I’ve had to come out to my parents more than once. When I was 14, I wrote them a letter confessing that I was in love with my female best friend. Almost exactly 5 years ago, I revealed that I was a sex blogger. Then, a little while later, I told them I was non-monogamous and introduced them to my girlfriend, Aerie. (My other partner is my boyfriend of 12 years.)
While some parents might begrudgingly acknowledge these identities, my parents go beyond that. My mom, in particular, is remarkable. She doesn’t realize how radical it is for her to embrace who I am with not just acceptance, but active encouragement and genuine love. She’s a very “live and let live” type, but these things don’t happen in a vacuum. I decided to interview her to try and figure out why she is so open-minded — even about things she doesn’t understand. Plus, I just wanted to hear fun stories from her past and bond over the glory of Melissa Etheridge.
When preparing for these interviews, my mom confessed that she was worried. She didn’t want to come across like she was speaking for everyone, prescribing how parents should act or feel about their childrens’ lives. Everyone has a different comfort level with these things, she explained, and her comfort level may differ from others’. Sure, I told her, but people need to know that parents like you exist. Because you give me hope. And we all need some hope right now.
This interview, the first in a series, was conducted on a humid night in remote Hana, Maui. Sitting on a bed in a tiny cottage, drinking mai tais, we discussed my mom’s most defining experiences with gay people, what she thought when I came out, the allure of boobs and vulvas, gender-neutral pronouns (warning: you might cry), and much more.
Note: For the purposes of communicating with my mom, there is some cisnormative and gender essentialist language in this interview, more than I would usually use. I apologize for this oversimplification. Being a woman/man does not = specific body parts, personality traits, etc. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Epiphora: Who did you know growing up who was gay? Do you remember some of the first gay people that you were conscious of?
Mom: Wow. That’s a good question. Honestly, I can’t think of anyone I knew from work or in school. I mean, these days when kids are in high school they have friends who are gay and they’re openly gay. But you’ve got to remember I went to high school in the ’70s and obviously people of different sexualities were around, but I didn’t know — I was very naive.
M: What are you laughing at, me being naive?
M: I was the wallflower. I was very very naive in high school and still even in my early 20s after I got married. I hadn’t lived much. I dated a couple of guys… and then I married your father. So I’m sure there were people, but they would never say so, and I… oh… hmm. Maybe Floyd Knight.
E: [laughs] Now that you think about it.
M: [Your] uncle Don would be really, for me, the first gay person — especially that we were close to — who would have an effect on my life. I’m next to positive that he came out to Dad and I before he came out to anyone else. He was 18 or so. It was before you were born. We got married in ’78; I was 18, Dad was 20. So it was a few years after that. And it might have even been in the same conversation that he said, I can’t stay at home. He moved in with us almost right away.
E: Oh wow, I didn’t know he lived with you!
M: Yeah, for about 6 months. It was really really hard for him. He had anxiety, like most of our family does, and coming to the realization of his sexuality was really difficult. So when he came out, Dad and I were completely supportive but we were also worried about his health at the time. It took him… a long time… to come to grips, and his mom did shun him at first. She couldn’t grasp it. She was, you know, another generation above me. They have a way different outlook. I’m sure that generation also questioned “what did I do wrong?” kind of things because they didn’t know they shouldn’t question that.
E: Well, there was still a lot of the rhetoric that people can be turned gay. That the upbringing causes someone to be gay.
M: Yeah. Right. I’m sure Mom went through that. There was a little falling out for a time. But that family is very close, and it did not take long at all for Mom to do a 360 and say, you know, Don, you’re my son and I do love you. I’m talking a matter of a few months maybe before Mom was fully embracing her son again.
And after he got that off his chest, he was able to make so many more friends. He was just going out to bars, making new friends… he was happy… he was happy to be himself. And he was happy to drag me and my friends along with him. “You guys want to go out dancing?” Hell yeah! Because all the gay guys would dance with us too, no problem! And we had a ball. We just had a ball.
E: I bet they were very cute also.
M: Very cute. Honestly, I don’t ever recall meeting anyone who wasn’t a perfect gentleman. Just generally great sense of humor and out to dance and have fun. Everybody was there to have a good time.
E: Do you remember when your cousin Casey came out?
M: Oh man. You’re totally testing my memory banks. It’s so funny because I guess as time goes on it’s just…
E: It’s not a memory that you have solidified in your mind because maybe it wasn’t a big thing. That’s probably a good sign.
M: Golly. When did Casey come out? Casey was off doing her thing so I guess maybe I didn’t really know until later. She was always quiet about things too. I don’t remember knowing when with her, it was just kind of I guess on my part figuring it out.
E: But I can think of the next gay person who had a big impact on your life: Melissa Etheridge. You were a fan of her from pretty much the beginning, right? Which would’ve been the late ’80s.
