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21 February 2012

Mother of a gay son: my story

It seems like a lifetime ago, but in reality it is just under a year that our son told us that he is gay. I will never forget the exact moment he told me.

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It seems like a lifetime ago but in reality it is just under a year ago that our son, an Honours Psychology student, told us that he is gay. I will never forget the exact moment when he told me.

It felt surreal for a moment, but I can honestly say that despite the usual questions like “Are you sure?” there was no hesitation and my acceptance was total and complete. After all he was still the same son I loved before he told me, so why should anything change now.

In hindsight I realised how stupid the question “Are you sure?” was! Who on earth, and especially someone as honest and open as my son, would tell anyone something so important if they were not sure?!

A special bond
We talked about it a lot, my son and I, before we told my husband. Although we are a very close family, which includes an older son, this son and I have always had a special bond.

Over the years I had often wondered why we were so close and I now realised that although I had never thought he was gay, this was possibly the reason for our closeness, the fact that subconsciously I must have known that he was struggling with his identity. I felt I needed to hear all about his feelings and struggles with his own acceptance of being gay.

I recall that it was not easy in the beginning for him to talk about it, because he still felt “raw” inside from all the emotions he had recently been through. In our talks he told me how he had felt “different” from the time he was a young boy, but had only fully realised what it all meant when he was about 14/15 years old.

Then he spent the next 5 years denying it for all the obvious reasons before finally at the age of 20 years coming to terms with the fact that this is who he is. Then because he is just not the secretive type he decided that he wanted to embrace his life as a normal person who just happens to be gay and the first step was to tell us. A step which I feel has taught us all the meaning of the word courage. It could not have been easy for him, despite the fact that we are so close and as such in my view was extremely courageous.

Guilt, my first emotion
One of the first emotions I went through was guilt. Guilt that I had not realised that he was struggling with this issue during his teenage years and therefore I had not been able to help him through it. I have since realised, partly with the help of a psychologist that this was something he had to do on his own and first and foremost for himself, at his own pace and in his own time. I believe that he has come out of it a much stronger, happier and fulfilled person because the decision was his and his alone to embrace who he is openly and honestly.

My son has often teased me since by saying “Mom, what were you thinking?” because his friends at school were mainly girls, he was more cultural than sporty, was very involved in community work, very meticulous about his work and himself etc, etc. But to me he was just my child and was not defined by his interests.

As far as I was concerned there were no feminine or other tendencies that pointed to the fact that he might be gay. I used to say that he would make a really good husband and father one day and I still believe he will. The fact that some family members and friends were not particularly surprised when they were told does not bother me anymore. I am concerned with the here and now and the future, not the past.

Telling father
His father, when told a couple of days later, was also absolutely fine with it, although he was a little quiet for a few days. That is just his way, I am a verbaliser and need to talk and interact, and he is not. We bought a book especially for parents of gay children which was very helpful and did a lot of research, not all of which was beneficial purely because there is a lot of negativity about being gay, lesbian or bisexual. But it was all part of the learning curve.

Our son had told his best friend just a couple of weeks before and she and all his friends, both male and female, who now know have become better and closer friends to him. A friend at university has been a real source of support to him and we are really grateful to her for that. The first time I told anyone I was very anxious, but I have come a long way since then and we have told everyone who is important to us and I take pride and pleasure in talking about my special and courageous son.

The rest of the family
The most heartwarming and possibly unexpected reactions have come from my mother and my husband’s father who are almost 80 years of age. They have embraced him totally and are very happy for him.

I was relaxed and everything was fine until he went back to university at the beginning of the year. Then I was hit with all the fears and anxieties: how would people treat him when they found out, would people reject him, would he meet someone and be taken advantage of because he was so young and inexperienced, and so forth.

I started having anxiety attacks, very real and very frightening. Heart palpitations, not sleeping, being unable to eat etc. I lost weight and I became overprotective and clingy, needing to phone my son and hear his voice sometimes more than once a day, especially if I had not had a reply to an SMS immediately, I would begin to imagine all sorts of dreadful (and I now realise ) ridiculous scenarios. I would be tearful every time I spoke to him and so it continued for quite some time.

My son came to my rescue
Eventually the very person whom I was so anxious about came to my rescue. My son. He told me that even though he is studying psychology and is a Life Line Counsellor he just could not help me through this difficult time because we are just too close. He begged me to go and see a psychologist.

Initially I did it to make him happy but I soon realised that it was the best thing I could have done. I was able to pour out my fears and anxieties to her like I had not been able to do to anyone else, not even my husband, and although it took some time, through an extended process of talking about it, it helped me to realise that my son is a strong, sensible, well balanced and mature young man who knows what he wants out of life and with our support can and will handle anything which comes his way.

Because we have a very open and close relationship with our son, he is very open and honest in return. So when he met someone for the first time and it seemed like it might develop into a romance he told us about it almost immediately. I was very anxious initially, simply because it was a new experience for him and for us.

