I Thought Coming Out To My Parents Would Surprise Them — Instead, They Surprised Me
I can still remember the first time I almost told my mom that I was queer. Or maybe it was the first time she'd ever asked me if I might be queer. The details are fuzzy, but I'll never forget the setting. I had never considered coming out to my parents before. I was ranting about how absolutely, hideously gross men can be, while renting a movie at Blockbuster (RIP). I was reaching across the counter for a pack of microwave popcorn and my mother said quietly, “You know you talk a lot about how much you hate men. Do you… not like them… like that?”
I don’t remember much of what I said (the blood was rushing too loudly in my ears), but I backpedaled furiously. I did everything furiously back then. I was still in high school, caged in an all-girls Catholic school. I was angry and horny and more scared of myself than I'd ever thought possible. I’d known I liked girls for about as long as I'd known I like boys — since forever. But it was still a secret, one of the only ones my parents hadn’t sniffed out, one of the only truths that I kept for myself. I was an only child, so their attention was solely focused on me. I often felt claustrophobic.
My sexuality was a secret that I carried past middle school. Through the incredible teasing, the endless isolation, and with the label “dyke” hanging over my head like a heavy blade. In hindsight, I was probably called a “dyke” not because my classmates necessarily knew what that meant, but because I was already starting to bud as a little feminist; for a class of 12-year-old boys and girls growing up in Texas, who lacked any political or sexual education, the words were basically synonymous.
I was a “dyke” because I didn’t laugh at chauvinistic jokes, because I spoke up when the boys tried to tell me or my friends what we were good for, and because I hit them, cut their faces with my fingernails, when they tried to touch me. But back then, “dyke” was a word that petrified me, a word that pinned me like a dead moth to the cork board. To be labeled a “dyke” was to undo all of my hiding — from myself, from my friends, my parents, the school and the church.
My family is Mexican-Catholic and Irish-Catholic (imagine the guilt, the drinking problems). When it came to the secret I was keeping, my family didn't give me much choice. My parents both grew up in crowded households, where there was an emphasis on being as well-behaved, white-passing, and American as humanly possible. Any deviation from that norm was not only considered a cry for attention; it was asking for trouble.
The Catholic Church also didn’t give me much of a choice. Being bisexual was already a sin, but to own my sexuality would only add insult to injury. My parents had never given me any sort of sex education themselves, they had handed that responsibility over to the Church. And my congregation did not create an environment that inspired any freedom to share questions or revelations I might have had about my sexual identity. I just buried them deeper. And I waited. For a time when I would maybe grow out of these feelings I wasn’t supposed to have. For a time when I felt less afraid about having them.
So I went to church every Sunday. I partook in every Sacrament. But it didn’t stick. In high school, when I realized that I was a Bad Kid™ (angry, touching boys through their jeans, touching myself, kissing girls who tasted like rum), I stopped going to church. My dad didn’t speak to me for weeks. He didn’t look me in the eye for longer. My mom begged me to keep pretending to pray, if only to keep peace in the house. That seemed more disrespectful, So I refused. I didn’t want to push it — in case there really was a God.
I understand now that the pain and confusion I endured from my parents was borne out of love. They’d fought so hard to bring me into the world, and they were hell-bent on keeping me alive and as happy as they could manage. For them, that meant herding me onto the path of least resistance with the most casual of cruelty. And for a time, I heeded their instruction with all the guilt and saint-like reverence that only Catholic kids can muster. But at some point (perhaps after I realized how tired I was of hating myself, or after the first time I kissed a woman and found myself somehow not split apart by sin), I was ready to let myself disappoint them.
That meant that I was also ready to share my secret. Last year, back in my home state of Texas, I began dating a girl named Lana. It was the first time that I had ever dated a woman, and I had no idea what I was doing. But it felt right. She made me happy and excited, even though the man I'd seen before her had broken my heart.
I was moving apartments in the summertime and my mother would be coming into town to help me move. In the weeks leading up to her visit, I had sort of hinted to her that I was dating someone — but I had been purposefully vague. I didn’t want to come out to my mother over the phone. I needed to gauge her physical reaction in real time. If I was going to come out, I wanted the moment to be big.
After a long and tiring day of moving apartments, my mother and I were at dinner. I told her quite plainly that my girlfriend would be joining us. I knew it would be one thing to just say out loud that I was queer. But it would be another entirely to invite my girlfriend to the table. I felt that she'd respond best to hard evidence. Proof that this wasn’t just a phase, that my feelings were as real as I was or the woman sitting next to me holding my hand, would dismiss all of her doubt.
My mother’s only response surprised me with its playfulness. “But I look terrible. What will she think?” I was taken aback. “Well she’s not dating you,” I retorted. And that was that. No audience laugh track, no confetti falling from the ceiling. I was out of the closet.
My father’s response to my announcement, which I suppose he received second-hand from my mother, was less endearing. “I’ve been watching a lot of Rachel Maddow lately, and I know she’s… she’s a… so… I think it’s OK… you know”. A lack of tact apparently ran in the family, but I understood that this was probably all I was going to get from him in the way of an acceptance speech. So I took it gladly.
Coming out to my parents was less of a revelation and more of a stating of the obvious, as if it were a fact that had been made explicitly clear years ago. It was almost disappointing, lacking all the grit and spectacular drama that I’d come to expect from growing up as their kid. Raised so strictly Catholic. And in Texas, no less. I had expected them to push me, to press me for details, to pretend that this was sudden and surprising. But instead they surprised me. They shrugged, and they took it in stride, happy that I was sharing a little hidden piece of myself with them.
After all this time, I’m still not sure how my parents personally feel about queerness. I only came out to them a year ago, so they might still be processing the news. But I suppose, with me living so many miles away now and with them climbing ever so higher into their 60s and 70s, they’re glad to take anything I give them. Good news or bad news. They insist they just want me to be happy. Still, I wonder where this generosity was when I was younger, in more pain, more afraid of who I was.
But I don’t think about it too hard. These days, I take all the love I can get.
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