Friday, October 22, 2010

It gets better, families!

I've been watching all of the videos for the Trevor Project, and am amazed and humbled by the outpouring of goodwill toward young gays. But the Trevor Project is also an amazing resource for families and teachers. I'd like to be a part of this, but I'm much better at writing than attempting a video in which I would almost definitely ramble on and on. And on. So here goes my story:

I was raised in a blue collar, Republican, Irish/Italian, Catholic household with a twin brother. We both went to the same schools at the same time; had the same parents, same family, the same doctors, ate the same food, etc. We even had the same lisp (why is there an 's' in that word?!) and went to the same speech therapist. One of us is gay, and one is not. And that's just the way it is.

We both had periods of time when we were bullied. Mine was in grade school. I was skinny, had braces, a huge nose, and a tic (seriously. I would blink incessantly). I was teased mercilessly by the older girls. I dreaded going to basketball practice. Even my coach made fun of me. It really sucked. I felt totally worthless and ugly, and that it was never, ever going to end. But I was wrong. It did pass, and eventually we moved to the 'burbs, anyway. Things were lookin' up. Not so much for my brother.

Ever since I can remember, some kid would end up calling him a fag. Mostly because kids are not creative when it comes to insults, and that word seems to be the all encompassing one. However, no matter what grade we were in, it came up. Jim was always a little different. A little awkward, I guess. I had defended his honor a few times in school whenever some little shit would mess with him. (I threw Danny Bell into the coat rack during a fire drill in good ol' Immaculate Conception. I couldn't help myself. It was brilliant.) But this wasn't often. I should have stuck up for him more. A lot of the teasing he endured alone. It did get better for him, and he found his talents and made more friends and had some girlfriends.We went to separate colleges, but remained close. We talked all the time, and told each other everything. Or so I thought.

I had asked Jim multiple times if he was gay. Because I didn't care. I just wanted to know. He knew half of my friends were gay, and that I was the last person on earth that would judge him. But he denied it so much, that I believed him. I didn't see any reason why he would lie about it to me, of all people. He didn't come out to me until we were 21 years old. I learned then just how difficult it is to tell your family. This is a person that I had known, literally, since I was just a few cells, and he still felt he couldn't tell me until then.

He told my mother a few months later, and asked her not to tell my father. My parents have had problems, but they've always communicated with each other and raised us very much together. It was the first time my mother kept anything from him. Of course, Jim told me when he told her, and I waited for the inevitable phone call from her, as she always told me anything of importance within nanoseconds of its occurrence. I waited. And waited. I gave it 2 days, then I called her. She was very quiet (my mother's Italian, and never quiet) and short with me. And then she cried. Like I've never heard her cry before or since. And all I could do was sit there and listen while my mom's heart broke. And right when I was starting to think that she'd never get past this, and that this would be the divide between the kids and the parents, she started talking, and began to prove once again that she is a wonderful mother. Her fears were for him, not of him. She was afraid that his life would be more difficult, and that other people would hurt him. She felt that she had failed him, not because he turned out to be gay, but because she wasn't there for him when he was a teenager struggling with his identity. She wondered what she could have done differently, and how much pain he must have faced alone. And, of course, she worried for his health.

The only other gay person in my family had been her cousin Joey. I didn't meet him until I was 10, and I adored him instantly (of course). He had returned to Pittsburgh after up and moving to San Francisco 25 years earlier. He had called off his wedding and skipped town. No one really talked about the fact that he was gay, but everyone knew. He died from complications of AIDS when I was 15. Even as a kid, it wasn't difficult to figure out why he had left and why he had come back, and I was sad for him. On his chart in the hospital, he had listed the origin as IV drug use, to save his family embarrassment. Even as a 15 year old, I couldn't see the logic in that. But some people could. Because he had tried to be 'normal', a girl got her heart broken, and he moved clear across the country. And I'm proud of him for coming to his senses when he did. It was a different time and a different country, and it couldn't have been easy. None of that had to happen, and it wasn't going to happen again.

So, yes, my mom had a hard time at first. She thought it might pass, that if he met the right girl, etc. It took time. But she tried to understand, and eventually, she did. Over time, the rest of the family found out. And you know what? No one really fucking cared. It was just the way he was. Of course they made jokes, I made jokes, he made jokes. That's how we deal with things. It really wasn't that big of a deal. But he still didn't tell my dad for 8 more years. Honestly, a lot of things went down with my brother that had nothing to do with him being gay. There never seemed to be a 'good' time to tell my father, who is also a staunch Conservative, Irish Catholic retired cop who served in the Navy and has a temper. My dad's reaction: "I'm not thrilled about it, but you're my kid, and I'm gonna love you no matter what." He really didn't understand why he hadn't been told. He took it as his failing in some way. "Am I that bad?" he had asked my mom. When she explained that the timing was always tricky, and they didn't know how he'd take it, he said simply, "He's my kid." Exactly. 8 years of carrying that weight, and it was unnecessary.

So, kids, if you can learn anything from my family, it's this: give the people who love you the chance to love you to the fullest extent. Don't underestimate them or their ability to prove what unconditional really means. And families, it may not be easy at first, but all change is painful. You're not a bad parent for having questions, or for being upset. And even the most open minded household can have a problem with what's under their own roof. But we have a choice, the gay kids don't. We can choose to accept them, and to educate ourselves and them. This should not be the most difficult thing they ever have to tell you.

Kids, we are born into families, but we can make our own, as well. If for some reason you are in the unfortunate situation in which you are absolutely not accepted at home, you still have options. I truly feel sorry for anyone who does not at least try to change their perspective. Ignorance is not bliss. If anything, maybe they can learn from your strength, when you set out on your own and make a better life for yourself.

To both families and kids, THIS IS NOT THE END OF YOUR LIFE. It is just the end of your life as you've known it. And who says that has to be a bad thing?

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