My Very Best Article
In the past 20 years, homosexuality has stopped being a topic just for the bedroom. As many gays and lesbians have simply decided to stop living in secret, a whole new definition of family has emerged. Presumably, there have been gay parents for as long as there have been gays and parents. There were the gay parents of the 1960s, who lived their whole lives without telling their spouses and children. Brokeback Mountain, a life of secrecy and shame. There are the gay parents of the 2000s, who fight for gay marriage and adoption rights. Heather Has Two Mommies, and she’s known about the turkey baster since her first birthday.
But what about the middle decades? The children born in the 1980s to parents who decided to tell them in the open-minded 1990s, just in time for puberty? Coming out may be a personal experience, but when the person in the closet has children, it suddenly has a deeper meaning. I set out to write an article about what it feels like to be in this generation of children with gay parents. Do they feel sympathetic toward homosexuals, or just ardent disgust? Is it even a big deal?
New school rules, old school rules, the golden hour, the ins and outs of good interviewing — if there was ever a topic that incorporated all aspects of the syllabus of Magazine Reporting, it was this one. I broke a cardinal rule that we learned on our first day in class; I was asking my subjects, How does it make you feel?
The thing is, I kind of know how it feels. At least, I know how it feels for me. A journalist isn’t supposed to be biased, but I am a little in this case. I am dying to do these interviews because I am dying to meet another person like myself, who found out growing up she has a gay parent. I know they exist, so, like a sports reporter using his press pass to get an athlete’s signature for his son’s birthday, I also use my role to get myself access to people I really, really want to meet. I can’t say I used my connections, because I really have no connections to other people with gay parents, but I did tactfully drop this little fact about myself to let people know they could trust me in the interview process.
They are giving me an interview, but they are unwittingly giving me support. By answering the questions I ask as a reporter, they are answering the questions I have about my life. I want to confess this to my class the day we pitch our stories, but I’m not there yet. I imagine how my story will look. I hope when I share it with the class, I can say, “Dad’s gay!” as cheerfully as my slug proclaims it, but I know that it just won’t happen.
We learned early on that an interview is supposed to feel like a conversation; I knew that my interviews would feel exactly like a conversations. There is a level of balance between the subject and myself that I have never experienced in an interview. To get these interviews, I outed myself, or, rather, my family. I feel vulnerable. I am also a little more eager to hear their responses. This is not about getting the perfect quote. This is about knowing about their lives. It is everything we are learning in this class. A source is not Google. This is the first time I will truly listen to my subjects, even if it’s partially for selfish reasons.
I want to know how they did it. I want to know how their parents told them. I want to know what it was like for them in elementary school, middle school, high school. I want to know how it affects their relationships now. I want to know if they get pissed, if they get sad, if they can laugh about it, if they can joke about it with their grandmas on holidays, if they tell their boyfriends. I already know how I did it.
I know what it’s like to be three years old and stand hidden from the view of your parents as your dad says to your mom, “I’m gay.” I know what it’s like to not be scared of this because, as a three-year-old in Chicago, I already know gay people. I know what it is like to move to the suburbs, go to white, Catholic schools, and suddenly be scared of it. I know what it’s like to tell him, “I know,” when he finally tells you nine years later. I know how it feels to hear “That’s so gay” on a regular basis, to encounter small minds in a small town. I know what it’s like to be an ally for reasons I can never fully explain to people. I know what it’s like to go to a middle school dance and act like nothing is wrong just hours after your dad says he’s dying from AIDS. I know what it’s like to keep all these stories inside for years and not even talk about it with blood relatives. I know how I did it, but I want to know how they did it.
Our old and new school rules teach us to be prepared for our interviews and to do our research, but not come with a list of questions we read from. I try to prepare for these interviews, but I really cannot. I know this will truly be a conversation. We both have a gay parent. The rest should take care of itself.
My first interview is with Lauren. I don’t do research; I know nothing about her. We set up the interview weeks ago; I can’t even recall which of her relatives is gay. When I meet her in the MSU Union, she is upbeat, open, and ready to talk.
Normally, I don’t demand that people “tell me about yourself” at the start of the interview, but for this type of article, I just explain to her that I really want to know everything about her life. She tells me that she is 20, from Grand Rapids, and studying social relations and policy at Michigan State University. Why did you choose that topic? I ask. So she can go into advocacy and gay and lesbian rights. Yes! We’re onto the main subject of conversation without any beating around the bush.
Lauren initially had a nuclear family with a mom and a dad, but she was told at a young age that her mom was attracted to women. Her younger sister Megan had just been born. It didn’t come as an earth-shattering announcement to Lauren’s father, because he knew her mom had been with women before. It actually didn’t come as an earth-shattering announcement to Lauren either, as far as I can tell.
She went to the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival growing up. “I remember growing up around women, around lesbians,” she says. “Festival is amazing because you see that there are other gay parents. It’s like, ‘Oh, really, you, too?’ And there are many different colors of children. A lot of times they were adopted. It’s like, ‘How were you created?’”
