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May 06, 2016

Coming out to my mom: A letter to mothers of gay sons

On Mother's Day, an ode to present & future moms of gay sons

Though my mind raced through a minefield of anxieties, it always circled back to one fundamental question: What will mom think?

Coming out of the closet as a gay man is no easy task, no matter what background you come from or timeframe you grew up in. You wonder: Will I do it right? (No.) Will anyone truly understand what I'm going through? (No.) Can I go back in the closet if I don't get the reaction I want? (Hell no.) And, most importantly: Will my parents still love me once the words finally escape my head?

At 16, I came out to my mother through an email. One structured like a high-school essay, signed with my love but brimming with confidence that I could move forward regardless of what response awaited me. All the while, of course, knowing full well that I secretly really, really wanted — no, needed — Mama B to get on board. Why? That's easy: Because she's mom.

This is not to discount dad — yes, it's true that we all have wildly different relationships with our parents and plenty of gay men spend just as much time worrying about his reaction. But there's something inherently more weighty about a mother's approval. After all, she's the gal who endured morning sickness, gave up caffeine (theoretically) and plopped you out of her Pikachu with nothing more than a hand to squeeze and an epidural (if she was lucky). She also, obviously, likes boys.

So, if anyone's going to love you unconditionally, it's her. And if she’s not on board with you now, you muse in the moment, what does that say about you?

What ultimately became of my email is a mixed bag: I didn't get the warm-and-fuzzy reaction one would idealize, nor did she adapt quickly. But, more to the point, she did adapt; she did get on board; she eventually found in her what I imagine most mothers do in these situations — a swelling amount of love for her son that eclipses all other feelings.

Look, coming-out stories are as new as florals in spring — I get it. But this isn't just a coming-out story: This is an ode to the moms of the world who — like my own — never felt compelled to join PFLAG. The mom who never tagged along for a Pride parade or slapped a rainbow sticker on her back bumper; heck, maybe she didn't even take the news all that well from Day One. (Mine sure didn't.) But in herself, through the dark tunnel of mother's guilt, she found compassion and a broadened understanding of the world she was living in — not to mention a changed (often closer) relationship with her son. 

To the moms reading this who will inevitably go through their own child's coming out, I say this: Don't feel guilty that you can't hop on board without a few questions. It's OK to not be OK.

Those are the moms who often get left behind in these kinds of conversations. We hear about the ardent advocates. We hear about the stubborn bigots. But what about the moms who had to come around? 

There's a case to be made for explaining to mothers that it's OK to struggle, to grapple with this kind of thing. In retrospect, I don't even mind. If anything, I appreciate that my own mother went through a journey of her own, something that never would have occurred to me as I was typing that email. That her life, too, was about to change. And that, thankfully, we were better for it when we got to the other side. Not everybody has it that good.

To the moms reading this who will inevitably go through their own child's coming out, I say this: Don't feel guilty that you can't hop on board without a few questions. It's OK to not be OK. So long as your child's not being made to feel less-than or neglected in the process, express your love and experience your confusion how you see fit.

When I hiked back to Pennsyltucky two weeks ago to visit my mother, she made it a point to tell me over dinner about a new initiative she'd taken on at work. In short, she was co-heading a group within her company that supported LGBT people. Naturally, she got some of the common LGBT terminologies wrong, and wasn't quite PFLAG-ready, but Lord, oh Lord, was she ever trying.

And in truth, I appreciate her all the more for it – I’m proud of her. 

It was a bumpy journey, sure. But we came out better people for it. Sometimes it’s not about how you got there; it’s just about getting there.