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ON BEING A GAY PARENT
Making a Future Together
By Brett Webb-Mitchell
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 Brett Webb-Mitchell
All rights reserved.
COMING OUT "I'M GAY!" "MOM, DAD ... I'M GAY!" "HONEY, I'M GAY!" "KIDS ... YOUR DAD IS GAY!"
Telling them was as hard in some ways as I had anticipated ... my eldest (though) said "Oh, mother, we've known for years." —Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, Ret.
A BIZARRE "UNOFFICIAL" OFFICIAL RITE OF PASSAGE
As a pastor, I have a deep respect for the power of rituals. Leading worship Sunday after Sunday, I have been moved by the power of rituals to shape the collective action of a group of people who come from all kinds of backgrounds and histories. Our personal stories are suddenly put on the "back burners" of life, and on the front burners, we focus upon the corporate, communal gestures of being the body of Christ in the flesh. When I celebrate the Eucharist, I am fully mindful and in awe that the words I am repeating are, literally and figuratively, as old as the Church. When I baptize infants during worship, I recognize that their parents and I are part of a great lineage of other disciples in the midst of a greater throng of people (saints here and above) who "baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
In families large and small, as well as in corporate gatherings, clubs, support groups, and communities of faith, we understand that rituals have a way of shaping us as a group and as individuals as we have ways of shaping rituals in our communities of significance, like families and communities of faith. For example, on the one hand, when we participate in the religious ritualistic practices of the Jewish or Christian faith, our identity as "Jew" or "Christian" is shaped and nurtured. In the Christian tradition, we know we are the body of Christ through the liturgical rituals of worship, including the praying of prayers, the recitation of Scripture, the communal confession of sins, and active participation in the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism. These rituals and their elements remind us of who we are—Christians—and whose we are: God's own people, and co-pilgrims with Christ.
On the other hand, the rituals that we practice are passed down, generation to generation, and change within generations and among cultures. They are, after all, mostly human inventions. In the Christian tradition, the Church took the Old Testament prophet John's ritual of baptism and, based on the baptism of Jesus, made it a Christian rite of passage into the greater life of the Church. Likewise, the eucharistic celebration mirrors elements of the Jewish Passover seder meal in which Jesus took the unleavened bread of Passover and a cup of wine and reconfigured and blessed their elements. The meal became a communal supper that continues to shape and nurture those who desire fellowship with one another in the spirit of Christ.
As Christian communities have rituals that are commonly referred to as "rites of passage" into a body of believers, those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered also experience ritual. One of the first, strangest, almost bizarre, "unofficial" yet necessary rituals of growing up GLBT is what has commonly been referred to as "coming out" to one's family members, friends, associates, and even people we do not even know. For many, this is where the journey of being GLBT starts, with the day that one comes out to the world. Coming out is a rite of passage that is specific to gays and lesbians but not to heterosexuals. I have never heard my children tell me they are straight, but most people who are straight do not have to "come out" and tell his or her parents that he or she is not gay or lesbian. Such is the power of being in the majority versus those of us who are in the minority.
The reason for this coming-out ritual? Most census records and statistics show that up to 98 percent of lesbian and gay people were raised in heterosexual/straight-headed families. With the rise of more gays and lesbians being in coupled, long-term relationships and having children (80 percent of gay and lesbian couples stay together for over a year) and bearing children (either through adoption, medical intervention, former heterosexual relationships, or foster guardianship), there will be a slow decline in this overall number. Thus, the vast majority of LGBT people have gone through this "coming out" ritual or rite of passage.
What is it that we are "coming out" from? In the LGBT community, the common reference is to the "closet" in which we have hidden. Granted, there are the somewhat cynical jokes that we were in the closet because we loved the clothes, but in a very real sense, we were in the figurative (if not literal) closet in our households because we were hiding. We were hiding from ourselves, hiding from others, from God, and hiding from the world. We did not want to be found out, because we were either embarrassed or ashamed. The image of the closet is powerful, for in all variations of games of "hide-and-seek" played indoors, the closet is one of the best places to hide when you don't want to be found. Coming out is literally and figuratively not wanting to be in the proverbial "closet" anymore, breathing stale air, feeling uncomfortably stuffy because of all the clothes—and other souls—who are not able to figure out how to get out.
The courage to come out of the closet, to be found, to tell the world who we are, should not be belittled or rushed. While some people are, unfortunately, pushed out of the closet, many people come out of the gay closet when they feel or sense that it is the right time, among the right people, in the appropriate context.
