Our Parents

By Woog, Dan | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), October 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

Our Parents


Woog, Dan, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Gay and lesbian children growing up in a homophobic world face challenges other kids don't. That's why loving parents are so important

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. …

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