From the Editor: Our ‘community’ includes our families, too
May 16, 2012 | 12:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 1:17 pm)
It’s been almost 10 years since I told my family I’m gay. I was barely 17. It wasn’t planned – I’d been hoping to avoid it until college – but when the moment presented itself, the truth spilled out unstoppable.
For years I had been staying up until the early hours of the morning to use the family computer to chat with other gay teenagers online; at my suburban high school of 1,800 students, only one boy was “out” and I had no one else to talk to. My mom or dad would occasionally saunter down the creaky stairs in nightclothes, eyes half closed, to ask in tired, hoarse voices, why I was still up. I’d quickly close the chat windows.
My parents were concerned about my “secretiveness,” moved by horror stories and rumors about what lurks in remote corners of the Internet. They’d ask what I was doing there – I’d lie.
Finally, one day there was no excuse or explanation that wasn’t more damning than the simple truth. I’d completely unplugged the computer to stop my parents from seeing the screen, then had a heated confrontation with my dad about it. He stormed off; I was alone with my mother.
“You have no idea what I’m dealing with,” I told my mother at 2 a.m. that summer night on the family room sofa. By the end of the night, it was done – I’d told my mother everything. It was, by the way, my parents’ anniversary.
Perhaps someday coming out won’t have to be a “process.” For most of us it still is – beginning in our own minds in secret when we come to grips with the fact that the life the world expects for us would be a lie. Though LGBT people usually don’t know each other before they come out, accounts are remarkably similar: Most of us went through stages of silent conflict for years, and wind up ready to tell the whole world and our families at the same time.
Sometimes, our families are the last to know.
Yet our families must go through the same process of acceptance that we did, detailed in our May 16 cover story. They must reconcile their religious ideologies with a new and contradicting truth, must gradually accept that our sexual orientations or gender identities will not be changed, must slowly give up hopes and expectations they’d projected on us, must overcome their prejudices against LGBT people, and then, our families – siblings, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles – must decide how to they’ll resolve if and how to come out to friends, coworkers and the world about having a lesbian or gay daughter, grandson, niece, son.
I don’t believe it’s any easier for them to process than it is for us. Many of the shared experiences among LGBT people as a marginalized community are our families’ shared experiences too – and so our straight parents, siblings and children are, in no small way and if they choose to own it – members of the community through us.
At the time I am writing this, a bill for civil unions in Colorado was just killed by State House of Representatives leaders who, extraordinarily, shut down the legislative process completely to prevent a vote when the bill was expected to pass. Last year a similar bill was killed in a House committee after hours of public testimony – which my parents attended – in which proponents spoke mostly about how a civil union could support their families and children in a crisis, and opponents spoke mostly about their own religious ideologies.
My parents take it all more personally than I do. I’ve developed thick skin.
“Hateful group of people,” my dad – a lapsed Republican – recently wrote me in a text message after attending his neighborhood’s presidential caucus. Republican caucusgoers had fixated on the “threat” of same-sex marriages as they voted on party resolutions.
That kind of off hand comment is uncharacteristic for my dad, and I felt a pang of guilt that he’d suffered some grief from it all on account of me.
“Ha, we are familiar with them, don’t sweat it,” I replied. And it’s true; after a while it all goes in one ear, and out the other.
But oftentimes our families go through it all alone. Our relationships transform when we come out – our parents were caretakers and mentors teaching us about the world, and in an instant we’re leading them, telling them how it is, despite their resistance.
Barriers between us and our families emerge.
I came out to my parents ready to immediately start telling my teachers, peers and the whole world I was gay, to begin dating and dive into LGBT activism – and that’s what I did. My parents’ heads spun, and they were alone in all that. There was so much I was doing; I did not have time to hold their hands and help them take baby steps, or to slow my own journey. I was not OK with my future being “mourned.” I spoke in blunt, unemotional terms. I built a wall between us.
After years went by, the wall came down.
Some suggest the first words a parent speaks after a child comes out are extremely important – that you’ve done something wrong if they aren’t, “Congratulations! I’m so proud of everything you are.” I think that’s absurd; in what other context in life are you expected to hear something completely earthshattering and reply with a scripted line fit for a cheesy Hallmark special?
Parents: Your child has been through a process and knows it is, in fact, a process. If your attitude is that your first thought after hearing your child is gay is something you should stick to, you’re in trouble.
The important thing is that you keep an open mind – you’re now part of a community you might have thought very little about before – and that you are honest and brave enough to finally offer that acceptance and pride when it’s true.