When I came out to my parents there was this dance between us. I had just told them, essentially, that I had spent the better part of my life deliberately presenting another version of myself to them. I know from my own perspective, it was easy to forget that they might feel betrayed by this, confused, or at the very least like a stranger. As I think about it a year later, I ponder what my mother must have been thinking as the smoke swirled up from the cherry at the end of her cigarette.
Was it all a lie? How had she not seen it? How had she been fooled? Why didn’t I say something sooner? Why didn’t I say?
For my part I just felt like a desperate weight had been lifted off and that they could finally take me or leave me. I felt vindicated in a whirlwind and to be honest, I wasn’t really worried about their feelings, or how they were taking it, because I had finally decided to stop worrying about their feelings, or how they would take it. I had finally decided my right authenticity and happiness far outstripped their right to have their faith or viewpoints unchallenged.
They took it well, especially considering that I never do anything small. The revelation was no different. I wasn’t just gay, I was polyamorous, and going to make it work with my wife somehow. Not only might I be bringing home a boyfriend, I might bring home more than one. What can I say? My dad worked his way through another five or six cigarettes, and my mom said, “I can’t say I am totally surprised,” and then we made hash browns. Overall, pretty well handled I would say.
I am not an easy pill to swallow.
Coming out isn’t just a one moment experience though. It isn’t the veil lifting and the sudden appearance of rainbows to chase away the dark. All the storm clouds and sludge are still there. All of the subtle nuanced flavors of homophobia embedded in religion and culture are baked in. See, the truth is that generally, most of the reasons you stayed in the closet still have to be dealt with, you are just ready to actually confront them, and have spent more time working up the courage to deal with whatever the fallout might be.
I was used to not telling the truth. They were used to hearing a lie. Communication often turned into argument. I wanted to be understood all at once. They were still grappling with the fact that things had changed. Hearts are big mammoth things that have a lot of inertia, altering direction takes time, and a lot of effort.
My mom is fantastic. She is the kind of person who loves endlessly. She can be confused and hurt and very upset and not know what to do, and still love you. I get that from her. In her own beautiful way, she has been trying. This has been hard for her. She thought she knew me, and she did, but she didn’t. Getting to know me know means unpacking every memory, looking at it, understanding it through another lens, and putting it back on the shelf. I get the feeling she has been doing a lot of that in the space between our monthly coffees.
We go on some errand, pure pretense, to buy a plate or new shower curtain, and then we have lunch, and chat, or sometimes 11pm pancakes, and she does a lot of asking questions and listening. I do a lot of trying not to be offended, and digging deeper as we both dig through the junk that has accumulated in our familial psyche. It is exhausting, for both of us, but I never forget that she is there with me doing it.
I am one of the lucky ones.
The world changes for people all the time. You have a kid, you lose your house, you get the promotion, you sell your first widget, you make it into the college of your dreams, you lose a loved one. When these things happen we look around and we wonder why everyone is still rushing about, getting angry over things that don’t matter, why the conversations seems so shallow. We have experienced something deep, something that has altered us. Our perspective of the world has changed but for no one else, and we feel frustrated that they don’t see it.
Coming out isn’t any different. My world was different. When I went to the grocery store with a partner, I experienced homophobia in a very real way. To my mom, the world didn’t change. I was still her son, just with something new to understand about me. It was hard to communicate how maddeningly different this was for us, and how much I needed her to talk about it, to have a sense of urgency to unpack this garbage.
Why didn’t I say?
It wasn’t that you said you wouldn’t love me, it was that your words were close enough to theirs, the worst ones, the terrible ones. The ones who tormented me at school used the same words you did. The ones who tortured gay kids whose pictures were on the news, they thought that gay was a sin also. It was that the content and flavor of your message was tinged with the same loathing that the most deplorable of hate speech and violence was founded upon. It was the fear that you were close enough to them that I would lose everything. It was that home was never safe.
I was never safe. I was hiding. I was always hiding.
When we went to grandma and grandpas, I hid my emotional side. When I put on my backpack and went to school, I monitored the words and the intonation of my voice. When other boys talked about girls they liked, I lied. When I was attacked in the locker room and three boys threatened to rape me, I told no one and cried in a storage room. When I had a crush on a boy, I monitored my breathing, my body language, I sat far away from him. When dad came home from work, I tried to be more manly. When I started to have a good time listening to music, I made sure I didn't have too good a time.
I spent every moment pretending. I got good at it. But the fact that you didn’t see wasn’t all on me. You didn’t want to see.
You saw it. You questioned it. But you played along.
I stopped letting you do that. I broke the lie. And now we have to deal with this. So we look at second hand dinner plates, and we share a cup of coffee, and we talk about our lives to find the rough edges, and we smooth them out.
A few months back, we had a talk. The word lifestyle came up again and I had the strength to finally deal with it. I asked, “Do you really thing this is a choice?”
I knew she was struggling. It was all over her face, as she tried to wrestle her religion to open it’s arms wide enough to make room for her son, but the answer came out like a long string of maybes and exceptions and reasons why should couldn’t imagine anyone choosing it, like an argument with herself. I told her the correct answer was no, and that until it was just one word we were going to keep hitting this issue.
A month later when we went looking for bowls in a 1970s color palate, she brought it up, still confused, and I likened it to a different question. Do you think women are equal to men? I answered my own question with a ten sentence string of maybes and I don’t knows, and I mean probably some as he draw dropped in understanding.
Two weeks later, as we sifted through piles of poplin for a tablecloth, my mom told me about a conversation with a friend. They have been talking more now that they both have queer kids, and her friend was mulling over whether or not to attend her daughter’s wedding. She and her partner of many years were getting married. Her friend was distraught. While she loved her daughter and her partner both, and acknowledged they were very good together, marriage was between a man and a woman in her mind.
My mother became an advocate. She spoke about being born gay, and it not being a choice, and explained the internal hypocrisy of believing in an all powerful god who would make people gay and then deny them the same opportunities for happiness as the rest of his children.
She did that work on her own. I don’t believe in god, we never talked about that. She went home, and she did the unpacking. She confronted her own beliefs and did more than pry open enough space for one exception, she reevaluated the story she has been taught and reinterpreted it completely, to make it wide enough for all orientations. That’s my mom. That’s her power in action.
Some days the work gets hard. We are moving a heavy object, but it is important to celebrate these victories, to recognize an inadvertent ally, and more than anything, it is nice to feel safe.