DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW?
Mother may be the most widely recognized word on earth. It's the first one most of us ever utter. And the women who give us life are often the people who know us best, who love us no matter what, and on whom we can rely to protect us from harm. But for the mothers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered kids, motherhood takes on a new sense of urgency. The obstacles their children face prompt many to become outspoken advocates for their kid's rights or to fight the threat of hate-filled crimes against them.
When Fox Searchlight's production of The Deep End opens in theaters nationwide this month, moviegoers will watch the character of Margaret Hall embody the spirit of countless real-life mothers. Margaret dives headfirst into danger, without regard for morality or the law, in her attempts to protect her gay son. In the thrilling fictional tale, she demonstrates the lengths to which mothers will go to ensure their children's safety and their futures. But she's hardly alone.
In small towns and big cities across the country, mothers are fighting bigotry and educating locals, losing friends and seeking new churches, cleaning the wounds their children receive in school beatings and suing their school districts for not protecting them. They are fierce moms, and they take no prisoners.
Ask a few of these mothers why they jumped into the fray (usually long before their husbands), and their answers range from the selfless to the spiritual. But the common refrain is that the more they learn about their children's sexual orientation and everything their children's lives entail, the more they realize how important it is that they actively defend their children and fight for their rights.
Probably no mother exemplifies this better than Judy Shepard, who has become synonymous with the hate-crimes legislation she has championed since her son Matthew was murdered in 1998. Even so, Shepard says she was much less an advocate when she first learned her son was gay. "I had read that gay people were freaks of nature, and even the American Psychiatric Association [at one time] said homosexuality was [an illness]," she says. "But the more I learned and the more involved in the community I became ... the more I realized how much violence and job discrimination still existed. I had work to do, and I had a window of opportunity in which people would listen to me."
People are listening to Shepard and countless other mothers, whether they be Pauline Mitchell, who is just now coming to terms with the July murder of her transgendered son, Fred Martinez Jr. [see related story on page 24]; Patricia Kutteles, who is trying to force the Army to accept some responsibility for the 1999 murder of her son, Pfc. Barry Winchell; or Dorothy Hajdys-Holman, who has led an attack against the military's antigay policies ever since her son, Allen Schindler, was ambushed in 1992 by two of his USS Belleau Wood shipmates, one of whom beat him to death. "I don't want any mother to go through what I went through," Hajdys-Holman says. "I guess you can do a lot of things to me, but you can't mess with my kids."
In large testament to the work these women are doing, more and more mothers are becoming fervent activists--to ensure that their children don't meet fates similar to that of Shepard, Martinez, Winchell, and Schindler. For example, Carolyn Wagner led her family's charge to improve the climate in Fayetteville, Ark., for her gay son, William, and says her activism was never negotiable. "It's not because that's who I was; it's because that's what I had to be to be a mother," Wagner says. "When I decided to have children, it comes with certain responsibilities. And this is one of those responsibilities."
It's a sentiment echoed by celebrity mothers as well, including Betty DeGeneres. "For a mild-mannered person, I do change into a mother tiger when I feel the need to defend Ellen," she says in reference to her actress-comedian daughter. "Certainly Ellen is more vulnerable to attacks because she's a lesbian, but I'd be the same way about [my son] Vance if he were unfairly criticized. It's a mom thing."
Dave Gleason, president of the Dallas chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says some 90% of the calls he receives are from moms. And Cathy Renna, who travels widely in her work as news media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says that when these mothers choose to speak out, they captivate their audiences more than any shocking statistic or impassioned speech she could ever muster.
Gabi Clayton of Olympia, Wash., whose bisexual son, Bill, committed suicide in 1995, thinks she knows why. "Audiences that aren't open to my message may find me less threatening than a father giving the same message," she says. "And they hear me out because I'm a mom."
At the same time, many people have long held mothers responsible for their children's homosexuality. It's for that reason that mothers often become such ardent activists, according to Jack Drescher, MD, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues. "Mothers are relieved to join a movement that doesn't blame them," he says. "It is an enormous relief for moms, who have all heard cultural stereotypes that domineering mothers can make their children gay. In one way, by embracing the movement, they don't have to blame themselves."
That is, if they can let themselves off the hook. Tilda Swinton, the Scotland resident who plays Margaret Hall in The Deep End, says mothers take responsibility for whatever happens to their kids, good or bad.
