Raising a Gay Son

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My mother was hurt when I first came out of the closet. I was 32, and I was a father, and when I called to tell her, she reacted with shock and pain, as if her life was falling apart. She’d reacted much the same way when my younger sister, Sheri, had come out years before. She somehow, at the time, saw our exits from the closet as a personal failing, as if she had done something wrong, and being told her son was gay was a personal trauma for her.

This was a delicate time for me, one where I felt my own life was falling apart, and it took me a long time to be able to recognize her trauma. The night after my call, she called several others to confide in them, telling them I was gay and that she wasn’t sure what to do. And when word of this got back to me, I called her back, furious and screaming that she had no right to tell my secrets to others. It was perhaps the only time in my life when I had yelled at my mother. She understood, of course, but she was hurt too. Everything she had ever known about me was a lie, she said.

And then, our emotions spent, my mother’s voice softened, and she confided in me. “That’s not true. I knew. I always knew. I was just so afraid of it. But I knew.”

“How did you know?” I asked, confused and hurting.

“You were just different. More compassionate. Different from the other babies, the other kids. I’ve always suspected, always been afraid that you were gay.”

I’ve now been out for seven years, and I’ve seen that narrative play out in coming out stories over and over again. Mothers and fathers who knew their kids were gay, right from the beginning, but were afraid to say it, afraid to talk about it. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

How different my upbringing would have been if my mom, if anyone really, had told me that being gay was a normal, healthy, happy thing. What if it had been a viable option? What were people so afraid of? I asked a few different parents of gay kids this, and I took notes on their responses.

“I was worried that if I told her she might be gay, that it would actually cause her to be gay. Like it would set up expectations for her future.”

“I thought that if I told him he was gay then he would get teased by other kids more, and I didn’t want to make his adolescence harder.”

“Even though I knew he was gay, I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that he could change it if he tried, so I was harder on him than my other sons.”

“I wanted grandchildren. If he was gay, I’d never have grandchildren.”

“If any of my children were gay, I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my religion. If gay people can’t be in heaven, what would that mean for our family bonds there? What would happen to them? It was easier to keep quiet.”

These are difficult questions to address, but what all of them leave out is this: by not making homosexuality an option for children, by not letting kids be who they really are, kids end up raised in the closet. If straight kids are taught that gay is inferior, they treat gay as inferior. If gay kids are taught that gay is inferior, they grow up hiding, feeling inferior, and seeing themselves as broken; they grow up silent, silenced, closed off, and divided. They feel different and can’t talk about it. Sometimes they are abused, forced into therapy, told they are not good enough or that they must change. And then these kids grow up into adults who have attachment, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. Unhealthy relationships, suicide attempts, and therapy rates go up-up-up because there is more pain from childhood, more trauma, represented across the gay population. (And the statistics for transgender individuals, as always, are much higher).

My sons, J and A, are 9. They have a dad who is gay and a mom who is straight. They have gay friends, straight friends, and transgender friends. They know that there are differences in skin color, languages, religions, and social statuses. They know that both of their parents date men. They ask hard questions. There is no disturbance for them with this, because their parents are happy and balanced people. And while we have ideas about them and their futures, we don’t give them a script. We teach them to be kind, to have manners, to apologize when needed, to express their feelings, to listen, to be responsible. And we encourage them to be exactly who they are.

In discussions about the future, both of my sons have, more than once, said that they are gay, and that they are straight. “I have a crush on a boy. I’m gay” or “I like a girl, I’m straight” or “I don’t think I want to get married ever, but maybe I’ll adopt some kids.” And I hear these statements in exactly the same way that I hear their changing ideas that they might want to be a dancer, a hunter, a millionaire, a farmer, a rancher, a zookeeper, or a doctor. I tell them that they have plenty of time to decide who they are, and that I will love and support them no matter what. I tell them that they are beautiful to me, and that I love them “a million times.” (My 6-year old recently responded that he loved me “a million infinity thousand googleplex times back”, followed by a “ha-ha, Daddy, I win.”)

The key point is here that I will not project my own biases on to my children. I want them to be the best versions of themselves. I want them to be, well, them. Gay or straight or transgender, Mormon or atheist, just them, and happy, and good.

And for every parent out there, those who worry that their kids might turn out gay, well, don’t. Honestly, I think every parent deserves at least one gay kid. Research shows that many gay people have greater amounts of compassion, creativity, and talent per capita than straight people do, so who wouldn’t want that for their family?

And as for me and my mom? We talk every day. She grew up in a different era, so having gay kids is still unfamiliar to her, but she loves her children, and she supports us. She asks Sheri about her wife, she asks me about my boyfriend. We talk about the things that I write about (blogs like this one), and she offers opinions and understandings. Our relationship is much deeper than it was before I came out, and we are close friends. She has four straight daughters, one straight son, one gay son, and one gay daughter. And she loves us all just the same.

And that’s how it should be.

 

 

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the Dowels: Grown-ups Throwing Fits

Wood Dowels

“#$%^! Holy #@**! I got a– Ouch! &!(@!”

