Coming out is a process for most people, myself included. I tried to write about it and realized that to do so in one post would be possible but not ideal. For me, it was an evolution. A collection of starts, stops, and pauses. I will write it as such.
Read previous installments in the Coming Out series.
Lessons my mother taught me.
My mom is a pretty amazing person who has taught me a lot of very important things in life. One of those is that we should always try to treat people fairly. Race, religion, and sexuality (et cetera) are not indicators of someone’s worth, morality, or ability to be a good person. She was essentially going on about just this very thing on the day that I came out to her.
After coming out to my older brother, the only person in my immediate family that I truly considered to be a friend, I realized that my mom was the next most likely to be cool with it. Our relationship was pretty tough when I was a kid but it got better while I was in college. As an adult, I was able to put some of our issues aside, relax, and do fun activities with her. And, since we had been enjoying our new-found friendship, it wasn’t that hard to find a good moment to bring it up. The real challenge was actually saying the words.
About nine months had passed since I had first told my best college friend, Emily, and since then I had come out to dozens of people at school and a handful at home. One day, during a short visit home from school, my mom and I were in the car and the perfect conversation presented itself.
On the way to a shopping adventure, something on the radio about interracial dating got us to talk a bit about my grandmother. She had been fairly racist when she was alive and my mom told me a story about how she had argued with my grandmother about interracial dating and recounted how she [my mom] had said, “I don’t care if my kids date black people. I don’t care if my kids date Jewish people. I don’t care if my kids are gay. Why would I care? As long as they’re happy, I’m happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
My mom had said similar things to me in the past but it had never meant so much before. This was the opening that I had wanted. I stressed about it for the rest of the day, through our drive, then shopping, lunch…more shopping. We were back in the car and about ten minutes from my dad’s house (where she was going to drop me off) when I finally found a shred of courage.
I just blurted it out. Right there in the car. I said that had some news for her: I was bi and intended to date both women and men. Then, I took a deep breath and waited.
And waited. And waited.
It took about 15 seconds or so for my mom to say, “okay.” That was the last thing she said for the few minutes that we had left on our car ride before she let me out at my dad’s place. She was clearly shell-shocked. Suddenly, so was I. I got a goodbye and a hug when I got out of the car but no conversation about my admission. No questions, no statements, no “I love you.”
Whatever I was hoping for, it hadn’t happened. My mom is amazing in a lot of ways but she’s never been much of a nurturer. I suppose that I knew that she wouldn’t make some big scene but I had certainly not imagined that she would completely avoid talking to me about what I was telling her.
In retrospect, it was incredibly naive of me. This is the woman who never talked to me about menstruation, sex, or any number of other sensitive coming-of-age issues.
I was so hurt. In the past, my steps out of the closet had been followed with an immediate sense of relief. I would get nervous, share, take a deep breath, get a positive response, and then feel a lightness in my chest. That positive reinforcement is what allowed me to keep telling people.
My mother is a nice person and she loves me. While her reaction was disappointing, it was nowhere near as bad as some of the reactions that my other gay friends had received or that I’d read about. Not that that mattered. This event was still crushing for me.
I had begun to live my life as part of the gay community at school and was well on my way to integrating my queerness into my sense of self-image. It was no longer some barely realized notion that I squirreled away, outside the limits of my everyday self-contemplation. It was a part of me, as important (if not more so) than any other part. I belonged to the gay community like I belong to my family or my hometown.
By declining to show any interest in (or even recognition of) my romantic preferences, my mother had effectively dismissed the most important thing happening in my life at the time. In giving me no reaction, I couldn’t tell whether she thought I was making it up, if she was disappointed in me, or something even worse. Regardless of her intention, I felt rejected and very confused.
My experience telling my mother made me petrified to tell anyone else. If she was supposed to be the easy one, what the hell were the others going to say? The complete lack of acknowledgement was very hard on me. Her lack of response left me with no way to counter.
In addition to teaching me that one’s sexuality isn’t important, my mom taught me that sometimes it’s hard to practice what we preach. As much as she loves me, as much as she thought that it wouldn’t matter, on that day my sexuality made a difference. In a bad way.
A lesson I taught myself.
I hadn’t thought of it at the time but this sort of reaction illustrates a problematic part of the conveyance of any big news. The conveyor knows that the news is big, is nervous, and therefore has a hard time seeing anyone but themselves. It works for the “I’m gay” talk as well as for “I’m pregnant” or “I’m deathly ill.”
It was my news to convey and I was so worried about how my mom would treat me when she found out that I forgot to think about how she might feel during the conversation. I never really considered how I might make this more easy for her to digest. In failing to do so, I made it harder on both of us.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I had done it all wrong. She had been surprised. Too surprised. My mom had never asked me any questions about my romantic interests before. It’s not something that she is comfortable with. So, I had never shared. I had hidden myself so well that she’d been blindsided. Even if she had wanted to show me some signal of support, it was clear to me that, in the moment, she hadn’t been able to put aside whatever she was thinking in order to do so. It’s hard to find out that someone who you think that you know better than anyone else has kept a part of themselves from you.
It turns out that blurting out my news was simpler for me than trying to process the news was for her. Perhaps if I had attempted to find a way to make it less startling, had been a little less self-absorbed, I would have been able to contrive a reaction that would have better benefited both of us.
Once my mom knew, I felt like I had to keep going. The time for secrets had passed. I hadn’t even had the chance to tell my mom that the rest of the family didn’t know. However, my experience coming out to my mom shaped how I would approach my dad and stepmother. I needed to find a way to plant some little gay seeds in their heads before telling them.
A lesson unfinished.
Unfortunately, the conversation with my mom was a total bust. True to form, after our failure in the car my mom and I handled ourselves poorly. I was too scared, confused, and hurt to try again and she pretended like nothing had happened at all. It was two years before we finally finished the conversation that I started in the car and that is a story for another time.