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My Child is Gay
How Parents React when they Hear the News
By Bryce McDougall
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2006 Bryce McDougall
All rights reserved.
Written by John Pugh from Perth. Bor n in Collie in 1932, John trained as a radiographer at Princess Margaret Hospital and then worked at Fremantle Hospital for 34 years. John and his wife, Margaret, were married in 1955 and have two sons, both of whom have been with their partners since 1980. In 1989 they met June, who was a member of the US support group, PFLAG. Together they initiated the first meeting of PFLAG in Wester n Australia on 2 December 1989.
Ona warm autumn day in March 1980, something was about to happen that would change the whole course of our family's life, something we never dreamed could possibly happen to us.
Jeff, our son, had been a bit 'uptight' for some time, but when he went off one day and didn't come home all night, by next morning my wife, Margaret, and I were naturally a bit worried. By lunchtime we were really concerned, but on hearing his car come into the driveway, a great feeling of relief came over us.
After some time, we were puzzled that he had not come inside and I was about to go out and voice my concern on his overnight absence. Margaret, however, restrained me, in a mother's knowing way, and said that we should wait a little while longer.
'I've got something to tell you,' Jeff said, when he finally came inside, 'perhaps you had better sit down.'
We seated ourselves in our lounge, Margaret next to Jeff and myself nearby. Many thoughts raced through my mind in those next few moments: drugs, trouble with a girl (on reflection, this thought is now quite funny), a felony of some kind, money problems — what could be worrying him? It was obvious something had him deeply troubled.
Then, with that tiny phrase 'I'm gay', our world was turned upside down.
From that moment our lives started on a new course, which was to bring untold tears, secrecy, frustration, confusion and also intense annoyance with people and their attitudes. We would, however, eventually find many new friends and a great joy that we have only found in the gay community.
In the minutes that followed Jeff's disclosure, we asked all the questions that parents seem to ask, I guess.
'How do you know you're gay?'
'How long have you known?'
'Are you sure? Perhaps you may change your mind later on.'
'Have you told anyone else?'
I remember saying, 'Isn't it wrong?'— something that I felt deeply sorry about afterwards. He gave us answers that we didn't particularly want to hear.
On that first day I guess we blundered around, somewhat stunned and not knowing what to do. Who could we talk to about homosexuality? Maybe we could find someone who would tell us it may only be a passing phase. Foolishly, I thought Jeff might change his mind when he found out what it was really all about.
Our elder son, Graeme, was out visiting his fiancée, Sue, at the time, so we rang him and asked him to come home because a family crisis had developed that we couldn't discuss over the phone. After arriving home and expressing his disbelief at the news, he suggested that we try to contact Gayline. So he and Margaret went across the road, to a public phone box, to be out of earshot, and rang Gayline.
The man on the phone only confirmed our worst fears. He said, 'If Jeff is 21 and has done a lot of soul-searching [as he said he had] and has come to the conclusion that he is gay, then to imagine him being able to live his life as heterosexual is quite impossible.' He said that we had to change our lives to accommodate the new person that had come into our midst.
Looking back, two things that the man on Gayline said proved to be very important to us at the time.
1. 'It is OK to be gay, you know.'
2. 'You, as parents, must be very special for Jeff to have come out to you first. Most gay people are afraid to do this because they fear their parents will react badly. Initially, they usually tell only siblings and close friends.'
I guess, at the time, this gave us a little lift. Many gay people that we have met over the years since have told us this. What they fear most about coming out is the adverse reaction of family members, particularly parents. Jeff said, years later, in a radio interview, that coming out to Mum and Dad was the hardest thing he had ever done.
At first we had many sleepless nights, wondering what to do. We realised that we knew so very little about homosexuality. We had never had the strong antagonism that lots of folk seem to have towards these 'other people', but, like many, we gave it little thought because it didn't concern us. In my ignorance I imagined that a 'good woman' was the answer for a gay man and likewise a 'good man' the answer for a lesbian woman. I certainly had a very long way to go.
So we began searching for information about homosexuality and commenced a long self-educating process. This gave us a much deeper understanding of homosexual people and their problems and changed many ideas and beliefs that we previously held, especially about sexuality in general. However, finding any positive reading matter in 1980 proved to be very difficult. Very little gay literature was readily available at that time. Besides, it's very hard to ask in libraries and bookshops for books about something that you are afraid to talk about. Nevertheless, in time we did become more bold, the fears gradually left us and our library of gay books grew steadily.
In the meantime, Graeme, in fear and concern, had to explain things to Sue. She was a close friend of Jeff, too, and although completely surprised, she took it in her stride. Jeff was her friend and whether he was straight or gay made no difference to her. She went to the top in our estimation. Jeff was best man at Graeme and Sue's wedding and there has been a strong bond between them ever since. This bond was extended to Jeff's partner, Graham, when he joined the family. Now there are children, and uncles Jeff and Graham are a popular part of their lives too. I anticipate and hope that they will grow up free of any prejudice towards homosexual people.