When Lauren was young, her mom had a serious female partner, Lee, for three years, and Lauren grew close to her. Her parents didn’t get along, and since she wasn’t close to her biological father, she found a father figure in her mom’s gay best friend Tony.
Lauren didn’t have a hard time in school because, she says, “I had two parents—a mom and a dad.” People didn’t need to know the level of attraction, or lack thereof, that existed between them. Still, she had some unusual experiences growing up.
“During the holidays in elementary, we had a thing where you could buy your parents gifs, and I wanted to buy my mom a hardware set,” she says. “And they were like ‘Why? Why would you buy that for your mom?’ And it was just like, she would like that.”
Lauren went to a conservative middle school, and mentioned what I think might be the worst part of being a child of a gay parent: “When you hear, ‘That’s so gay.’” When she’s telling me this, the interview is definitely conversation, because even as I’m writing furiously, I’m nodding out of incredible solidarity, understanding, gratefulness, and thinking, I am not the only one. She says that sometimes she did feel weird about her mom’s rainbow bumper sticker or other things that would call attention to her sexuality. “If you want to be out, that’s fine, but why are you outing me?”
Lauren identifies as queer, which means she had to eventually out herself. We spend a long time talking about this, because it really affects her experience as the child of a homosexual. Now that she is out to herself (in high school), her sister and friends (before college), and her biological parents (recently), anyone who is homophobic about her mom will be homophobic about her as well. So she uses her Internet profile to tell people up front.
“Facebook has helped with coming out,” she says.
She states in her profile’s “About Me” section that her mom is a lesbian, and under “Interested In,” she lists men and women. Lauren says that she is generally out to new people she meets, and because she often meets new people through her advocacy work on campus, they are supportive.
“I felt like I was really lucky at first to have a gay parent. And it helps you to be very comfortable with different types of people,” she says.
She and her mother aren’t as close as they once were, but she said it’s mostly because of other mother-daughter tensions that are unrelated to either’s sexuality. As she’s gotten older, she’s gotten closer to her grandparents and her father. “A few weeks ago when I was sick, he asked me if I needed anything,” she says. “I think he wants to make up for things.”
Lee, who now lives in Oregon now and has adopted two children, is still an important figure in Lauren’s life. “She’s loud and energetic,” Lauren says. Lee is also multiracial like Lauren, and that commonality has made them close. Lauren is still close to Tony, who she just talked to recently, when he pushed her to follow her dream to go to law school. Her father has been married and divorced twice, and Lauren’s family now includes stepsisters and half-brothers. It’s not the nuclear family, but she says it’s nice to have four parents.
Megan, Lauren’s younger sister who “the biggest ally you will ever meet,” is a freshman at MSU. “We’ve been in gay pride parades,” Lauren says. When she says this, I remember being in a gay pride parade when I was about 3 years old. I didn’t know that’s what it was until I was about 16 and put two and two together. I never talked about it, but perhaps my liberal attitude toward gays and lesbians came from the fact that I encountered leather chaps and feather boas during my formative years. I tell her that, and again, it’s a conversation.
We also talk about what it’s like to grow up in a primarily white, conservative community when you have the double whammy of a gay parent and an ethnically ambiguous countenance. Lauren’s mother is of French, German, Native American and Mexican heritage and her father is black. As she tells me this, and tells me about her school with its “moral-focused, Christian undertones,” we take in each other, and I know there’s an unspoken conversation passing as well. We just know what it’s like to be different.
The more she tells me, and the more I realize what we have in common, the more excited I become. She asks me if I’ll be participating in Pride Week at MSU; she’s the social chair for Same Gender Loving Students of Color Internationals and Allies. I had already planned to do something with my gay friends, but when she asks, I want to participate even more, for her, because I just want to show her how much I adore her. She is a source, but she is so damn comfortable with her situation that she’s also a mentor, and I want to thank her any way I can.
I walk out of the interview feeling great about life. I am drunk off this sense of camaraderie; I feel like walking home and telling the 50 sorority girls I live with, “Dad’s gay!” Instead, I call my friend Jordan, one of the few people who knows my secret, and who gave me Lauren’s name when I told him about the article. “I just met your friend Lauren!” I gush to his voicemail. “And she’s racially ambiguous and her mom’s gay and she’s great and I love her because she just knows!”
My other interview is with Elise. For some reason, I thought Elise wasn’t comfortable talking about her situation, so I treat her with kid gloves. I suggest we meet off-campus, somewhere private. I plan to write a story about the contrast between two people with an openly gay parent: one who has taken the advocacy route, and another who keeps it private. It turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong about this; Elise may not be as political as Lauren, but she’s certainly not ashamed. I am fine with that. A good interview is one where you learn something new, not where you get just the answers you want to hear.
Elise greets me and when I awkwardly stutter, “So…your dad…how did you…your parents…?” she replies with, “I have three father figures, which is really exciting! And I still totally have a daddy complex!”
