Interview with a Person Whose Mom Came Out of the Closet
Rebecca is a 24-year-old web designer who lives in New York City.
So, let’s talk about your mom! What was her story growing up?
She was born in 1960 and she grew up in a Catholic family in New York, not super religious but culturally so. She told me that she thought maybe she was bisexual, and she also definitely wanted a family, and at that point the way to have a family was to get married to a man. So that’s what she did.
How did your parents get together?
She met my dad in college — he’s nine years older than she is — and they got married a few years after that. She was the one to propose, which is interesting to me. I was their only child together, and when I was about three, they got divorced and she came out.
I don’t remember her coming out to me. I’m sure she did, but I was so little, I surely didn’t know what she was talking about or care.
Had she dated girls before marrying your dad?
Not to my knowledge. She has some ex-boyfriends, a few of which have come out themselves! I’m guessing the answer to your question is either “no” or “something scandalous that she doesn’t want to tell me.”
Is she Catholic herself? Was that a source of conflict?
She’s actually a Quaker now. She’s done all sorts of religious stuff — for awhile, she was a Wiccan. She thought I was going to be a boy because she went to some witchy wise-woman who told her so.
After she came out, did she start dating?
She was single for awhile, then she met a partner that we lived with for a couple of years when I was in elementary school. I was really close to that woman — her name was Annie. She added me on Facebook a few years ago, and it was strange to come back in contact with her, after having been so close to her and then not talking for years. She sent me a really effusive note and I didn’t know how to respond.
Anyway, when I was 11, my mom met her partner, who she’s still with now, and they plan on spending the rest of their lives together.
Are they married or interested in getting married?
They haven’t done any of that. I don’t inquire too deeply because it seems kind of rude, but my mom’s alluded to some things in terms of taxes and inheritance that make it sensible for them to stay legally separate.
Do you remember when your mom and her partner decided to commit to each other? Was it a distinct decision or something that took shape gradually?
You know, I don’t know what the lesbian scene in upstate New York is like — I don’t know if my mom dated casually a whole lot — but I know that she wouldn’t have introduced a girlfriend to me if it weren’t already pretty serious. Tammy moved in with us soon after I met her, and so I think I knew and they knew from that point that it was going to be a real thing.
As a child, was it weird to watch your mom date? Did it change things for you that she was dating women?
Well, I felt weird my whole childhood for reasons that were totally unrelated to my mom’s sexuality. It honestly felt much more singular that my parents were divorced. The lesbian aspect was almost a non-issue, which I know makes me lucky.
But also I had a lot of support and community. My mom was part of a family group, so I knew a lot of other people with gay parents, and for nine years I went to a summer camp for kids with LGBTQ family members.
Can you tell me about this camp? Were kids mostly like you, untroubled and happy about their parents’ sexuality? Or were they angsty about it?
The camp was called Mountain Meadow, and there was definitely a spread. There were kids like me, who grew up in progressive communities and didn’t feel weird, and then there were kids who were not cool with it. There were also kids who had transgender parents, which tended to be a little more difficult of a situation, and there was a group of kids at camp who were themselves LGBTQ — some of whom had LGBTQ parents, some of whom did not.
What were your camp cliques like?
Well, the camp was really diverse in every way — like, on the application, they ask you what economic class you consider your parents to be in. So you’d have these kids from ultra-liberal suburban New York and kids from inner-city Philadelphia, and their experiences of having a gay family member would be totally different, and people mostly ended up sorting themselves based on geography and background. It did get tense sometimes, there were some fights. But in general, it was a great experience.
How much of the camp was camp-camp and how much was specific to family stuff?
Mostly it was camp-camp. There were discussion sections twice a day, though, and I remember the sex ed we had there was far more comprehensive than what we had in school, which was great.
So tell me more about what you said about feeling weird as a kid, but in a way that was completely unrelated to your mom.
Well, the thing is, when you are painfully shy as a kid and you never bring friends home, your gay mom is going to worry that it’s because of her, that you’re embarrassed of her. And I was, but only because she was my mother. I just felt weird about everything in the same way that a lot of smart, bookish, really awkward young kids do.
What about your dad? How do you think this all was for him?
I can imagine that it was an awful experience, but we’ve never actually talked about it. We’re more similar, he and I, than I am to my mom — but that results in both of us just sort of keeping to ourselves a lot.
