In August of 1997, nine months ago now, I told my parents I am gay. For many queer people this step is the final step in accepting their sexuality and perhaps the most difficult. We have a powerful connection to our parents whether or not we like them and get along with them. Most of our parents are straight. They have lived most of their lives in a world where being anything other than completely straight was unacceptable to the point that the possibility of differing sexuality could not be politely discussed. The combination of parents' connection to us and the likelihood of their unfavorable reaction to our sexuality conspires to make telling them about it a most daunting task.
It's almost daunting enough to wonder why bother telling them at all. You might as well ask why bother accepting your sexual identity. To me the two are actually the same. You haven't finished accepting who you are until you can share your identity with your parents. It takes a great deal of motivation to do these things successfully. I explained in previous months why I eventually had to accept my same sex orientation. In this month's column I will detail why and how I was able to complete that process by telling my parents about it.
My parents still live in the house I grew up in, about three miles from the apartment I call home now. Despite their proximity in the years before I began to openly accept my orientation, I didn't see much of them. I was depressed and lonely and could only muster up the energy and patience to deal with them once every week or two. After I came out, I felt better personally, but there was little in my life that they could relate to or that I could discuss without some aspect of my orientation becoming known to them. There was an ever enlarging gulf between my parents and I. They could feel it and it saddened them, but they never had the chance to know what it was that kept us apart. Although there are things my parents and I have always disagreed about I've never borne them ill will. I love my parents for who they are and because I'd never given them the chance to do the same for me we were drifting apart.
There was another reason for needing to tell my parents about my sexual orientation beyond hoping to mend our strained relationship. I flatly refused to play the game of 'who knows and doesn't. That's even more stressful than being completely closeted. With the exception of the first few times I told anyone (and of course of my parents) I didn't make a 'coming out' speech any more. I simply lived my life the way I saw fit and my friends and acquaintances (and sometimes complete strangers!) drew their own conclusions. I didn't feel the need to explain being left handed (also at one time considered a sin and evil by Christians) and by the same token I didn't feel the need to explain being gay. I simply assumed everyone knew and nobody cared. (This is still how I treat being gay. It's no big deal and creates no sense of obligation in me.) But as more and more people became aware of my orientation it would only be a matter of time before my parents heard something. I felt they deserved to hear the truth from me first.
Unfortunately, growing up from childhood hearing people say how sick and evil it is to be gay -- and knowing that these people were talking about me -- I didn't hold myself in high regard as I achieved adulthood. It took three years of slowly coming out and finding that my life would go on as normal before I started to gain some self confidence. Even then, I was amazed when I met a boyfriend who actually loved me for who I was. Learning that someone who I cared for loved me precisely because I was gay gave me the supreme confidence in myself I needed before I could utter the words "I'm gay" in front of my parents. It took this kind of courage and sense of self worth because we have an instinctive need for approval from our parents, and I knew that this was something they would most emphatically not approve of. I later discovered that self confidence was even more important in getting through the difficult days afterward.
Of course, the day I decided it was time to tell my parents, I didn't just zoom right over there and blurt it out. I needed to some preparation work first. I went to the library and found a few books on 'Coming Out to Parents'. It turns out there are a lot of them. The best and most useful I found was written by Mary Bhorik and was titled exactly by subject -- "Coming Out to Parents". By reading I was able to learn a lot about the psychology and dynamics of what my parents would face when they found out about me. It gave me a great advantage because I could prepare for many of the reactions and questions they might have. I read and studied the subject for almost a year. Not just because there was a lot to learn, but I needed to wait until the time was right for my parents. I didn't want to dump a great burden on them while they were going through stress of adding on to their house and while my grandparents were sick. Nor did I want to tell them just before Christmas when it would cast a pall over the holidays. During the year I even had two false starts, when I went over intending to tell them but was thwarted when they invited over other guests without telling me in advance. Getting all psyched up and then not getting to complete your goal is quite a draining experience I can assure you!
One evening last August they invited me for dinner. I knew that it wouldn't be long and we'd be approaching the holiday season again so I'd better get this done. I drove to their house ready for a long evening. I had several books about homosexuality and homophobia waiting in my car to give to them. I even made sure my boyfriend was waiting for me back at my apartment to support me whatever the outcome when it was all over. My Mom decided we should go out to dinner. That blew my timetable for the night because I wasn't about to give them this news in a public place. No, I needed to do this in private, at home where they'd feel less threatened. I could barely listen to their dinner conversation, I was unable to concentrate on anything because I knew what was ahead of me.
