I was recently asked to give a talk at my Unitarian church on National Coming Out Day.*
My wife and I have two children. Our son is now 23, and our daughter is 20. Our daughter came out to us several ago as bisexual when she was in high school. Our son out to us much later, just a year ago, when he was 22, by telling us he was dating a man. He is attracted to both men and women, and he is now dating a nonbinary person—which in a way throws the whole hetero-homo binary out the window. I was very glad he could come out to us and felt safe to do that so. But I did wonder why he had not come out sooner.
Our son assured us that he felt we had been a safe space for him, but he was just not ready to come out before. Nevertheless, I started thinking about whether I might have contributed to his reluctance to come out earlier. If someone had asked, I would have said we were LGBT-affirming parents, but in many ways my thoughts and words were—and still are—herero-normative—meaning I tend to assume my own experience as a heterosexual as the norm, and think and talk about homosexual experience as a variation on that norm.
For example, how many times did I ask my son if there were any girls he liked, while I never asked if there were any boys he might like? How many times did I talk to him about marrying a woman in the future, always assuming he would be in a heterosexual relationship?
As I thought about this, I wondered if my being nominally pro-LGBT was more political than personal? It was relative easy for me to represent myself as LGBT-affirming, as it was to adopt any other political opinion from the constellation of progressive positions, like gun control or universal health care. But what had I done to root out my own deep-rooted homophobia and to interrogate my heteronormative habits of thought and speech?
And was there a reason my daughter could come out to us earlier than my son? Something to do with a specifically masculine form or homophobia. Something to do with how homophobia and toxic masculinity are wound up together. Was this maybe something I communicated inadvertently to my son?
When I was in high school in southern Indiana, Ryan White was in the news. And if you don’t remember, Ryan had been diagnosed with AIDS which he had received from a blood transfusion. And because of his infection he could not find a high school in Indiana that would allow him to attend. I remember how we talked about it at the time. For most heterosexual people at the time, AIDS and homosexuality were inextricably intertwined. Because Ryan was infected with AIDS, people talked about him as if he were gay.
And of course, everyone who was openly gay or suspected of being gay was also suspected of being infected with AIDS. And on top of that, homosexuality itself was treated like a contagion, a moral one, which could infect other people by contact or even proximity. Back then, people routinely said horrible things openly and unapologetically. Though I have wiped it from my memory, I probably said horrible things openly and unapologetically too.
As a boy, I was much as you see me today: thin, unathletic, fastidious, fashionable (at least I like to think so), a little flamboyant … and, while I was cisgendered and heterosexual, I didn’t conform to some of the cultural ideals about how boys and men were supposed to be. In our culture of toxic masculinity, maleness, being a man, was not something that could be taken for granted. It was something that had to be achieved, and had to be proven, regularly and publicly. And I failed at that a lot. At that time, being called “gay” (and other, uglier terms) was normal for boys who failed to demonstrate the requisite degree of masculinity.
I spent most of my developmental years terrified that someone would call me gay. And fearful of the implied threat of physical violence that entailed. And while I was only attracted to women and had no negative feelings about the few gay people I knew, I was ashamed of the parts of me that made me vulnerable to being called “gay”. And I carried that shame with me into my adulthood. Even while I later advocated for LGBT rights publicly, exorcising that internalised homophobia has taken decades.
An important moment in that process for me happened several years ago with my Unitarian Universalist congregation. We were participating as a congregation in the Hobart 4th of July parade. At the front of our train was a Side With Love pro-LGBT banner. A gay man who was member of our congregation before he moved away (I’ll call him Michael) had picked up one end of the banner before the parade started. Michael is a very expressive person in general and was open about being gay.
I saw Michael pick up the banner and stand there, one side in his hands and the other side on the ground, looking around for someone to hold the other side with him. I’m sure it was just a few seconds, but it was a poignant image. I’m sure someone else in the congregation—gay or straight—would have picked the banner up quickly enough. But I was there and I saw it. I saw the hopeful look on his face. And so I picked it the other side of the banner.
I immediately felt acutely self-conscious. I felt like I was back in high school again. Irrationally afraid that someone would think I was gay. Where was this coming from?! I thought I had gotten over this. I was supposed to be a pro-LGBT progressive activist for godssake! … As I was wrestling with this these feelings, the parade started and Michael and I carried the banner forward—Michael being his usual exuberant self, proudly smiling and waving, and me doing my best I-don’t-give-a-fuck impression. …
And as we walked, I continued to wrestle with these feelings which had arisen from somewhere deep in me, feelings which I hadn’t known were still there, or at least I had tried really hard to ignore for a long time. And I watched Michael, an out, gay man, so obviously happy and proud to be in the front of our march, caring a pro-LGBT sign, backed up, both physically and spiritually, by our congregation. I watched him confront a mixture of responses from the Hobart crowd, with courage and positivity. I thought about what he was risking just being there. I thought about what he must have risked throughout his life. I thought about how little I was risking or had risked in my life.
Thinking back on that, I realize that my son’s life as a younger gay man is better, safer and happier, today because of men like Michael. And I realize that my own life, as a heterosexual man, is also better, because of men like Michael … and because of men like my son now. Because of their courage and that of so many others like him, the forces homophobia and toxic masculinity are pushed back. Every time a gay boy comes out to his parents, a repressed heterosexual man somewhere puts on a pair of fairy wings and joins a tea party with his daughter. … Every time a gay couple kisses in public, two heterosexual men feel little freer to compliment each other on the way they look or even (gasp) hug each other. … Because of Michael and because of my son and daughter, I feel freer to be myself. Because of them, I feel less apologetic about the kind of man, the kind of person, that I am.
I thought I was going to write about how I have supported my son and daughter in coming out, about what a great parent I am for being “supportive”. But what I really want to share with you today is how proud I am of my son and daughter, but also how grateful I am, to them, to those of you who are openly LGBT, and to so many others like you. I know you’re not out for my sake. … But my life, my children’s life, and all of our lives are better, because you are who you are, because you are willing to share yourselves with the rest of us. … Thank you.
* I acknowledge that, by speaking as a cisgender heterosexual man on Coming Out Day, I was taking space that an LGBTQIA person my occupy. I hope that sharing my experience as a parent of a two bisexual children might nevertheless be beneficial and help in some small way to make the world safer and better for LGBTQIA people.
** While this essay has nothing to do with “The End of the World as We Know It” per say, I do think it has a great deal to do with making “another end of the world” possible–which is the theme of this site.