Labels—of nearly any kind—make me squicky. (That’s a word, right?) I’ve never liked being asked to name a favorite color, food, number, etc., and I’ve never responded consistently to the question of how I identify on the LGBTQ spectrum; I don’t even use the terms “wife” or “partner” confidently, and I’ve been married for 10 years. I would assume this aversion relates directly to my having been raised by parents who strongly identify as religious fundamentalists—born-again Christians, specifically—and to my having rejected that rigidity at a young age.
My own fractured view of our church started in middle school. Our parish became a political one: protesting abortion clinics, hosting members of the Christian Coalition who preached about the abomination that was adding protections for LGBT peoples (no “Q” then) to the state’s hate crime bill and adopting a simplistic definition of “right” and “wrong” (despite the fact that our congregation was made up of fallible adults). Even as I designed my own moral compass, I assumed the answers had to be more complicated.
I came out-ish in high school. I was quiet and unsure and had a difficult time finding my place in my public high school’s closed social groups. Though I joined teams and participated in after-school activities, I hadn’t found my niche, my weekend friends. And then I met Lauren. She was outgoing and confident, had an entrenched group of quirky friends, and seemed to like me enough to continue asking me to be a part of that group. Soon, we developed feelings for one another. Before I had a chance to figure out who I was or what we were (and whether or not it was disingenuous to remain an “ally” in my school’s GSA), my brother outed me to my parents. There was a dramatic sit-down at the kitchen table, my parents repeating over and over again that they loved me but that they couldn’t support my choices. They wouldn’t let me get up from the table until I agreed that I knew I was going to hell. To be worn down—by your own parents, no less—and agree to a fate you don’t yourself believe…I wish that experience on no one.
That period of time was awful: I was criticized for the clothes I wore, interrogated about where I was going and who I was seeing (with the assumption that every friend was a new love interest), and bullied about my choice of prospective colleges; when I excitedly applied to Smith, my father said, “You know that’s a lesbian school, right?” While my parents didn’t forbid my relationship with Lauren, they made it difficult for it to continue.
But then something … snapped. I started to see my parents as fearful people, individuals who were limited but doing their best. They came to their fundamentalism together to find order and clarity in a disordered world, both carrying complicated traumas from their pasts into their present. It was a belief system that worked for them, but it wasn’t for me.
Whether or not they knew it, the best gift my parents gave me was that of a wide community: I had handfuls of wonderful adults in my life—grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends’ parents, teachers and mentors—from whom I could observe and distill down my own definitions of morality. I developed a world view that was much grayer than that of my parents’ black and white perspective.
Since high school, I have learned to parent my parents, to be consistent and fair, to be selectively vulnerable, to teach them how to treat an adult daughter. When I got engaged a decade ago, it was important to me to call them and give them the opportunity to join the celebration—they chose not to, but I felt rooted in the belief that my happiness wasn’t dependent on their support. When they didn’t attend my wedding, I cut off communication; when they reached out to reestablish contact two years later, I set clear boundaries of what this new chapter would look like and how they were to treat my wife, Kristen.
They’ve made mistakes, and I’ve made corrections that they’ve accepted and adopted. My parents have decided that it’s more important to have me in their lives than not to, and vice versa. I’ve built a strong community of support among a chosen family of friends and neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances, people who validate my relationship and reflect my values. I’ve found a place for my parents within that community (and rely on plenty of friends for advice and solace when things go wrong). My parents have learned that I respect their value system, and they’ve demonstrated respect for mine. It’s a work in progress, but not a reality I could have predicted when I was that 17 year old sitting at the kitchen table nearly 20 years ago.
Now, as Kristen and I look to expand our family, I wonder how receptive my parents will be to their grandchildren. I hold some small hope that they’ll be supportive, along with some realism/cynicism that they won’t. Regardless, I know that our children will be nurtured by our community: a loving group of aunts and uncles—and “aunts” and “uncles”—friends and teachers and at least one set of gleeful grandparents. Even if they opt out, I will carry forward the lesson of community that, intentionally or not, my parents instilled in me years ago. That can be the gift they give to their grandchildren.