Elise has an older and a younger sister. Her parents were married for about 20 years; she was in eighth grade when they divorced. Elise says they fought a lot, and the main reason for their divorce was money.
“In ninth grade he kind of sat us down. He had been dating other people and he said, ‘I’m going on a date tonight with this man named Tom…he’s a very nice gentleman.’ And we met him and everything.”
“I wouldn’t call my dad gay,” she says. “He goes wherever love takes him. It didn’t really phase me; we were brought up really liberally. My parents had gay friends. But I did the punkass thing of being a brat to anyone my parents dated though.”
“My older sister was probably even more accepting than I was. I was angry for a while, and had to go through a lot of therapy. I was more angry about the divorce. My little sister took it hard. She got very angry.”
I think about this. Angry. No one ever asked me if I was angry. My mom stuck me in therapy for about five minutes, which made me angry. The therapist never asked if I was angry. I would have never thought to ask my subjects if they were angry when they found their parent is gay because I didn’t know it was OK to be angry. I thought you just had to shut up and accept it. Realizing all this makes me angry.
Despite the fact that she as raised liberally, Elise lived in a city that wasn’t.
“We were a really conservative community. All-white, all-Republican, all-Christian, all the time. I think there was maybe one black family but they left after someone put a cross on their lawn and then lit it on fire,” she says.
She was very active in her church at the time, and, like Lauren, had to reconcile her parent’s “sins” with the mores of her surroundings.
So did you tell anyone? I ask.
“I didn’t tell anyone for a while. I told my best friend,” she says. “Ironically, her dad’s gay! It was in the lunch line. I whispered, ‘Can I tell you a secret? My dad’s dating a man!’ “Mine, too!’”
I am shocked. I am a little jealous. I can’t imagine whispering that in the lunch line at Powers Catholic High School. I feel like she was karmically rewarded for being open, and that if I started telling people, the same thing might happen to me.
After she told her best friend, it was easier to tell other people, although she didn’t immediately volunteer the information. Her dad began seriously dating a man named Terry, whom he remains with today, but he lived two hours away at the time, meaning school functions weren’t a source of embarrassment. Still, her mother and grandmother did face the town’s judgment.
“I don’t know who in the community was saying it, but I think my mom was told, ‘You must not have been a good enough wife.’”
Elise lived with her father during high school because she didn’t get along with her mom. Since moving to college, she and her mother have become closer, and her younger sister has become close to her dad.
“I am a carbon copy of my mom,” she says. “Your parents really do the best they can. And I’ve realized that they are still people, even if they are your parents.”
Elise has such a great sense of humor about her story, and it’s not defensive humor. She’s not trying to beat people to the punch by making fun of herself. She is truly OK with how her life is. I ask her what her grandparents think of her dad’s sexual orientation.
“My dad still gets cards from his ‘ex-in-laws.’ They are really open. It stays really clean.”
What are holidays like?
“We had a couple of really awkward Thanksgivings,” she says, and I burst out laughing. “You guys are divorced…you guys are gay…”
She’s making me laugh and I think, I could do this. I am funny about other aspects of my life that are unconventional. Why can’t I just be open and laugh about this too?
“We have a lot of funny stories,” she says. “We have a lot of rainbow coffee mugs.”
Unlike Lauren, Elise hasn’t done as much advocacy work. In high school, she was a member of the group Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She isn’t as involved now.
“I no longer feel the need to seek out people through support groups,” she says. “But I go to Pride Week every summer.” This year, she protested a speaker brought to MSU by Young Americans for Freedom who spoke against homosexuality. “It felt really good.”
“I wish I could get involved more. I wish I could work with kids and make it more normal.” She tells me about a picture book she discovered about two male penguins who hatch an egg and raise it together, and how she would love to read the book to a children’s group. “Just have it be normal.”
I want to know what advice she’d give to people who have gay parents. I ask this as though I am going to share it with the masses; really, it’s just for me.
“Tell somebody. It’s not something to be ashamed of. You need someone to share it with, whether you’re angry or just want to laugh about it.” She doesn’t have a problem telling anyone. “It’s like, get it. Accept it. It’s nothing new. It’s not even your problem.”
When she says this, I am just aching with envy. I wish I could do and say the same. Or maybe I would, if I needed to, but because my dad died years ago, I will never have to.
At the end of both interviews, I am faced with the question of how to wrap it up. I ask them if there is anything else they want to share. We both know the interview is over.
I had my questions answered. I know how they did it. They did it in the open. They did it with a sense of humor. They did it with an attitude of, This might suck a little, but this is my life, and if you don’t like it, you’re not my friend. Their approach is absolutely not “Dad’s…gay…” or “Dad’s gay?” or “Shh. Dad’s gay.”
“We kind of must have that coming out for children of gay parents,” Lauren told me. She’s telling me it’s OK. Elise told me to tell someone. She’s saying it’s OK.
I realize I didn’t need to know how it feels. I knew. I needed to know that however it feels, it’s OK.
Now I know.
And it is.
And I am.
And dad’s gay!