With a mother's intuition Rhea Murray suspected her 13-year-old son was gay. Still, hearing the actual words from his mouth rattled the rural Indiana homemaker. She went to church, asked God to change her son, and was met with bone-crushing silence. Her faith in religion was shaken.
Many agonizing days later she he passed a mirror. Shocked by her haggard reflection, she realized her fervent prayers were misguided. "The reason I was in such pain was that I was putting my own negative image of gays on my child instead of putting the face of my beloved child on gays," she explains five years later. "From that moment on I never shed another tear. It was an `aha!' moment of the soul."
When Jeff Carstens's college-age daughter came out to him and his wife, Dale, they cried all night. "We were in pain," he admits. "In the twinkling of an eye, we went from a white middle-class couple who had been fully accepted by society to being scorned by a segment of it. We worried about Ginny getting fired, gay-bashed, or losing housing and about us not having grandchildren. All of a sudden we owned those problems."
Dale immediately joined a support group; for months Jeff resisted. "I didn't want to sit and whine, listening to a bunch of people blame themselves or me for raising our kids wrong," he recalls. Finally he began reading and discovered "what I should have known on day one: There is nothing wrong, weird, or dysfunctional about being gay."
Diana McCabe's first thought when her son, Paul, came out as bisexual was of furtive sex with anonymous men. She hailed a taxi and burst into sobs. "The driver must have thought there was a death in the family--which I felt there was," she says. "I had the exact same reaction as most parents: terror of AIDS, fear of an existence I hadn't known about, questions of whether I contributed to this, selfishness about not having grandchildren. I felt like my child was an alien." Eight years later the power and scope of her feelings still surprises Diana, because she herself is a lesbian.
Parents are often stunned when a child comes out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Even mothers and fathers who guessed the news for years or prided themselves on being open-minded display classic emotions: anger, worry, denial, shame. But if the immediate reactions are similar, the ensuing weeks, months, and years are not. Each person's journey to understanding, acceptance, and even celebration of a gay child is unique. Some parents spend a lifetime hobbling just a few steps; others race along, gaining momentum as they go. All are united, however, by the fact that one day their lives are irrevocably changed when the child they thought they knew says, "Mom, Dad ... I'm gay."
But for every Rhea Murray, Jeff Carstens, or Diana McCabe, there is a mother who publishes a legal notice in the newspaper declaring her very alive gay son dead or a father who gives his daughter 15 minutes to get out of the house for good. "This is as profound a piece of news, other than terminal illness, as can hit a family," says Carla Hansen, associate dean of student life and of the graduate school at Brown University. Even a self-described "bleeding-heart liberal" like therapist Belinda Phillips can be devastated. When her daughter, Tania, came out at 17 several Years ago, Phillips wrote her a "horrific" letter frantically saying it could not be true.
The reasons, she realizes now, had nothing to do with Tania and everything to do with her own self-esteem. "If I accepted having a lesbian daughter, what did that say about me as a mother?" she asks. "As parents we are in the important business of ordering Our society, with rituals like marriage. If a parent falters in that major task, how can we feel like any kind of success?"
And despite the presence of organizations like Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, with chapters in over 400 communities nationwide, hearing that a child is gay is no easier now than it ever was. "Most parents still have a hell of a time with it," asserts former PFLAG president Paulette Goodman, whose child came out in the early 1980s. "Besides the shock, guilt, and shame, they worry about what their family and friends will think of them and their child. Those feelings are still strong, even with all the support available." The revelation seldom comes out of the blue. The Carstenses' daughter could not keep boyfriends; she returned from a high school semester abroad wearing black clodhoppers, her blond hair cut short. When she went off to Bryn Mawr College, the Carstenses' friends warned, "There are a lot of gay students there."
Linda Lerner was struck at the attentiveness that her son, a Yale University student, showed a male friend. For years his cryptic comments like "You don't really know me" made her wonder, but she never asked. "Looking back, I wonder why I didn't, but I guess there was this doubt: What if he isn't and he thinks I think... I was 97% sure, but with your child it has to be 100." His interaction with his friend confirmed Linda's suspicions, and her heart nearly stopped. "I was upset for what I was losing," she says. "Honestly, I didn't focus too much on what Michael was going through. "
Murray's suspicions deepened when her son sank into an early-adolescent depression. "I never had exposure to gay people, but with a mother's intuition the question popped up from time to time," she remembers. "Because of my ignorance I repressed the thought. But when I saw how much he was hurting, my love for my son replaced my fear for myself." She dipped a newspaper article about a gay youth support group in Indianapolis, an hour north, and told him to someday pass it on "to someone who needs it."
