I welcomed the new year with open arms. 2013 promises great things for my life and my family, one of them being that I am finally living a life with clarity, understanding and true compassion. I experienced firsthand the fact that inquiry invites advocacy and knowledge is power. I had grown and progressed in my journey, though there had been one huge, gaping chasm that I had been ignoring: my mother. Along with a host of other topics, this was certainly one that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she and I would not see eye-to-eye on. At some point I will address my relationship with my mother at greater length, but for now, for brevity's sake, I will focus solely on our inevitable clash over my LGBT advocacy.
Aside from remarks here and there over the last several years, I had never directly taken up this issue with my mother. I had never had the provocation to do so until just last month, when a gay relative contacted my sibling to share that my mother had written him with a heavy-handed dose of spiritual advice. This created a festering wound amongst my siblings and me as we mulled over it and discussed in horror the fact that our mother would do such a thing. Until this point she had never been so direct and outspoken on this issue. She handled controversial and uncomfortable discussions relating to "sins of a sexual nature" not by direct conversation but with gradual influence of attitude and tone showing her obvious disapproval. I remember riding in the car with my family during their visit to California in 2009. We yielded for a lesbian couple, who crossed the street arm-in-arm as my mother clutched her Bible and muttered verses like incantations that would protect us from the influence of the evil that was being displayed so unapologetically.
After weeks of agonizing over how to respond to my mother, sometimes questioning whether I even should, I decided that I would write her a letter. This would be my official coming out as a straight ally. I sat down and watched For the Bible Tells Me So once again before I started writing. This time I tried to watch it with her perspective in mind. I tried to empathize with her view and make some sense of her belief. One would think that it would not be such a challenge to understand where she is coming from, given that this is where I spent nearly 30 years of my life as well, but I wanted to be sure that I was sitting down to write her with an attitude of compassion and a desire to open up productive dialogue. I did not want to shut her down within the first paragraph. So I wrote and rewrote. I proofread. And finally I was prepared to send it. I ordered a copy of the film, doubting that she would be willing to watch it but hoping that there would be some small chance that she would let down her guard long enough to hear me out. Besides, if I didn't give her a chance, then I could very well be underestimating and limiting her propensity for change.
From what I am told, she received her letter just a few short days later. She refused to read it. Instead, she burned it, an outward expression of her hostility and anger at the thought of even considering another's view. We have not had one conversation since that day. She left me a very forced, formal voicemail barely even acknowledging that I had written. She has declined to return any of my calls since. I am experiencing utter disappointment mixed with hurt and laden with disgust that after a decade of sending me handwritten letters of condemnation and chastisement, she would not even give me the courtesy of entertaining my carefully prepared letter to her.
This has not been an easy time for her, as she has had to deal not only with my attempt to reason with her but with heavy-hearted conversations from my siblings as well. I know that she is reeling, most likely feeling like she has failed as a parent. Right now she is being faced with outward expressions from her children that contradict every effort she made to train us up in the likeness of God. I am not angry at her. I do feel sorry for her, but the act of burning my letter pains me and makes me wonder whether there will ever be an honest, productive dialogue between us.
Over the past weeks I have been feeling such emotion over this strain in our family. I know how many times I have found it helpful to read other people's coming-out letters to their parents, whether they come out as gay or as straight allies, so I have decided that if my mother refuses to engage in a respectful discussion, if she is chooses not to hear the pleadings of her children, perhaps someone else's mother will. Maybe I will find solace in sharing my letter to my mother with others who are embarking on similar journeys. So, without further ado, I share with you my greatest stand as a straight ally:
To my beloved mother:
I have spent the last two weeks with knots in my stomach, trying to decide how to communicate my heartache and upset with you. Without beating around the bush, I keep in contact with [our cousins], and we have been in communication about the letter you sent them over the holidays. When I first read the words on my screen, I felt a deep shock of pain shoot through me. I had to sit and read and reread the words that were written by you. I felt angry, shocked and disappointed. "God does not let those who turn against the way he created them into the kingdom of heaven..."
I have spent the last several weeks really considering my reaction to this and trying to decide what course of action I would take. I haven't called or been in communication, as I haven't really known what I wanted to say. So after much thought and unrest I decided that I should write this letter.
Your words were deeply, deeply hurtful. Not just to [our cousins] but also to the family that supports them and even the extended family that shares a similar experience and like-mindedness. I have spent the last several years putting an incredible amount of time and research into this subject, and I cannot stand by silently when I see someone being persecuted for who they are, who they were born to be or even (dare I say?) who they were created to be. I understand every argument you may pose on this topic. I know them well, you see, because I am my mother's daughter. I was raised under very diligent instruction. So when this topic of homosexuality became personal to me, close and within my inner circle, I had to take a step back and look at it from a neutral perspective. I knew the arguments of the fundamentalists and the evangelical churches; what I didn't know was the other side. I was very familiar with Leviticus 20:13, Leviticus 18:22, the passages in Genesis 18 and 19 about Sodom and Gomorrah and even Romans 1:26. What I did not know was what explanation the rest of the population had on this subject.
So I set out to find answers. Are we born straight or gay? Is it a choice? Are gay people perverted sexual deviants? Does reparative therapy have any grounds? Can a gay person be a Christian? Please understand that my intention with this letter is not to sway your views, nor to argue my perspective, nor even to change your belief. Such a motive would be a waste of both of our time. Instead I am writing to tell you how I feel. I am writing to open up lines of communication in hopes of a better understanding of one another and, in turn, a deeper relationship that is based on honesty and fostered in love.
