From Fear to Speaking Out:
A Journey with a Gay Son
Joan G. Creager
On a spring Saturday in the mid-1970s, my husband John and I were home alone in a modest, brick colonial house in a Washington, D. C. suburb when one of our son Ed's closest friends came to break the news that 16-year-old Ed was gay. The friend could see that we were shocked; he didn't stay long.
I am the mother of a gay son, I said to myself. I couldn't believe it. I worried that if word got out, friends and maybe family would reject us. At the same time, I wanted to hug that son and say, "It's okay." But I didn't know how. For weeks we didn't talk about gayness, hoping, I guess, that if we ignored it, it would go away. It didn't. It sat at the dinner table with us. It came to bed with us and woke us up in the night. Somehow we simply had to address that ever-present, paralyzing ghost. We had to talk about homosexuality.
Talk we did one Sunday evening when Ed lingered in the living room. I don't recall how it came up, but he told us in his own words that he was gay. He explained that he had broken up with his girlfriend because of his fantasies about boys when he was with her; he thought that wasn't fair to her. He hadn't told us because he didn't want to hurt us, just as we hadn't asked-to keep from hurting him. Once the truth was out, we assured him that we loved and accepted him and always would. We had managed the hardest part-the first conversation. It ended with hugs all around.
That conversation set me thinking back to 1949 when I was sixteen and had never known anyone who was gay or lesbian-that is, I had never known anyone who openly declared it. Nobody I knew even mentioned homosexuality, but somehow I sensed that it was bad. Now I had to change my views to fit the kind of person I knew my son to be-a warm, loving, and lovable young man. I had not come to respect sexual orientation as an important part of each person's core.
Instead, I felt fear, fear that whispered words would undermine acceptance for all of us-my husband and me and our four kids. I worried that people might ostracize Ed in front of his peers. Gay bashers might injure him. I wanted to protect him, but I didn't know how. I felt helpless.
How could I have a gay son? The most accepted explanation was that domineering mothers caused their sons to be gay. Ouch! I had to admit that I was a confident person with a forceful personality. Was I domineering enough to make my son gay? If that was it, how come only one of my three boys was gay? I absolved myself of that guilt eventually, but mothers who accepted it must have carried a terrible burden.
I read about families who disowned gay and lesbian children, kicked them out of the house. While I felt a deep sadness for these children and their families, I took some much-needed solace from the fact that our family was maintaining a fragile lifeline of communication.
I found that The American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental illness and prescribed counseling and electroshock therapy. My gut feeling told me that couldn't be right, and my psychologist husband agreed.
I turned next to my own field, biology, for answers. Was a genetic factor involved? To consider that, I needed to know if any of my husband's or my relatives was gay or lesbian. But I lacked the courage to ask living family members, and I couldn't expect that people in earlier generations had spoken of homosexuality. Given the dark cloak of secrecy around the topic, nobody was likely to reveal it.
Over the next decade as our children grew to adulthood, homosexuality became less of a hush-hush subject. Nonetheless, we were still careful about what we said and where we spoke of it. Only after I marched with other women in an Equal Rights Demonstration on the Washington Mall did I learn that Ed had marched with a group of gays, publicly acknowledging his homosexuality. I was glad that we had both participated, but I worried that Ed might be risking victimization by gay-bashers.
By 1992 my husband and I retired and moved to a college town in Pennsylvania, where we joined the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. We soon learned that the minister had performed a ceremony of union for a same-sex couple. I had read about such ceremonies, but now I was part of a community that accepted them. I soon came to cherish the Fellowship as a safe place to speak out about our gay son.
We also joined the local chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), where I learned about the experiences gays and lesbians endure. At PFLAG meetings, homosexuals said that they remembered how old they were when they recognized their sexual orientation. Heterosexuals claimed that they had always been heterosexual and concluded that everybody was born heterosexual, reasoning that gays and lesbians must have chosen to be homosexual. I remember a particular meeting where a lesbian countered, "Considering rejection, hatred, and the risk of becoming a victim of gay-bashing, why would anyone choose to be gay or lesbian?"
Many at the meetings reported painful struggles to be like their straight peers. One told how as a teenager her overwhelming need to belong led her to participate in gay bashing. "I so needed to be part of the in-groupí that I couldn't admit even to myself that I was a lesbian. Even after I accepted my own identity, I didn't dare admit it to any of my friends. But I did stop participating in the bashings."
Bashing is only one cause of death among homosexuals. The agony of rejection leads many others to commit suicide. Parents find a heart-wrenching note next to their dead child, "Dear Mom and Dad, the torment was too great. I just couldn't go on. I love you." Until recently, AIDS delivered a death sentence. Now medications prolong the lives of infected individuals who can afford them. The drugs were too late for Ed's closest childhood friend. We all mourned him when he died.
As I reflect on experiences with my gay son, I think it's a miracle that he and many others like him remain tolerant, loving people in spite of physical and verbal abuse from a society that maligns and rebukes them at every turn. I know my son didn't choose his homosexuality any more than I chose my heterosexuality. We all deserve the same rights and privileges, regardless of sexual orientation-the right to form legal domestic unions, to be with our partners during illnesses, to enjoy the same employment opportunities and benefits, and to be treated with dignity and respect.
Three acquaintances unwittingly gave me opportunities to use the understanding I gained from these experiences and strengthened my courage.
First, a friend and I were discussing the possibility of going to a convention. "I don't want to go to that convention because it's full of gays," she said. "Oh," I answered. "It disturbs me to hear that because I have a gay son." After a long, awkward silence, my friend said, "Oh, er, I didn't mean anything by that. I have nothing against, er, er, those people."
Then a recently retired pediatrician, lamenting the state of society, said, "If it weren't for all those gays and pedophiles. . . "Oh, dear, I'm sorry you feel that way," I interrupted. Did you know we have a gay son?" "Ah, er, no," said the doctor, and made an awkward apology.
Finally, I was involved in a discussion about homosexuality within my own Unitarian community when one lady said of gays and lesbians, "I just wish they'd go away." There was a dead silence as all the other women stared in disbelief at the speaker. Our silence spoke registered our disagreement.
When I confront people who make negative comments about homosexuals and ask whether they know any gays or lesbians, they usually admit that they do not. Given that about one in ten Americans is homosexual, most people probably know several without knowing their sexual orientations. A friend of mine explains, "Of course they don't know any gays. Their disrespectful views precede them and no gays will be known-to them."
I'm tired of hearing the morally righteous speak about protecting their families from homosexuals. When will they use their moral righteousness to protect my gay son and other gays and lesbians from those who would abuse them? When will we all work together to dispel fears and replace hatred with compassion? When will we respect the dignity of every person, including my son and other homosexual sons and daughters? I'll know we're home free when everyone thinks of sexual orientation as one of many personal attributes like blue eyes, curly hair, or brown skin that make a person who she or he is. That's how I look at my gay son. I accept him the way he is. Above all, I love and honor him for who he is.
© Joan G. Creager
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