“In human beings courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible. An assertion of the self, a commitment, is essential if the self is to have a reality.” From The Courage to Create, by Rollo May
When my daughter first came out to us, I searched the Internet desperately for answers. Well, not answers so much as some form of support, a map maybe. Over night, my parenting task morphed into something I didn’t recognize. (I know, I know, I should have had a clue, but I didn’t. That’s a story for another day.) I found many coming out stories from gay people, lots of advice on what to say when your child comes out, but nothing about the days and years that follow.
So when I started writing this blog, I decided it would be about daily life After the Telling. A parenting journal. I wanted to begin where the sites I found left off. But it seems we are stuck in the telling.
At first, it was Liz’s story to tell. She told me, then her father when he returned from a business trip a few days later. He hugged her and told her she would always be his big girl. There were a few very special moments of hugging and crying and quiet blessings. We were so relieved to have bridged the awful silence of the previous months. Then my husband launched into a lecture about how any public declaration made via the Internet could endanger all her future college and job prospects. I sat across from him making swiping motions across my neck. The magic moment passed, the real work began.
We had daily discussions, each one beginning with “Are you sure?” Our patient daughter walked us through all the reasons she was sure. I began to understand when I searched myself for the moment I first decided to like boys. Of course, I had not decided. It was in me from the beginning, just as this has always been in her. Then it made sense that she could “just know,” as I had just known.
Liz was able to convince her father that (for her) the ramifications of staying “in the closet” were far worse than the possibility of being shunned socially. I would like to say that I knew she was right, but I worried late into the night (every night). Who among our friends and family would be accepting and who would not?
In August, she started 10th grade at a private high school. In September, on an all-school camp-out, she made her declaration. I could see when she returned that she had been right all along. She was lighter. How could we ever have thought to deny her this most basic freedom, that of being known for who she is?
After she told her friends and teachers, it was my turn. Liz wanted the support and love of her extended family, but she didn’t know how to tell them. Despite my best intentions, having a gay daughter had become a daily preoccupation. But keeping it to myself was admitting shame that I did not feel. And it was denying the people I love the opportunity to participate fully in my life. The omission weighed like a lie.
But I worried needlessly; it her seems her father was not the only one who wanted her to hide. I told my sister first, or rather, laid plenty of breadcrumbs. She followed my trail, and then declared that it was not something she would ever need to discuss with my daughter. “I don’t talk about sexuality with any of the other cousins.” I pointed out that yes, she could probably ignore this side of my daughter completely, until Liz decided to get married. “Oh.”
My mother was even more blunt. “You tell her she should just keep it to herself. She doesn’t know who she is at 14 and neither do you!”
Sometimes my family ties seem forged in pretense. I understand their fear that she would be ostracized and “marked” if she revealed the truth. But I didn’t understand their choice to pretend, within the family, that the words had never been spoken. When we returned from a Saturday at Grandma’s, Liz turned to me and said, “I feel that low self-esteem thing creeping in.” She had spent the whole day with people who had known her since the day of her birth, people who eagerly attended every play and piano recital, people who knew about her recent discovery and understood that it would change her life. Yet those same people chose to talk about Halloween cookies and discount sweaters. Liz was confused by the shame she felt after being with them.
I’ve tried to understand their pleas for secrecy. My husband didn’t want Liz to be labeled as “the gay girl.” He wanted her to save her news for friends she knew and trusted, people who could see her as complete, multifaceted person. Others seem reluctant to visit what they see as a matter of sex, perverse sex. For my family of Norwegian descent, of all the affairs never meant to be made public, sex ranks number one.
The astute reader will already be saying to herself, “but it’s not about sex.” This, too, took me awhile to understand, though her counselor kept repeating it. Liz is fourteen. She has never been kissed or held hands. She skips across green lawns. Her cat is her best friend. Two days ago she dressed in costume and went door-to-door for candy. So what is this about, if not sex?
Coming out as a gay teen has given my daughter the chance to name her world. It is about identity and orientation, about understanding, finally, why she is not like any of her friends in the ways that the world normally marks female teens. It is about claiming these growing years as a time of true exploration rather than of lies, secrecy, and shame. And it is about creativity. For Liz, living her truth has meant an explosion in her art and poetry that has stunned her teachers and us.
I’m so thankful she understood this before we did, and could lead us to where we are now. She often raids my bookshelf. Perhaps she already read The Courage to Create.
“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.” Rollo May