Here is the literally "bizarre" part of the ritual of coming out: sooner or later, we who are LGBT "come out." Yet, unlike all the rituals and traditions of a church or synagogue, which are written in books with extensive commentaries on each and every nuance, there is no official manual or even a pamphlet. Even for family rituals, there are self-help books that provide such guidance. There is nothing in the LGBT section of bookstores or libraries that specifically tell us "How To Come Out to Family and Friends in Five Easy Lessons," with various options, tactics, and suggestions. The places we learn about the process or rituals of coming out are through books, movies, DVDs, television miniseries, and, in a serendipitous way, from our friends or other LGBT people.
Is coming out and living honestly and openly necessary? Yes, for our own spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health. Living truthful lives—like our straight friends and acquaintances do—reduces the kinds of stress that can impede good health. And while there are too many books to name that tell us that our mothers (but not fathers) always knew we were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, from personal experience, I can say that many mothers, as well as fathers, may have had the intuitive sense that something was "different" about us, but many parents preferred to bury this information deep in their subconscious than deal with the reality that their child was not straight. Denial is common for LGBT people and for our family and friends.
In most families, there are at least three elements of the coming-out process: first, coming out to one's. self; second, coming out to one's significant other (perhaps a spouse or parents); and third, coming out to the children. Even if a child is born within the context of having two moms or two dads, because the majority of the world is composed of people who are straight, children will, sooner or later, ask why their household is a little different from someone else's family at school, in church, or on the playground.
COMING OUT TO ONE'S SELF
The first person I had to come out to was myself. Coming out was a slow process, and being honest with myself only happened by being honest and open with others in my life. Being open or coming out of the closet to yourself is like looking in a mirror and saying "I'm queer," which is a good first step. But the real test is being out to someone else. In my case, I looked in the mirror once and said to the visage looking back at me, "You are gay; you are a faggot; you are a big ol' homo; you are a radical faerie; you are queer as they come; you make new marks on the Kinsey scale." But my coming out was validated and gained the weighty heft of truth and honesty when I came out to my partner Dean. Being fully open with him that I was gay was also the way that I was open with myself that I am gay ... call it double-involvement or double-revelation.
It is in relationships and fellowship with others who are gay that I also came to understand that God created me to be who I am: a son of God, loved by Christ, accompanied by the Spirit, who also happens to be gay. Coming out to Dean and to myself was also coming out to myself in God. Granted, I had prayed long and hard, asking God to take away this desire to be with other men, to make me straight and date women. This is what I had been taught in groups like Young Life and Inter-Varsity when they covered sections of high school and college life, respectively: to be a normal, God-loving and God-fearing Christian man was to be straight and date women, marry a woman, and have children with her. Their theological anthropology was the closet that I cowered in. In such Christian groups, I did not need anyone else to create a closet for me: I built my own closet and fortified it, thanks to the assistance of others in these groups. But it was also in these nondenominational evangelical groups that I met other closeted LGBT people, equally cowed into closets of their own making. Thus, it took a community of people to build a closet, and it took a community of people to deconstruct it.
One caveat: once I was out of the closet of homophobia (which is the timber of these closets), I have been surprised at how often the closet reconstructs itself, and I am again forced to come out, be open, admit with a right amount of pride (not the kind that is vice driven) that I am a son of God—and gay. It seems that for my lifetime I will be known as the gay pastor.
COMING OUT TO ONE'S SIGNIFICANT OTHER
This isn't always the case, but for some of us who have either been dating or were married to someone of the opposite sex and sexual orientation, this is a crucial next step in the concentric rings of "coming out": coming out to those close to us.
For me, seeing and being around more gay and lesbian couples, along with being in love with Dean, made me realize that something had to give and something had to change. My wife Pam was aware of my attraction to men and their attraction to me, but neither of us talked about it much through the years, except for certain times in which my relationships with specific men seemed to take my time, energy, and attention away from her. I was simply and matter-of-factly in love with most of these other married men, and they with me, but because we were both married and scared, I always returned home. To some, I used Pam as a "skirt to hide behind," which may be true. I have found that the courage to be open and honest is more rare and special than I thought, especially when I am around not only gay dads and lesbian moms who are out, but as I watch the awkward dance and games that hidden gays and lesbians still play.
