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The Coming Out of a Lesbian's Mother

This is the story of my learning and accepting
that my daughter is a lesbian. I publish it here in the hope that
1) it will help other parents to accept their child's sexuality;
2) it will help young lesbians and gays to understand
their parents' reactions to learning that their child is homosexual; and
3) it will be used by gays and lesbians who are just coming out
as a conversation-starter with their parents, a way of saying
"I'm gay and I desperately need you to understand."

It's a long essay. Please feel free to print it out
to read at your leisure or to pass along to someone
if you think it might help them to understand.

Below are several links to supportive and informational sites
for both parents and youth.

Marcie comes into my room with a purposeful stride and plops herself down on the end of my bed, leaning against the tall post of the footboard. It's 10:30 pm, the house is quiet, the neighborhood settled down for the night. The soft light of my reading lamp casts a warm glow over the room. The sheer curtains at the six-foot high windows close out the cold, late-winter world. The knickknacks that sit on the extra dresser speak of my life: plants; archaeological artifacts; fossils; a bowl made years ago by Marcie in pottery class; a papier-mache figure made by my other daughter, Tanya; a family picture from three Easters ago. This is my refuge, my escape from the everyday "stuff" to the relaxation that brings on sleep. My kids know that if they want my full attention, this is the time and the place to get it.

I pull myself away from the murder scene in my book as Marcie starts chattering: school, friends, work, clothes, "Do you think I should cut my hair?" I don't have to exert much effort during these "chats"; she does all the talking, non-stop, jumping from subject to subject, not quite nervously but almost. The chats have become a regular event, two or three nights a week for the past several weeks.

And somehow, the talk always comes around to her new friends who are lesbians. She seems fascinated by these women, intrigued with their intelligence, their sensitivity, openness, creativity, warmth, courage to be themselves; she has nothing but admiration for them. As she goes on and on, I get more and more irritated, an irritation I attribute to the late hour and my need to get to sleep--sometime tonight, if you don't mind. And somehow my irritation gets transferred to the women: why doesn't she find some normal people to admire, why don't they leave her alone?

Sometimes during the chats Marcie gets philosophical: why does it matter who we love, as long as we love honestly? Even the Bible gives credence to homosexual relationships. Did I know that there are homosexual animals? And I become more and more irritated--there really are other things in this world to talk about, and if you don't want to talk about them, then let me get some sleep.

Sometimes during the chats Marcie goes back to younger days and talks about girls or women she was especially friendly with or interested in. She even goes so far as to say that, at times, she used to wonder whether she was a lesbian. And, of course, I assure her that she doesn't have to worry about that: she has always had plenty of boyfriends; she recently lived with one for several months, for goodness' sake. When my irritability and impatience reach a certain point, Marcie leaves the room and I toss and turn for a while before going to sleep.

Sometimes during the chats, when the subject is homosexuality, Marcie tells me a horror story about a friend's getting fired from her job or being the victim of gay-bashing. When I express concern about the difficulty gays have in society, about how living such a lifestyle leads to duplicity, secrecy, lying, and about all the stress created by those behaviors, Marcie assures me that her friends are, for the most part, very happy with their lifestyle.

Sometimes, after one of the chats, I report to Jack, my husband: "I think Marcie thinks she's a lesbian." "Here she goes again," he replies. "She always has to try something different." "Another stage," I agree.

Turning a corner in the grocery store, I crash baskets with Connie, a friend whom I haven't seen in ages. How's the family? Are you still working at school? Did David's art show in Denver go well? What's Marcie up to? "Well, now she thinks she's a lesbian." "Don't worry," says Connie, "a friend of mine was a lesbian for two years--until a guy came along with a three-karat diamond." I hang on to that one for months.

Ann, another friend, calls. We've each been doing our own things and haven't talked for a while. "What's up?" she asks. My job, Jack's latest court case, the house, a planned archaeological dig, Tanya's school trip to France; sarcastically: Marcie's a lesbian now. "What! Won't she ever give you any peace?" "Don't worry," I reply, "it's only one of her stages."

A television news program shows a "wedding" in Washington, DC, where hundreds of lesbian and gay couples take marriage vows. Jack and I watch it and discuss the legalities, the rights and wrongs of not allowing homosexual couples to marry or own joint property or adopt children or benefit from each other's health insurance. But the subject is remote, it doesn't touch us. Because, after all, it's about homosexuals, people with whom we have no direct contact.

