My mom has been a huge source of support for me throughout my life. When I first admitted to her that I had a crush on a girl nearly six and half years ago (wow!), I wasn’t sure of the effect it would have on our relationship. Up until then we had been very close, but would we be able to handle such a significant change? Not only did we handle it, my coming out to her allowed us to become closer and learn from each other. It wasn’t always easy, but my mom always did her best to listen to what I had to say. She respected me enough to trust my own instincts about my sexuality and asked questions so that she could better understand what I was going through. I feel so fortunate that this amazing woman has been a part of my journey. I asked her some questions about her experiences with my coming out and how my exploration of my sexual orientation has affected her. I hope that her responses will resonate with other parents of LGBT children and maybe provide a source of advice and inspiration.
You were one of the first people I called after I first realized I wasn’t straight. What do you remember about that experience? What was going through your head at that point?
So much was going on then. I was just trying to adjust to having you at college. You were lonely that first semester. That made me sad, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. You didn’t have a great roommate situation, which also made me sad. I don’t remember having a significant reaction when we first spoke on the phone. Your coming out isn’t anything I had expected, but then again I can’t say we talked much about deep thoughts previously, so even if you had been questioning while in high school, I wouldn’t have known. I feel as if I just wanted to know more about what you were going through. I trusted you to know your own heart. I think we had enough respect for each other in our family.
I actually don’t remember too much about that phone call either. I guess that’s a good thing, that it was almost a non-event. You say it’s not what you expected– can you talk more about that? Why do you think that is?
I’m sure I felt, as I was trying to figure it out, “I hope it’s a phase.” I want you to have as happy a future, and as happy an adulthood, as you can. While “hoping it is a phase” is a natural reaction, it also reflects the lack of my understanding of the depth of gender and sexuality.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Is there anything you feel you would have done differently?
I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I do wish I had a broader view of LGBT issues. My knowledge base was gay or not gay; straight or lesbian. You helped me become aware of other possibilities regarding gender and sexuality.
That’s great! Let’s talk about some of the things you did right (like being open to listening, not passing judgment, etc.). Why do you think you were able to listen and be accept my sexuality when some others aren’t?
LOVE… and because I am AWWWWESOOOME! It is hard to say why and how. This is who I am. I think I feel secure in my life; I know I am loved and accepted– thank your dad for that. This makes it easier to love and be accepting in turn. Faith also has a lot to do with how I feel. Besides that, I have seen how being insecure and close-minded can be so hurtful to oneself and to others. Why would I want to cause you pain? In turn I would be creating much pain in my life, as well.
Does your Catholic background/faith clash with your feelings toward LGBT folks? How do you feel you personally can reconcile the two?
My tolerance comes from my Christian upbringing. I believe I have always embraced a “Golden Rule” philosophy [treat others as you would like to be treated]. Isn’t it ironic? “Christians” are often the ones who denounce homosexuality as sinful. Love is love. Christ charges me to love others. Respecting others and being non-judgmental is a form of love. I attribute so much of my comfort and understanding of gender and sexuality issues to you and your sisters.
You and I have talked about both of us going through a mourning period when I came out, can you talk more about that?
I think most parents feel their child will pretty much follow in their footsteps. Dad and I did not venture far from home. We lived what we defined as traditional lives. I think “mourning” is too strong a word but I did have to make an adjustment to the future I thought you would have. (We both did!) Mourning implies a loss with no chance of anything else. I think of the poem “Welcome to Holland”. This isn’t the life I planned for you but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good life. I can, and do, say this with full confidence and acceptance. Also when I say this isn’t the life I planned for you, in reality, it isn’t my place to have a plan for your life. I gave you a childhood, a history, a base from which you can become the person you are meant to be. When you came out, our family was already going through adjustments because of Dad’s MS. I suppose any visions of an expected future were already in question. I just wanted you to have a happy future available to you. I wanted you to be able to have children if that was something you wanted. I still want those things for you. As a mother, I know the joy motherhood brings to life and I am naturally concerned about anything that might interfere with your own dreams of becoming a mother. Having children while not in a heterosexual relationship (in my opinion) would bring a level of financial and emotional issues that Dad and I didn’t face. How will you get pregnant? Will you use a donor? Will he be someone you know, or a stranger? Will you do in vitro (cha-ching!)? Will you be doing all of this alone or will you have a partner?
