I had this sense that we were all in it together: Me (the product of a purposeful one night stand by an out lesbian), my A.I.-produced younger brother, and all the kids whose parents came out when they were 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, whatever.
It didn’t matter how we got there. It was Us against the Fundies, I thought. Family vs. Family Values. Maybe I had some sense that the older you are when your gay parent comes out the harder it is likely to be for you. I will admit to that. But it was only recently that I saw the clear illustration of the difference between children whose parents were out vs. those who are closeted. The longer one waits, the worse it is. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Because, if we as a society are really working in the interest of the children involved there is plenty of evidence to support being proud and happy,and children whose parents hide their identity for years end up feeling betrayed and disappointed.
Cut to me being on this listserve for adult children of gay parents, sponsored by a favorite non-profit of mine, COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everwhere). So far, I’d kept a place on the sidelines of the virtual exchange. It seemed to function primarily as a vehicle for giving and receiving support, a place to seek advice and safely vent while finding common ground. Since, even there, my situation was unique, I’d kept quiet. I’m 30 and was raised by a group of lesbians in San Francisco. My parents were all out before I was born and I’ve been blessed to have as mothers four of the most amazing women on earth. Consequently, I had never dealt with my parents coming out or any of the turmoil that comes with it.
When I finally felt the need to chime in, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t come off like I was bragging, as though to say, well, my family’s so much better… but to address some of what I’d been hearing in the stories being shared. There seemed to be a common narrative of angst over the destruction that their parent’s coming out wrought on their “normal” family. I get that- though I have no experience as such, I can see how having your reality turned upside down would be a frightening and disappointing experience. In particular, one woman’s version of events — in which multiple disclosures from her father revealed a positive HIV status and a very unhealthy lifestyle as well as a new orientation — must have been hard to accept.
Still, I wanted to put out there that these are the dividends of shame and secrecy and ultimately we need to blame our bigoted society, not our parents. If it were not for a culture that is so homophobic that people feel the need to create whole lives to hide their true identities, they’d not be put in these situations. People who repress their real nature for years often have serious issues like addiction, and internalized homophobia -which you’d expect must be a factor in staying closeted for that long and probably complicates their sense of self worth. I know many people have succumbed to self-destructive behavior for similar reasons. I hoped these adult children might find a measure of compassion for parents by looking at it through this lens.
So I wrote a letter to the listserve saying as much. To the lady who had complained that her relationship with her dad had changed for the worse. I basically said: Can we hold them accountable for their behavior- expect them not to be assholes or abandon relationships/parental duties? Of course! To the person whose dad was dating someone her age, I rhetorically suggested, is it generally embarrassing when parents date radically younger people? Definitely! Just as much for the kid whose newly divorced dad shows up with a bright red Porsche and a college coed in the passenger seat. But also added that it could partly be that the years when he might have otherwise enjoyed the company of hot young beefcake, more appropriately perhaps (although it is partially ageism that leads us to feel this way), he was full of guilt, shame, and fear, and was keeping his identity a secret. Now he might just be trying to make up for lost time, make up for all the years when he had to pretend to be someone else. The same way people who are denied a childhood for some reason often try to make up for it as adults, with occasionally bizarre and inappropriate results.
Imagine denying who you are for decades at a time –I challenged my peers. I am by no means saying anyone doesn’t have a right to their feelings, including anger, but I caution placing blame on the heads of those who have been victims of cultural oppression. If you are angry that they were dishonest, think about why they felt the need to keep it a secret. What was at stake for them? Their jobs, friends, standing in the community? Your love, potentially? It is hugely scary to come out, especially that late in life when the chance to build an alternative life might have passed them by, how unhappy must they have been, for years, to make them brave enough to do so now?
In my life shame and secrecy have played no part and I have huge gratitude for that. When we give up our secrets and hatred as a society no other children will be put in the position they have been. This is my wish for the future that people won’t have to hide their true selves and consequently won’t have to betray those closest to them when they can no longer repress themselves. But to fight against our homophobic culture we must start by forgiving those who have been victims of it. Getting perspective and cultivating compassion is a first step.
What I was trying to say was- If y’all can accept your gay parents and create a new, more inclusive “normal”, that will be part of building a more just world. One where your situations will not repeat themselves.
I felt like they should know.