By Carol Tanis
GRAND RAPIDS –
When Diane VanAlstyne’s son said he was gay she began looking for a LGBT support group for parents in Grand Rapids and was surprised to learn there wasn’t one. So she started one.
Allies Coming Together, or ACT for short, aims to help parents who have a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender child come to terms with her or his sexuality. “Our mission is to meet and support each other, along with our LGBT loved ones, and to educate ourselves, our community and advocate for a more inclusive world,” said VanAlstyne.
She said given society’s varied level of acceptance, parents may have feelings of anxiety about their gay or lesbian child’s future health and happiness. In addition, the sort of future parents expected for themselves and their children may be drastically changed when a child comes out.
“I think a lot parents have these feelings and by coming together in a support group such as ACT, I hope we can help alleviate our anxieties,” said VanAlstyne. “Or, if parents simply want information we can point them in the right direction and provide educational resources that can provide a better understanding of their child’s sexual orientation.”
She adopted her son, Tim, as an infant from Calcutta, India and she began to wonder about his sexual orientation when he was in high school. “He was really cute and the mothers of daughters in his class would say, ‘Oh, my daughter thinks your son is so cute.”‘ But Tim never seemed to be interested,” she said.
While in college Tim became engaged to a girl and VanAlstyne admits, as his mom, she was “thrilled.” But the couple broke up and today, knowing that her son is gay, she’s glad they didn’t get married. Now 27 years old, Tim has been out of college for four years and has a boyfriend. As a evangelical Christian, at one point in her past she would have wanted to get him “help,” for being gay but now she’s simply glad to see him happy and has come a long way in accepting Tim’s sexual orientation.
“One weekend Tim came home from Chicago and I brought the subject up. He said, ‘I’m gay and I know God loves me.’ I gave him a big hug. I must have suspected he was gay because I remember telling him I would love him even if he was gay. That didn’t matter to me I would always love him no matter what. But at that time for me, that meant if you’re gay we can get you help.”
Like VanAlstyne, when Rachelle Hufnagal found out that her son was gay, she looked for a local LGBT support group in Grand Rapids for parents and was surprised to learn there wasn’t one. She met VanAlstyne at a Holland Lakeshore PFLAG meeting in 2011, and today, together they are trying to spread the news about ACT.
“We’d like to get the word out to families that ACT exists and that there is a safe place to go to talk with other people who know how you feel,” said Hufnagel. “When I was searching for an LGBT support group I felt very alone. Our extended families are great, but unless you’re in the same position as a parent of a gay child, they don’t quite understand.”
Hufnagel said since Ryan came out to them he’s been like a new person with a growing pride and dignity about his sexual orientation. “He attends a teen LGBT support group meeting held at the LGBT Network in Grand Rapids and last year he started a Gay Straight Alliance at Grandville High School where he is a student. I’d like to see more parents attending ACT meetings which would in turn start more growth in the teen group held at the Network I’m proactive in finding ways for him to meet other kids like him.”
ACT support group meetings are held the third Tuesday of the month at the LGBT Network, located at 343 Atlas in Grand Rapids. Executive director of The Network, Pat Ward, said there is definitely a need to have a support group in Grand Rapids for parents and friends of LGBT folk.
“We often get calls from people wondering if there is a local group where the parents and friends of the LGBT community can meet and support one another,” said Ward. “We are excited about hosting ACT. The socializing is good and the cookies are always great!”
For more information about ACT-Allies Coming Together, call the The Network at 616-458-4294 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org