Just a Momby Betty DeGeneres
For many gay men and lesbians, Betty DeGeneres, the mother of actress Ellen DeGeneres has come to represent the mother stolen from them by homophobia. For many parents she has provided the inspiration to reconcile with their own children. In her new book, Just a Mom, Betty talks directly to parents, children, friends, teachers, employers, and politicians in/i>
For many gay men and lesbians, Betty DeGeneres, the mother of actress Ellen DeGeneres has come to represent the mother stolen from them by homophobia. For many parents she has provided the inspiration to reconcile with their own children. In her new book, Just a Mom, Betty talks directly to parents, children, friends, teachers, employers, and politicians in a straightforward and heartfelt manner on homophobia and the destruction it causes in loving families and society at large. She counsels parents on how to react when their child tells them he or she is gay. She advises children on how to tell their parents and when. And, most importantly, she shows how to cross the divide of intolerance so families can be whole again. Now an activist and a national figure, Betty DeGeneres is a mother first, and in Just a Mom she is calling for love, compassion, and reconciliation for all gay men, lesbians, and their families from the bottom of a mother's heart.
Betty DeGeneres first gained national attention when her daughter Ellen came out on national television. Her first book, Love Ellen; A Mother Daughter Journey, told the story of her own journey to acceptance, pride, and finally activism. As a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, Betty speaks extensively on behalf of greater tolerance for gay men and lesbians, and writes an advice column on issues of coming out on PlanetOut.
- Alyson Publications
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Read an Excerpt
What the best and wisest parent wants
for his own child, that must be
what the community wants for all its children.
I remember hearing that when my friend Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother, met President Clinton, he took her aside and told her she was an inspiration to us all. He said Judy had gone out of her way to reach out to others with passion and courage, adding that she was a fantastic role model. Judy responded simply: "No, I'm just a mom."
The story brought tears to my eyes. Although our lives are very different, I know exactly what she meant. I feel the same way. No matter to whom I reach out, no matter where I speak, no matter who I touch or affect or change in some positive way, I am just a mom. And for that, I am grateful. I can't think of anything I'd rather be.
In the Beginning
If someone asked me to name the highlight of my life it would be the births of my two children. Nothing else comes close. Not that the act of giving birth was part of the highlight. But holding a tiny, brand-new human being in your arms obliterates the memory of pain. Which is why women do find the courage to give birth again.
Although I delighted in every age and stage of their childhood, my most treasured memories are of Vance and Ellen as babies. These days I laughingly tell new mothers, "Sit on them. They're grown up and gone before you know it."
Life passes so quickly. One day I was young, and the next time I glanced in the mirror a middle-aged woman stared back at me. As I recall, in those busy days of raising a family, I didn't have time to daydream and reflect about who these little people would grow up to be. Even if I had thought about those questions, it never would have occurred to me that Vance or Ellen could or would be gay.
Back then, being gay was the Great Unspoken, and the possibility never entered my thoughts. I didn't even know anybody who was gay. Or at least I didn't think I did.
One of the benefits of today's public dialogue about homosexuality is that we can learn to be more comfortable with the subject. While much of the talk is strident, hateful rhetoric, more and more we're hearing calm voices of reason. Since it is an unalterable, scientific fact that 3-10% of the world's population is homosexual, all parents should be aware that one or more of their children could grow up to be gay. In fact, my psychotherapist friend Dr. Jim Gordon thinks 10% is a low figure. With untold thousands of gay men and women still living in the closet, we have no accurate way of calculating how many homosexuals are not stepping forward for a head count.
Whatever the actual percentage is, we know it is significant. This fact lends support to parents who might feel they and their children are alone in their secret world. It also reinforces parents in their desire to raise children to be comfortable with who they are. I know of some wonderful instances of mothers and fathers who allow their boys to play with dolls and their girls to take apart motors. As parents, their goal is a noble one: to honor their children for being true to themselves.
Not Like Other Boys
Too many parents feel threatened if a child is not developing "normal" interests. Certainly Marlene Fanta Shyer felt threatened by this difference. She and her son, Christopher, have written a book together called Not Like Other BoysGrowing Up Gay: A Mother and Son Look Back.
Distressed by the differences she saw in Christopher when he was a child, Marlene went to a psychiatrist who gave her the most appalling, irresponsible, and damaging advice a doctor could ever give a mother: Do not hug your son.
