Sunday, March 18, 2007

Nick's Mom's Advice

Sadly, I did not get to meet personally with Nick's mom, but she did collect her thoughts and sent them to me in an email. This is what she wrote:

Dear Pink Elephant.

From the moment that Nick asked me to talk to you about coming out to your parents, I’ve been thinking about what clever, profound, instructive thing I might say. Unfortunately, great wisdom continues to evade me, so I will just tell you what it is like to be a parent and what it was like for me to learn that my son is gay. The great news is that homosexuality is more accepted now than it has ever been and over the past several years, great strides have been made. If you live somewhere other than the Bible belt, it may not be a problem at all. The bad news is that homophobia has not been eradicated and we still have to live with it. Hopefully, these ramblings will help you understand your parents’ reactions, good or bad, to your news.

Becoming a parent is a life-altering event. The innate sense of love and protectiveness is critical for the survival of any species, and we humans have these instincts in spades! As a parent, you gradually realize that your wishes and needs no longer take priority and, for the most part, you don’t mind. The primary mission of your life becomes caring for this child, yet you scarcely have any idea of how to proceed. The sense of responsibility is overwhelming and the commitment to be a “good parent” morphs into an obsessive-compulsive disorder! You make so many mistakes along the way that you cherish the idea of being a grandparent, because by that time, through trial and error, you finally know how to get it right!

… Meanwhile, no sacrifice is too great and nothing is more important than your child’s safety and happiness. Ah, and pride, did I mention that? Nothing is a greater source of pride than your child, and you want the world to love your child and treat him well. Any pain or sorrow that your child suffers is felt and magnified in you. You want, so desperately, to “fix” it.

Is this obsessive behavior good for the child? Yes and no. Is the parent’s ego tied up in the whole process? Absolutely. Is the child and his/her success in life a reflection of the parent? Oh Yeah! Are parents, after all, only human and capable of egos, anger, mistakes and misbehavior? We already know the answer!

So, what happens when this child, that you thought you knew inside and out, that you love more than you could ever express, tells you that he has a situation that irrevocably puts him in danger of ridicule, disrespect, discrimination, rejection, hatred, harm, and HIV/AIDS?

For some of us, the response is complete heart break and terror. The years of total dedication to and protection of this person’s health and happiness are wiped away and he is at the mercy of a hostile and hateful world. The sense of anxiety is paralyzing. There is fear that he will be hurt and rejected or even killed. The ruminations can be endless:

“What will happen to my son?” “Will someone hurt him?” “Will people hate him?”
Some of the most painful and terrifying thoughts are, “What does God think about this?” “What if God really does reject him?” and, “What if he has AIDS and suffers a horrible death?”

Not to be morose, but in some ways there is a death of the son you THOUGHT you knew. There is this new person, with a life you did not know about and whom, after all, you don’t really know. For me, there was a process of grieving for the loss of the son I thought he was and for the family as I knew it.

Grief has many phases and we all respond differently.
There is denial that this simply is not happening.
There is bargaining that this is just confusion, misdirection, and he will discover that he is not really gay. “Perhaps we can fix it…”
There is guilt and torment of wondering what “caused” this to happen. “What did I do wrong and how could I not have known?”
There is a sense of anger and betrayal…”How could you do this to me?” “How could you do this to our family?” “How could you have lied to me all these years?” “Who is this person?” “How could the son I thought I knew…?”
There is grief for the grandchildren that you may not have.
And, because we are social beings and rely on others in our communities for support and approval, there is the question, “What will people think?”

As in any form of grief, we all experience it differently and I certainly cannot say how your parents will respond. Ideally, we work through all of the fear, anger, anxiety, grief and come to acceptance over an undetermined period of days, months or years. The hope is that as we discover our “real” son, that the relationship will be even better, because now there is truth. Unfortunately for some, it takes years and, sadly, for some, it never happens.

What can you do to help your family?

