Saturday, April 20, 2013

Out ("What's Wrong with Homosexuality?" by John Corvino)

[John Corvino's What's Wrong With Homosexuality? is a short, concise book that debunks the most prevalent and misguided arguments against gay rights and gay marriage in modern American society, including its affects on children (there are none), the lack of similar same-sex attractions in nature (there are tons), and gay marriage as a gateway to society's moral collapse (ridiculous). Corvino, a philosophy professor, writes with a clear and often personal voice about why the arguments against gay rights have very little substance. In perhaps the book's most personal moment, Corvino discusses his own coming out story and how moments such as those can have the greatest effect at changing people's minds on this issue. In lieu of reviewing Corvino's book, which overall is very good, I offer my own story.]

I came out to my parents on a Sunday, in a moment I'd planned the entire weekend around. It was something I should've done years before--after all, I'd known since I was 12, thanks in part to a random Internet pop-up ad (long story) and an obsession with reruns of The Golden Girls that my family accepted but did not quite understand--but didn't for a myriad of reasons, the greatest of which being a complete lack of faith in my parents. I didn't know how they'd react, and gay rights--or for that matter gay people--was a topic I never heard either of them mention once, even in passing. Had they taken a stand in any direction--they were fine with gay people, they hated gay people, they didn't care one way or the other--I would've at least known was I was up against, what to brace myself for. Instead, there was total silence on this issue. And it was in that silence that I spent years falling apart--emotionally, physically, spiritually--until I decided once and for all that the only way I could save myself and be truly happy was to come out to them, the two people who raised me, the two people who I loved more than anyone else (and who loved me just as much). I needed to do this in order to be a stronger, better, healthier person, whether my parents accepted me or not. And so it was decided:  I would visit my parents, come out, and be done with it.

I don't remember how the conversation began--I didn't look right, I remember my mother saying at some point, like there was something bothering me. I told her it was true, there most definitely was something on my mind...but I choked on my words and didn't go any further, didn't elaborate. Ever the worrywart, my mother began to rattle off a litany of possible tragedies that could've befallen her firstborn son--fired from my job, an accident, a health scare--a list I assume she runs through constantly like some sort of protective-mom memory game. I denied that my problem was any of those possibilities, and before she could say any more, I blurted it out--two very simple, one-syllable words, tossed out with the same speed and dispassion of someone ripping off a Band-Aid. There was no great relief like I thought there'd be, no metaphorical or metaphysical weight lifted from my shoulders...but it was done, over, resolved. There was no going back, no erasing the words--the proverbial ball was in their court. I waited for them to respond, to say or do anything that let me know, finally, how they felt.

They said nothing.

To be honest, this was not entirely unexpected. My parents are and always have been quiet people, their emotions kept close to their chests. I have countless memories of them sitting around the kitchen table saying absolutely nothing to one another for hours at a time as they paid bills, read the newspaper, or looked over their children's homework...and being perfectly content doing so. It's not because they're sad, lonely, bored, or uninteresting people--they just don't see the need to talk that much, and strangely it's one of the few traits I inherited from them. So the pall of silence that fell over the three of us in that moment wasn't unusual, and it was more of a relief than anything else: they reacted to my news in the same way they reacted to all news, so at least what I'd said hadn't shaken them into immediate verbal hysterics.

Then my dad spoke. "Just because you don't like women," he said, "doesn't mean you're gay."

Now this was unexpected. Looking back now, it's more funny than anything else--after all, not liking women, and thereby liking men, is what makes me gay, totally and obviously. It's also a clear indication of how little my dad understood about gay people or gay issues in general, which I'd never considered beforehand. Even at 12 and 13, long before I would even consider coming out to my parents, I was already immersed in what you might call gay-friendly culture...though at the time, I only knew it as something familiar and close, even if I couldn't put a name to it or explain why it was so comforting to me. Besides those reruns of The Golden Girls--I saw every one, and multiple times to boot--I also watched Match Game reruns solely for Charles Nelson Reilly, preferred baking and sewing to anything involving power-tools, and liked Madonna songs.* My father, on the other hand, was familiar with almost none of this. One of 6 kids who grew up on a small-town farm, my father played football and wrestled in high school, served in the military, watches Fox News, listens to talk radio, votes Republican, and has to my knowledge never willingly read a book; he spends what little free time he has working on his truck, riding his snowmobile, and doing random construction jobs around the the attached garage he built one summer single-handedly, after my mother complained about walking to her car on ice in winter. To say that my father is a skilled and talented man would be an understatement; to say my father knew a lot about gay people before I came out to him, however, would be an overstatement.