That’s something I think a lot about too, but I remind myself that having a child was always going to present its own challenges, whether I was straight or not. Are there any other things you worry I’ll have to face because I am queer?
Initially I was concerned our family might treat you different. That ended up being a non-issue. Our extended family has three other females who identify as lesbians. I believe there is support in that. My siblings and adults of my generation support each other and the cousins support each other too. We know we can relate to each other. We know we can talk with each other if we feel the need.
The way I identify has changed quite a bit over the years, from gay to pansexual and beyond. How has it been keeping up with the changes in my identity/keeping all the terminology straight?
First, and foremost, I would not have been able to keep up if you and I were not able to communicate about it. You are willing to listen to my questions and answer them with compassion. I remember a couple times in which you had trouble answering my questions because you were still trying to figure it out yourself. I never felt there were any defensive feelings. It was always an easy flow of conversation.
How have your perceptions of LGBTQ people changed since I came out?
I feel I am pretty tolerant and open-minded. Growing up, I did not know any gay people, well, I wasn’t close to any gay people. So my tolerance was really more an ideal. I will admit to a “them vs. us” mentality while growing up, which I believe is generational. “They” were different. I didn’t truly understand why or how a man would love a man or a woman love a woman. I think this is human nature. We can’t truly understand things until we place ourselves in a position to learn about [people who are different from us]. There was no reason for me to give it much thought because I did not have any queer people in my life.
Truthfully, I think some people get caught up with the issue of sex instead of love. I know of family members and others who had feelings of “disgust” regarding homosexual sex. If that is a block in a parent-child relationship, it must be addressed and resolved. Just as in heterosexual relationships, sex is only one component of a loving relationship. Sex between two people is nobody’s business beyond the couple involved. A child does not want to know about mom and dad’s sexual relationship. Take the idea of your child’s sexual relationship out of the equation. Focus on the overall well-being of your child.
To be honest, I am still not sure how I will feel if you fall in love with a woman and bring her home and she becomes a part of our family. Then again, I am not sure how I will feel when your sisters bring home a guy to become a member of our family. The concept is still a bit foreign to me; opening my heart to someone you love. Will that person be big enough for me to trust with your welfare? That’s not gender-based, that’s just being a mom.
How do you navigate a situation when someone (a friend of yours or someone else not in the know) assumes I’m straight?
Mostly they ask if you are in a relationship. If they don’t know you well enough, I simply say no. Actually, even those who know you are not straight, I still just say no. Even if they ask if you have met any nice, young men— I don’t feel the need to go into detail. When you find someone special, I will have no trouble sharing.
I cherish your right to privacy. If I sense a person is asking about your dating status out of routine curiosity rather than a sincere desire to know about your well-being, I will redirect the conversation to another topic. I do not want to go into personal matters. On the other hand, if a friend truly cares and supports you, I will gladly share. I have told many people you came out while in college in the course of normal conversation. If there is a genuine and respectful interest in continuing the conversation, I will.
What advice would you give to parents of kids who are coming out or who are struggling to accept their kid’s identity?
My advice won’t help anyone if they don’t first have an open mind and a loving heart. We don’t own our children. Our children will live their own lives. They will make their own choices, many of which we might not choose for ourselves. Perhaps we parents need to go back in time to when we were teens and young adults and remember how we felt when our parents didn’t always “get us.” Remember when our younger self had to explain or defend personal choices. We need to remember how scary it could be to reveal thoughts and state opinions to our parents. Remember how we wished our parents would just listen and not judge. Remember how we wanted our parents to love and support us even if they didn’t agree with us. We need to return to the thoughts of our younger self so we can better understand the position our children are in here in the present. We need to remember to love each other.
Audrey Benedetto is a writer, artist, and human being who currently lives in Manhattan. Her passion for gender, sex, and race issues began in college and influences how she sees and moves through the world. She enjoys karaoke, long walks, and french bulldogs. Audrey is constantly learning and would like to share some of what she’s picked up along the way.