Last Sunday was international ‘Coming Out Day’ in honour of which lots of people told their stories of their own coming out journey, one of whom happened to be my son. I’ve since had a few people ask me to tell the story from a parent’s perspective with a view to helping other parents.
Here goes, hold onto your hats!
First of all let me start with the controversial. I fundamentally don’t agree with the ‘coming out’ business and even more? I don’t agree with the media description that my son endured from a major tabloid newspaper which described him as ‘admitting he was homosexual’ when as a member of Collabro he was asked direct in an interview and confirmed that he was indeed gay. It was worded as if it was a crime and later rectified by a much more supportive piece by Dan Wootton in another paper which made it clear that Jamie has been overt about his sexuality since he was a teenager but as a member of Collabro he simply had not been asked nor should he have been – I feel my inner lioness growling already.
When Jamie’s coming out story was published last week in Gay Times, he had a largely positive reaction interspersed with quite a lot of undoubtedly well intentioned homily about the fact that no one should ever have to come out, that it should never be an issue and that love is love and should be without judgement. Who can argue with that?
To me it is blindingly obvious and I have to say this was the very point I started from when I first realised Jamie was gay. I was absolutely vehemently against the requirement for a label or an announcement of any kind – no one ever asked me or expected me to speak about my sexuality, or to ‘clear things up’ and I certainly didn’t see why my son should have to do that.
In fact I’m singularly ashamed to say that initially I discouraged him a little from doing so in the early days – not because I didn’t want people to know he was gay, but because I didn’t want it to be dramatised and somehow therefore making him an exception to the rule rather than the norm. I’ve since come to understand that until things change further in our society, it is in fact necessary to be clear about these issues if people who are LGBT are not to suffer in all kinds of other ways through the pressure to conform to expected norms with which they may be profoundly uncomfortable.
Let’s go back then to when I knew.
I think inside I knew when he was at primary school but he didn’t broach the subject with me until he was about 12 or so. I was ready in my head but not in my heart. That’s not due to any disappointment in him but I feared for him and in many ways I was right to do so and I’m relieved to say that in many ways I have also been proved wrong. In fact I was pretty ignorant myself and didn’t know enough about it to make sensible judgements. I did however know a lot about being a mum and in the end it’s that what matters.
We talked it over then and subsequently on many occasions and discussed exploring sexuality and taking time to know your place in the world and being sure. We also talked about when to be open and the implications that brings.
Jamie was always clear that once his thoughts and feelings were clear he wanted to be open and comfortable in his skin. He wanted others to know and felt it would be easier once the initial reaction wore off. I felt that there probably was a timing issue and that whilst his close friends were in the loop it might be easier to bring the wider world in when they were mature enough to act responsibly towards him.
We can only do our best when guiding those we love, we act as a mirror to reflect things back to them and help them see their way. I have always tried to be that mirror to my children and like them, I am human and get it wrong sometimes. I don’t know if I was wrong about this but when I look back dispassionately at it, I think that we impose a culture of expected norms on our children from an early age. We are not expected to call boys sissy names, or dress baby girls in blue . Putting a boy in pink is nigh on impossible unless you knit something yourself – you try looking in all the major stores and see what you find.
Toys are gender stereotyped. I have never subscribed to the boys play with footballs and girls play with dolls philosophy but so many of us do. Look at the major toy aisles in every store they are almost universally segregated in this way.
Equally however, I wouldn’t want them to be tailored for different sexual orientations; that in itself is stereotyping. What I want is for it to be gender neutral – my goodness a free choice of what to play with based absolutely on what interests you – how radical !
So, perhaps the freedom to be open and openly discuss sexuality and feelings at any age would be better and until we break that mould such stereotyping will continue and the pressure of expectation it places on our children will continue
But back to Jamie’s story.
Ultimately when he was sure, he wrote me a letter to confirm his thoughts and feelings. I still have it somewhere. We are definitely beasts of the written word Jamie and I, we like to express ourselves through this medium and actually although we talk for hours as a routine, it was a really good way for him to draw that line giving me the chance to ‘get my face straight’ as my dad would have said. In other words when your child tells you something you are going to have to work through and prepare for, it’s good to have a little space to get your head together and say things in the right way when you are face to face.
So having had that discussion and despite the fact that I knew deep down before he told me, I still nonetheless had a grief reaction when it was absolutely confirmed and I was deeply ashamed of myself for that. I wasn’t and have never been ashamed of him. I am immensely proud of both my children, they are wonderful and I know I am blessed. However, I was frightened for him. I feared he would be bullied, that he would be lonely, that he would be judged or even ostracised, I was fearful of HIV and even worse AIDS and somewhere in there I felt grief that I may not be a grandmother and that Jamie who loves children may not be a father.