Until this time, we thought of ourselves as a happy, fairly normal, middle-class, suburban family — maybe we were a bit smug and complacent. Margaret and I both worked full-time. We were both very involved with and held positions in the Uniting Church. Our social life revolved around the church. However, our boys had long since decided that the church had no interest for them and we accepted that.
Our own disillusionment with the church probably began when AIDS raised its ugly head. The church had to be seen as caring for people with AIDS, but it was very careful not to be seen as accepting homosexuality. We tried, for some time, to educate people by becoming involved in various groups. Some people understood, but mostly they just felt sorry that we had this 'dreadful problem', a gay son. As time went by we became interested and involved with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. The MCC was founded, in 1969, in the USA by the Reverend Troy Perry, who was rejected by his own church because he was gay. It is now a rapidly growing church, particularly in America but also throughout the world. In the MCC we found a love and acceptance that we had not felt before in any other church to which we had belonged.
For a time, Margaret and I were involved in the Social Justice Working Group of the Uniting Church, and amongst the group members we found some wonderful support. However, one of the members told us once that the Social Justice group was the most hated group of the Uniting Church and naturally we came to this conclusion ourselves too. I guess, in the end we realised that all that was to be gained from the church was sympathy, not acceptance and understanding. Sympathy alone was something we could do without. So after much painful deliberation, we eventually severed our connection with the Uniting Church and started to direct our energy towards places where we felt the real need existed, like PFLAG and MCC.
We still feel that although the churches may be talking about the acceptance of homosexuality, when it comes to voting to accept openly homosexual persons, they will eventually back away. We hope we are proved wrong.
When Michael Chamberlain was asked in an interview if he had lost his faith, he said, 'No! but I have lost the baggage that went with it.' After shedding some of our baggage, we now feel privileged that we have been allowed to share in the love, joy, friendship, sufferings and sadness of the gay community. Unfortunately, however, there are still tears, frustration and sometimes intense annoyance at the attitudes some people, particularly 'Christians', show towards the homosexual issue and the gay people we have grown to love.
For a year or two after Jeff came out, I searched deeply, trying to find a reason for him becoming gay. Was there something we, as parents, had done or hadn't done? Had we treated him badly or differently from his elder brother? Had there been some major crisis that could have caused a psychological upset? Jeff assured us that the answer to all these questions was, 'No!' Nothing we had done or should have done would have made any difference.
As I saw it, Jeff had a good and perfectly normal childhood. He gave his mother few problems being born. Somehow we knew it was going to be a boy — even the doctor said so — despite the lack of ultrasound in those days. I guess most parents do their learning on the firstborn, so he had the benefit of some experience on our part. Although different in nature from his brother, he was still very much a boy. He developed the usual boisterous nature that boys have, managing to get hurt on many occasions. He loved his teddy bear and soon developed an attraction for toy cars and things mechanical. Of course, toys needed to be tough to survive rough treatment but we thought he was overdoing things when he tested the strength of a Matchbox toy in a workshop vice.
Jeff was always generous by nature and his money box always had to be accessible. If it wasn't, it was soon made to be, so he was usually broke. However, none of our family ever went without a birthday or Christmas present, even if it meant borrowing money to buy one. His membership in Cub and Scouts led to him becoming a Pack Leader, but his interest in Scouting waned a few years after joining a senior Scouts group.
Jeff was never keen on sporting activity but probably compensated, to some extent, by doing very well academically, winning top-of-the -class awards in two subjects in his final year at high school and gaining his Bachelor of Business degree with distinction.
Like most siblings, Jeff and Graeme fought with each other most of their young lives, but almost overnight, when they were fourteen and sixteen years old, their fighting stopped. We've often wondered why. Since then they've been good friends. From primary school days, both boys had positive ideas on their careers. Accounting was Jeff's aim in life and motor mechanics that of his brother. Both achieved their ambitions and have continued in these careers.
In the early times, we knew very little about gay relationships, and were a little concerned at what Jeff might do to this end. However, he had his own ideas on finding a partner, and this was by advertising in one of the local newspapers. So, in this way, he met Graham.
After Graeme and Sue were married, Jeff stayed on living at home for a month or so and one day casually asked us if we would mind if he moved out into a flat of his own. Naturally, we said that would be OK, as long as he was happy doing that. 'Oh well,' he said, 'as long as you don't mind, I'll be going now.' Anticipating our reply, he had things packed and was ready to leave.
So, all of a sudden, our family was gone, leaving Margaret and me with the strange, empty feeling you get when they all finally leave. You're glad, in a way, to see them go but deeply sad that they are not there to care for any more. All the activities that a family generates suddenly stop and a strange quiet seems to descend. Now both boys had gone, our elder son Graeme with his new wife and Jeff to a new friend unknown to us.