When finally we got back home I arranged for us to sit in the living room to talk. My heart was pounding so hard it felt like I'd just run up a mountain! It took me another 15 minutes to find the courage to steer the conversation toward my topic. My Mom was starting to yawn and I knew it was now, or wait another year for the time to be right again. I had to do it. Cautiously, I brought up the fact that I didn't see much of them and asked if they'd noticed or wondered why. They had noticed and did wonder. I calmly (on the outside) told them that there was a reason and I didn't want us to continue to drift apart, but if we were ever to be a close family again they needed to know that I was gay. (ARRRRRGGGG! I'VE SAID IT! I CANT TAKE IT BACK! MY SECRET IS EXPOSED!) They were quiet for a few seconds. The moment didn't even feel real. I could see tears start to well in my Mom's eyes. It felt like I wasn't really there, like I was watching a movie of this all unfolding.
In a low voice, my Mom asked "how long have you known?"
"I've always been aware of it, I guess. I knew the word to describe how I am by the sixth grade", I said.
"I don't believe you."
I was flattened. Astonishment pummeled my mind. She doesn't believe me?! What do you mean she doesn't believe me?! She was the one who took me aside to say she'd always love her sons even if they were gay. She's the one who discretely never asked about why I'd never dated girls. I was half expecting her to say "I know" and instead I get this?
I calmed myself down again and started to explain myself. I was so glad I had prepared and done lots of reading because I couldn't have come up with good answers on the fly. I knew there'd be only one chance at getting this right and my parents deserved my best shot at.
Of course they suffered greatly from homophobia. The 'I don't believe you' response was simple denial. In the face of what my Mom believed to be impossibly horrific news her brain simply refused to accept the attack on her sensibilities. My first step was to softly assure them both that I wasn't bringing them this news to hurt them or spite them for something they'd done. I was telling them because I wanted to bring them closer, not to push them away. By couching the news in a message of love, like a trojan horse, I could get them quickly past the initial denial and onto discussing their worries for me.
There fears and worries matched so precisely what I'd studied it was almost shocking to me. Suddenly, I no longer felt scared. Now I was in complete control, anticipating their every response and question, always ready with the best answer or counter, gently leading them into the light of truth without their knowledge of my leadership. One moment they were worried I'd die old and alone, the next they we're convinced I was sure to contract HIV and be dead long before I reached middle age. The mutual exclusivity of the two simultaneously held beliefs reassured me that their reactions were purely irrational even if they didn't see it that way. It was painful to hear my Mom say that I was 'unnatural' and that homosexuality was a 'sin'. But the pain only came because my Mom was saying it. I knew these things weren't true. I had to reverse roles with my parents and help them replace old misconceptions with difficult new ideas. They wanted to blame themselves for this great family tragedy, claiming it was all their fault. I tried to explain that it wasn't their fault, that in fact there wasn't a fault at all. I couldn't quite get them to accept that I was gay and that there was nothing wrong with me at the same time.
Several hours later I knew I could accomplish no more that night. My parents needed some rest. I had deliberately chosen to talk to them on a Friday night so they'd have the weekend to recover on their own terms before having to go back to work on Monday. I offered them the books I had brought but they refused them as if they were some kind of Nazi propaganda. I suppose in a way the books were propaganda to them. My purpose with them was to dissolve deeply held beliefs and replace them with dangerous new ideas. With their strong rejection of the helpful texts ("I don't want your damn books!") especially one written by a nice old lady, I knew I was going to have a tough time with them. They hadn't rejected me outright, that was good. I left them with tearful hugs and 'I love yous' which are not common in my reserved family. I had made the best start I possibly could have, but I will always remember the last sound I heard as I walked up the drive was that of someone wretching.
It's been nine months since all that happened. My Mom called a few times to go 'round about the same issues for a few weeks. The calls were emotional and not much fun. I had to keep in mind I was doing it for them, but it became a great deal of work. Since before Christmas the topic of my homosexuality hasn't come up at all. They've yet to express any interest in learning more. This worries me because knowledge is the only thing that is going to get them past their irrational fear and hate. Its up to them now.
I've done everything I can for them. We still enjoy the same shallow relationship we had when I was closeted. We never fight and are always polite. But our relationship has little depth beyond blood. I hope this situation improves one day, and I have every reason to believe it will. Everything I've read indicates it takes some parents two or three years to come to terms with their child's homosexuality, so they've got a while to go yet. Of course a few parents never do. I'm lucky to have the passing relationship I have with my family. But it sure would be nice if my effort to bring us together would really pay off one day.
As always I welcome your remarks and questions. My e mail address is email@example.com or point your web browser to http://www.mbay.net/~bourke
Keep those cards and letters coming folks!