I stood there, helpless, holding my side of the large bed frame as I watched my boyfriend fall down on the jagged stone steps. His knee hit one side and it scraped, then he landed on the other. I immediately knew there would be bruises. Mike set down his side of the bed and limped off the steps and into the yard. There was at least one open cut. I stood there helplessly, supportive and in crisis mode, as I waited for his adrenaline spike to wear off.

“Babe, I’m so sorry you fell. What can I do?”

In a few minutes, he was inside rinsing out his cuts and doctoring up the wound while I finished moving the bed frames down the curvy stairs and into the backyard. Mike calmed down and bandaged up his knee, then tried helping me get the bed frames into the living room and down the hallway. The top frame was a complex piece, about 16 pieces of wood carefully assembled into frames and slats, with screws, dowels, and brackets holding it all together. A curved piece at the top of one slat made it impossible to navigate a particular corner, and a patch of paint was scraped off the wall as we tried to maneuver. I kept calm, moving the frame back into the living room and retrieving a screwdriver, allen wrench, and hammer.

For the next forty minutes, I carefully removed a dozen screws, straining my wrists as I turned the allen wrench around and around. Why were some of these wedged in so tight? I finally got all the pieces out, just to remove the one curved side, leaving the rest intact, then struggled to pull the piece off, dowels tight in the wood and not wanting to let it go free. I gave a mighty yank, a frustrated and angry “Rrrragh!” escaping my mouth, and it finally came free, with two strips of wood along the edge completely breaking off, jagged and threatening as they fell to the floor.

Now it was my turn. I let loose with a string of expletives, like the father in the Christmas Story over the broken heater.

“%&!(! It’s a %(@*ing piece of wood! Why the @+@# is this so &#)@ing hard to move around the !++( corner!”

Hot tears stung my eyes. I looked at the broken pieces on the ground and had hit my limit. Part of me wanted to start kicking the bed frame, smashing it into little pieces. Part of me wanted to grab the edges and just yank it through the wall, tearing pieces off in order to get it down the hallway and into the bedroom. Instead, I chose the less aggressive approach.

I sat down on the floor, put my head between my knees, and cried my eyes out. For about ten seconds.

Soon, the boyfriend was sitting on the floor next to me, his arm around my shoulders, muttering that it was fine, that it was just a piece of furniture. I breathed, calming myself, and snuggled in, hating that I’d lost myself for a moment over something so trivial.

Furniture assembly has never been my thing. I think it stems back to childhood. I’ve always had a more compassionate, creative brain. I liked drawing, story-telling, singing, performing, and sharing. I liked helping people feel better. But furniture assembly represents the part of me that could never measure up. I couldn’t ride a bike, climb a tree, or set up a tent. I was picked last for the kickball team, couldn’t get the basketball through the hoop, and came in last in sprint relays.

No matter how much I heal from having grown up a gay kid in a straight world, there will always be pieces of me that feel like I don’t measure up, like I’m not good enough, and that makes me furious. My rage shows up in strange moments, like this, when a piece of assembled wooden furniture can’t fit around the corner, and I’m not good at taking it apart and putting it back together.

After I calmed down, Mike grabbed the other side of the bed and, with bandaged knee, helped me maneuver it down the hall and into the bedroom. Fifteen minutes later, I had the bed reassembled, and ten minutes past that, it was all set up in the kids room, looking perfect. I couldn’t even see the small jagged pieces that had broken off.

I had a major headache after that, leftover stress from my small fit on the floor. I popped some Tylenol, took a ten minute siesta, and then felt completely better. I sat up on the couch, my head clear, and began to laugh. It was suddenly hilarious that a grown man, a father of two, a man who just published a book and who spends hours in therapy each week teaching others how to have healthy communication patterns, was ready to smash a piece of furniture apart. Where had my self-care skills gone?

I looked over at Mike, realizing we had both lost our cool that day, and yet we had both been there for each other. And suddenly it felt so safe and nice to just be human. And being human sometimes means being weak, irrational, and ugly, and it sometimes means having a tantrum.

Early Resolutions: a Year in Review

Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was single. I was invited by a few friends that I barely knew to attend a party with them at a house of strangers, and I debated doing that, going to the bar, or just staying in. After all, I’d stayed home by myself on Halloween, my birthday dinner on Thanksgiving Day had been out of a microwave, and I’d spend most of my Christmas alone, having a half a bottle of wine in a mountain cabin and writing. The year before, I’d taken my kids trick-or-treating on Halloween and then gone to an expensive fundraiser, solo and single, and I had spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my kids for half the days and solo for the other halves. I was accustomed to associations with strangers and acquaintances in busy places.

But I made my decision and went to the party.

There, I made small talk with a few friends, had a glass of wine, flirted a bit, and smiled a lot. Then I noticed a good-looking guy across the room. At 11:40, we had some conversation and laughed. At 11:55, I body asked for a midnight kiss. And now, nearly a year later, we are together and happy.