COMING OUT TO ONE'S PARENTS
My mental image of someone coming out to his parents, gleaned from scores of films and books, usually involved sitting in a living room, dining room, or parlor (if European or English). The young man sits across from his mother and father, and says something monumentally simple, such as "Mom, Dad, I'm gay." Then either there is a burst of tears from the mother, who covers her face as the father runs away angrily, or both parents look down at the floor and quietly say, "We thought something was going on, but didn't know how to ask about it." But sooner or later, with or without the help of a therapist, the family comes together again and deals with "it," the "it" being the homosexual condition of the beloved son.
These scenarios seem, well, easy and systematic. I was forty years old when I finally came out to my former wife, my parents, and my children. It was my now-partner Dean who encouraged me to come out to my parents during a Christmas vacation. First, I came out to my mom in the car while driving to pick up one of my children from a play date. She reminded me how she almost had me see a therapist when I was in college. She demanded that I tell my father, too. Later, we were all sitting around the living room, drinking wine. With my former wife and my mom waiting, I remember digging my cracker into soft cheese and saying, "Dad, I need to tell you something important to me, and us: I'm gay." No lightning bolt, though the room was silent. He asked my mom, "Did you know about this?" She answered that she did. His concerns included how we were doing, what would happen with the children, and, for my dad, the eternal concern: how would this revelation affect my retirement and health benefit package from Duke.
Then Dean and I took my parents out for coffee at a nearby health-food store for a cup of coffee and gave them permission to ask any question they had under the moon, stars, and sun about our relationship or about my being gay. This allowed us to share our thoughts and feelings openly and gave us permission to discuss our frustrations and sadness. Finally, we resolved some old hurts and wounds caused by my keeping the secret that I am gay.
And now I had to tell my children.
COMING OUT TO ONE'S CHILDREN
Unlike many gay and lesbian young people, as a father in his forties, my coming out was slightly different from that of a younger person. Getting through the first three tiers of coming out—self, spouse, and parents—was one thing. Telling my children that I would be moving out, that life would be a different because daddy is gay, was moving into uncharted waters. I did not have any stories, narratives, maps, checklists, or guideposts to figure out to handle the telling or to predict their reactions would be.
By the time we sat down with our children, I had moved out of the master bedroom that I shared with Pam and was now sleeping in the downstairs guest bedroom. The children knew that I had moved out of the bedroom I shared with their mom. Adrianne was seven years old, and Parker was four. I had heard from others and had read in several books that the earlier you tell children that a mom or dad is lesbian or gay, the easier it will be on them. As the rest of this book will show, this was not quite what happened.
Adrianne remembers that when I told them that I was going to be moving out and that I was gay, it was one of the few times in her memory that I had cried openly. Parker was too young to know what was happening and had adjusted to the daily and weekly routine of Mommy and Daddy living apart for most of his life. Pam and I stressed that we both loved them, even though we would not be living together. We have kept "on" this message through the years, letting the children ask me, my partner, or their mom any and all questions pertaining to our love and care for them.
At one time, my mom wanted me to stay in the marriage and not tell the children that I was gay until they both graduated from high school. The reason? To protect the children. But as I told her then, there would be times as they grew up through middle and high schools that I would ask them to be honest and forthright with me about what was going on in their lives. I could not imagine turning to them when they were graduating from high school and saying, "By the way, I have been living a lie for all these years. While I love your mom, I am gay."
CHILDREN OF GAY AND LESBIAN PARENTS COMING OUT
In recent years, many children of lesbian and gay parents have come out to the world. Some of them are calling themselves "queerspawn," telling the world around them that their parent or parents are gay or lesbian. I read somewhere that one child decided that, like his lesbian parents, he is going to change the world for gay and lesbian people "one homophobe at a time."
Our children also experience the emotional and spiritual weight of having to "come out" too, and this is not to be taken lightly. I have asked and will continue to ask my children if it is all right that I call them by their names in books and articles, or if they'd prefer pseudonyms; they emphatically say, "Of course we want you to use our real names!"
* * *
As always, I am surprised at the resiliency of children and families. Even though honesty seems to be a rare quality these days, when people are taking the courageous step of "coming out," even when it may be painful for some to hear or grasp, the virtues of courage, self-control, and respect should be recognized in that process.
While there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for coming out—or for any of the other issues or themes in this book—below are some pointers that may be helpful in the process of coming out.
Excerpted from ON BEING A GAY PARENT by Brett Webb-Mitchell. Copyright © 2007 by Brett Webb-Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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