According to my mom, there were other big problems in their marriage, but I can’t imagine that there were any ones bigger than this. I can’t imagine hearing, “I don’t love you anymore, and also I am not even attracted to people of your gender.” Anyway, he remarried when I was six.
My mom is also super respectful of him. She’s quick to tell me that she did love him a lot and that it just didn’t work out. And my dad is a very progressive guy — for him, gay is a non-issue — he’s never said anything bad about her, but he has never spoken directly about it either.
That’s really interesting. I wonder how many men would handle the situation like that.
Yeah, I was lucky. I’m lucky that my dad is a good person. I mean, in the early 90’s, I remember people were getting their kids taken away from them because they were gay — and my mom was the one who successfully sued my dad for full custody when I was 11 because one of my stepsiblings had behavioral issues.
I remember at camp, we had this yearbook that we put out at the end of each summer, and every year there would be a list of kids whose names and pictures couldn’t be in it, because they had a parent who wasn’t supposed to have any contact with them or know where they were. So we’d have to black out their faces. In retrospect, those poor kids. I can’t imagine.
And their poor parents. It sounds like yours did a really good job handling your mom coming out and everything that came after.
Definitely. I don’t know if it’s right to tell future or current gay parents not to worry — I know I’ve always lived in liberal places, and my mom was always careful about where she sent me to school, and so I don’t know what it’s like to be in a very intolerant environment — but I do think it’s possible for a child of gay parents to grow up fully aware of homophobia and also totally un-traumatized by it. I wouldn’t trade my mom for anything, and this was an overall very positive experience for me.
In what ways?
Well, I think it’s given me a baseline of empathy for people who are outside of the norm or popular understanding. It was really good to have that start, and to experience as wholly normal and boring something that other people really fear and hate. It’s made me question other things that people fear and hate a lot more.
As an adult, how has your understanding of growing up with a gay parent changed?
There can be tensions when you get older that you don’t anticipate. I felt like I was a part of the gay community when I was younger — I grew up marching in pride parades, I went to all these events — but then I got older, and I’m straight, and I didn’t really know where my place was anymore. I don’t want to be appropriative. I’ll meet a young lesbian who just came out of the closet and I will want to sort of share in that space because it’s something I’ve been part of all my life, but I don’t know if there’s really a place for me now that I’m independent of my mom.
Also, I haven’t struggled with this too much, but other people have some trouble when they start to think about their own sexuality. There can be this pressure of, “Oh, I better be straight so that people don’t think that gay parents turn their kids gay,” or “I don’t want to be straight because I’ll lose this community.”
I didn’t date in high school, and in college I started sort of sneaking around with this guy, and my mom just sat me down and said, “I just want to let you know, it’s okay if you’re straight.”
Yeah, she totally misunderstood the situation. I was sneaking around because she was my mom, you know? Not because I was like, afraid she would be disappointed that I was straight.
Did you ever think that that might have been true?
Oh no. I think she would’ve probably gotten a kick out of me being gay — it’s exciting for her to see young gay people living their lives without some of the things that she’s had to deal with. But she’d never actually care who I was with.
Does it frustrate you that it’s still very hard to be a gay parent in a lot of places?
Well, I find anything negative that people say about gay parenting to be so inherently ridiculous. Hearing that there is anything different or wrong about a gay person or gay person as a parent is like hearing someone say that the earth is flat. I can’t be personally offended by it because I can’t take it seriously.
Of course, I do know that homophobia shapes a lot of people’s lives today. I just think that within a couple of generations, things will be different — it doesn’t seem possible to maintain that sort of blatant, widespread homophobia if everyone knows and interacts with gay people.
Do you encounter any common misperceptions within your own circles?
This is sort of petty, but it used to bother me a lot when I was growing up that people would refer to my “two moms” all the time. I feel like, I have a mother and a father and two stepmothers. And people were coming from a good place, trying to be inclusive, but they just had this template of what the gay family was supposed to be like, and it didn’t match up with what I felt. I mean, my dad’s been married to his wife for a long time, and no one’s ever called her my mom. I guess I just didn’t want people to rewrite things, to cut my dad out of the picture because my mom was gay.
These days it’s probably different. There are probably a lot of kids conceived in vitro or adopted by two gay parents — but when I was growing up, a lot of the people I knew with gay parents were the product of heterosexual marriages that ended. And that’s a real form of family in its own right.