A few weeks ago, I met the daughter of an old friend. We spoke for a while, and then she said to me, "You know, I have to tell you how wonderful you and your husband are. You love and support your gay son - you never threw him out of the house like some other parents do." Well, I was flattered and I thanked her. But then I thought about it. Why should someone thank me for doing what a parent should do in the first place - which is to love your child unconditionally?
When my son first came out in 1998, I had such mixed feelings. I was born and raised in New York City and had been around all sorts of people, including gay people, so I thought I was cool. But I also had no knowledge nor understanding of what it was like to have a gay kid. I was totally confused and couldn't imagine what might have "made him gay." So I did what a lot of parents do when their kids come out - I went into the closet. I stayed there for 2 years. I was embarrassed and thought we didn't have a "normal" family anymore. I thought I'd never have grandchildren. I felt inferior.
When I finally began going to PFLAG meetings, I learned so many new things. I found out that people are born gay - no one or no incident can "make" them gay. I also learned that GLBT people are able to have children and raise families. As I attended more meetings over many years, I met some wonderful parents who became my friends. I talked to them and read a lot and I came out of the closet.
Coming out as a parent was a wonderful experience. I felt free to share my life openly with friends and new people I met. I began to get involved in advocacy. I was also able to teach people about GLBT issues. But the best part was that I could feel strong and stand up for my son. If someone said they "agreed with his lifestyle" I told them that being gay is not a lifestyle or a choice. I was educated and could speak with some authority. Now, if someone asks me if my son is married, I reply by saying "he isn't allowed." This often results in a puzzled look, so I explain how same-sex marriage isn't legal in Indiana. This in turn opens up a whole dialogue about the possible discriminatory Marriage Amendment.
So it really bothers me to think that parents who accept their GLBT kids are thought of as doing something out of the ordinary. I don't even like to use the word "accept." To me, that means I have a choice to love my child or not. Loving your children should come with the territory of being a parent. It should be the standard - not the exception. Why have kids if you're not going to embrace their unique qualities, no matter what they are. Children come in all sorts of packages - we never know what we're going to get. And very often we're surprised. That surprise may come at an early age, or it may come later in the child's life. But we can't turn away from whatever is presented to us.
I recently read a story about a high school boy who was an atheist. He protested when his school was going to say a prayer at the graduation ceremony. Not only did the school turn against him, but his own parents did. They threw him and his belongings out into the street! I was appalled! Parents should be a safe haven for their kids, no matter what their sexual orientation is or their religious beliefs are. I know there are some parents out there who listen to the homophobic rantings of their religious leaders rather than accept their GLBT kids. Again, to me, there is no question - your child comes first.
Every year, I march with my PFLAG chapter in the Indy Pride Parade. The first year when I marched, I remember hearing the spectators on the sidewalk yell and cheer when they saw our PFLAG banner. I asked one of the members of my chapter why people were so happy to see us. She said it was because to them, PFLAG represents the parents they don't have - the parents who rejected them. That moment made me aware of the difficulties many in the GLBT community have when they first come out. I believe that coming out must be the bravest thing a person can do - they unfortunately must have to face the fact that they stand the chance of losing what they need the most - their family's love and support.
One of the goals of PFLAG is to help parents learn how to support their GLBT kids and help them feel safe and wanted in the world. I know, too, that there will always be parents who just don't get it. They might stay in the closet for a long time, perhaps never coming out. Others may throw their kids out, rejecting them due to fear and ignorance. But PFLAG will always be there for them should they decide to take that first step toward enlightenment.
When I meet someone in the gay community who thanks me for being a PFLAG mom, I am still flattered. It is a very humbling experience. But really, the GLBT community is the group of people who should be thanked - they live in a world too often filled with homophobia and hate. Yet they go out each day and teach us what it is like to hold your head up and be who you really are.
This is what I should have told my friend's daughter. And I hope for a time when parents won't be thanked for doing what should come naturally - for doing what should be the norm - loving our kids and standing up for them.