This past September you and I had what I feel was the most honest discussion we have ever had in my life. I was able to articulate to you my feelings and perspectives with a boldness that I had never expressed before. Did it hurt to hear it and hurt to have to say it? Sure, but I had come to an impasse. I could choose to accept a surface-level, formal relationship, or I could speak up in hopes of propelling our relationship forward, onto an even playing field where we could strive toward a mutual respect of one another's differences and just love one another. As I said then, isn't the fact that we love each other enough to sustain a relationship? Even if we cant agree on politics, religion or even some parenting strategies, you are my mother, and that is reason enough for me to invest myself into having a good relationship that is built on love.
I have come to a 180-degree change in my views on homosexuality. I joined [my local] PFLAG chapter seeking support and wanting to gain more understanding. I have felt such heartache knowing how many gay people are mistreated, even persecuted, for simply being who they are. It literally makes me ill to see precious, wonderful people being singled out and treated with such contempt. I have asked myself time and time again, "Can't people see the damage and pain they are causing with their words? Don't they see the long-lasting and far-reaching effects that their intolerance is causing in the lives of others?" At times I have found myself feeling angry, and I've even felt a strong disdain for conservatives who oppose my supportive view of people who are gay, until someone pointed out to me that my desire for tolerance had allowed me to become intolerant of anyone who held a different view than I did.
That was hard to digest. It's something I am still processing and striving to balance. I proudly consider myself an activist. I am a straight ally for the gay movement, and I am very focused on equality. The gay movement is indeed the civil rights movement of our era. But still, I would be hypocritical in wearing my "NO HATE" T-shirt if I were harboring contempt against those who are not supportive of the cause. This is still a growing process for me, because words of intolerance and hatred, and even well-intended words from my mother, evoke a strong reaction from me. I feel protective of those I love, and I feel such deep sympathy for those who suffer under the conditional love and dogmatism of those around them.
At the same time I am learning to feel empathy toward those who are unapologetic for projecting their views onto others while insisting that they have a God-given right to dispense unsolicited advice at the expense of another's happiness. Someplace behind my anger and defensiveness I can see a glimpse of myself, a glimpse of the person that I used to be, and my heart softens a bit. I can look on with a measure of compassion for others who so flippantly pass judgment and advice because I have stood in their shoes. This journey to understanding or even acceptance of something that is so foreign to the heterosexual fundamentalist mindset is deeply personal and completely individual. I had to come to terms with this in my own time, in my own way, so I must respect the journeys of others. You will not agree with anything I have said here; I know that that is an absolute. My intention is not to argue my views; I simply need to tell you how I feel. I am my mother's daughter, and I too need to speak about what burdens my heart, not with the intention of causing pain but because I believe in this idealistic relationship between us where love is the foundation.
It seems awkward to communicate so openly with you. There is something engrained in me that says that it's unnatural to speak against one's own mother. But just as I said in September and said again earlier in this letter, I would rather have a shot at a relationship that is genuine than suffer silently in a relationship that has no real sincerity or substance. I can't go forward harboring pain or being afraid to simply be myself or be allowed to live my life freely with my own views and goals. I don't want to be in a relationship that is conditional, where affection and love can be removed for the crime of individual thinking and free thought. In the same regard, I would never ask for something that I couldn't give in return. We should be mutually free to peruse our interests and live by our convictions without it diminishing the bond we share as mother and daughter.
So the intent of this letter is to simply express my perspective and attempt to call to your attention the hurt that has been inflicted by your letter. I know in my heart that you truly, truly intended only good with your penned words, but they have had the opposite effect of driving a wedge between that branch of our extended family and our portion of family members who will unknowingly wonder why [they] no longer feel comfortable returning. I am not sure what kind of restitution could be offered to them, but I have offered my sincere apologies for the injury that has been caused.
The only thing that I ask of you is that you be willing to spend 196 minutes of your time to watch the enclosed film, For the Bible Tells Me So. I say "196 minutes" because I am asking you to view it twice: once to feel your own emotions, feelings of disagreement or even repulsion, and once more to really listen to the stories of the families and hear the voices of those who are going through their own personal journeys. That is all I ask: Just watch the film. You don't have to change your mind. You don't have to explain or defend your views to me. Just be willing to hear the voices of others.
I love you so very much, and all I want in my future is to have a strong, happy and honest relationship with those who mean the most in my life. I read this quotation just today:
"It takes great courage to grow up and become who you really are."
This quotation is true to me. Standing up, speaking out, striving for authentic relationships, being myself and loving who I am -- these are my goals in life. Thank you for receiving my words, for giving my perspective consideration and for building an open and loving relationship with me.
I love you more than I can express.
I don't know what the future holds for my relationship with my mother or even my extended family. I am aware that at this time, I have more family members who would rather that I just stay silent than family members who understand my activism and my desire to advocate for change and equality. Because this subject has grown deeply personal to my family, it has become something that is testing the bounds of our relationships, challenging the ideas of unconditional love and, in some cases, shining a light on people's unwillingness and inability to consider other ideas and be open to change. However, I can say that in spite of the pressure to conform, and in the the face of isolation, I have reached a point in my life where I am standing confidently on my own feet, unapologetically and tirelessly ready to be a voice for reason and change. It has been a long and personal journey, but I have a peace and a purpose now that I have never known before, and I am proud to be a straight ally.
No freedom till we're equal. Damn right I support it!
A version of this blog post originally appeared on Mia Norton's personal blog, Multifarious Mama. It was the last of three blog posts about coming out as a straight ally. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here.
For more information on PFLAG, click here.