On Sunday, June 28, 2009, I accompanied my daughter Lily, who was then 16, to the Gay Pride Parade in New York. Afterward, I wrote about it. Lily and I agreed this was a good moment and place to tell the story.
Lily had been talking about going to the Gay Pride Parade for weeks – with friends, of course, definitely not with her mother. But then, as so often happens, her flaky, teenage friends bailed at the last minute. There she was, all dressed up and ready to go, 22 minutes before the train to NYC arrived, her dreams of being at the parade dashed.
“Do you want me to go with you,” I asked. “Yes,” she replied unhappily, but resignedly. She hates discussing the issue with me. I hate parades or big crowds of any kind. But I love my daughter more than I hate parades and, I guess she loved the idea of going to this parade more than she hated the idea of going with me. Perfect.
22 minutes to shower, dress and make that train. I can do this. Once on the train, I am frozen out, as I so often am. Lily is angry and hurt, resentful that I am the best substitute she could find. She is tight as a drum, unwilling to share her disappointments with me. So, I did what I have learned to do, to be quiet, to respect her solitude, her privacy, to not try to comfort her, which only seems to make things worse. Observing her sadness, my heart breaks for her. Thirty minutes of silence later, the time feels right to put my arm around her shoulders, and softly cajole her to put aside her disappointment for now, to anticipate the fun she is about to have, the joy she hopes to experience, the fulfillment of her dream of being there. Her lower lip trembles as she holds back tears and she doesn’t speak, but neither does she recoil from my touch.
Lily came out when she was 14. This is young for such a momentous announcement. At 14, a person seems only half-formed. Then there are all those hormones and teenage angst. We – her parents and sister – were not the first to hear about it, either. Instead, she decided to announce her sexual orientation to 600 of her closest friends, teachers and administrators at her high school’s annual “Names Day,” a day when classes are pushed aside in favor of workshops and assemblies that celebrate and explain differences and educate students in the noble pursuit of tolerance. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the open mic and share their personal experiences of bias and hate with their classmates.
When she arrived home that afternoon, Lily was changed. She was excited, happy, floating on air. I asked her what was going on. “Nothing.” Yeah, right. Time to look at Facebook. Our deal was if she wanted a Facebook page, I would also have one and we would be “friends.” Her page was overflowing with admiring messages from classmates praising her courage, wishing they had the same ability to face their truths as she had hers. Though there was nothing explicit, it didn’t take very long to deduce what had transpired.
I was alarmed, which set off additional and unexpected alarms. I had always been a bleeding heart liberal, completely behind social justice issues such as affirmative action and equal rights for all. I had had conversations with friends who suspected their children were gay. “It’s genetic. Nothing you can do about it. Accept it. Help your kid accept it,” I would tell them. But now it was on me. I questioned myself. Did I harbor a secret bias? Was it ok for other kids and families, but not mine?
Nonetheless, not being one to pussyfoot around such things, I asked Lily directly, “Are you gay?”
“Then what happened at Names Day?”
She fed me a story that was somewhat plausible. I wanted it to be the truth. Badly. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t. Finally, after a week of pressing her, of discussions with the guidance counselor and confirming what I knew, she tearfully and angrily admitted it to her father and me.
Tight as a drum.
We fed her the usual pabulum, telling her we loved her no matter what and that she could tell us anything. But we knew the world had shifted for us all. She would have to confront things she could never have imagined. In fact, she had already received horrible and vitriolic messages on Facebook via one of their more dubious applications known as the “Honesty Box.” We would have to let go of our fantasies of a husband and traditional family life in her future. We also would have to confront our own prejudices.
I tried to tell myself it was because of the difficulties she would face as a lesbian. Being gay in our current society means life will be harder. What parent looks forward to a child confronting hate? But ultimately, I recognized it was more about my own hopes and dreams being upended. What about the boyfriend when she was thirteen? What about that boy she had a year-long, breathless crush on throughout eighth grade, just 4 months earlier? I repeatedly attempted to speak to her about it. When did you know? What can I do to help? Rarely, she would open up. Once she told me she hated being gay. It was devastating.
Mostly, she refused to discuss it.
So, I threw myself into trying to understand it through third parties, other parents’ experiences, reading up on human sexuality and taking comfort in pronouncements from knowledgeable people that sexuality wasn’t necessarily set at this age. Maybe this was just a phase she was going through. But what if it wasn’t? I was determined to learn to be a parent to a gay child and no one was going to teach me, least of all the one who best could, my daughter.
Over the next 2 years, we learned how to be a family with a difference. Lily’s coming out became old news and the focus shifted to more mundane concerns such as grades and social life. Lily herself seemed to become more comfortable with her reality. She joined the gay straight alliance club at her school and attended weekly meetings faithfully. It was one of the few things she looked forward to. I was thrilled about this development having suggested it early on and been rebuffed.
The bumps in the road continue. Lily is, of course, confronting the usual teenage disappointments: People are often not dependable, friends break promises, not everyone has the same commitment to “the cause” that you do, getting hurt is part of life. Yet, she is also learning some lessons most teens do not: That the world can be an ugly place, that it is filled with ignorance, that in the Internet age, boundaries have become elastic and people disinhibited from expressing their often vile opinions. I am sad about those lessons and wonder if the old saying is true, that they will make her stronger.
I also make mistakes. One of the first ones was early on when I shared with Lily, during one of our rare discussions, that maybe she was just going through a phase. She became enraged. I have still not lived it down.
But, slowly, we are peeling away the layers. The drum is a bit less tight.
For example, I finally received permission to reveal Lily’s secret to certain friends and relatives. I was afraid of their reactions, anticipating their ignorance and imagining how I would vent my rage should they fail my tests. They haven’t, so far. I encouraged Lily to tell my mother. She did so and was met with shock, disbelief and denial, which she blamed me for. Instead of venting rage, however, I was able, for perhaps the first time, to see things through my mother’s eyes. Her reaction had not been so different from my own. Rather than chastise and scold her, I called and calmly explained how her reaction had been hurtful. She told me she would never hurt Lily, loved her regardless of her “choices.”
Lily: “Who would choose this? Now she [you] looks at me differently.”
Me: “I spoke to her [myself]. Give her [me] some time.”
Lily: “I can’t. She [you] needs to make up her [your] mind now. I will never feel the same way about her [you].”
Me: “Well, I hope some day you can forgive her [me].”
We stepped off the train in Manhattan and then outside. The weather was perfect, a gift during a month of nearly constant rain. As we approached Fifth Avenue, Lily’s excitement and lightheartedness grew, as did mine. We found our spot along the barricades and bought our rainbow flags to wave. “This is so great,” Lily said, her beautiful face filled with joy, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement and anticipation. “It is,” I agreed.
I put my arm around her. She shrugged it off.
Postscript: Lily is now 24 and fully formed (almost 😉 ) Our family is solid. She’s a great conversation partner and very funny. She has nice friends and looks forward to getting married to the right woman one day, maybe even becoming a parent.