My mother just turned 86, and my father turned 88. I am now parenting my parents in many ways. This past week, I was working at my parents' house to move them closer to me so I can care for them on a more consistent basis.
I love my folks very much. I have noticed that for many people, including me, we have one parent that we tend to put on a pedestal and one who seems to know each and every one of our hot buttons, how to find them, and how to do a regular happy dance on them. My dad is my pedestal guy. We can have a knock-down, drag-out fight, and an hour later, all is forgiven and flowers seem to spring from his every step. My mother, on the other hand, can catch me with the wrong turn of phrase and I will see red for days.
Red colored my vision the other day as I was packing a box of old papers in preparation for their move. The files I had to go through seemed endless. As I neared the bottom of one stack, I came across a beaten brown manila folder that stopped me dead. It was labeled "Rob's homosexuality." This was certainly a subject for discussion that my parents and I have had for over thirty years now. I was not aware, however, that it had warranted its own special file.
Even so, the folder was a pleasant surprise. In it was a letter from early 1992 that I received from my cousin asking me pointed questions about my sexual orientation. The file also contained a copy of my response to him. (My cousin must have sent these to my parents; I don't recall giving the letters to them.) The last item in the file was a letter from my mother to her cousin, written in November 1992, a full decade after I had come out to my parents.
The letter my mother wrote was a follow-up, apparently, to a visit they made to their families that summer. From the story the letter told, my parents had done their own coming out, about me, to the rest of the family. It did not go well. In the letter, my mother described the "distinct disapproval of some factions of the family." Her cousin had not been one of them, instead offering my parents acceptance and support. In the letter, my mother elaborated on her own viewpoint. She stated:
It is a complex subject, but the main issue of misunderstanding with society at large seems to be the matter of "choice." As Rob succinctly explained it, he "chose" to be heterosexual since no one chooses to be the butt of scorn and rejection, but that it just isn't there for him... After a number of unhappy years of struggling with his own private hell, he finally came to the conclusion that God made him this way for a reason -- that rather than giving into suicide like a number of his friends, his life IS worth something ... The bottom line is that we have not seen Rob this happy since he was a little boy.
The impact of this understanding from my mother twenty years earlier floored me. It reflected a decade of fights and evolution on her part, not only in terms of her perspective, but also her willingness to come forward about it to our relatives and defend me in the way she did. The fact that she did so at a time when homophobia was at an all-time high was not lost on me.
Then, like the screech of a needle being ripped across a melodious LP, or an MP3 recording skipping -- depending on your generation -- there it was the phrase. She wrote:
Having been through the gamut of emotions and ten years of soul searching, study and counseling, we have finally arrived at a peaceful acceptance. We are now convinced that Rob was born with a handicap and all we can do is love and support him in the same way we would with any other kind of handicap.
There is nothing in me that believes that an LGBT person is handicapped by his or her sexual or gender orientation. We have no challenges caused by who and what we are.
That being said, and with a few days' reflection, there is one aspect in which I can see homosexuality being treated as a handicap, especially from a legal perspective. That "handicap" would be in the area of a couple's biological fertility. Just as some heterosexual couples are biologically and hormonally blocked from procreating, gay and lesbian couples experience the same kind of "handicap." Each person may be completely able to procreate with some partners, just not with the one with whom they happen to be sharing their lives. One course of action for the heterosexual couple is hormonal therapy, surrogacy, or adoption. For the gay or lesbian couple it may be surrogacy or adoption.
This of course speaks to the major crux of the current anti-gay, anti-marriage equality position: that gay and lesbian couples should be denied marriage because they are unable to physically procreate with their spouses. If one defines this as a handicap, however, that nullifies this point as a legal argument against marriage. In all other cases dealing with handicaps, viable accommodations and workarounds are mandated. Handicap issues are not grounds for disqualification when the accommodation mitigates the issue. People with physical challenges are not prevented from driving or walking into buildings; handicapped parking and walk ramps are provided. Persons with workplace challenges by law must be given accommodation and access so that they can effectively exercise their professions.
Even if a gay or lesbian couple has an inability to physically procreate, and that condition is seen as a handicap, the legal precedent is to protect their rights, and enable them to participate fully. As too many studies to cite or count have amply demonstrated, gay and lesbian people are fully capable of parenting.
The definition of "handicapped" is having a condition that markedly restricts one's ability to function physically, mentally, or socially. In the social context, because of the condemnation and exclusion LGBT individuals have received in the past decades, maybe they could qualify under this heading. However, I am sincerely hoping that this label of handicap is on its way out. Equality is in the air.
There is an argument that homophobia might qualify, but that is another article.
So, Mom, I am going to give you this one, especially in light of your complete willingness to evolve these past three decades. You have stood up and allowed yourself to challenge an avalanche of misconceptions from your past, and many from your current peers. You are brave, you are fair, and you are my honor and one of my greatest heroes.
If you want to think of my homosexuality as a handicap in terms of my biological fertility, so be it. As we often assert in our fight for equality, a family is made from love, and love makes a family. And it's a well proved fact that you adore your two grandchildren (my sons), who came to us by adoption.
Now, if you can just try to remember that I hate being served lima beans, then we will be good. Love and kisses forever.