Family Style

Parents, in ways both simple and stunning, must come out too

Coming out is almost routine after you've been doing it for nearly a decade. I've come out to friends, family members, co-workers, doctors, salespeople, men who have hit on me, women who haven't, and anyone else who expresses even the slightest interest in my life. I've come out in nearly every medium except motion pictures.

It may be routine, but the coming-out process lasts a lifetime and can be emotionally draining. Yet I continue to take advantage of the almost daily opportunities for public sharing. I usually don't mind having to come out over and over, but there are days when I'd like to have the words "I'm a big dyke" tattooed on my forehead and be done with it.

No gay person comes out alone. And National Coming Out Day, which we observe Oct. 11, is the perfect opportunity to honor the folks who often come out with us when we take that big step: our parents.

Coming out to parents is the true test of familial bonds. Too many parents fail that test, and instead of seeing the child they loved and nurtured, they see nothing but their own fears, disappointments, and stereotypes. If we stay in the closet to protect our parents or ourselves, we end up living a life filled with silence or lies. Truth, openness, and unconditional love quickly vanish.

Coming out to our parents puts them in a position not unlike our own. They must choose whether to enter their own closet or come out as parents of a gay child. They must decide whether to tell friends and relatives and if so, when and how. They must make a decision every time a friend asks about their child's life, marital status, or happiness. And when they hear that ugly comment or bigoted joke, they must decide whether to speak up.

I am lucky enough to have two sets of parents: my father and stepmother, who live in a rural area outside a town of approximately 20,000 people, and my mother and stepfather, who live in a town of 800. None of them are what you would call knee-jerk liberals, nor are they hard-line conservatives. They're not activists or joiners; they're not involved in PFLAG. Ten years ago, their knowledge of gay people was probably limited to hairdresser and gym-teacher stereotypes. They're solid Midwesterners who love their kids, and after a rocky childhood and an angst-filled adolescence I feel very close to them.

I came out to my mother in a park on a beautiful day in May. We both cried a little and then, in what can only be described as a surreal moment, we were surrounded by some sort of Christian mime group. They wouldn't leave us alone so we finished our conversation at the local Dairy Queen. A few months later, while I was pondering the right time and place to come out to my father and stepmother, I was outed by my angry ex-husband. My father called me and said the words every gay person wants to hear: "You're my child and I love you."

I was one of the fortunate ones. My parents made real efforts to educate themselves, reading books I sent them and even, in one case, asking if lesbians practiced safe sex. If you think coming out to your mother is hard, try explaining dental dams.

When I talked to my mother, Carol, and my stepmother, Rita, recently about coming out experiences, both mine and theirs, I was impressed by their matter-of-fact attitudes. Both told me they weren't surprised at the news of my orientation. I suppose that makes sense: When you tell your parents you're marching as a "supporter" in a gay Pride parade for the third year in a row, they're bound to be a little suspicious.

Just as many gay people shrink from coming out to their parents for fear of losing their love, my parents refused to give in to any initial disapproval for fear of losing me. They even did their best to welcome my first girlfriend--a tough, outspoken, Bronx-bred lawyer--when we came to Illinois for a visit. I nervously downed rum-and-cokes in a restaurant while my parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt, and uncle made polite conversation with my girlfriend. Although they were ready to accept me as a lesbian, they were hardly thrilled by my choice of partners. They were right, of course. Gay or straight, your parents want you to marry well.

Now that I've settled down with a woman my parents love as much as I do, their coming out continues at a steady pace. Neither Carol nor Rita walks up to people and says, "Hi, my daughter's a lesbian," but they do talk to people about my partner and me just as they might speak about my siblings and their spouses. Carol keeps asking for a photograph of the two of us to display with her other family photos. The other day Rita told me being gay is "no big deal anymore." Wow. Would somebody please phone the Family Research Council?

 
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