It's Saturday, a beautiful late spring day. I want to get out of the house so I go downtown to walk along the open-air mall and watch people. Marcie is working at the deli; it's her break time. Let's have a cup of coffee outside. We sit there, basking in the promise of summer, enjoying the variety of people who live in this small, energetic city. And we talk, and the talk turns to one of her friends who thinks she's a lesbian but isn't quite sure. At the very least, she's questioning her sexual identity. "It seems to me," I say, looking Marcie right in the eye, "that you're also questioning your sexual identity." Marcie's jaw drops. "I think it's past the questioning stage," she says quietly. I stand up and walk away.

Probably the last thing I ever expected to hear my daughter say was "I'm a lesbian." Marcie is tall, slim, very feminine-looking, with long, wavy blond hair. Makeup and clothes are important to her; she's had boyfriends since the day she was in third grade when she came home and announced that she was in love. She is anything but what I thought of as a "dyke."

My experience with homosexuals was very limited until I was suddenly the mother of one. Two pairs of "old maids" had lived in my suburban Boston neighborhood when I was a child, but there was never any talk about them. My parents didn't discuss "queers" or "homos." I think I remember my father describing certain men as "light as a feather," but I had no idea what he was talking about. There must have been talk among my high school peers, but again, I don't remember it. And there certainly were no talk shows, no movies, no magazine articles, and no news stories about homosexuals. The subject was taboo; most people pretended that "those kind of people" didn't exist.

I do remember one reference to homosexuality during my youth. Friends told me about a man whom I knew only by sight: Marty must have weighed 350 pounds, always had a disagreeable sneer on his face, and was a slob. But he always drove the newest, snazziest sports car on the market; the word was that he used the car to lure teenage boys for his enjoyment. Disgusting!

Even among my college friends there was little discussion of and even less knowledge about homosexuality. One or two of the more sophisticated girls in the dorm talked a little about it, but always with the attitude that it was "perverted" and "unnatural." Most of us didn't want to talk about it--it was too alien, too grotesque, too far beyond anything we could imagine.

During my first year of college, however, I somehow got my hands on a book in which the author asserted that, according to his research, one in every ten men in the U.S. was a homosexual. No, that couldn't be. This man had to be nuts! Look at all these guys here at school, all my male friends back home, all the fathers of all my friends. If ten percent of the country was gay, where were they all? I didn't talk much about the book with my college friends--as I said, it was a very uncomfortable subject. But I did tell my mother about it the next time I went home (after all, I was a worldly college freshmen, now, and I knew about such things). She wouldn't even discuss it, except to dismiss the whole idea as ridiculous.

As I got older, the subject of homosexuality came into the open. I still didn't know anyone who was gay; after all, they were "freaks," "queers," "weird," "unnatural"--not my kind of people. The whole idea of making love to someone of your own sex was so outlandish that I didn't even want to think about it. But with time and exposure to gays and homosexuality--through magazine articles, television shows, and movies--my tolerance increased. I began to understand just what kind of persecution homosexuals were subjected to, and my sense of justice took over: that they were treated so badly wasn't right--as long as they kept to themselves and didn't corrupt unsuspecting kids. They had a right to their own lifestyle--just don't make me a witness to it. Maybe they weren't all "weirdos"--but just keep them out of my face.

I'm not sure when I first knew that someone I knew was homosexual. Certainly no one "came out" to me until just a few years ago. If I thought someone was gay, it was only because I guessed from the stereotypical image I held, not from any real knowledge. When I wondered if I knew any homosexuals, older people who had never been married were suspect, as were younger people who didn't "date." Not that I did a whole lot of wondering about it; there were, after all, other things to think about: Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the client who wanted a full page ad in the newspaper next week, maybe I'll serve fish for dinner tonight. Most of those were much less stressful to think about than the subject of homosexuality.

One of my all-time favorite television programs is the "All in the Family" episode in which a big, strapping, handsome hulk of a construction worker is arm wrestling with Archie Bunker at the local pub. Archie turns the conversation to "those people" (meaning gays) and makes a rude comment. The construction worker tells Archie that he's one of "those people." I saw the original broadcast of that episode, and at least three or four reruns. Every time I see it, I delight in Archie's "Naaaah" of denial, in the expression on his face as realization dawns that he's gripping the hand of a "queer," in the totally silent fade-out. Yes! This is justice; this is the way such a bigoted, hypocritical, narrow-minded bonehead should learn about reality. But was I really any different than Archie?

