I have had the pleasure of knowing Stephanie and her family for several years... we are connected by soccer and running and mutual friends. They are a lovely and positive family that exude love for each other and their community. Jacki and I are extremely touched and grateful for the very personal perspective she is willing to share with all of us, on the joys and fears of raising a son who is gay. Andrew is a young person whose energy, enthusiasm and smile is infectious... just like those of his parents and his younger brother. Thank you, Stephanie. -Cristy Z.
When he was little he loved to line up his matchbox cars, play with his Thomas the Train set, read books, sing, and push his stroller. His stroller was pink, though I admit I looked for something little boys could use to ‘play daddy’ in a more society-approved male color (where were all the damn blue strollers?!). As he grew up he did well in school, gave soccer a try for a season, continued to sing around the house and entertain us with his lively behavior, and was on a bowling league with his brother and a friend from school. There were things about him that were typical of boys. Things that weren’t.
As it turns out, Andrew is gay. He was born as a biological male, identifies as male, and his gender expression is often feminine but also masculine. We have a solid relationship and I’m incredibly grateful for that. I’m not a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination, of course. I hope to offer stories about life as Andrew’s mom, as well as suggestions I have for other parents if they think their child might not quite fit society’s mold.
From a very young age Andrew didn’t always socialize with other boys/kids the same way that others did. Sometimes it seemed like a personality thing, other times I couldn’t put my finger on it. He started dealing with name-calling (“you’re gay”) in elementary school and that only got worse as he began middle school. He sometimes told me what was happening, but it seemed like he was ‘just’ getting ‘picked on’ and wasn’t serious. Andrew didn’t come home bruised or beaten so there wasn’t anything ‘obviously’ wrong. Some of his behaviors at home during those years did change, however, and that concerned us. We listened to our instincts and closely monitored his behavior, but I wish I would have taken the treatment he endured more seriously.
We moved to Flagstaff the summer before Andrew entered 7th grade. He has been at a school here with peers, teachers, and leaders that have welcomed him with open arms from day one. I’d hate to imagine what his school-life could have been like if we hadn’t moved. Would I have known the gravity of the situation? Would I have recognized how painful and fear-inducing being called “gay” as a derogatory term, and being physically pushed around year after year could be?
Andrew came out to me in the car driving down Fort Valley Road. I don’t remember how old he was – perhaps 8th grade? I just remember thinking, “Hm. Sounds about right… but is this real? Is this something he’s going through? How does he know?” At the time, I told him I loved him no matter what, and asked him a few casual questions to make the conversation seem normal: “See? I’m interested! But I don’t find this bad or something to fuss about!” During the months that followed I tried not to ask a ton of questions even though I had them: “Do you have a boyfriend? Does anybody else know? Did you tell your friends?” I tried to respect his space knowing he offered a deeply personal piece of himself to me and didn’t want to overdo my response to it. I still try to keep that inquisitive part of me in check so I don’t push him away. This is his story. His truth. It’s not my job to pry. I believe he needs me more than a ‘typical’ teenager would (and they all so desperately need us) so striking that balance is very important to me.
Later, he made changes to the initial thoughts he had about his sexuality. I’m sure there are folks that would think that means he ‘chose’ his sexuality. However, with no examples in his life of what ‘gay’ was, how could he clearly and concisely figure that out about himself? There certainly weren’t any Magic School Bus or Junie B. Jones books, Disney Channel or Nickelodeon shows with regularly occurring homosexual characters in relationships – if there were any at all. He did not witness a homosexual relationship while at home or school, watching commercials, enjoying a family movie, or reading magazines. He had no exposure to what would become his own way of life to help him make sense of and see himself more clearly.
Andrew and I believe it would be great to live in a world where “coming out” wouldn’t even be necessary. We wouldn’t need a blog post like this one because there wouldn’t be anything ‘different’ for our children to ‘disclose’ to us.
Andrew and I talk. I try to listen. As he’s gotten older I’m often unsure I’m setting firm enough boundaries or holding him to high enough standards. I’ve tried to weigh having those arguments (about a clean enough room or car, for example) against leaving him alone so the air is clear in case he needs to talk about something more serious. Most parents have a conversation or two with our kids each day. Sometimes those conversations consist of us asking a question and them grunting a response before they flop into their bed with their phone. When we do have a real talk, I try to pause. I try to wait. Maybe he’ll have something more to say, an additional detail or two to offer.
Once we were in a Marshalls down in the Valley shopping. Andrew let me know he was going to go try on an outfit, and I continued to shop until suddenly my blood ran cold. He might not be safe here. I stood guard outside of the dressing room for the rest of the trip. On other occasions his makeup and artificial nails have caused folks to stare as we walk through the airport. My husband or Andrew’s brother go with him to the bathroom when we are in unfamiliar, busy, populated areas. At work, he’s had customers pull aside his coworkers to say they never would have come to his workplace if they had known male employees could have artificial nails and wear makeup. My husband had someone say they “would kill themselves” if one of their children was gay – though this individual was not aware of Andrew’s sexual orientation at the time. There is a lot of hate in this world stemming from fear of the unknown and that’s a battle I’m prepared fight for Andrew. Unfortunately, I know he has to be ready to fight that battle every single minute of every single day.
There is so much to learn about sexuality and gender. I learned things reactively, but if I could do it all again, I’d learn proactively. If you think your child may not ‘fit’ into life the way you did and the way we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe ‘normal’ children do I would encourage you to listen and learn! You can prepare yourself for a conversation before it happens. If your child’s disclosure takes a month or a year to materialize (maybe it will turn out there is nothing to disclose at all) you have that time to learn and open your mind and your heart. You can use that time to truly listen to your child. What kinds of relationships do they have at school with their friends and teachers? How do they interact with the other kids they aren’t friends with but with whom they share lockers, hallways, classrooms, bathrooms, and lunch tables? If your child turns out to be a cis-gender heterosexual male or female, then you’ve just broadened your scope of understanding of the people all around you. If your child does “come out” to you, you’ll be so much more prepared to love them the way they are and to meet them where they’re at in their life.
I’m in no position to write a “how-to” blog. I’m sure this didn’t read like the last tear-jerker “Huffington Post” blog you read. Maybe, though, it’s better that way. Maybe it’s good and helpful to know that people parenting members of the LGBTQ community live right next door and are trying to do the best they can just like you.
Editor's Note: There is a support group in Flagstaff for Middle and High School students who identify as LBGTQIA that meets the second and fourth Friday of every month. Please message 48 months for a flyer and more information.