My nephew Blaine, age 29, called last week to announce his engagement.
“Aunt Jules!” he cried excitedly into the phone. “I got engaged last night! Michael and I are getting married!”
Yes, you read that correctly — Michael.
My nephew is gay and to quote a line from the TV showSeinfeld, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Because to me there most certainly is not. I am aware, however, that not everybody feels as I do.
Case in point, my brother, Blaine’s father, was not at all as comfortable with Blaine’s perceived sexual orientation — which was pretty obvious to all of us in the family — well before my nephew actually sat him down to finally admit to him that he was gay a good six years after he had told his mother.
“My mom was very concerned and upset when I came out to her,” said Blaine, who told his mother at age 16. “Her issues stemmed more from a fear that I would have a hard life because of it, that I would get picked on (verbally and physically), or that I would turn into some kind of social deviant … . She completely embraces my orientation now, which I think has a lot to do with the positive impression the media gives us now.”
Although my brother is still not 100% accepting, he knew not — and knows not — to impose any lingering homophobia on Blaine. After all, he loves Blaine very much and in the end is happy that his son is happy.
With the media also filled with headlines of gay teens who do not feel accepted by their family or their peers, who are taunted, and who then feel that suicide is their only option out of what they feel is universally unacceptable, a parent’s innate, knee-jerk reaction in response to this may first and foremost be to want to protect their child.
Although you cannot insulate your child from every homophobic taunt, you can choose how you would respond to your child’s coming out.
A young friend of ours, James, a member of the New Canaan High School Class of 2008, came out to his family when he was 14.
“My parents and I both always knew, but it still came as a shock to each of us when the time came to confront it,” he said. “No one wants the challenges that come with being the exception to the rule, but the beauty of acceptance is that, like shining a light into a dark room, it quickly makes things less scary and far easier for everyone — especially in the long run.”
James’ mother said that even though she was watching her child grow up and the signs are all there, she harbored the trepidation of many parents, as I have previously mentioned: “You’re secretly hoping it will turn out not to be true, because no one wants their child to face the hardships and prejudice. But because I have a gay brother that I love and accept, there was never a question of loving and accepting my son.”
And just as parents vary with levels of acceptance, so do the gay teen’s peers. In New Canaan, classmates can be supportive, or wary, or yes, downright mean, although from what I have heard over the years as a mom of teens, tolerance and acceptance seem to be more the order of the day.
James, in fact, went to his senior prom with a classmate who is very much heterosexual (and who actually escorted my daughter to her junior prom two years later). He really wanted to attend the prom and his friend bravely stepped up and said he would be his “date.”
“I’d love for people to know how brave, sweet, generous and open-minded some of the kids in New Canaan really are,” said James.
In fact, even though it was pretty much open knowledge from middle school until high school graduation that James was gay, only two kids ever gave him trouble.
“I think the kids in this town have a lot respect for anyone who is able to stand their ground and assert their own identity.”
“Is being gay right?” asked James. “We’ve always had the right to decide that as individuals, and I think it needs to stay that way, but I also found out the hard way that to love and let live is the easiest, most graceful policy.”
Clearly, with all the issues a parent has to — or may have to — deal with in raising teens, the revelation that your child is gay is a biggie. And as in most things parental, there is no right way to respond, but there are, in my estimation, most certainly wrong ones.
Julie Butler Evans of New Canaan is the mother of four children. She may be reached at parentingfromtrenches.com.