We first met Graham some time later when Jeff persuaded him to come to dinner with us one evening. He said he came trembling with fear. Naturally, we were concerned that Jeff may have teamed up with someone we would dislike. However, we should have had enough trust in Jeff's judgement to know he wouldn't choose just anyone. We took an immediate liking to Graham and he grew steadily to be like one of our family.
Apart from Graham's mum, it would be a few years before we met two other parents. With them and a number of gay people and their families we formed a small support group, Uniting Friends. But where were all the other parents? Our small group eventually disbanded, but during the fight for homosexual law reform in Western Australia in 1989–90, we joined in the parliamentary debate with many gays and lesbians and some parents. From this campaign, together with our friend June, we gathered together the parents of lesbians and gays that we knew and on 2 December 1989 PFLAG was born in Western Australia. A year or two later, one of the group members, Heather, moved to Sydney and started a PFLAG group there. PFLAG is now spreading throughout Australia.
So our dream for many years at last became a reality. A support group for parents at our own time of need would have been so wonderful.
I still get angry at parents who cannot or will not accept their child's homosexuality. Maybe they can't understand, but many won't even try. I still don't fully understand, all these years later. I guess that I never will, because I'm heterosexual. However, there is no real reason for parents to refuse to accept a gay son or lesbian daughter. What many people give as excuses are purely selfish matters that will upset their own lives and relationships. Isn't the life of a son or daughter worth more than that? I believe that the love we profess to have for our children is truly tested when we first hear that little phrase, 'I'm gay', from one of them. How we behave then will reflect the true depth of that love we profess to have.
Margaret and I are so grateful that Jeff had the courage to tell us first about his homosexuality. In retrospect, however, we were so sorry that he carried the burden alone for all of his teenage years.
We are happy that he has found a soulmate in Graham and that they have worked hard at maintaining a lasting, loving relationship.
I like to think that Jeff knew we loved him a lot when he first came out, and that he knew we would accept him, as he was, no matter what. I like to think that he was right.
Most helpful books:
My Son Eric
Coming Out: An Act of Love
But Lord They're Gay
Good News for Moder n Gays
Ex Gays? There are None!
Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?
Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Sexuality
The Church and the Homosexual
Yours with Pride: Letters to my Gay Son
Now That You Know
* * *
Written by Deirdre Monk from Tasmania. Deirdre is president of PFLAG's branch in Hobart and is a proud mother and community and volunteer worker. A self-professed 'bad violin player', Deidre is an avid music lover.
I have known about our daughter's sexuality since 1990. She was then in her mid-twenties, and she was living in Western Australia. She is a master puppeteer and was working over there.
She announced that she was in love with another woman and was lesbian in a phone call one Friday evening. I can recall the time, day and date and what I was watching on TV. I never did see the finish of The Prince and the Show Girl.
The news came as a great shock to me and it took a long time for it to sink in. I woke my husband and tried to tell him, but he was not a lot of help. First reactions were, what will people say? I want my daughter to have children. I want grandchildren. Where have we gone wrong? Who is to blame? All of the usual reactions that you have heard before.
I handled it alone for a while; my husband was not keen to discuss it. We both accepted the fact and kept in mind that she was still our lovely daughter and we would never turn our back on her.
My daughter and I wrote long, revealing letters for twelve months before we actually were reunited on a trip home for Christmas. She wanted to bring her partner of that time with her, but I had to refuse as we really could not handle it so early in the process of coming to terms with the whole thing.
The reunion was a happy one and we needed that time to get used to the idea that we had a lesbian daughter. We have since met her partner and have had them here to stay. Their relationship is now over and Heather has not formed another relationship. The biggest heartache I have is that she will grow old and lonely and perhaps not have someone to love and comfort her in her older years.
I think I was guilty of being homophobic in the past. I was ignorant about the subject and didn't want to know about it. But when it comes to your own family, it creates a very different situation.
I have come a long way in my understanding of homosexuality, but I still need a great deal of support and sometimes it's easy just to sit down and have a good cry. My husband has a long way to go before he reaches the stage that I am at, and finds it hard to discuss homosexuality with male friends and family members. Yet he is very understanding and loves our daughter very much.
Having formed the PFLAG support group has been a great leap forward for me and I can really feel just how it was for my daughter when she came out for the first time. Now I have been in print I feel I have come out to the wider community. Last week I wrote a letter to the Mercur y dealing with the concerns we have as parents about the extension of prison terms for the criminal code, which includes homosexual acts between consenting adults. This would now bring a 25-year prison term should they be convicted. I have had nothing but favourable comments since it was printed and the support and love out in the community is very comforting.
Excerpted from My Child is Gay by Bryce McDougall. Copyright © 2006 Bryce McDougall. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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