In the best-case scenario, they already know or strongly suspect and will welcome the honesty and embrace you for who you are. In that case you can shred this letter, heave a sigh of relief, and move on. In other situations, one or both of your parents may have great difficulty with the news. In either case, I recommend the following:

Let them know that this is not something you have “decided” to be, and that you have struggled with it for years. Reassure them that your love for them and fear of hurting them has kept you from sharing this with them. Keep reassuring them that you love them. Let them know that you are happy in your life. Let them know what your plans are for the future. Let them know how you deal with hostility or hatefulness and how you have managed challenges, discrimination, and hardship. They need to feel confident that you can handle this. Be open to talk to them. Do not answer questions that are too personal but be willing to be honest and to answer questions when they need answers. Remember, that they may be trying to get to know the “real” you, while letting go of the person they thought you were. There are horrible stereotypes of the gay man and that, most likely, is what they have been taught. They need to know that there are healthy, moral, respectful, loving relationships and that the stereotypes do not represent you.

Their religious teachings may cause them despair and may be the most difficult issue of all. Please try to understand and respect their views, even if you do not agree. If you have a relationship with God, let them know that. Be yourself and be loving and patient. Let them know that you are sorry if they are hurt, angry, or confused and that you understand that it will take them time. Give them the space they need and never stop letting them know that you love them. Be prepared for anger or withdrawal. It may take several years before they can talk about it openly with you. They may take as many years as it took you to “come out” to family and friends, or they may never be public about it. Please respect that, even if it is hard for you to understand. Sometimes, for parents, the thought that people would reject their son or criticize him is simply too hard to manage. Please be prepared for any number of reactions and recognize that it may take years for the relationship to readjust or they may already know and be relieved to have it in the open. Meanwhile, keep letting them know that you love them.

Finally, there is the issue of who else to tell. There are so many people who love you, especially grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Deciding what and when, (or if), to tell them is not easy. Every family is different and I would not presume to guess how your family will respond. The interesting thing is that you may be surprised at who takes it well and who doesn’t.

It has been almost 10 years since we discovered, quite painfully, that Nick had been involved with men. I cried a great deal and went through all of the stages of grief. Because I had several good friends who had died of AIDS, I was sick with the thought that this could happen to Nick. Fortunately, Nick left for college so we had some time to adjust and let the dust settle while we came to grips with some of these issues. When Nick was home, we had many long, honest discussions. He was very open, patient and loving with me, and I attempted to be the same with him. As for my “coming out” as a parent, I was unable to talk to anyone about it for over a year. For this reason, I highly recommend counseling for any parent or for any individual who is coming out for the first time.

Eventually, I told a number of close friends who love Nick and accept his sexuality. For the most part, I am comfortable being out with close friends and family, but it is not an issue that I bring up in conversation with the general public, mainly because I respect his privacy and I don’t think it is anyone’s business. Also, that fierce parental protective instinct lives on, regardless of a child’s age or position in life. There are people, especially colleagues at work, that I would never tell because, if they said something disparaging about Nick, I would be enraged and nothing good would come of it.

At this point, Nick has talked to all of the family and each of us has gone through his or her adjustment. Now, it simply is no longer an issue. If anything, our trials and tribulations have made us closer and stronger. I would say that we are happier and healthier as a family than we have ever been. Nick is loved and embraced for the wonderful person that he is and we could not possibly be more proud of him. He continues to fascinate and amaze me with his tenacity and strength. I love, respect, and adore my wonderful son and consider him a blessing in my life.

So, I hope that this gives you a modicum of useful insight and I wish you and your family all the best as you begin the process of really coming to know each other.


Lewd said...