Bruce turned white--and two days later came out to his parents. For weeks, he said, he had agonized over two horrible options: tell his parents he was gay and suffer what he thought would be their "crushing disappointment" or kill himself.
In the 1990s gays and lesbians are coming out at a younger age than ever. "Times are changing," says Sheri Dorfsman, a social worker from West Hartford, Conn., whose son, Dan, came out two years ago, while in seventh grade. "With so much positive media, this generation of parents knows more about homosexuality than previous ones.
Dorfsman never asked her young son if he thought it was a phase. "He explained to me so clearly that he was attracted to guys that there was no question in my mind." She applauds the trend of youngsters' coming out while still at home. "Now you know who your kid is, and you can deal with it," she says. "You know they're not just going through the usual adolescent stuff."
Of course, many still wait until leaving home to come out. That's when Hansen, the Brown University dean, sees them. "The conversation usually begins with a student saying, `I just came out, and my mom is crushed,'" she says. "Dads usually grieve privately. So I call, and their questions are so clicheish, except they're real and poignant. They want to know how their child is sure, even if he or she hasn't had any sexual experiences; they don't understand that homosexuality is more than sex. They wonder what they did wrong. They cling to so many stereotypes."
Hansen says "horrific reactions"--including physical illness, vomiting, and rage--are impossible to sustain for long. But the lingering thoughts that replace them are equally disturbing because of their elusiveness and unanswerability. "We have this pervasive notion that good parents will have successful children who get well-paying jobs, do exciting things, and marry someone we like, and anything else is a negative reflection of the parents," she says. "Well, `All I want is for my child to be happy' is a tremendous burden. The main concern should be, `How do I welcome this new version of my child back into my life?' Parents of gay people need to realize that their child has led a different life than they knew, one of silence and fabrications. A parent should say, `I want to learn more than you think I've been able to take in.'"
Murray agrees. "For many parents, questioning one thing in life has a domino effect, because suddenly you have to rethink lots of others," she says. "I don't have as many answers as I did before, but at least now my answers are my own. The real problem comes when parents are so afraid of the answers they might get, they won't even ask questions."
Her initial fears arose from what she calls "my limited upbringing in a June Cleaver world." Lacking positive images of gays, she could not imagine a future for Bruce. As she tentatively ventured into the gay world--asking questions, reading, joining PFLAG--her horizons broadened. Today, she not only feels that Bruce's gayness is a blessing but revels in what it has done for her own life. "I had to grow," she says. "Now my world is rich with diversity. I travel coast to coast for PFLAG and see and learn things I never would have in my small town."
Paul Thompson's mother led an even more sheltered life. Before her death in July at age 84, she was the kind of woman, he says, "who thinks oral sex, gay or straight, is disgusting. To explain homosexuality to her, you first have to explain sexuality."
Explain it he--and his lesbian sister--did. Louise Thompson accepted both without qualm. "My sister and I didn't do a lot of hand-wringing over being gay, so I don't think my mother did either," says Thompson, cochairman of the Oklahoma Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "It took a long time for her to get it, but we were her children, and she loved us."
Carl Thompson had a more difficult time accepting his siblings' homosexuality--and his mother's acceptance of it. "A lot of lost people feel compassion for those who are suffering, Which my brother is--he's a sinner who needs to repent and be saved," says Thompson, senior vice president and head of operations for AmeriVision-Lifeline, an Oklahoma City-based long-distance telephone service with strong ties to the religious right. "I cannot associate with people who are sinners against God. My God comes before my family."
McCabe's background also left her ill-prepared to accept her son's homosexuality. She worked on Wall Street"--about as homophobic as any place gets"--and did not come out as a lesbian until middle age. She had few gay friends, and the men she knew were dying of AIDS. She worried not only about a life she thought could kill her son but feared that she had made him gay by rejecting men, which she thought had caused him to reject his own masculinity.
