Last October, my parents came to visit Madison for the first time. They stayed with my partner Jim and me for almost a week and treated our relationship with care, respect, and love. To some LGBT couples, this may sound innocuous and normal. For others, it sounds impossible. For my family and me it has been an ongoing process—a journey full of silence, anger, tears, grace, and ultimately, acceptance. The story of my family’s coming out is a reminder to me that love and recognition can sometimes be a long, arduous journey. It required everyone involved to challenge their core beliefs and dig beyond religious thinking to find a spiritual foundation of love.
In the fall of 1988, I told my parents I was gay. I didn’t think it was that big a surprise. I mean, I was living with a “roommate,” working in a gay and lesbian counseling center, and attending a church very different from the one in which I was raised. I was certain my parents knew.
At my college graduation I remember Mom saying to friends and family, “You know that Jimmy, he marches to the beat of a different drum,” and I hung on her every word looking for the courage to tell them. Evidently, the drum she was referring to was heterosexual, because when I did come out to them it was not music to their ears.
We spent the next four years in silence. I was dead to them—no phone calls, visits, nothing. Holidays and special events were painful, but I learned what the term “family of choice” meant and began filling my world with friends in similar situations looking to have peaceful and meaningful times together.
After four years of silence, I asked them if we could sit down to talk it out. It was the beginning of our reconciliation. Although our meeting was difficult and tense, we all shared the desire to find a way to put this back together. We had many uncomfortable moments over the next several years but were committed to figuring out what the relationship was going to look like and how we would choose to love.
My biggest challenge was finding a balance between understanding that Mom and Dad had a right to their belief system while continuing to hold on to my own. When I realized that in telling them they were “wrong” for believing as they did, I was doing to them exactly what they were doing to me. Choosing “right” over “happy” wasn’t working. We eventually moved to a place of not trying to convince each other of our “rightness” and simply chose to love.
A turning point in the relationship took place when they attended a HRC function with me in Dallas about 12 years ago. After four years of inviting, they finally agreed to join me. This would be the most important acknowledgement of acceptance and love I had received from my family (my mom, dad, aunt, and sister and brother-in-law were all in attendance) and the first time they would be introduced to my world on such a grand scale. I hoped through the event they would see our sameness, rather than difference. Although it was hard for Mom and Dad, I learned later they came because they knew how important it was for me.
As I showed my family to the table, I beamed with pride and tears of joy. My dad showed a bit of fear when he asked for directions to the restroom. I walked him to the door and he said with a sheepish smile, “Is it safe in there?” The only thing I could think to say was, “Yeah, but I’ll stand guard for you just in case.” In that moment, any tension shattered and I realized how brave he was being. It also made me realize what a big step he was taking in showing love for his son. We laughed, and I saw his humanness. My parents saw my community as normal. It was demystified and no longer a threat. I saw my parents not as mean, narrow-minded ogres, but as scared and willing to step into the unknown for the love of their child.
So much has happened since then. I have fathered a child, married, and become an educator and activist. My parents continue to hold on to their faith, which contradicts who I am, but we have been able to reconcile our relationship. I don’t try to change them anymore, nor do I have a right to do so. We simply choose love.
My advice to anyone struggling on this journey is to be patient. It took me years to accept my sexuality. It took my parents years as well. I had to respect their pace while staying true to me. Be persistent. Not pushy, but persistent. Gently continue to invite them into your world. Keep your internalized homophobia in check. When my mother began asking about my dating world, I was so used to this being a taboo topic; I had to challenge my thinking, to recognize that she was ready and to let her in.
As I reflect, it all seems so far away now—today is very ordinary and as comfortable as I dreamed it would be. The process evolved over two decades and we’ve all benefited. A week after my parents’ visit, my mother was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. I don’t know how long she will be alive, which makes me very sad. At the same time, I am so proud of our journey. It is honest. It is authentic. It is love. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you for redefining what family looks like—and embracing the love in our lives.