When I tell people about the coming out conversation I had with my mother 9 years ago, it never fails to elicit a chuckle, usually followed immediately by a somewhat embarrassed, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to laugh.”
Thing is, it was funny, and it went like this.
Picture a beachfront apartment building in Boca Raton, FL. My mother and I are lounging quietly in chairs on her terrace overlooking the crystalline blue waves lapping below. It had been almost a year since my father died, and I was growing increasingly pained with the lie of omission that was my failure to come out.
For some background, I was a late bloomer on the whole lesbian thing. My first experience with a woman was in the summer of 1996. The experience freaked me out sufficiently that I found myself dating men and women for a couple of years, trying to figure things out. By 1998 I was sure, and was ready to tell the family.
That’s when my father got sick.
At that point the only thing that mattered was focusing on my father’s well being. The family pulled together supporting my dad through the ups and downs of his treatment, celebrating the few bright moments of hope for recovery and ultimately dealing with the deterioration of his health and his death in March of 2000.
In any case, in late 2000 I made a trip to Florida to see my mother. One of my objectives on this trip was to tell her I was gay. We spent several days together – going to the beach, to the mall, to the movies. Every day I looked for an opening, an appropriate moment. Finally came the day we opted to just hang out at the apartment, enjoying the spectacular ocean vista my father had loved so much.
It had been an hour or so of relative silence, and I decided it was time. Taking a deep breath I began, “Mom, I have something to tell you, and it’s hard for me to say because I know that it will upset you.” Before I could open my mouth to utter the next sentence, my mother interrupted, “What’s the matter?! Are you sick?”
I replied, “No mom, what I…”
She interrupted again, “Did you lose your job?”
I replied again, “No mom, actually I…”
“Is it your apartment?” she interjected, “Do you have to move?”
And so it went for a few more exchanges. Me, trying to get a word in edgewise and she spewing out questions about my job, my apartment, my friends, my car, even my dog and cat. Finally, this query, “Are you pregnant?”
At last, an opening! “Well … no.” I paused. “You see mom, in order for me to be accidentally pregnant, I’d have to be having sex with men.”
I paused. Silence.
That’s when I realized that I had my eyes squeezed shut waiting for her response. I opened them slowly, looked at her and saw that she was sitting still, staring blankly out across the ocean.
After what felt like an eternity she spoke, “Well, I don’t think any less of you, but I don’t think it’s true. I don’t believe you … My goodness, that’s a very large boat out there, isn’t it?”
Yeah, kinda like that.
This almost comical capacity for denial wasn’t altogether new to me. My family has never been much for confrontation. That said, I’d just delivered a rather solid piece of life-changing information and it was brushed off.
I chalked it up to the fact that it was probably somewhat overwhelming and figured I’d take another run at the subject another time. I did. I tried quite a few more times over the coming years, and each occasion was met with an increased level of dismissal. Even my attempts to talk about friends who were gay or events that I might attend, for NCLR or EQCA were brushed off and dismissed, often with a “that’s nice” and a stark subject change.
So I gave up.
After a somewhat tense family visit in January 2007 I stopped visiting altogether.
I continued speaking to my mother. Phone calls, emails and the occasional Skype video chat kept us in touch, but I had written off spending any physical time with her. It was just too painful. I would not be the first person to come out whose family had rejected the idea of their being gay. I would not be the first person who chose to divorce themselves of those family ties in order to move forward and lead a productive life. If only it were that easy. Of course, it isn’t.
While I seemed to be fine, the truth was that this rift with my mother was nothing more than a briefly inactive fault line, and as I began increasing my activism for LGBT equal rights, the molten magma underneath began to bubble and the plates began to shift.
In early August 2009 I attempted to participate in Camp Courage/East LA. I say “attempted” because while I made my way to Camp and even got my badge and sat with my group, it was about half way into the first story telling exercise that I came unglued. We were talking about our reasons for being involved in the movement, and as I began talking about my desire to help people tell their truth, I realized that I was failing to tell my own.
Leaving Camp early I pulled the plug on most of my activism. I stopped writing about LGBT issues and stopped participating in activities. However, I was still determined to attend the National Equality March in October.
At least I was planning on it until my mother asked me to come visit.
Hearing her voice I realized that until I spoke with her and at least made one more attempt to get her to “see” me, I couldn’t in good faith continue speaking out – and to me a march in Washington was the ultimate of that. As my fellow activists were getting ready to head for DC, I angled my trajectory to Boca Raton. Thanks to some great counsel from a wonderful woman (a woman who I hope one day to introduce to my mother), I felt prepared, but still nervous. I thought about when I wanted to have the conversation, where to have it, how to start it – so many thoughts racing through my mind.
So imagine my surprise when, on my first morning in Florida while sitting half submerged alongside my mother in her pool, the words just came out of my mouth. My mother had said something about how nice it was that I was visiting and that I should come more often.
Taking a deep breath, I began. “Mom, I would come more often, but there’s a reason I don’t come. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s that it’s just too hard … too painful … I know you don’t like that I’m gay. I know it’s not what you want for me, but that’s how it is. That’s who I am. And when I try to speak with you about my activism or about anything in my life and you dismiss it, it feels as though you are dismissing me. And that hurts.”
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and so I paused. Before I began again, I heard my mother clear her throat, so I waited. Then she spoke. She spoke of the difficulty she had in seeing me as gay because I don’t fit the images she has in her mind of a what a lesbian is “supposed to” look like. She spoke of her concern for my safety and wanting me to be safe. She spoke of many things, but it was what she said at the end that brought it all home: “Cathy, I love you and I just want you to be happy. That is all that matters.”
She looked at me with tears in her eyes and gave me a big smile.
And then she changed the subject.