist before.”
Author Andrew Solomon

And how does this impact children?

Andrew: I think marriage and children allow for a level of communication with parents that was not there before. LGBT kids can now tell their parents that they want to grow up and get married and have kids. This provides them with a sort of verbal ammunition to create connections with their parents and not feel so lonely.

Andrew Solomon wedding
(l to r) John Habich and Andrew Solomon being playful together at Althorp, Northampton, England. Photo courtesy Andrew Solomon

How do we support parents in this process? Everything you are saying and experienced shows it can be very hard.

Andrew: It can be really easy to blame folks for not being the kind of parents we think they should be, but we must remember that this process is hard for them, too. So much like with children, we need to be open to hearing parents, to listening and helping them.

How so?

Andrew: It’s not very useful to say to a parent who is struggling with their kid’s sexuality that they shouldn’t have this struggle — that they should be fully accepting. There is this kind of punitive element to cancel culture, and this is not helpful.

What should we do instead?

Andrew: It’s important to ask parents why they might feel a certain way and try to talk through these feelings with them. You need to acknowledge their experience, to try and understand why they might be feeling this way and understand the difficulties these parents might be experiencing. And this is particularly true for parents from religious families, as those onerous new laws in Florida and Texas illustrate.

We’ve made so much progress over the past decades, but then we have Florida and Texas passing these draconian laws targeting queer kids.

Andrew: So much of what we’ve accomplished over the past 20 years is not truly solid and stable. We may feel like we are done with the struggle, but that is very much not true.

But there has been progress. Is there reason to hope?

Andrew: Absolutely. There is tremendous movement forward. There’s the ban on conversion therapy. There’s gay marriage here and around the world. And most importantly, the ability to have families and children and for those children to be fully accepted rather than facing ignorance or prejudice.

What can families who live in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation or a lack of legal protections do to support their kids?

Andrew: We will need to reassure them that there are parts of the country where they will be welcome, to explain how far LGBT rights have progressed, to affirm to them that they are loved and lovable, and to work to bring around conservative legislators and judges to an awareness of the full humanity of the people they disadvantage.

It’s easy to legislate against a group of people in the abstract and hard to face up to the individual human cost of doing so. So we have to bring up the next generation of activists who will fight for rights that I believe can be attained. But we also need to carve out safe spaces for them as they grow up, even if the safe space is only their own homes and their immediate families. We need to talk to teachers and try to create safety at schools. And we need to remind those who are striving for recognition that while the arc of the moral universe is long, to quote Dr. King, it bends toward justice.

Andrew Solomon and family
(r to l) Breakfast of family value champions: Andrew Solomon and John Habich Solomon with their son, George. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

We spoke a lot about listening to kids and being aware of their cues. How do you practice this at home, raising your kids?

Andrew: We have tried to make our home a place of acceptance and love. All parenting involves instructing our children; like many parents, we push them to do their homework, clean up their rooms, or be good, moral people. So it’s not just accepting everything. But if they need to act in particular ways otherwise to form their own sense of identity, we try to support that. We would like them to be their full selves all the time, not to imagine that they need to disguise themselves to be embraced by us. The quest is for openness and authenticity.  

“We have tried to make our home a place of acceptance and love. The quest is for openness and authenticity. ”
Author Andrew Solomon

You were incredibly accomplished at a young age. Did growing up closeted and struggling to come out to your parents contribute to your desire to write Far From the Tree and so many others?

Andrew: I was lucky in having a passion for writing that started early. But there is no question that my struggles as a gay kid and then a gay man contributed to my preoccupation with the world’s injustices and the quest to right them. If I hadn’t been gay, I’d have been someone else and possibly quite happy to be someone else — but I doubt I’d have engaged with questions of difference and acceptance in the way I did. That came out of my own experience of not having the acceptance I craved. The humbling experience of the closet, although it made and makes me angry, also contributed to my humanity. I am a lucky person. My parents struggled with my being gay, but I wasn’t thrown out of the house or driven to the brink of suicide. I had the leeway to be something other than what had been expected of me.

But that doesn’t mean any of it was easy. 

David Kaufman is a New York-based editor and writer who covers the intersections of politics, culture and pop culture. A former editor at the New York Post, The New York Times and Architectural Digest, Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his twin sons.