M: Day one. Absolutely. By the time I got to see her for the first time live, it was probably the tour for Brave and Crazy. Actually I could totally find out because I have ticket stubs from every concert I’ve ever been to!
My friend went with me because I love her and she loved Melissa too. We went in and it didn’t take long to notice that there were lots of women couples walking around. Pretty obvious. So obvious that even us two could figure it out.
M: You know, we were in a different zone. We’re there to see a concert, man, we’re so excited. But we were walking around going, look at all the chicks… wow! They look like they’re together. Not a lot of dudes here!
My friend and I looked at each other and went, “oh honey” and we just decided we would grab hands, hold hands, and we were cool. We just needed to fit in, man. And then it was like, oh my god, Melissa must be a lesbian. OK! Didn’t know that! But how much longer was it before she publicly came out? How horrible to have to sustain that. To not reveal that because of your career.
M: It did! That definitely was a revelation that night, too. Like, oh my god. Listen to those lyrics. I, you know, took the lyrics as a man and woman. Fuck me! The lyrics are a woman and woman! And it totally fit. It was totally fine. Oh my god. I love her. You love her.
E: I love her.
M: Yeah. I would do her.
E: Yeah. I would too! I’ve always thought she was very attractive.
E: One thing I really admire about you is how comfortable you are with your sexuality. For example, that time when we went to the gay bar with Casey and people were hitting on you and then “Honky Tonk Women” came on and that woman was dancing with you…
M: She asked me to dance!
E: Yeah, but other people would have a different reaction to that. You had the reaction that was just go with the flow.
M: That’s pretty much it. I like to dance. Your dad doesn’t dance, period. But he’s never had a problem with me hopping up and dancing with other ladies, so I guess I’m very used to dancing with other ladies.
E: But you could have just as easily said, “oh, no no no. I couldn’t possibly.”
M: Dude, it was “Honky Tonk Women”! It’s the Rolling Stones! How could you not dance to it?
E: I agree! But what I’m getting at is you don’t feel the need to express that you are straight in the way that some people do that I find really off-putting. You’re not offended when someone hits on you. You know what I mean?
M: Oh my god, how can you be offended? [laughs]
E: You shouldn’t be!
M: No. No, you shouldn’t be. So, yes, I danced with a woman to “Honky Tonk Women.”
E: You danced with a woman, and I assume you’ve made out with women.
M: Wow. When would I have had that opportunity? Do you remember I got married at 18?
E: No? Really? I’m surprised to hear this.
M: The right one hasn’t come along.
E: Right. Obviously. But you have all your friends and stuff. You go to shows.
M: Oh my god, they would never do that. No. Different generation. [pauses] No… no… I’m going through my friends in my mind. There’s one friend I have that… I guess I kissed… but mostly I just wanted to play with her boobs, and I did that once and that was it.
E: I mean boobs are pretty fun.
M: I love boobs!
E: And you can’t get to your own very easily, for that sort of thing.
M: Well, depends on how old you are! [laughs] And if you’re standing on your head! You can quote that.
E: Boobs are amazing. Vulvas are really cool.
E: You know, you never get to be up close with another vulva unless you’re having sex with someone. You know what I mean? Like you don’t get to appreciate…
M: [keeps laughing]
E: I just think vulvas are really cool.
M: I know you do.
E: It’s such a different experience. That’s what really struck me when I first had sex with Aerie. It was like, oh my god, everything is so different. Not as rushed. Softer. It was something that I felt like I was missing that I found. Like, I knew I wanted this, but now I definitely want this.
M: [sighs dramatically] I didn’t get to find it. I haven’t found it yet.
E: There’s still time.
M: I’ve thought about how fun it would be to make out with a woman. I just haven’t had an awesome chance to do it, except maybe in a dream. Definitely dreams, definitely fantasies. Sometimes with Melissa… I think it’d be fun, why not? But no, I haven’t done it. So you guessed wrong.
E: What do you remember about when I first came out to you? When I wrote that letter to you and Dad.
M: I do not remember being shocked, nor was Dad. Certainly not shocked.
E: As in you had a suspicion, or it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility?
M: It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. We knew how close your friendship was with Sara. We love Sara; she’s a beautiful, caring young woman. So we were like, OK, that’s fine. Explore that possibility. It may not end up being where you stay. It might not be where you end up ten years down the road, 20 years down the road. We looked at it as in it could be temporary, but it might not be. It wasn’t like we were saying, “oh, we hope this is just a phase.”
E: Right. Yeah, because I don’t remember you ever saying anything dismissive. Oddly, the only thing I remember was Dad saying he was worried because I wouldn’t be able to have kids.
M: Oh. He must’ve meant biologically.