Imagine the intensity of the feelings that would drive a woman to reject her child in such a way. Shame. Embarrassment. Confusion. And most of all, fear. Fear for herself and fear for her child. And fear of what others would think of her.
Although Marlene did everything the doctor told her to do to prevent her son from becoming a homosexual, Christopher grew up to be gay anyway. Because that is who he was. That is who he is. And that is who he always will be.
In Harm's Way
Our instinct as parents is to protect our children from pain, to keep them from harm's way. At its best, the world can be a challenge. At its worst, the world can be brutal. The knowledge that our child is gay brings with it the certainty that he or she will be subjected to suffering that we can neither deny nor prevent. Once our child departs the sanctuary of home, there is little we can do to protect him or her. This leaves us feeling angry and helpless. It also leaves us feeling confused. The primary reason for this is that we don't know what to do or how to help our child.
When Ellen came out to me 22 years ago, it dawned on me that my blond, blue-eyed daughter, who had experienced discrimination only in an abstract, indirect wayas it applied to other minority groups in the Southwould now become a target of people's prejudice. My beloved daughter would be called names and would be the object of ridicule simply because she acknowledged who she was. My daughter now belonged to a minority group.
Twenty-two years ago, all the negatives were out there, but then it only seemed like a pervasive kind of ignorance. Today the prejudice is meaner, nastiera vindictiveness rooted in hatred, not ignorance. It's hard to believe that most of this homophobic venom emanates from churches.
After Ellen came out to me, she started to build her career in stand-up comedy. In order to be successful in the hardball world of show business, she was convinced she had to hide her homosexuality. Consequently, I wasn't free to tell anyone that my daughter was gay.
I remember having dinner one night back then with my husband and two other couples when one of the men started in on gay people. He thought he was being very clever, and the others laughed at everything he said. I thought he was atrocious. I wanted to get up and leave. But I was stuck. I couldn't demonstrate my distaste for this man and what he said because I could not reveal Ellen's secret. I will never forget how much I hated that moment. And I will never forget how horrified I was. What makes me sad is that this kind of stupidity still happens today. Parents still sit quietly by while homophobes parade their prejudice in expectation of approval and applause.
Public ignorance, discrimination, and derogatory nicknames are familiar to all of us. None of us wants our child to be subjected to these things. Yet we're uncertain how to cope with the ramifications of our son's or daughter's homosexuality.
Usually, our first reaction is to wonder what we, as parents, did wrong. We ask ourselves if our child would have turned out heterosexual if we had followed different child-rearing rules. Were we too lenient with our son? Did we not offer our daughter enough opportunities to follow more feminine pursuits? And if we don't blame ourselves, we often search for someone else who might have caused this "problem." I heard about one mother who blamed her daughter's lesbianism on the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Ellen, and a gay-friendly teacherin that order. A little education on the subject can convince rational people that playing the blame game is pointless in regard to our child's sexuality. What we do or do not do does not make our children straight or gay. They are who they are. They are born that way.
I've already made it clear in Love, Ellen that I didn't go through that self-blame routine. That Ellen is a lesbian has no more to do with me than the fact that she has achieved major success in Hollywood. Neither of these facts is even remotely related to my skill as a parent.
Living the Meaning of Love
Although sometimes "different" just means unusual, all too often parents see signs of "differentness" in a young child that lead them to suspect the child might be gay, The first reaction is to ignore those signs. But disowning the obvious won't make the problem disappear. Neither will trying to redirect your child's attention or making derogatory remarks about gays and lesbians. Whatever you do, however you try to change the reality before you, when your "different" child grows up, you will still have a gay son or daughter.
Marlene Shyer is a perfect example of this. As she revealed in her book, she followed the experts' advice, and her son is gay anyway.
If we're lucky enough to know or strongly suspect that our child is gay when he or she is still young, it is our parental duty to ask ourselves what we can do to protect that child; what we can do to nurture him or her so he or she can grow into a whole, healthy, and happy human being.
I am reminded of the woman who wrote to Ellen after the coming-out episode. She learned her son was gay When he was 17 years old. "We're so glad he still has two years at home," she said, "so we can make him know what a great person he is." This mother did the best and most loving thing she could do when she learned her child was gay. Determined to make her son feel good about himself, she built his self-esteem, bolstered his feelings of self-worth, and let him know he would always be loved for who he is. And in doing so, she lived the meaning of love.
