I grew up in California, but not the cool, progressive, equal-rights-for-all part of California. Do you remember back in May, when The California Supreme Court determined that gays and lesbians couldn't be denied the right to marry, and 3 counties decided that instead of following the law and marrying straight AND gay couples, they just weren't gonna marry any couples at all? I'm from one of THOSE counties, as conservative as any southern state.
I was 15 years old when I came out to my parents. In fact, it wasn't that long - maybe a matter of months - after acknowledging my orientation to myself. I never was a very good liar or keeper of secrets. I didn't actually 'come out' so much as get 'found out' after my mom or my dad, I'm not even sure which one, found some letters I had received from a girl. Needless to say, that evening's conversation was NOT the pleasant after-dinner banter I was accustomed to and expecting.
Imagine a 15 year old child, who has always known she was different than the other girls her age, finally discovering what it was that made her different. I'm sure many would agree that feeling is a combination of excitement, relief and fear of the unknown. Now add to that the response of parents who are working from the assumption that homosexuality is a choice, and not a very good one at that. I was constantly reminded that 'we didn't raise you that way' and 'you'll go to hell if you live that way.' At one point my father actually told me that I had picked the worst possible thing to do to him and did it 'just to spite him.' I was forbidden from my friends because of course I had decided I was gay because of 'THEIR influence.' I was removed from one high school and placed in another in an effort to remove this 'influence.' That didn't work out so well, since I met my first actual girlfriend, Shane, at the second school. (Yes, her name was actually 'Shane,' and this was long before 'Shane' was a cool lesbian name.) When my parents learned I was seeing someone, and that it wasn't the high school quarterback, I was told I had a choice between being straight and staying at home or 'living that lifestyle' and moving out of the house. I already knew that if this was some choice I had made, I was helpless to do anything about it, so I moved out, and in with a family from church. Yes, church. Fortunately, this church family was inclusive, and they were very supportive of me during that time.
My radar for other gays had developed quickly by that time, so I was able to corner a teacher and talk to her about it as well. This teacher was instrumental in mediating between my parents and I which ultimately resulted in my return home after a few months. I also have a gay aunt, so I was fortunate to get at least SOME positive encouragement during that time.
Mostly what I felt was shame, though. Shame is kind of a worthless emotion, in my book. It's like walking around with the belief that 'I am a mistake, my whole life is just one big error.' I spent a long time feeling like this awful, evil person with bad blood flowing through my veins, all because of something I had no control over, something as innate as my eye color and right-handedness. When society and those closest to you are telling you that you are sick and going to hell, not even the few voices of reason who try to tell you you're okay just the way you are can counter it. It wasn't until later in my life that I started actually doing some research and learning about the continuum of sexual orientation that I became unwilling to hide my true self.
I've spent most of my adult life out in the open, with the belief that the more willing I am to share my life with others, the more they will recognize that we bleed the same blood - my life is no different than theirs. This has mostly served me well, but I haven't always been able to apply it to my hopelessly conservative Mom & Dad. With them, ever since I returned home after being kicked out, it has been 'out of sight, out of mind.' In an effort to...I don't know...shield them, I guess...from having to know anything about the 'gayer' parts of my life, I pretty much cut myself off from them. We still talked, spent holidays together, that sort of thing, but my relationships have been off limits for discussion. There have been a few notable exceptions, mostly involving my mom, over the years. Once, when I was about 29 or 30, my mom decided to share with me that God had told her to talk to me about my 'lifestyle' and how it wasn't part of God's plan for me. She actually said to me that 'living this way' I must not know God. It was very hurtful; anyone who knows me knows of my deep spirituality and strong faith in God. I spend a lot of my time sharing with other's my belief that a loving God would NEVER condemn someone for their innate sexual orientation. There was a serious wedge between my mother and I for a couple of years after that.
Several years later, she mentioned to me that she would never be able to support marriage between same sex couples because it was 'just wrong.' Because I had spent so long shielding her from the 'gay part' of my life, I had no response, even though her words hurt.
A couple of years ago, I met my current girlfriend, Angie. After we had dated a few months, we both kind of recognized that this relationship was different than the others, and that it was probably going to stand the test of time. One way I knew this was something my sister told me. My parents had met Angie at my nephew's birthday party. They told my sister that there was something different about me, and that it seemed that I was a completely changed person with Angie in my life - calmer, more content and relaxed, and happier than they had ever seen me. They actually RECOGNIZED the positive affect a good relationship was having on my life, and for once, they didn't care about of the gender of my partner, focusing their attention on my happiness instead. To this day, the conclusion of every phone call to my mom is 'give Angie our love.' This translates to 'we approve, and we want you to be happy.'
Earlier this year, I was able to have a long discussion with my mom about marriage equality, and share with her how inequality actually makes maintaining my relationship a little harder and a little less safe than other people's relationships. We talked about the ridiculous reasons given for denying the fundamental right of marriage to gay people, and I was able to counter every claim with reasoned, rational responses. We also discussed using religion as an excuse to justify bigotry, which is a pretty sticky subject between us, if you recall. Even though I doubt I changed her mind, she was willing to listen, and it felt really good to talk about it with her. It finally feels like I don't have to hide a piece of myself from her.
A couple months ago, fully expecting her to say no, and preparing myself for it by putting on my emotionally defensive 'I don't care if she's there or not, I'm just asking so she knows she's invited' mask, I asked my mom if she would come to my wedding next May. She said "I'll give it some thought.' Instead of taking it personally, and because it really is all about baby steps, I talked about it with her for awhile longer. As I got up to leave, she told me 'I'll be there.' Maybe that conversation we had a while back had more of an affect than I thought it did.
And there you have it - 23 years of baby steps.
After the wedding, I'm gonna start teaching my dad to walk. ;-)