"Any mother will tell you that the buck stops with you and on some visceral, primal level you are in the maker's chair--for everything, particularly those things that go awry," says Swinton, the mother of 3-year-old twins. "I can feel that primal urge, that if there's any shame to be had, you are so keen to take it on yourself, because you just want that child to remain clean in some way." It would follow that mothers who fear for the futures of their gay children would want to clear the way for their happy adulthood. Why not educate their communities, eradicate bigotry, and fend off homophobic assailants? And let's not forget joining in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which has plagued gay offspring for decades. It's all part of the job.
Most fierce moms say they are first and foremost protecting their young. But many say a sense of sisterhood motivates them to protect other mothers from the fear and pain they have faced. Rhea Murray of Seymour, Ind., began fighting for her gay son's right to live openly in their small Midwestern town without fear shortly after he came out 10 years ago. "There's this innate she-wolf energy that bubbled to the surface," Murray says, recalling the ostracism and threats she has endured along the way.
For mothers who don't embrace their gay children at first, guilt may also play a role. Valerie Kameya, 33, was 20 when she told her mother that she's gay. And the child of Asian parents remembers well her mother, Ellen Kameya, telling her that she was destroying her family's honor. So when her parents began speaking about gay issues to Asian families near their Los Angeles home, Valerie says, "I thought she was trying to overcompensate and speaking up for my approval."
Ellen Kameya says she ceased to be "one of those chair-warming ladies" when she realized she could make a difference. As she came to understand her daughter's hopes and dreams, she let go of some of her own for Valerie's life. As Ellen met gay kids on campuses, lesbians in lasting relationships, and same-sex couples with children, she found new hope. Only when her supportive mother asked if she'd considered artificial insemination did Valerie become uncomfortable. "To me," Valerie says, "sex and parents should be separate, period."
In between pride parades and PFLAG meetings, gay kids need room to explore their lives on their own, experts say. "We all have secrets, in a sense that we're all alone and we all need to be self-sufficient," Swinton says. In The Deep End, Margaret and her son, Beau (played by Jonathan Tucker), never discuss his homosexuality or what it means to either of them. "It's difficult for families to see their children as separate from them and to accept that they have not only a right to privacy but an inner life that demands it," Swinton says. "You cannot stop someone from having a soul. That's not so secret." So most moms who evolve into activists--like Ellen Kameya or even celebrity moms like Cher and Betty DeGeneres--take what their children share with them and run with it.
Tucker's Beau is particularly guarded about his erotic life. "His embarrassment has metamorphosized into anger," Tucker says of Beau's reaction to Margaret's delicate offer to listen if he ever wants to talk about his feelings. "The idea of privacy is very important for him. Whether you're gay or a heterosexual, that's definitely part of a teenager's life that they all struggle to share with their parents. Here's a kid who has been forced to share a part of himself he never would have--or not in this way." But what little his mother knows, she acts on at once. Without hesitation Margaret sets out to chase off Beau's older lover; she also covers up a crime she believes her son committed and frantically fends off blackmailers.
America's lasting economic traditions may best explain why moms so often join their sisters at arms. Fathers remain the primary breadwinners in many households, leaving mothers with more flexibility to assume their activist roles. That's true in the case of the Shepards; Matthew's father, Dennis Shepard, still works for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, while Judy speaks at colleges and universities all over the United States.
That's also true for Carolyn Wagner. Her son was 16 when classmates attacked him at school, putting him in the hospital. "That was my worst fear come true," Wagner says. The family later filed a complaint with the Department of Education against the Fayetteville school system--arguing it violated Title IX (the federal statute that prohibits sexual discrimination) by not adequately protecting William--and won explicit protections for gay and lesbian students. "In our case, my husband's passion is no less than my own, but the reality is, one of us has to work," Wagner says.
Collectively, today's fierce moms have altered the future of gay rights. As more and more mothers speak up, it seems that a new generation of dads is chiming in too. And leaders in the movement say that rather than sobbing over their "loss," parents now arrive at PFLAG meetings with their shirtsleeves rolled up, ready to fight.
When Gleason joined PFLAG in 1994 after learning that his son, Bobby, was HIV-positive, he was the lone father amid a roomful of mothers. "That's not the case anymore," he says. "I'm not the only dad anymore by a long shot."