I’ve made a habit, for the past three years, of setting bold goals for myself at the start of each year, goals which have felt impossible yet have proven to be highly achievable with the right amount of focus, ingenuity, and dedication. I’ve eliminated debts and set up savings, I’ve traveled to many places domestically that I never thought I’d see, I’ve set myself up in a rental home that I’m very happy in, I’ve written a book, I’ve worked extensively on a documentary that once felt undoable yet I’ve partnered with an incredible film crew and have made so much progress. My children are happy and stable, I have good friends who support me, and I continue to be happy in my own skin. And this year, I’ve had someone to share it with as well. Life is truly wonderful in a way that I never thought possible.

I spent a lot of my year writing in small coffee shops in myriad places. San Diego, Saskatoon, Brattleboro, Reno, Missoula, Minneapolis. I’ve dived into my roots and gained a greater understanding of myself. I spent two full months exploring my 2 year missionary service, I’ve written stories of my childhood, and I’ve been open and honest about my sexual development as an adolescent. I’ve spent less time writing about my observations from the present, and more writing of the past. These stories opened up new narratives and have given me new goals for the future. I’ve become more of a storyteller than ever before.

Much of my year has been framed by the telling of a man who died far too young and far too tragically, and not just him but the men who killed him. I’ve spent dozens of hours reading, reaching out, interviewing, and filming, and at the end of it all, something beautiful is about to come forward. And I can’t help but think beyond that, to other stories that need to be told.

On top of that, my children are a year older, and they are happy and well. They have transitioned into a charter school which gives them much more support overall, and we’ve seen their behavioral struggles and social behaviors adapt and grow for the better. They are vibrant, introspective, imaginative, and beautiful. Parenting is never without struggles, yet it is a complete joy.

Being in a relationship has changed me as well. My boyfriend has given me a consistency and stability that I didn’t realize I was missing. He’s faithful, steady, and romantic. He listens, he laughs, and he stays by my side. He supports me, and he’s wonderful with my children. On top of that, he’s damn handsome. He’s calmed my spirits in ways and he’s given me new insights into myself, which make me a better writer, a better father, and a better therapist.

I continue to do a self-inventory. I set some physical goals for myself that I didn’t achieve. I’m clearly recognizing of patterns of dedication to physical change (exercise and nutrition consistency) followed by a crippling apathy about that change, and this has resulted in a moody apathy. I haven’t gained weight, yet I haven’t achieved my goals. I struggle to break certain habits that don’t do me any harm except that they stop me from progressing.

Soon it is going to find time to set goals for the coming year. I know travel will be part of it. Raising a large amount of money to complete my film, finishing the film itself, and publishing my book will certainly make the list. Spending time being grateful for what I have, reaching out to others, reading books, and regularly writing will remain there. And right at the top of the list will be those physical goals that somehow evaded me this year.

Once in a while, I wish I could go back in time and tell the younger versions of me how good life will be if he can just wait it out. I’m as temporary as always, and a year from now I hope to be writing about my reflections from 2018. But for now, in a coffee shop at home, in frozen and polluted Salt Lake City, I’m grateful for my life, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

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Becoming your Boyfriend

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Last Friday night, I went to a house party with a few friends, just a simple birthday get together with drinks and meatballs, cheese and chips. I made small talk with a few people, ate a few bites, played with the cute dog that lived there, and watched the people.

Every time I think I know every gay person in Salt Lake City, I attend a party like this where I know one out of every twenty that are there, or I go out to the club and see 300 people I’ve never met.

But as I watched these strangers come in, I realized that nearly everyone there was partnered. And then I realized that each set of boyfriends weirdly looked like each other. At first, I noticed this curiously, then I was amazed, then baffled, then maybe a little flummoxed. It was uncanny.

Josh and Ben both had on ball caps and had grown their beards out to several inches, and could easily pass as mountain men. They had tight t-shirts on, jeans, and boots. They were groomed and dressed the exact same…

Matt and Tyler were both in their early 30s and were affectionate with each other with back pats, hand holds, and across-the-room glances. They were both well-dressed, both slightly balding, and both about 20 pounds overweight.

Jerome and Adam seemed literally cut from the same cloth. They both had the same muscular build: strong chests and shoulders, thick arms, strong legs, and bubble butts. Both wore shirts that showcased their muscles and tight jeans. Both had trim mustaches on their top lips. Both had dark hair and dark eyes.

The trend continued, every couple looking different from every couple, but each boyfriend looking the same.

After the party, I went out to a local gay club with a few friends, and I noticed the same trend. Two beautiful Latin men dancing, with the same haircut and movement; two tall skinny “twinks”; two muscly men with parted hair and glasses.

I pointed this trend out to my friends and we began reviewing my close friends who are partnered, and realized the trend holds true, with only a few exceptions. Boyfriends seem to gain or lose weight together, to dress similarly, to have the same grooming habits.

At coffee with my friend Steven the next day, I pointed out a couple we know. “Look at them! They didn’t use to look the same, and now they are the exact same! They have the same jeans on, they both have their hair buzzed!”

“Come on, Chad, there are still differences,” he chided.

“What are they! I can’t see them!”

Steven smiled broadly. “Well, only one of them likes to knit.”

Some men seem to only date men that look like them. But for those who don’t, once you are partnered, just give it some time. You’re bound to become your boyfriend over time.