Fathers and Mothers
As gay youngsters grow into teens, they begin to question why they aren't attracted to the opposite sex. This is a crucial moment in the life of a child, a moment in which acceptance and approval by parents is critical. A boy strives to measure up in the eyes of his father, and a girl works to live up to her mother's expectations.
Dr. Jim Gordon points out that the same-sex parent is the most important role model a child has for his or her future growth. In approving his child's actions and behavior, a father accepts his son and validates his maleness. A mother helps her daughter define her femaleness in the same way.
Sometimes parents forget that they wield a kind of godlike power over their children. As a consequence, it is their God-given duty to use that power with love, kindness, and mercy. Because when parents withhold their seal of approval, they can devastate their childcondemning him or her to a lifetime of living on the fringes of emotional and psychological comfort.
A month or so ago I heard a story about a man named Stephen who grew up in privileged circumstances in New York City. His parents were wealthy and powerful members of the social elite. By the time Stephen was seven years old he was already showing 'signs of being gay. Instead of playing football, he liked to paint. Instead of playing Superman with the guys, Stephen liked to listen to music. For all intents and purposes, Stephen was a sissy. And his father was appalled.
To combat his son's errant tendencies, Stephen's father enrolled him in the Knickerbocker Grays, an elite military drill team that Stephen describes as a "classic snooty, WASP-y ritual with roots in the Civil War." Every Saturday morning, Stephen donned his gray wool uniform and joined his peers at the 7th Regiment Armory for endless hours of precision military drills. He marched, followed orders, and learned how to handle a rifle. He also participated in military parades and mock battlesall because his father "wanted to make a man of him." There was not one moment of this Saturday morning ritual that Stephen enjoyed. Not one moment that made him feel any better about himself.
Needless to say, Stephen was gay then and is gay now. The sad part of this tale is that in doing what his father asked him to do, Stephen was forced into understanding that his father didn't approve of who he was. Neither did his mother. Even though he is a loving and caring human being who has become an incredibly successful businessmanhe has rescued more than one corporation on the brink of failureStephen still has this voice inside that tells him he never measured up.
The Rules of the Game
When I was growing up, there was a right way and a wrong way to do things. Few children ever questioned this. Girls played house, and boys played ball. And we all played by the rules of the game. It never occurred to me to rebel against these rules. It never occurred to me to defy my parents' wishes. I was expected to be a good little girl. And I was.
With this in mind, when I was raising my own children, I repeated my childhood experience. As a parent, I had the same expectations of Vance and Ellen as my parents had of my sisters and me. When Ellen was eight or nine years old, I automatically assumed it was time for her to go to dancing school.
Even though Ellen was very much a tomboy and wanted nothing more than to keep up with her big brother, all the other girls took ballet classes, and I thought my daughter should too. She protested loudly, and I insisted that she at least come with me to watch a class in progress. Reluctantly, Ellen accompanied me to class and watched the young dancers do their tour jetés and pirouettes. She was not impressed. That was the end of my attempt to convince Ellen to become a dancer.
We talked recently about the fact that she was such a tomboy when she was a little girl. Ellen reminded me of the picture of her when she was three or fourhappily playing in cowboy boots, shorts, and a cowboy hat. I pointed out that she wore dresses to school and Sunday School and didn't seem to mind. "But I wasn't given any choice," she replied. She's right. Back then, girls didn't wear pants to school. It was unthinkable. Against the rules.
Ellen does say now that, looking back, she felt different but didn't know what to call it. She liked girls a lot and had many girlfriends. As she grew older, she says, she found girls and women more interesting than boys and men. Throughout her childhood, I remained clueless, I loved my daughter and accepted that she was a tomboythat she wanted no part of ballet classes and that she loved her baby dolls but never, ever wanted a Barbie.
Although I was aware of Ellen's tomboy leanings, it never occurred to me that she might be gay. And it certainly never occurred to me to withhold my love and support because she wasn't fulfilling my expectation of what a little girl should be. This was my daughter, a part of my heart. I loved her. I didn't label her.
I often wonder how gay women who didn't get that essential maternal endorsementwhether they were tomboys or notcope with their self-image. I suspect the ones who are well-adjusted and successful in life, love, and work are the ones who had mothers who validated who they were, even if they didn't conform to traditionally feminine ways. This confirmation of self, this testament to love, is the most priceless gift a parent can pass on to a child.
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