Emily Heist Moss ponders how otherwise liberal parents can fear that their child might, in fact, be gay.
“Are you gay?” It was my mother asking. We were in the car, the hub for most awkward parent-child conversations, in the middle of a pleasant, but heated debate about parental reactions to coming out. A few friends had recently gone through the process with less-than-enthusiastic responses from their very liberal, highly-educated parents.
“But if you were,” she asked, “Would you worry about telling me?”
“Do you think I would be disappointed?”
She pondered for a moment, before admitting that I was right; she would have been. We spent the rest of the ride to the airport trying to untangle why.
I grew up in an affluent suburb of Boston. I went to public school with kids who had gay parents. There was a thriving Gay Straight Alliance. My own godfather is gay. Every dinner table conversation about gay marriage in Massachusetts was based on the assumption that it is wrong to deprive people of equality. And yet, I was so sure that if I were the one bringing home a girlfriend, or hinting at anything less than heterosexuality, my announcement would undermine certain familial expectations.
I’m not gay, and so it may seem like the verbal dance of hypotheticals is a waste of time. It sure felt like my mother thought so once I’d affirmed my straightness. To me, my heterosexuality couldn’t be the end of the conversation. What if my children were gay? Would they have worry about telling their grandmother about their new boyfriend or girlfriend when she did the grandmotherly thing and pried into their personal lives?
There are things you want for your children, my mom explained, and most fundamentally they include happiness and safety; you want them to have easy lives. Despite all the progress made against homophobia, there are still moments of unease, moments of discomfort, and in many parts of the country, moments of real danger for LGBTQ people. What parent wants their child to go through that? I understood, but I couldn’t agree.
I have stellar parents who taught me to respect other people, to speak up when I see discrimination, and to expect equality for myself and for others. If I were a lesbian, why would my mom, who instilled in me the values that continue to guide my adult life, have even a split second of disappointment? Would my life be harder? Maybe. Would my life have different challenges? Almost certainly. It’s fair of her to worry about those things, but it’s not fair to direct even a drop of that disappointment at me.
If you are convinced, as I am, that sexual orientation is not something you can choose or willfully change, than it’s your job as a parent to make sure your kids know that any irritation, angst, resentment, or resignation you display has absolutely nothing to do with them. Any worries you hold about how they’ll fare in life has to be squarely directed at the institutions that perpetuate discrimination. Laws in this country are not fair, and the opinions of co-workers, classmates, and complete strangers are even less so. This is not a burden that your kid chose to bear. Things like, “What will I tell the relatives,” “Just don’t be too flamboyant about it,” or “I always pictured your wedding and now I won’t see it,” are not supportive. They may seem like real concerns to you, but to your kid it just reads as blame for something beyond their control.
Bryn comes from a family much like mine. Compared to some LGBTQ folks, her family was “relatively awesome and supportive” when she came out. Nonetheless, she says, ” I got a lot of comments like, ‘It might just be a phase’ and ‘Don’t limit yourself.’ I felt like the underlying message was ‘Hey, we’re going to be tolerant of your sexual confusion, but if at any point you decide to return to being heterosexual, that would be AWESOME and would make things way easier for us.'” She remembers being furious with her mom for saying that while they loved and accepted her, they “would need time to process and think about it.” There’s only something to process if internal expectations are being rewritten. Why did you make these assumptions in the first place?
As we pulled up to Logan and I got ready to board another flight taking me from the place that used to be home to the place that is now home, my mother asked me what she could have done differently. I told her that no kid ever wants to feel like they’re disappointing their parents, even for something they can’t change. If and when I have children, I want to make a point of not projecting any expectations of sexual orientation until my kids give me some indications of what they should be. Statistically it’s a lot more likely they’ll be straight, but the harm in assuming wrong and forcing my kid to upend my assumptions isn’t worth it. And even if they are straight, they’ll know that my house is a safe space for their LGBTQ friends.
I’m never going to ask my daughters, “Are there any boys you have a crush on at school?” I’m never going to ask my sons if they’ve invited a girl to a dance. I can already tell I’m going to be a particularly nosy parent, but they’re going to come home to gender-neutral nosy questions like “Have you met anyone special?” They will know that whatever they are, whoever they like, is fine with me. Scratch that… not “fine,” it’s awesome.
–Photo by blmurch on Flckr