Written by Gayle Starling Melvin
Shock. Disbelief. Sadness. Guilt. Undeniably devastating feelings. Yet these emotions invaded the mind of *Mary Smith, longtime active member of the UCC, immediately after she learned that three of her four children were gay. Each child came to her separately with the news.
In 1979, her only son, then 18 and a recent high school graduate, approached her. His mother was the first person that he had "come out to." "You can tell my sisters," he told her, "but please, don't tell Dad. I'm afraid he'll be ashamed of me." Numb, Smith did her best to reassure her son that she was there for him, but admitted, "When I walked out of the room, I had myself a good cry."
Later that year, while her son was away at college, Smith made a point to learn everything she could about homosexuality, relying on support from friends and counseling sessions to help her cope. "You think it's your fault," Smith says. "At the time my son told me he was gay, I was divorced. I thought, maybe if his father had been around, this would not have happened, when in fact, that was not the truth. Being divorced did not hamper my son's relationship with his father."
Confused and highly curious, Smith learned through her research about the support group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She started attending meetings and began sorting out her feelings. The meetings were small but effective and, for the first time, she felt relieved to be able to talk freely about her child and her concerns with people who understood.
Life was finally settling in and Smith had accepted her son's homosexuality. Then in 1982, her second eldest daughter gave her an unexpected jolt. Smith had become concerned that her daughter was not dating anyone. She was pretty, popular and had friends, so why didn't she have a boyfriend? She asked her and discovered a truth that brought back some of the same emotions from three years earlier. Her daughter acknowledged to being lesbian.
Smith was stunned. She couldn't help but remember times when she had been guilty of anti-gay joking and aversive innuendos about gays. Now the facts were staring her in the face. She had two children openly admitting to her they were gay. What now? She didn't love her children any less by this news. But what would people say? She came to one conclusion. It didn't matter.
Having recently re-located to her hometown, Smith tuned in to a television program discussing gays in her community. At the end of the program, there was a "hotline" number to call for more information. Interested in knowing if there was a PFLAG chapter in her area, she called. When told there was no such organization nearby, she set about the task of founding one. With her own personal contributions, Smith became the founder of the PGLAG chapter of her home city. Plans were made and in July 1985, the local newspaper ran a story and meeting notice about PFLAG. At the first meeting 12 women showed up. The next meeting, three people came. During the time right after the notice ran, Smith received a death threat. But, she was not one to be easily discouraged. Happy about the prospect of future meetings and knowing that it took time to reach people and be productive, she felt that at last she was finding a source of contentment and peace with her newfound co-members all sharing life experiences and similar sentiments.
For the next three years, Smith came to grips with the fact that her two children were gay, but as president of PFLAG, she had certainly heard her share of vile stories and wondered if her children would become victims of hatred and bigotry. How could she protect them from life's cruelties and prejudices? She realized all too well that the greatest hurdle gay people and their loved ones had to overcome was fear. What kind of future is there for the person who comes out? With hate crimes running rampant, people were justifiably afraid to have their sexual orientation leaked. Smith recalls, "At one meeting, I heard about a man who told his parents he was gay. His father left the room and came back with a gun. ‘Just take care of it,' his father told him. I couldn't believe that someone would rather see their child dead than to accept their homosexuality. Another man was the eldest of seven children. He helped care for his brothers and sisters and naturally they all looked up to him. At age 21 he confronted his parents, confiding to them he was gay. They looked at him and calmly told him he had to leave. Under no circumstances was he to contact them or his siblings. And then they moved...physically moved out of town away from him. I used to see him regularly at meetings. I don't see him anymore, so I can only assume the worst." Smith also describes her personal "death of expectations." "You realize this isn't the life you envisioned for your children. You expect them to marry and have children so you can be a grandparent. But then you realize, this is your dream, not theirs. You have to deal with it." Then there were the good stories where people "felt relieved and invigorated" by coming out. The burden of keeping it secret was gone. It gave them peace of mind.
1988 brought yet another juncture. Smith's youngest daughter approached her telling her that she too was gay. "I don't know why, but this one got to me," says Smith, "I guess it's because she's my youngest and you always want to protect your youngest child. I cried and cried. I honestly don't know what I would have done without my friends from PFLAG. Initially I felt the three stages that one goes through after learning that a loved one is gay. First, I wished that none of my children were gay. Second, I thought, well, it's OK as long as they are still wonderful people. And, third, it's no big deal." While Smith's son is "openly"gay, her daughters have resigned themselves to the fact that for now, they must remain "closeted." They fear the loss of their jobs, friends, places in the community and harassment. Smith regrets that her daughters feel uneasy about sharing their lifestyles openly, but until society fully accepts gays as being part of the mainstream, some still feel forced to live in the closet.
Being gay gives way to addressing certain pertinent, everyday issues. One is the office. "Gays, especially men, are afraid it will slip," comments Smith. "On Monday morning people talk about what they did over the weekend, maybe with their girlfriends, boyfriends or families, and the gay individual is reluctant to join in because they just don't relate in the same way. They don't want their ‘gayness' to get out. Office parties crop up with spouses or significant others invited and gays are forced to leave their partners at home."
Is Smith proud of her children? Emphatically. Besides being honest, good, Christian people, all are highly successful. Two are in the medical profession and two work with the arts. She doesn't flinch when someone asks her about them, though she admits she still has some fear for their safety. "When it's appropriate and safe, I tell people that three of my children are gay. Without fail, whenever I tell someone about my kids, they always have someone to tell me about. Whether it's a sister a brother or friend, everybody has some connection with a gay person."
There are many people who harbor the fact they are gay and marry as though they were heterosexual. "Recently, on a airplane," says Smith, "I met a man who told me he had a friend who had just divorced his wife after realizing he was gay. Unfortunately gay people marry heterosexuals for the wrong reasons, those being denial, convenience or cover up, or to have children. All of this is wrong."
Today Smith feels blessed. Her children are healthy, happy, prosperous and content. Currently, her local PFLAG chapter consists of more than 30 people at each meeting. "It makes me happy to see both parents at these meetings," states Smith. "It's vital that the child has support from the mother and the father." One of the biggest compliments Smith ever received was from her son when he shared with her the fact he was gay. "As his mother it meant a great deal to me," maintains Smith. "For my son to feel that he could come to me with anything, whether it be a problem or a triumph, says a lot about our relationship. I love my children and they all feel comfortable enough to confide in me. It's not a death sentence if parents learn that a child is gay, and the parents are by no means a failure."
Smith is quick to point out that being gay is NOT by choice. She says, "Homosexuality is a natural variation of life just like everything else. You just don't happen to decide you are gay, you just are. It's not a fad. I had a lot to learn about the fallacies, myths and stereotypes that have hounded gay people. It's been a great learning and growing experience and it has made me look at other prejudices differently."
To the people in the church who have a problem with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgendered persons, Smith says, "There's no religion that's going to tell me my children are bad. I thank God for the UCC. People should forget about someone's gayness and just ask themselves, ‘What kind of people are they?' Then just open up and pray for 30 days asking God to reveal an answer to you. See what you come up with. I believe you will come up with the fact that these are still God's children—the ones we baptized and promised to look over with love and affection."
Maybe this would be a good way to look at everyone all of the time...not only when we are dealing with what might be considered a sexual stigma. Only then will the fear, repugnance and bias associated with homosexuality be dispelled.
*Anonymous by request—Mary Smith is a UCC member where her church is actively engaged in the Open & Affirming process. Her father was an Evangelical and Reformed Minister.