Coming out to a parent may be the greatest risk a gay child will ever face. It may also be the most rewarding.
I’ve always believed that, at birth, an invisible bond of love between mother and infant replaces the umbilical cord and that the child depends on that love and support throughout life, just as the umbilical cord provided support and nourishment before birth.
I was raised in a strict and proper Southern home. I grew up thinking, as I was taught, that things were black or white, good or evil…male or female. I heard the word pregnant for the first time when I was in high school. Gay, lesbian, and homosexual were not in my vocabulary, nor did I have a clue as to their meaning, except to know that gay meant happy.
I was born in the late ’30s and grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. I met my first gay person in my late teens, worked with a gay person for the first time in my ’20s, established my first friendship with a gay person in my ’30s, and discovered I had given birth to one in my ’40s. More accurately, my intuition was confirmed in my ’40s.
The youngest of four, Kelly was a gorgeous baby, a charming child, a pretty young girl, and blossomed, as they say, into a beautiful woman…but she was different from her sisters. From the time she was five or six, she would sit in front of the television and root for her favorite team, dressed in her brother’s football helmet and pads.
She was different in other ways, too. She played harder than her friends, and she worked harder than anyone I knew.
It seemed as if she was trying to prove something–to herself and to everyone else–but she didn’t know what it was. Kelly had friends of both sexes and didn’t seem to prefer one over the other. When she began dating boys, I began to feel that maybe I had misinterpreted the “signs.”
After high school, she got a full-time job, moved into her own apartment, and began attending junior college. She made friends easily and got along well with her teachers, her fellow students, and everyone at work.
I had learned to recognize, after bringing four children to adulthood, those invisible red flags that wave when something is bothering one of them. There’s a look in their eyes, a slump to their shoulders, dragging feet, twisting hands, pulling on their hair–red flags. Sometimes it’s the opposite. They smile too big, laugh too loud, volunteer too easily–the tell-tale signs, red flags.
It was a warm summer afternoon and it was my day off. I had been working as a manager for a popular fast-food restaurant, and the pace there was frantic. My days off were laid back and I exerted very little effort, other than doing the laundry and throwing an easy meal in the crockpot. I wasn’t expecting any company, so I was surprised when the doorbell rang. Everyone I knew would have been at work. I opened the door and my youngest daughter stood just outside, smiling brightly–too brightly (red flag!)–holding two large cherry Cokes in her hands (red flag!). Kelly was more than just frugal; Kelly was a miser and never spent money unnecessarily, even for a Coke. She had just gotten out of class, she explained, and had taken the day off from work to study for finals and thought she’d stop by a few minutes before heading to her apartment to hit the books.
As I walked to the television to turn it off, Kelly sat down on the couch, crossed her legs and started wagging her foot back and forth. She has always had a habit of wiggling her foot when she sat. It isn’t necessarily a nervous habit. She does it watching television, talking on the phone, listening to the radio, studying–it’s just a thing she does. But today it was different. It did look nervous (red flag!).
I asked about school, friends, her apartment, her job. Every response was “fine, just fine.” Silence hung uncomfortably between questions.
“Mom,” she finally said shyly, staring at her drink, “I need to tell you something, but I’m not sure how to begin.” Her lips trembled and I could see her hand shaking. I suppose most mothers in this situation would automatically think their daughters were pregnant. Not I. I knew that my early intuition had been right, and I could see the stress of the situation working on her. I couldn’t stand seeing my baby girl in so much pain. I didn’t want to make a mistake, but I couldn’t let this
“Kelly, are you trying to tell me you’re gay?” I blurted.
Her head came up slowly, her eyes wide with shock. “How did you know?”
“I’ve suspected from the time you were very young,” I answered, “I don’t know how exactly. I just felt that it was a possibility.” I smiled and looked directly into her eyes. “Honey, are you sure or are you just disappointed in men right now?”
She giggled and shook her head. “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. I’ve known for a while, but I just didn’t know how you’d take it. I’ve met someone and I really like her, a lot. We’re thinking of moving in together and, well, she won’t be just a roommate. She’ll be a lot more than that.”
I started to say something, but she raised her hand and leaned forward. “A friend of ours told his parents last month that he was gay. I know them, Mom, and they are really nice people…but they couldn’t handle it. Ralph said his dad cried and his mother left the room. She didn’t come back and his dad wouldn’t talk to him. He left and he’s called them every day. They either hang up or won’t answer the phone. I was so scared when he told me. I couldn’t imagine having to go through that.” Tears were now running down Kelly’s cheeks. “He was always so close to them and now they act like they don’t even know him.”
I moved to the couch and took her in my arms. “Honey, I don’t fault you for being frightened, for worrying. We fear rejection from the day we are born, but you don’t ever have to worry about that from your family. Your sisters and brother may be shocked, they may need time to adjust, but they will never turn their backs
As it turned out, Dana, Kelly’s partner, had already told her parents, and they, too, had responded through their bond of love. They promised to help the girls find a place together and help them with the move. Later I met them, and she was right. They are wonderful parents and as kind and compassionate as she had said they were.
That was 12 years ago. It did take Kelly’s brother and sisters a little while to adjust to her coming out, but they recovered. The sibling bonds are as strong and accepting as they ever were. Kelly and Dana are still together and struggling with the same dilemmas that everyone struggles with–bills, space, and life.
These days, Gay is no longer a word that just means happy, it also describes my youngest daughter. I hope that my gay daughter is always happy being just who she is and was meant to be. No one can deny who they are anymore than they can deny the sunshine or the rain. I know it all sounds corny. Well, that’s the way mothers are.
This is Bobbie Shafer’s first article for OutSmart magazine.