E: For some reason that’s the thing that sticks in my mind. Maybe because it was the only negative thing that was said to me? I thought it was a strange thing to be concerned about.
M: That’s because that’s how much family means to him. Family means a lot, and he knows how wonderful it is to be a parent. He knows how much love you get out of it. He’d be concerned that you were going to miss out on a part of life that you maybe shouldn’t miss out on. But every person is different, and for a lot of people it’s totally opposite.
[suddenly spots a gecko on the wall] WE HAVE A FRIEND. WE HAVE A FRIEND. WE HAVE A FRIEND. Hello, handsome.
E: He’s so cute!
M: Did you come to eat our bugs? Did you come to eat our bugs for us? [gets up and grabs her camera] Hi guy! You have big eyes. [takes a picture] He needs a name.
E: He’s our friend now.
M: Let’s name him Clyde.
E: Thanks for coming to hang out with us, Clyde! It really makes this the true Maui experience.
E: So after Sara and I broke up, for a few years there I saw a few guys. Then I met [my boyfriend] and we’ve been together, obviously, a very long time now. At some point did you start to think I was not gay at all?
M: Yeah, I suppose. Maybe so. Maybe so. I don’t know that we ever analyzed it that much, and we certainly never sat down and went “well, it looks like she outgrew that!” or something. I guess we were just going with the flow. But maybe at that point we did think that there wouldn’t be women in your life anymore. I don’t know.
I think after you and [your boyfriend] met and had been together for many years I just assumed that was the way it would always be. So it definitely was a surprise for both of us when you introduced Aerie, and when you shared things with me about going to visit them and I realized that that person was involved in your life sexually.
E: I did want to ask you about using gender-neutral pronouns for Aerie because I think it’s really cool that you have been able to embrace that so easily.
M: I found it very enlightening. It was something new that I wasn’t aware of. When you first hear it, just because of the way the English language is, it seems odd. So it is a little bit of, I don’t want to say training, but reminding. Reminding yourself that it’s OK to refer to someone as “them” and “they.” I appreciated you enlightening me so that I could be respectful of people in your life. It’s important. It makes me happy that you can tell me. I would feel bad if I wasn’t aware, and I would never intend to make anybody feel uncomfortable.
E: That’s beautiful.
M: You’re beautiful.
E: That’s so much more insight than so many people have.
M: But if you didn’t share it with me, I would have no idea… where did Clyde go?
E: Clyde! Where did you go!?
M: We love you Clyde!
E: Here’s my comeback to that argument about the English language. People act like nobody uses the singular “they,” but they do. If you think about when someone says, for instance, “I went to the pool and someone was in there already.”
M: Oh! Yeah!
E: What’s your response? “Oh, what were they doing?” If you don’t know the gender, you use “they.” For one person. It’s so common. Everyone does it.
M: I think some people just cannot grasp the concept of someone not wanting to identify as strictly male or female. It doesn’t make sense to them. A lot of people think that there shouldn’t be anything except boys and girls.
E: Right, and it’s extremely extremely limiting for so many people. Aerie, for instance, has felt from a very young age that they didn’t fit completely in either box. They hate being called a woman.
M: It just doesn’t feel right.
E: I had never had someone close to me who used those pronouns before, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. You can still make mistakes.
M: I do. But I usually catch it and go [gasps] oh crap, I didn’t mean to do that.
E: Yeah, exactly. If you hear it and you realize it’s wrong, that means you’ve made some good progress I think.
M: Thank you.
E: What advice would you give to other parents whose kids have come out to them?
M: Remember that this is your child, and that their happiness should be your number one priority. For the most part, intimacy is not something you’re going to witness. So why worry about it? How is that going to affect you? It should not be a problem. Don’t make it a problem.
E: My last question is, why do you think there are still so many people…
M: Because Trump is president.
E: That is a good answer, actually. Why do you think there are still so many people who don’t accept gay people?
M: Because of the range of generations. Look at the last 10 years. Then look at the 10 years before that. Note the change in acceptance, and it has to do fairly directly with exposure. Because every person on this earth is different. We have different backgrounds, different experiences, different religions, and different ages. That’s the way the world is. There will always, always be people out there who refuse to understand and who say you’re going to hell. But, I mean, those are the same people who say you’re going to hell because you went to a Marilyn Manson concert.
M: I’ll never forget that night. That protester looked me in the eye and said, “who is your god?” I was like, you don’t even know me. I’m coming here with my niece, I’m dressing a little goth, I’m having a fuckin’ ball.
E: What a thing to ask someone.
M: As long as time goes on, forever and ever and ever on this earth, and in all galaxies probably, there will always be people who are not accepting. But because different types of couples and love are coming out more, it’s becoming more visible, and hopefully that will help more of the masses understand.