Parents: The Last Frontier
Parents aren't perfect—just ask any gay kid.
By Steve Kluger
A few months ago, Dear Betty received a letter from a 16-year-old lesbian in Atlanta.
Signing herself "Anxious in Georgia", the kid was worried about coming out to her
mother and father—your garden variety religious fundamentalists—whom she was
pretty sure weren't going to respond with, "Hot damn! Just what we always dreamed
about." Betty replied, "Parents such as yours have been known to throw their gay
children out of the house. Better to keep quiet until you've graduated high school
and you're financially independent." Hello? Either Dear Betty's been smoking the
drapes again or else her column's been taken over by Bill O'Reilly in drag.
Let's face it: On a degree-of-difficulty scale, coming out to your parents rates an
easy 10--just ahead of pulling off perfect SAT scores, graduating first in your class at
Harvard, and dragging the Titanic to the surface by a chain clenched between your
teeth. But it doesn't really need to be as theatrical as the second half of All About
Eve ("I'll admit I may have seen better days, but I'm still not to be had for the price of
a cocktail—like a salted peanut."). And unless your mother and father are residing in
the Cretaceous Era or Mississippi, they figured out you were gay long before you
did—so you won't be telling them anything they don't already know:
THE PERFECT PARENTS
You tell them you're a lesbian. They weep with pride at your courage. Dad hugs you
and assures you that you'll always be his little girl, Mom bakes a cake to celebrate
the good tidings, and they both join PFLAG within the hour.
This doesn't happen in real life, so don't even bother going there.
THE LOW-MAINTENANCE PARENTS
They fumble for the right words, they don't try to talk you out of it, and they make
sure you know that they love you.
I was 18 when I called my mother from college with the news. After I'd gotten up the
nerve to blurt out those two irreversible syllables, she countered on the spot with a
reassuring "That's okay." But never one to be done out of a melodrama, I had to go
shoot off my mouth about the boyfriend I loved down to my toes—blinded by bliss to
the ominously unavoidable question that was sure to follow: "Is he Jewish?" Um,
well, actually... Boy, did she hit the ceiling. So did Grandma Hilda when she found
out. ("Are you going to tell me that there aren't any Jewish boys in all of
California?!") Happily, it only took me three weeks to discover that Monte was, in
fact, a pathological liar and a leech—and only another four months before I stopped
giving him money and told him to go away. After that, my Mom turned into the
Boyfriend Police in order to make absolutely certain I never again dated anybody
whose last name wasn't Goldstein or, at the very least, Rosenberg. But somehow
the gay thing was never an issue. (Of course, this is the same woman who'd given
birth to four boys by the time she was 25, then promptly began having an affair
with the pediatrician. Clearly, she didn't place much stock in other people's ideas
THE BORDERLINE PARENTS
If you ever wondered what "aghast" means, all you'll have to do to find out is watch
their faces after you've spilled the beans. They'll cry, they'll whine, they'll try to
convince you to see a shrink (if you aren't already) or switch to a new one (if you
are). But eventually they'll come around—as long as you stick to your guns.
Telling my father promised to be an event worth televising. Aside from his delirious
obsession with women's breasts (which he attempted to pass along to his sons and—
in three out of four cases—successfully so), his concept of maleworthiness was
measured by the number of abortions you were responsible for and how many times
you'd had the clap. So I figured it was best for all concerned that I share my secret
with him over dinner in a crowded New York restaurant after he'd had his traditional
three martinis—my intuition assuring me that he'd be (a) mellow; and (b) unwilling to
make a scene in public. As it turned out, my intuition was an idiot. When he
pounded his fist on the table and blurted, "Balls!", everybody in the joint stopped
talking. So, for that matter, did most of the residents of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn,
Queens, and the northern cusp of Staten Island. And when he followed this up—in
ever-escalating volume—by asking me if I wore a dress, Connecticut was instantly
added to the communications grid.
Fortunately, I'd known this guy my entire life and I'd already sussed out the most
effective way to shut him up. All it required was a perplexed frown and a furrowed
brow, then an inarticulate mumble before stuttering, "But-- but I thought you'd
guessed it already. You always said I was a fag—and you were right!" His face
turned pale and the discussion ended immediately. You could practically hear what
he was thinking. ("You mean I was the one who gave him the idea???") He knew I
had his number, and he never again gave me a hard time about being gay.
Oh, sure—the more he got used to the idea, the more he'd yank my chain: "At least
let me fix you up with my secretary Lina. She looks like a man." "Congratulations,
Dad. You've just offended the maximum number of people with the fewest number
THE HIGH MAINTENANCE PARENTS
"Why are you doing this to me?", "How could you be so selfish?", and "What's
Grandma Ida going to say?" are among the many opening salvos you're likely to be
dodging if your mother and father happen to fall into this category. Unfortunately,
"Doing what?", "It's easy" and "Who cares?" don't qualify as acceptable answers
because they each possess a snappy honesty that probably ought to be avoided at
I think that Grandma Ida first suspected I wouldn't be presenting her with any great-
grandchildren around my sixth birthday and halfway through The Wizard of Oz.
Though my letter-perfect impersonations of Aunt Em, Dorothy, Miss Gulch, all of the
witches and most of the female Munchkins were benign tipoffs, my insistence that
Grandma play Zeke, Hickory and Hunk sent her gaydar soaring to Defcon 3 long
before I yelled at her for chasing Toto around a tree. After that she moved to
Denial Land, and I was never able to talk to her about coming out, my first Pride
Parade, or the guy I was going to spend the rest of my life with (Rob or Roger, who
remembers?). In fact, if she even smelled the conversation heading in that
direction, she'd nimbly turn it toward one of her three emergency topics: the
quality of the strawberries at Gristede's, my father's second wife, or (her all-time
favorite) the state of her vertebrae.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" isn't a game you should have to play at home, but sometimes
you just don't have a choice.
THE "DEAR BETTY" PARENTS
This won't take very long—because somewhere between "Guess what?" and your
glowing description of the junior class Gay-Straight Alliance, you're liable to find
yourself butt-to-the-sidewalk, wondering what the hell you're going to put for "Home
Address" on credit card applications.
Fortunately, this doesn't happen nearly as often as Betty would have us believe—a
consolation she might have added if only she hadn't OD'd on her nitwit pills that day.
On the other hand, there was Ann Landers, who—until her death—had been
standing up for gay rights since long before it was considered fashionable to do so.
It makes me wish she'd lived long enough to take the 16-year-old from Georgia
under her maternal wing:
"Dear Anxious: What a shame that your parents are missing out on such an
important part of your life. But you're right to be cautious until you have a better idea
of how they're going to react. Though the clods who toss their kids onto the street
for being gay deserve no more consideration than a kick in the rear end, most
parents are ready to stand by their children no matter how difficult it may be for them
to understand a world so utterly different than their own. Your mother and father
may surprise you when the time comes, so give them that chance. Meanwhile, know
that you're not alone. In addition to the many resources you'll find on the Internet,
most major cities have Gay and Lesbian youth services hotlines that can point you
toward support groups in your own community where you're likely to find the kind of
nurturing you're not getting at home. Best of luck."
The good news? Gay or straight, we all learn from the mistakes our parents made—
or didn't, and there's a whole other generation moving in behind us who won't even
know what "coming out" means. Because after awhile, it just won't matter any more.
In fact, my niece Emily—then five years old—never lost an opportunity to advise me,
"When I grow up, I can marry anybody I want. But I think he'll be a boy."
When they grow up, these kids are going to have it made.