Our author is gay and open-minded. His 18-year-old son repeatedly makes homophobic remarks, sympathizes with the AfD, praises Trump, and entertains other right-wing ideas. Is this a rebellion against his queer family?
By Tom Degendorf
From the early reading of Michael Ende’s “The NeverEnding Story,” one thing stands out in my memory: the famous Nothing that slowly threatens to devour all of Fantastica. It feels a bit like that when I’m with my son. Despite being 18, there seems to be a huge emptiness in him, a certain sadness. What makes him happy? What touches him? What does he enjoy besides sitting in front of the computer gaming? What interests him, and what does he aspire to do professionally? I don’t know. At the moment, there’s literally nothing to connect with. He doesn’t talk much, and when he does, there are occasionally right-wing remarks. Just what I needed.
I am gay, but it’s not a topic between us. He doesn’t live with me; he lives with his two moms, a lesbian couple. He sees me about once a week. He enjoys coming; it’s a bit like a vacation for him. We all live in Berlin, which is great. But could our unconventional family structure be the reason he seems so unhappy? He himself often says that he doesn’t want to live with two women anymore, expressing homophobic thoughts and making harsh statements (“Transgender people disgust me, and I hope that when the AfD finally comes to power, they’ll put an end to it”).
Is his behavior a need for separation?
Of course, it’s sad. As a queer family, one would have hoped and perhaps expected that their own child would become a liberal and open-minded person. But maybe my son’s behavior is normal, a natural need for separation? I call Peter Bergner from the expert network Family Lab. He is a family therapist and parent counselor in Schöneberg and, despite all the difficulties, advocates for maintaining contact with the child. And trying to talk with him: How do you feel about our way of life? How does it feel to grow up in this situation?
For me, it’s not easy because, as I mentioned, he doesn’t talk much, and I don’t want to constantly impose something on him. Truly meaningful conversations can only happen if they come from him, if he initiates them. Plus, there are things we’ve never really addressed, like my being gay. It just is, I think he senses it, but it doesn’t play a big role for him.
His homophobic tendencies are more directed against the lesbianism of his moms, whom he sees every day. He also doesn’t know that he was conceived through artificial insemination, not in a “natural” sexual act. It could be a shock for him. Or not?
Avoiding direct conversation will only make me worry more. But “adolescents hate it most when parents worry,” says Peter Bergner. So, talk it out. Give him space to express himself. Convey the feeling that he is seen, and how he feels is important. A friend of mine, who also knows my son well, is pretty convinced that he has depression and that medication would help. Peter Bergner explains that if there are indeed depressive symptoms, treatment may be necessary but generally advises caution with such attributions: “Your son is going through a transitional phase, asking himself, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be?’ This can lead to sadness or melancholy.” Forcing him to see a doctor for a diagnosis now could backfire: “Then your son might completely shut you out.”
Hold on for now, says the family therapist
Terms like “inclusion” and “take seriously” are important. But does that apply to his right-wing remarks, which – I am convinced – didn’t really arise from a process of reflection but are things he reads on the internet and repeats? “He wants to engage in the argument and also rejects it,” says Peter Bergner. That’s true because my son’s radical outbursts last only seconds, and a conversation about what was said is not even remotely possible afterward. The expert’s recommendation: React without agitating. Without having to win or lose an opinion. For now, endure it, don’t engage in the discussion. Convey the feeling that what he says is being taken in. “Most of the time, the volume of his right-wing ideas decreases on its own, as it was just a shell anyway.”
I confess that it’s challenging for me to restrain myself argumentatively when my son praises Donald Trump as “someone who takes charge” or claims, “Anyone who defaces the Brandenburg Gate should be in prison for life.” Am I guilty if I do nothing now? Will I have a Nazi sitting on the couch in ten years? I have to force myself not to give in to the initial impulse. Peter Bergner advises letting the son talk first and then figuring out together: “What do YOU actually think about this? Where are YOU in all of this?” And not as a trick (he’ll notice that), but as a genuinely offered relationship: I don’t just want to hear what you say but see who you are as a person behind it.
Tom Degendorf is a columnist for the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, in Berlin. This column was published first in Tagesspiegel
This was translated and adapted from German by Răzvan Ion.
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