After a lifetime of learning that homosexuality was "perverted," "weird," "unnatural," "sick," against all that God or anyone else prescribed, was I too set in my beliefs, too brainwashed to ever--honestly, sincerely, to the core of my being--accept the concept? At 48 years of age, I was about to find out.

Marcie says it was during the winter of her sophomore year in college that she finally acknowledged what she had been fighting for years: she was more strongly attracted to women than to men. Although she'd had a crush on a girl in seventh grade, she thought it was part of growing up, a natural stage in the progression toward adulthood. At age thirteen, her experience with and knowledge about gays was negligible. During high school, especially the year she spent at a boarding school, she had involvements with other girls. Later, she talked to her high-school friends, in an attention-getting way, about having feelings for women, but she put those feelings aside as "not really me," as part of her rebellion of the moment. All this time she was dating boys, and after her senior year in high school she moved in with her then-boyfriend.

During the fall semester of her sophomore year in college, Marcie became deeply attached to a female teacher. Until this time she had passed off such attractions as admiration, as hero worship, as wanting to emulate a woman she admired. Now she realized that her feelings went beyond a simple crush, beyond admiration, beyond hero worship. Through her involvement in a women's group on campus she was exposed to others who were either "out" or questioning, and she had the opportunity to talk with them and to better understand who and what they were. She finally understood where she was coming from.

Marcie's teenage years had been stormy. She had rebelled at being the daughter of a famous person; she had rebelled at being expected, because she was the oldest child, to be mature and responsible; she had rebelled against her younger sister, her parents, society in general. She had done alcohol and drugs, had run away from home, had had problems in school. And she never knew why. Today she says that she doesn't even know the person she was then. But she does know that "coming out was the beginning of my not being angry anymore" and that "it wasn't 'til I came out that my life started turning around."

Most young people who are homosexual worry that if they come out they will lose the love of their parents and family. Marcie did worry about her sister's reaction because Tanya was so young and maybe wouldn't understand. (As it turned out, Tanya quickly became her sister's, and all gays', most ardent and vocal defender.) Because Marcie had never heard her father or me say anything negative about gays, she wasn't afraid we wouldn't love her anymore. But she was concerned that the relationship between herself and us, which was on the mend from her rebellious days, would suffer. So, instead of coming right out with it to us, she decided to "try it on first." When she was ready to let us know, she couldn't jump right in and tell us. Rather, she started "dropping hints." That was what those late-night chats with me were all about. In hindsight she realizes that she was trying to force me to ask her if she was a lesbian, to save her having to say it herself.

When on that bright spring day I finally came out with it and she acknowledged her homosexuality, she was relieved but still didn't know what to expect.

Looking back, I can see how much I denied what Marcie had tried to tell me for so long. All during the "chats," I made myself believe she was talking about others. After she told me, I still held to the hope that it was just a stage; for a while I had myself convinced that she would soon show up with a new boyfriend. I clung to stories from friends about people who had thought they were gay but really weren't. When she suggested I might want to read books by and about parents of gays, I snapped that "I don't need to read anything. I've dealt with enough other things in my life; I can deal with this, too."

Some of my reluctance to accept that Marcie was gay came from a concern about how gays are treated by society. Like all parents, I wanted her to be happy, to achieve whatever she needed for self-fulfillment, to travel as easy a road as possible. I envisioned her life as a lesbian as being one of constantly having to hide her true self, of being forced to lie, or, if she was totally out, of being harassed, oppressed, discriminated against. No mother wants that for her child. Even at the point of my acknowledgement of her lesbianism I, through lack of understanding, thought she had chosen this path, that she had the option of being a lesbian, or not. In some ways it might have been easier to understand, and thus accept, if it had been her choice, because Marcie always seemed to choose to do everything the hard way.

I also wondered if some of my concern was about the social stigma attached to homosexuality and that Jack and I would be deemed "bad" parents because our daughter "turned out" that way. Certainly none of our friends reacted negatively; they knew her too well and thought, as we first did, that it was just another case of Marcie doing her thing. Besides, being different was never a problem in our family: Jack probably had the longest hair of any judge in the country; neither style nor convention were very important to me. I really don't believe that a fear of what people would think played into my denial at all.