I was hard on myself but never on him. I was fiercely defensive of his rights to be who he is and to be comfortable with it. I realise now it was natural to feel like that. Society develops expectations in us that all children will grow up and form heterosexual relationships and have babies and live happily ever after. At that time I didn’t know anyone who had been through the same experience. I didn’t have anyone to talk to overtly about it – this was Jamie’s story to tell when he was ready not mine, and so I internalised it and fretted and tried to provide him with the safety net I knew he would need from time to time.
I may have been mentally alert to the possibility but I had to learn fast to deal with the reality.
Let me be clear I am a person who loves unconditionally. I believe profoundly that this is what builds the strongest bond between mother and child. There is nothing that my children could tell me that would stop me loving them.
It was disappointing therefore when people became aware that Jamie was gay and said things to me about how surprised they were at how well I had taken ‘it’ like ‘it’ was something to be ashamed of, or let down by. I know what they meant and it wasn’t said with bad intent but it hurt nonetheless and I’m sure he has, without comment about it, suffered much more of that than those who love him have.
My philosophy is this. Our children cannot walk in our shoes. They cannot live the life we wish for them or indeed what we may wish for ourselves. It is their journey and whilst we do all we can to equip them for it, they must make that journey themselves in their way with whatever life gives to them. Our job isn’t to judge or to direct, it is to offer support, guidance and help when asked and to surround them with unconditional love. I hope I have done that.
For those of you out there that may be worried that your son is gay let me give you this one piece of advice. The day they tell you that, in whatever way they choose to tell you, is probably the most important day of your relationship with them. It’s natural to be concerned for their welfare and to worry about happiness and safety and to take time to absorb and process the information but it’s imperative to accept and be positive and to recognise that it is absolutely no different from any other big life event that your children face and to treat it as routine. The fear is much worse than the reality. Your gay child does not suddenly grow two heads or start dancing round in a feather boa in public, though if they want to that’s fine.
Frustratingly, people often say to me that it’s ok because with Jamie you would never know because he doesn’t ‘act like that,’ he has a ‘big deep voice’ and ‘looks normal.’ What they mean is that he isn’t rampantly effeminate and in their eyes therefore an embarrassment. Others have said, with the intention to reassure me when describing gay couples, things such as ‘oh you know such and such the ones who are, you know, ‘funny’ ( all said with arched eyebrow and singsong effeminate twang usually with a droopy hand gesture) followed by ‘not like Jamie, he’s not like that’
I’ve learned that by and large this is ignorance not malice. I don’t overreact and have no intention of being the martyr in the interests of political correctness, but I do wish that people would think before putting foot in mouth and that they would just not expect me yet again to sit through their explanation that Jamie is ‘ok’ because he isn’t like the ‘others’ and he is just ‘really lovely.’ My inner lioness is growling again -my child does not need your approval of his life choices and certainly not of his sexuality – end of!
Jamie is of course really lovely – both of my children are. They are decent human beings with great values who care about society and other people. One is gay, one is not but it has nothing to do with their sexuality, they are just nice people.
We are all different irrespective of sexuality.
Our personalities and behaviours are part nature and part nurture. We learn from the world around us and until we break the prejudice that society has about these issues, people will feel pressurised into declaring their sexual preferences so they are not shoe horned into expected societal norms living an uncomfortable lie rather than a comfortable truth. It is not our gay children that have the problem, it is us and the rest of society that really needs to wake up and smell the coffee and realise that we will all know people who are gay and it’s pretty good odds that we will all have someone who is gay in our immediate or extended family.
By the way says the lioness, not all men who are gay are ‘effeminate’ and similarly not all girls ‘butch’. Not all dancers are gay and policemen are not all straight. We just are what we are so let’s just get over it.
It’s a silly prejudice but it’s an ignorant one by and large and it’s unacceptable nonetheless.
What I can say is that the world doesn’t end the day your child tells you they are gay. It’s a different life to the one you may have expected from the way we are conditioned to expect life to be, but it’s just as wonderful a life as any other child’s, with the same pride and pleasure in watching their development and their achievements and their successes.
I’m pleased however that Jamie shared his story and I hope it will help other people who are gay to deal with the pressures they may be facing and I hope it may help the parents and families to be prepared and supportive
Day to day I can tell you it just never occurs to me if I am honest. I don’t look at Jamie and think ‘how is my gay son today’. He’s just my big daft lad the same as he always has been, making his way in the world and my heart is filled with love and pride.
Mind you if he does start dancing round with a feather boa fair play to him that’s his choice but I hope he will get lessons – I do like him to do his best at everything!