This post is incredibly powerful. What an amazing person Nick's mom is, to give such encouragement--and in the middle of family crises.
Pink E., I hope you can read this and know that I completely support your being honest about who you are and what you feel. Nothing we say means anything unless we start by being honest about that stuff, as hard as it is--and it often makes us unpopular or inconvenient. And you can be yourself in this country, and I for one support you in that. . . don't be discouraged!\

I swear, I just wish people would stop making homosexuality out to be something so much Bigger and Badder than any other preference people have. So much unnecessary pain and conflict arises from it.
You don't blog much, but when you do it's very powerful and relevant. More, please!

Anonymous said...

Each and every time I read stories like this one... I want to sob in anger and pain until I cry myself sick.

My parents were 100% the opposite of what this mom is saying here. When my mom found out- my father being out of town at the time- she literally threw me out into the rain. This was while I was going to college- my second year- and it caused my grades to completely tank.

These were the people who had told me they would always be there to love and support me, who had always said I could do whatever I wanted in life if I put my mind to it, and they went out of their way to bring it all to an end. I don't leave my father out of the equation- he never mentioned any of this, even in passing, until the day he died.

Kicking me out, though, wasn't enough. The following year, they told me they weren't going to help me pay for school anymore, given my grades were too low (when I got kicked out, I had a 3.2, maybe a 3.3 GPA; the following year, it was in the low 2.xs). They timed this to coincide with the drying up of financial aid awards- their timing could not possibly have been worse for me- and I had to drop out.

I was going to school for music education- all I wanted to do was be a high school band director. When *I* was in high school, I held a 3.85 GPA, graduated with both NHS cords, and played piano, oboe, sang in choir, marched percussion, was in all four high school musicals, and had started writing and arranging my own music. Now, I'm shamed to have ever tried in the first place... fat lot of good all that preparation did me.

So, reading things like this is very hard for me to do. I honestly don't know how to put myself back together... I might be almost 32 years old, but I still *feel* like the scared, scarred wreck of the 19 year old I was all those years ago. The pain and heartache and hurt haven't gone away with time, because I get to live every day of my life knowing what I almost had, what I almost did, and where I ought to be today.

I don't know if healing from this is going to *be* possible. My mom refuses to acknowledge her mistakes to the point that she doesn't even try to fix it, hasn't yet, and probably won't, ever. To underscore this, we're talking about a woman who gave me an IOU to tune the piano in lieu of a birthday gift- which she flatly refuses to redeem, even after all these years.

I don't really know why I'm posting this. I think it gets a little easier for me with each telling. I don't talk to my mom much at all- she and my sister say hi every day, but for some reason (I don't think I need to guess at this point) I get left out.

The lesson here, I think, is that if your family rejects you for being gay, don't go back to them. I made that mistake. If I had it to do over, the night she kicked me out into the rain, I would walk away and never turn back.

People who do these sorts of things to their kids aren't worthy of having kids. Now I'm stuck, trapped pretending I still care, and that hurts as much as anything else.

Pink Elephant said...

Wow, anonymous, your story is tragic, and serves a useful and sobering contrast. Reading what your parents did to you made me ill. For all the positive experiences, it's good to keep in mind that some have simply horrible ones. I totally agree that parents who would reject their kids like that don't deserve children in the first place. Some parents' reactions even drive their kids to suicide, something that angers me beyond words.

I thankfully do not expect my parents to reject me so cruelly, but even so, they are pretty conservative and having a gay son will be big disappointment to them, especially at first. My "coming out timetable" is such that I do not plan to tell my parents until I am sure that I can live without their support if it came to that.

Anonymous said...

I guess I just don't get it. Why tell anyone about your private life at all? When I moved "to a big city," I told some people I liked guys, and guess what? I became the office Log Cabin Republican. I was defined by my sexuality. I had kept quiet about my persuasion in my previous position, and no one ever discussed it with me or anything. It was great. I was just who was I was. I wasn't the gay guy. The bottom line is that we shouldn't be seeking so much goddamn acceptance from people and feel the need to share everything with everybody. Keep quiet already. I'm sick and tired of all these cry-baby coming out stories. Telling anyone about it, and then having it go around the office, was one of the worst decisions I've made.