Still, all revolutionaries know that sticking your neck out can be intimidating at best and downright dangerous at worst. After all, even fierce mothers of gay children have mothers themselves. Rhea Murray says her mom can't understand why she takes what she considers "unnecessary risks" for her gay son. Like other moms who have deliberately gone off the deep end, Murray says she has lost friends and received threats as a result of her activism.
"[My mom] just told me she had a nightmare that I was lying in a puddle of blood and that that makes me a bad daughter," Murray says. "Well, I told her there are worse things than dying--like not being able to look at myself in the mirror." The question is simple, and Murray's answer primal. Her son needs her, and she can't imagine not helping him.
RELATED ARTICLE: MOM'S THE WORD
TWO MOTHERS' UPBEAT NEW BOOK ON GAY RELATIONS
Laura Siegel and Nancy Lamkin Olson have read and heard more than their share of inspirational stories about parents coming to terms with their kids' homosexuality or transgenderism. "You'd be surprised how many books make having a child come out as gay analogous to dealing with a death," Oison says. "Well, it's nothing like death." Tired of what they call "gloom and doom" tales, the two moms--Siegel working in San Francisco and Olson in Chicago--decided three years ago to put out their own book. "We put out a call," Olson says as if she's joking, as if she's somewhat insecure about being a mother-turned-editor. The result, Out of the Closet, Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay/Lesbian Family Members from Leyland Publications, contains 51 essays from parents, grandparents, siblings, and children who celebrate relatives' sexual orientation or gender identity. "We see the day when stories like these will be the standard by which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people can be accepted and loved," Olson and Siegel write in their book's introduction. --Lisa Neff
RELATED ARTICLE: A BRIGHT NOIR
A BRIGHT NOIR
TILDA SWINTON SHINES IN HER MOM-AS-ACTION-HERO ROLE BY B. RUBY RICH
The Deep End is an updated film noir with an unexpected twist: sunlight. After bending noir into a send-up of race and racism in their debut film, Suture, Scott McGehee and David Siegel are back with an immensely satisfying rewrite of the noir genre that moves the action from the time-honored alleyways of the rain-slicked city to the domesticated suburbs of Lake Tahoe. This is noir, though, so we know full well that evil lurks beneath those smooth SUV surfaces.
McGehee and Siegel based their script on the Max Ophuls cult noir The Reckless Moment and its original source, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall (a 1947 novel pitched at middle-class moms facing postwar family responsibility, serialized in Ladies Home Journal, no less). But there's a twist. Where a wayward daughter was enough to energize a '40s mom, this time around it's the dark side of gay sex that gets her going.
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II) is a brilliant choice to reprise the Joan Bennett role as Margaret, the mother who'll do anything to protect her child. Here, though, the child is a high school senior bound for Wesleyan but meanwhile busy exploring his homo side in hot trysts with sleazy Reno club owner and chicken hawk Darby Reese (Josh Lucas). When Darby's corpse shows up on the family boat dock, Margaret is sure her son is the murderer. Soon, handsome blackmailer Goran Visnjic (ER) appears at the door with a video to die for, and it's pay-or-play time.
As the plotlines swirl and the characters settle in for the ride--the swim, in Swinton's case, as the film lives up to its title by dunking her repeatedly in Tahoe's icy waters--The Deep End plays with sly portents, echoes, and visual puns. A boat floats through the air, then materializes hitched to a trailer. A drop of water lingers on a faucet, reflecting its domestic sphere with apt distortion. This is a satisfyingly smart film.
In the end, what ensures our fixation on the screen is Tilda, Tilda, Tilda. Has she been pumping iron or what? Previously known for her glacial composure, here she's virtually an action hero as she rushes fiercely from bank officer to dead body to hunky blackmailer, determined to get her son into Wesleyan, save him from his own adolescent blunders, and for God's sake keep the cops away from that video of him taking it up the ass. I think it's about time that someone drafts her to play poster mom for PFLAG.
Rich is the author of Chick Flicks, from Duke University, Press.
The Deep End * Written, directed, and produced by Scott McGehee and David Siegel * Starring Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, and Jonathan Tucker * Fox Searchlight
Find more about many of these people and about The Deep End at www.advocate.com
Stefanakos is a former reporter for Newsweek magazine.
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|Title Annotation:||activism by moms of gays and lesbians sometimes is the most effective|
|Author:||STEFANAKOS, VICTORIA SCANLAN|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 28, 2001|
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