It's now obvious that some of my denial of her lesbianism came from the old ideas that gays are "perverted," "unnatural," "weird." I certainly wasn't comfortable with same sex relations: watching two adults of the same sex hold hands bothered me; seeing pictures of gay men passionately kissing made me blush and turn my head. I wouldn't even try to imagine how female same-sex physical relationships were conducted. Forty-eight years of indoctrination is hard to overcome.

During all this, I was missing one important thing: that homosexuality is not all about sex. Most women I know find a special enjoyment in being with other women; there is more understanding on all levels--intellectual, emotional, sensual. Women understand what women mean when they talk, just as men understand men. Women relate to each other in most ways much better than they do to men, just as men probably relate better at the gut level to men. If you take out the sex part, it makes sense that two women would want to be together. And so I started on my road to acceptance from there, putting the sex part out of my mind.

As time went on, I realized that Marcie was becoming more and more happy. She seemed relaxed for the first time in years; she seemed herself instead of someone acting a part; she could genuinely laugh and express joy. Although she had been quite militant--in everyone's face about her orientation--when she first came out, she mellowed with time. She says she realized that she didn't have to be a stereotypical gay to live the gay lifestyle, that she could just be herself. As she became happier, I became more accepting. This was the person I had known before the rebellious, mixed-up teenager emerged. She was carving out a career for herself in which she was respected for who she was and what she could do. She had created a comfortable home and a relationship with her partner that compared to that of any young heterosexual woman.

Meanwhile, I experienced a very slow evolution. Part of the evolution was grieving the loss of the daughter I expected Marcie to be. I went through the stages of grief: denial--not hearing what she was saying when Marcie tried to tell me she is gay; anger--blaming her lesbian friends for negatively influencing her; bargaining--grasping at the hope that this was all a stage; depression--worrying about what a hard life she would have as a gay person in American society; and, finally, acceptance--realizing that Marcie was the same person she had been before she told me she was gay, and that she was perfectly happy and adjusted in her lifestyle. And maybe I'm still grieving in some ways: the depth of emotion evoked as I write my story surprises me.

I also did a lot of thinking. I talked about it with Jack and some of my closer friends. On the campus where I work I attended a presentation by a lesbian member of the staff, whose program touched me deeply and at which I "came out" publicly as the parent of a lesbian. I learned that the stereotypes I grew up with were just that: stereotypes that apply to only a very few homosexuals. I came to understand that being gay is not a choice but a biological fact. I saw Marcie becoming a poised, confident, serene person and decided that if accepting herself as a lesbian could do that much for her, being a lesbian couldn't be all bad.

I never did read any books.

For her part, Marcie didn't push me. She stopped talking constantly about homosexuality. When she was living at home, she didn't spend the occasional night with her partner. She was careful not to kiss or cuddle her partner in front of me. She (wisely) gave me the time I needed to adjust to this new concept.

As a result of the effort on both our parts, we have a warm, loving, respectful relationship today that would please any mother or daughter. We've weathered the storm separately and together and have come out of it very different but stronger, more compassionate people. I still don't completely understand what it's like to be gay, and probably never will. But I accept the fact that Marcie and millions of others are gay and that they can be happier, more stable people for acknowledging it.

At times during the process I felt very alone, that my husband and I were the only people going though what at the moment seemed a very difficult experience. But then I remembered that studies have shown that as much as ten percent of the population may be gay. Millions of other parents will hear their child say "I am gay." If you are one of those parents, I only hope that you can step back, listen to your child, learn as much as you can about homosexuality, and remember that this is the same person you have loved since birth, the same person you raised, the same person he or she was before "coming out" to you. If you can look at your child objectively, you will probably see that she or he is happier now that you know, now that there are no more secrets between you. You will need time to adjust, but during that time, don't shut your child out. With time and understanding, your relationship with your child may well become stronger and more loving than ever before.

And if you're a young person coming out to your parents, keep in mind that even if they know gays and seem to be comfortable with the concept of homosexuality, the story is a little different when it's their own child who's gay. Try to break it gently, slowly; give them time to adjust, to understand, and to accept that you are gay.

Most of all, remember that parental love is the strongest love there is and it's practically impossible to break it, as my friend Dan's story shows. Raised in a small, narrow-minded rural town by his father, the tough, unemotional owner of a small trucking company, Dan knew since he was 15 that he was gay. After high school, he moved away from home to avoid having his family and their friends find out. After years of hiding the truth, he finally couldn't stand it any longer. He called his father and gently, during a two-hour conversation, told his father he is gay. His dad's reaction? For the first time in Dan's life his father said "I love you" to him.