Shortly after my wedding my parents were contacted by a writer. This writer, a woman, had seen my wedding announcement in The New York Times, along with the accompanying photo, in which I sat next to my now-wife, our long hair reaching past our shoulders and out of frame. Her letter explained that she was writing a book for the parents of gay children. She inquired as to whether mine might want to be involved, explaining that she would offer them a questionnaire that might ask things like, "What were your fears in raising a gay child?" or request they each "describe your emotions when your son/daughter got engaged to his/her partner."
I was standing in my parents' living room with my wife Samantha when my mom showed us the letter. Dad was sitting in his leather recliner, opening bills, as Mom picked up some papers off the coffee table and reached over the couch to hand them to us. She tucked her blonde hair behind her ear and slid her frameless reading glasses onto her face as she held up the letter, alarm explicit in her voice. "What do you think?" she asked curtly. The details of the conversation have escaped my memory, but I know that I encouraged her. She didn't have to say much to make it apparent that she wanted to balk at the proposal. I knew instinctively that this letter made her uncomfortable. I decided that she was looking for my permission to say no. In a mother/daughter role reversal I assured her, "Do whatever you're comfortable with. I'll support your decision either way."
As a struggling writer myself, I find that my parents are often asking what I'm working on, hoping that an editor will read my submission, that the publishing industry will create a space for me. Often their inquiries are met with a shrug, a "yes, I'm writing, and yes, I'm applying to jobs." I know that they worry, as parents do, but I also assume that they understand that while my successes and failures are dependent mostly on me, I am also at the mercy of the community around me. I am in need of readers who are interested in my voice and characters that are willing to let me reveal them. I've sought people out and asked them to tell me about their lives in hopes that I might share their stories. I am no different from this writer who wants to explore the struggles of raising a gay child. It wasn't until a month after the conversation in my parents' living room that I realized that I had let Mom off the hook. I wondered why.
In high school I wanted to be on the volleyball team. At 5-foot-11 I knew that I had the height, but I had no proven athletic ability to speak of. I was tired of coaches seeking me out in the hallway. "You!" they'd bellow across the row of orange lockers. "What's your name? Why aren't you on my basketball team?" So at the start of sophomore year, I postponed minor foot surgery -- tailor bunion surgery, if I'm being honest -- to try out for volleyball. I knew that it was unlikely that I'd make the team, but I was looking for a new experience. Aware that putting off surgery was stupid, I was 15, and this decision was generally innocuous. I cried to Mom when I didn't make it. Knowing the likely outcome ahead of time hadn't stopped me from getting my hopes up or deterred my disappointment.
At school the next afternoon, I got a call informing me that the coach wanted to see me after class. At the appointed time, I walked through the gym and into his office. I felt the eyes of the varsity girls volleyball team; I could read their thoughts: What is she doing here? "I'm told you postponed surgery to be on my team," the coach said, wasting no time getting to his point. My mother had called him. "I can offer you a spot working out with the team, and maybe in time we can reevaluate your skills," he told me. These were not his exact words -- I'm paraphrasing -- but this is essentially what he said. My mother had basically begged the volleyball coach to put me on his team. I told him that I would think about it, and then I hooked my thumbs to the straps of my backpack, stalked out of school and climbed onto the bus to ride home in a humiliated rage.
When mom made the call, she hadn't stopped to think that she might be blemishing my brave teenage veneer. Mom was just sad that I was sad. She wanted to see her child happy. Her imprudent phone call came from a place of love.
Maybe this is payback; maybe I'm embarrassing her right now by sharing this story. I think the reason that my mom was afraid to respond to the New York Times woman's letter was that she wasn't convinced that she was ready to explore and express her feelings about my sexuality.
I called her. "I'm writing an essay about you," I said. "About that woman who wanted to interview you for her book." Mom insisted that she'd tried to email the woman but that it wouldn't go through, and that if she could find the letter again, which she said was lying around the house somewhere, then maybe she'd get in touch with her. "Well, I think you were a little scared, right? To answer those kinds of questions?" She quickly said no, and then paused. "Well, maybe," she conceded. "You know me. I don't like being pumped for answers about anything!"
It's worth considering how absurd it is to have my parents contacted and questioned about their thoughts on my sexuality. No one is ever going to ask them what they think about my sister's relationship with her husband, or how, if at all, my brother's decision to marry a woman affected the family. It saddens me to consider that my parents might be emotionally burdened by my relationship, and the idea of exploring these feelings probably makes all three of us uncomfortable. Whatever they felt in the beginning, or perhaps maybe feel still, my parents have never divulged.
I'm not so naïve to believe that Mom wasn't shocked on the morning eight years ago when I sat her down on my parents' front porch -- after a breakfast of Dad's homemade lemon ricotta pancakes with Mom's raspberry syrup -- and told her that my heart had been broken by a girl. In that moment Mom maintained her composure and soothed me as if this was just another heartbreak, but I knew that there was a magazine full of questions that she was desperate to unload at rapid fire. On that morning, she kept her hand off the trigger.
I saw the results of her shock over time, in moments when she couldn't suppress her abashment. There was the time when my best friend perched on my lap at a family barbecue and Mom dropped her façade, shame flicking from her eyes as she snapped, "Can you get off her?" Then there were those times when I would come home for a visit and she would ask me, her voice shaky with forced calm, if there were any special boys in my life. These moments reminded me that Mom was confused.
A few years later, when it was clear that my girlfriend Samantha and I were serious, that this was not just a phase, I imagine that my parents were laden with new and unexpected fears for themselves and for their daughter. But I didn't ask how they felt. Addressing all our various feelings of guilt or worry seemed like a pointless endeavor that would really just make us all feel like crap. So they handled it in their way, and I handled it in mine.
Not for a moment did I worry that my family would cast me out. Sadly, this isn't the case for most gay people, and I am grateful that I was so fortunate. Maybe calling my mom out on her concerns over the arrival of this letter is like when she called the volleyball coach. Maybe we should just leave it alone and not unearth the mixed emotions, the discomfort, that my parents may have felt when faced with their daughter's sexuality. Samantha and I are so fortunate that our family and friends treat us like every other couple. Perhaps my mom has a secret shelf of books on parenting gay children. Maybe she and my dad found someone to talk to about their concerns. I don't actually know, and I don't think I want to. However they got here, it's enough for me.
This woman's book is an admirable endeavor. I'm sure it will help many families, but I am blissful in my ignorance. So Mom and Dad, I think you should get in touch with her. You may have some insight that can benefit other parents, but please, feel free to remain anonymous.