Before my mother left my father and came out as a lesbian, she led my Brownie troop on hiking adventures and hosted children’s birthday soirees and neighborhood Tupperware parties in our elegant Westlake Village home near Los Angeles. After she left with my siblings and me in tow, she found herself jobless and broke on the top floor of a scrappy beachside duplex belonging to my brother’s kindergarten bus driver, Janice, with whom she’d fallen in love.
The year was 1979; six years previous, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual had removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, but the psychologist tasked with evaluating each of my family members apparently never got the memo. He accused my mother of “deviant behavior” and advocated for the removal of me and my siblings — ages 9, 7 and 5 ― from her care. Impressed with my father’s six-figure income and his weekly attendance at the local Baptist church, the judge awarded him full custody. We were allowed to visit our mother just two weekends a month, plus a month in the summer.
I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot lately after the Vatican banned priests from blessing same-sex marriages earlier this month. The decree used words like “illicit” and “sin,” words that were burned into my brain 32 years ago when I sat in a courtroom and a judge told me I could no longer live with the woman who had been not only my caregiver, but my best friend and confidant.
Our situation was not unique. Thousands of gay and lesbian parents lost custody of their children in the 1970s and early 1980s; stories about these wrecked families appear in the 2014 documentary “Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement.” My own story appears in the movie. The filmmakers invited my mother to speak her truth on camera as well, but, overcome with shame, she refused.
In 1979, she didn’t know about the group of Seattle-based activists instrumental in helping lesbians to retain custody of their children. She was sheltered ― a battered wife, terrified and naïve. She never dreamed my outraged father would sue for custody. She couldn’t imagine that coming out would put her children in danger, that her nine-year track record as a devoted parent would be rendered irrelevant because she’d found love with a woman.
My mother nearly killed herself, my grandmother once told me. For her, visits with my siblings and me two weekends a month, for less than 48 hours at a time, became a bandage ripped off an open wound over and over again. My grandparents loaned her money to buy a modest house. She found work as a book reviewer and then as the editor of a small newspaper. She enrolled in one community college class after another, filling her home with books and art and campy VHS movies like “La Cage aux Folles” and “Victor/Victoria.”
I lay in bed at 3 a.m. in my father’s house, longing to curl up on her living room couch and watch Julie Andrews pretend to be a man pretending to be a woman as we laughed at Robert Preston’s wry one-liners like, “There’s nothing more inconvenient than an old queen with a head cold.” I was terrified that she’d die before I could see her again. I battled a combination of depression and anxiety that follows me to this day — a fragile mental state that I treat with diet, long-distance running and medication.
I wonder how many parents remained in the closet back then because they worried about how all of the lives they touched might be affected if they came out. How many remain in the closet now? I think many people tell themselves it’s one thing to gamble with your own life and how radically it will change if and when you make that kind of decision but it’s another altogether to take a chance with the lives of people you love, especially when those people are children without agency or the resources to shape their own world. And I think many ― especially those without support and who know how LGBTQ people are still often treated ― decide that chance is just too great.
I’d like to think that coming out is far easier for people today than it was in 1979. Earlier this year, my 14-year-old daughter told me gleefully that she’s “pans” (pansexual). Around the same time, a handful of her other friends came out as bisexual or gay or transgender. Their parents responded with varying degrees of acceptance or confusion or ― like the mother of one of the trans boys I know ― with anger.
She was willing to educate herself and change her perspective, though her initial outrage still stings my daughter’s friend. Fortunately, the friend has an enormous online queer community to support and mentor him as he claims his identity. I see photos of him now and he radiates new confidence, happy in his skin and in the suit and tie he persuaded his mom to purchase.
But what of those children and teens who haven’t found a supportive community and are too afraid to search for one? What of the kids who remain in the closet for fear of what will happen if they come out? What of those kids who then become adults and try to force themselves into opposite-sex relationships in hopes of somehow making it work? The mental and physical consequences can be devastating ― and not just for them but also for so many of the people in their lives, especially their children, should they have them.
My mother came out only to family members and to a handful of very close friends. To the others, she referred to her girlfriend of three decades as “her roommate,” and when they were allowed to marry at last, they did so on the sly, and only told my siblings and me a year after the courthouse ceremony. (You can bet I threw them one hell of a rollickin’ bridal shower.)
In the half-century between leaving my father and dying of ovarian cancer, she suffered from chronic insomnia and anxiety and depression. She struggled with an eating disorder, which eventually resulted in obesity. She also earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, completed a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, ran a group home for intellectually disabled adults, and then reinvented herself post-retirement as a mystery novelist and a freelance magazine journalist. Her life, like all of our lives, was complex and filled with good and bad but the trauma she experienced after coming out colored so much of the way she lived after she finally found the courage to step out of the closet.
She’d be pissed at me for describing the maladies that complicated her professional success, but it seems to me crucial that we all understand the repercussions of throwing around descriptors like “illicit” and “sin” and refusing to acknowledge the love and commitment of all same-sex couples with the formality of a marriage certificate if that’s what they desire.
There are still too many people who want to keep LGBTQ people from being treated equally... and when people in positions of power cast members of the queer community as less-than, others follow suit. I’ve seen firsthand what this looks like — it looks like humiliation and loss and misery.
It’s tempting to believe that because singers like Demi Lovato have come out as queer and because actors like Elliot Page have come out as trans, our society has learned at last to embrace sexual and gender diversity. And, make no mistake, that kind of visibility is important and we have come a long way from where we were in 1979 (or even 2009). But we still have a long way to go. There are still too many people who want to keep LGBTQ people from being treated equally ― just look at the anti-trans bill that was signed by the governor in Arkansas last week ― and when people in positions of power cast members of the queer community as less-than, others follow suit. I’ve seen firsthand what this looks like ― it looks like humiliation and loss and misery.
We have to remain vigilant. We have to work overtime to support and mentor and speak our truth. We have to tell our queer kids, “I don’t care who you love as long as they’re kind to you,” and we have to mean it.
My mother has been gone for two years but I will never stop fighting for her right to love whom she loved, to marry whom she married. I battle the language of intolerance with my cautionary tale, remembering all the while that while homophobia almost destroyed my mother’s life, she survived thanks to her creativity and her passion for learning and the support of allied family members and friends. Now we must make sure that queer people aren’t just hopefully able to find the will and strength to survive but that they can truly live the lives they want and deserve to live.
Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of “Better With Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.” She lives in Oregon.