National Post Gays: Coming Out (December 3, 2003)

National Post - Wednesday December 3rd, 2003

Public gender discrimination is over. Popular culture reinforces the general perception of gay social integration. From ‘Will and Grace’ to Queer eyes metrosexualizing straights, the Western jury is in: It’s fine to be gay. The marketing campaign to put a confident, “normal” face on gay culture is the greatest PR. triumph in history.

But real happiness does not reside in public validation or the freedom to hold hands in the street. Absent the genuine acceptance of family and friends, public boosterism for gays is a hollow victory.

Soon many gays, like everyone else, will be heading home for the holidays. Some of them will be using the occasion to “come out”. How many will see the expression, hear the words, feel the warmth they are longing for?

The individual gay still runs a gauntlet of fear and trembling before discovering if he or she will be drawn in or cast out of the family circle. Everyone loves Will and Jack on TV, but real-life Wills and Jacks aren’t spending Christmas with “everyone”. In real life there are more ‘crying’ than ‘laugh tracks.’

A gay friend of mine, “Tom”, is a brainy and ambitious young man, wise beyond his years. I’d be proud to call him my son, so I find it very sad that even though he is twenty-something and absorbed in a serious relationship, he hasn’t yet come out to his small town parents. They love him; he loves them. Still, the right moment hasn’t presented itself. And sometimes they make a casual remark about “faggots” with a limp wrist. So…

Analyzing gay hopes and fears preoccupies Tom: He e-mails me, “The first truth a parent of a gay child needs to grasp [is that] their child is likely half-ashamed of himself, no matter how modern a life he’s had…”. And I was struck by this insight, which never before occurred to me: “I think that gay kids form strong attachments to their parents as a sort of insurance policy – we strengthen the bonds because of an intuitive awareness that we’ll test them later.”

My heart is with Tom, but I know that even loving parents always were and always will be torn up when their gay kid comes out. It isn’t only about the discontinued family line. It’s a hardwired visceral recoil, a perceived betrayal that goes straight to the core of their heterosexual identity. So home is where the real battle is joined, a fight to the finish between evolved ethical imperatives and atavistic instinct.

Gays constitute a unique social corps. A permanent minority, they share the powerful bond of an existential sense of identity that shapes their lives. Yet unlike other identifiable groups, they have no shared physiology, homeland, culture, or language. They neither receive nor pass on a specific heritage. Each generation of gays must re-invent itself anew. Their adopted or third party children are unlikely to share their defining identity. Their “communities” aren’t organically living centres, but contrived, self-conscious constructs, psychological orphanages for the newly deracinated, those who have ‘come out’ and need a new home.

Gays share this unique difference from other minorities: they know self-revelation will wound their parents. Legalized unions, cheering Gay Pride parade-goers salute an abstract ideal; they don’t address the root cause of gay hunger for acceptance. Adopted children discover early or later that their adoptive parents aren’t their “real” ones, and they must struggle with feelings of abandonment. Similarly, when parents of gays learn their son or daughter isn’t their “real’ child, they feel the same shock; they feel “orphaned” in reverse. So gays alone amongst minorities face both external and domestic rejection. Of what worth is public validation if their families can’t - or won’t at least try to - overcome the instinct to withdraw from the sudden stranger in their midst.

Some have done so already, many more do so every day. There is hope. Tuned-in parents today are the first in history to openly acknowledge without fear or disgust: my son or daughter could be gay. It’s a start. Those of us with straight children may well have gay grandchildren. Denial is no longer an option. We must prepare for our gay children, - or grand-children - a welcoming face, an embrace and a place – with their partners - at the table. If pretending is what it takes, until our better nature becomes second nature, so be it.

At which point the Larry Spencers among us will finally be history.

© National Post 2003