Parents aren’t perfect—just ask any gay kid.
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 of “morality”.)
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 of words.”
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 all costs.
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.