I realize this now, years after the fact; in the moment, however, I was horrified. Luckily, my mother was, too, and for the next few minutes they debated what it meant to be gay in front of their gay son...possibly one of the most surreal moments of my life. When that conversation--and, as it happened, the overall conversation--ended, I got in my car and drove back home, leaving them to discuss it among each other in their normally quiet home.

In the years that followed, not much else was said about my announcement--there was a question, asked by my mother over pizza, and a discussion between the two of them about whether or not Mitt Romney was a "bully" for cutting the hair of a gay classmate--but the news ultimately fell away into the chasm of silence where my parents stored all news, good or bad.

What I didn't understand or fully appreciate at the time, though, was that this one act on my part, done so deliberately to better my own life, had also done something for my parents. Even though they have never said anything more about my sexual orientation, the gulf that had always existed between us--because of my doubt, because of their silence--closed...not fully, but enough that we could now begin to see each other as the people we were and are. In the months afterwards, my dad and I spoke more easily and in more than just monosyllabic groans and with tortured shrugs. We joked around, usually about politics (and occasionally about my mother, who always seemed to overhear), talked about each other's jobs, and began biking and hiking with mom. And in maybe the most awkward moment of my life, he sat down with me and watched a Kathy Griffin stand-up routine on BRAVO--a noble attempt on his part to give "gay-friendly" TV a try and cross that divide between us, but after roughly 10 minutes of coarse, uncensored vagina jokes, we both silently realized there was a limit to that, as well.

It's only been in the years since, as I've read more and more about LGBT history and issues, and as the attention paid to those issues has gone mainstream, that I realize just how significant coming out to my parents was. Sure, they're only two people, and they may have not felt too strongly one way or the other to begin with--I've still never asked, and I don't plan to any time soon--but they're also my parents, they're good parents, and they had a right to know this important fact about their son, regardless of my own doubts and insecurities. And it's because so many other gay people feel this same way that public opinion on gay rights has begun to change; there are just as many gay people as there were decades and even centuries ago, but because we live in a more open society, people are starting to realize just how many gay people they know. They work with gay people, are friends with them, have gay sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers; they encounter gay people in their daily lives--as doctors, nurses, cashiers, bankers, teachers, soldiers, elected officials--and understand what they didn't before:  when you hate people for their sexual orientation, for who they love, you hate those closest to you. It's easy to hate a group of people when no one from that group is around; it's harder when they live openly in your community, and even harder still when they're your own flesh and blood.

That doesn't mean that people don't still try. Bullying is a major issue in schools, a vast majority of states and countries still don't have gay marriage, you can still lose your job in certain places because of your sexual orientation, and LGBT teens are still being abused and kicked out of their homes for who they are. And as much as I love and appreciate my parents, and as warm and accepting have been about me, there's still that small, nagging voice in the back of my head saying, "Just wait." I can't predict the future, even one involving my often predictable mother and father, but just being myself allows me to debunk people's expectations and preconceived notions. It's a small battle, often waged in living rooms and kitchens across the country--across generations--between a handful of people. But these battles are slowly being won, peacefully, and with the best of outcomes...and someday, hopefully soon, we will live in a society so progressive in its attitude towards gay rights and gay people that books like the ones written by John Corvino--a serious book that debunks seriously-held misconceptions about gay men and women--will seem like awful relics of an era that is long and thankfully gone.

*Thankfully, I am far less stereotypical as a gay adult, though not by much.