Self blame looms large for many parents. Even mental health professionals are not immune. "I told my husband I'd be blamed for this," recalls Gilda Frantz, a Jungian analyst from Santa Monica, Calif., whose son, Carl, came out more than 20 years ago. "I've worked with many women who have problems with their children, and no matter what it is--deafness, cancer, emotional problems--they blame themselves because they carried their child in the womb. Mothers must learn not to identify with nature so much."
Ellie Binder of Baltimore wondered briefly about a genetic role in her son Erik's homosexuality. "I passed on lots of genes, including ones for allergies and eczema," she says. "I couldn't help that, and I certainly didn't do it on purpose. I didn't think I could pass a gay gene on, if such a thing exists, but still I felt guilty about possibly doing something wrong. "
McCabe has moved beyond self-blame. "I think we're all products of our genetic makeup and home life--Paul is a product of a marriage that failed, a father who couldn't communicate, and a lesbian--but I no longer blame myself," she says. "In fact, I'm so impressed by him. Our relationship has changed and grown, and I'm proud I had a part in that."
One man who is absolutely convinced that homosexuality is biologically determined--and refuses to let the issue bother him--is Carstens, a retired engineer from South Glastonbury, Conn. He and his wife, Dale, had two daughters and a son; the boy drowned at age 4, and when Virginia was born several years later, the parents showered her with love. "We were conscious every day how lucky we were to have her, just happy she was alive," he says. "Our older children were not as easy to raise. If one of them had turned out gay, we might have wondered what we'd done, but that was never the case with Ginny. The phase of `Did we do something wrong?' lasted maybe ten minutes. "
Still, it took years before he spoke publicly about his daughter's homosexuality. He considered it a private matter and worried how the revelation would affect friends and colleagues. The catalyst was dinner with an old college roommate. After listening to several antigay cracks from a man he admired, Carstens finally had had enough. "I think you should know that Virginia is a lesbian," he said quietly. His friend was silent. The waiter appeared, as if on cue. "I'll start with the shoe leather," Carstens's friend said. Carstens never hesitated telling anyone again.
"For most parents, the journey to acceptance takes five to ten years," says Hansen. "They cycle around it: They get easier with it, then they see or hear something that sets them back." She adds that she is amazed by the strong bond between parent and child: "For some parents, it is so profound, they'll go to lengths they never thought possible to support their gay child. For others, whose self-esteem is based on having a particular type of child, that bond is stretched almost to the breaking point." Hansen's experience is that the supportive parents predominate.
Parents demonstrate their acceptance--or at least understanding-of their lesbian and gay children in a variety of ways. Linda Lerner, a Pinellas County, Fla., school board member, "came out" as a parent of a gay son this spring in the St. Petersburg Times and now educates her colleagues about homosexuality. As a PFLAG representative to the President's Summit for America's Future last April in Philadelphia, Binder raised gay and lesbian issues at every session. Murray formed a PFLAG chapter in her tiny town of Seymour, Ind.
Sometimes the smallest steps are the most telling. Vicky Romero of Fremont, Calif., does not understand her son Ruben's homosexuality--"It's not something I like or believe in," she says candidly--but she accepts it because she raised him to tell the truth. "Deep down inside I hope he might change and find a nice female to settle down with," she says. "I've heard people can change to not being gay. He's a good person. I know he'll do the right thing.
"She can think that all she wants! laughs Ruben. "That's something all mothers always have in the back of their minds. "
Vicky Romero's actions are more Powerful than her words. She recently toured San Francisco's Castro district with Ruben to learn more about homosexuality and welcomes his dates into her home. "He tells me some parents reject gay people or kick them out and that some of them even commit suicide," she says. "I think that's sad. They're your children!"
And that, ultimately, is what being the parent of a gay child is all about. Soon after Murray's son came out, she and Bruce attended their mainline Christian church. "He had always hugged all the elderly people; everyone loved him," she says, her voice rising indignantly. "That Sunday no one spoke to him. The choir leader never acknowledged his presence but asked if I was OK Bruce asked me if that look of pity was for him." She left her church that day and has never returned. "I just could not let fear--my own and the fears of others--overpower the love I have for my child," she explains simply. "I don't know how anyone could."
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|Title Annotation:||gays whose parents support them|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Oct 28, 1997|
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