Dealing with partners
He had two very short relationships which only lasted a matter of a few weeks and fizzled out because they just were not right for each other. Both of these were young men whom he met and spent quite some time communicating with via Gaydar before actually meeting them face to face. I can honestly say that I am not in favour of this way of meeting people, but I realised that there are not many options for meeting other gay people unless you frequent gay clubs and pubs, and that too is not always ideal. Our son assured us that he had no intention of settling for just anyone purely for the sake of having a boyfriend, and therefore we must not worry about that aspect of his life because he was prepared to wait, however long it took, for someone special to come along. I will admit that this was very difficult for me to do. The fact remained this was my baby and I wanted only the best for him.

He also told us that ideally he would like to meet someone in the usual way, either by being introduced by a friend or meeting at a party etc. In other words, just like straight young people often meet, but that he realized that in the city where he studies it was not all that likely because it is quite small by SA standards.

Meeting Mr Right
Then a few months ago, unexpectedly, a friend of a friend who had only recently found out that he was gay asked him if she could introduce him to a fellow student. She told him all about this young man and he agreed that she could pass on his telephone number. He contacted our son that same day and they chatted for a few days before agreeing to meet. They liked each other immediately and slowly entered into a relationship which has blossomed into something which I feel is really special.

They both are looking for the same thing in a relationship, commitment and the possibility of a long term relationship, not just a short-term fling. We were very excited to meet him when we went for a visit recently and were delighted to see them together. He is a delightful, intelligent and polite young man and we could not have chosen anyone better for our precious son. They are both very focused on their studies and respective careers ahead and both have the same goals in life, such as marriage, a family and successful careers.

I can honestly say that although it was a first time experience for us it was totally natural for us to see them together and showing their affection for one another, whether in private or in public. We were extremely proud to be seen out with them and especially proud of the fact that they did not hide their affection for each other in public. To me this is a true reflection of how comfortable they are with themselves and with each other.

Obstacles in their path
I realise that there will be difficulties ahead for them, because of the fact that they do not come from the same city, also the fact that his boyfriend’s parents are not as supportive as we are. But I believe that with good communication, honesty and love they can overcome these obstacles. We would be over the moon if he turned out to be the “one” for our son, but we realise that that is not up to us. All we can do is offer them our wholehearted support and love. I would also like to say that I feel these same difficulties would apply if they were a boy/girl couple.

My son’s journey to this point had been relatively easy and I believe that that is mainly due to the fact that he himself is at peace with being gay. He will tell you that he is just like any other young man except for the fact that he is attracted to men and not women. The one bump in the road came in a church situation. We are a practising Catholic family.

Prejudice at the church
When my son first told me he was gay, we discussed this aspect. I told him that I felt that his relationship was directly between himself and God, not between himself and any representative of God on this earth. I believe that God had a direct hand in my son being brought into this world. I firmly believe that God loves him regardless of whether he is gay or not, just as God loves all people.

Unfortunately in a youth gathering at my son’s church the subject of being gay came up for discussion. The young man (same age as my son) who leads the group quoted chapter and verse from the Bible and needless to say his condemnation of gays and lesbians was total. I am proud to say that my son stood up for himself and all gay people by challenging this young man on every point. I cannot say there were any winners at the end of it, but the important point is that my son did not sit back and keep quiet.

My son was very angry for a few days but he has since had some very real, positive support from a respected member of the church and this has been the best thing that could have happened. This was a very difficult time for me. Even though I had always known that this religious confrontation would come sooner or later, I had very conflicting emotions. If my son decided to turn his back on the church, should I do the same out of loyalty to him and if I chose not to, would my son possibly resent me later on? I agonized over this for a few days.

Once again the person who helped me with this dilemma was my son. He told me that whatever he decided, he would never, ever expect me to walk away from the church because of him. Thankfully, he has made his own decision to continue to be actively involved in the church and in fact his boyfriend, who is an active member of a different denomination, has joined him at church on more than one occasion. And contrary to what many people might think, no bolt of lightning has come down from above to strike them down! They are good young men who deserve to be there as much, if not more than many others.

Changes to the Marriage Act
At this time in South Africa with the impending decision on the Marriage Act, my wish for my dearest son and for all other gays and lesbians in this country is, that they should be allowed to marry in exactly the same way as all other citizens of SA, if this is their wish.

I am realistic enough to know that it is highly unlikely that churches (and especially the Catholic Church) will permit marriage within the church in the near future. But this is not a church issue, it is a constitutional issue and I feel very strongly that every citizen of this country should have equal rights and I think that no heterosexual person will be adversely affected by a decision in favour of marriage between same-sex couples.

After all, why should my son not be allowed to fulfill the same dreams that many other young people of his age have? To marry the man he loves and establish a life and home, hopefully with children, within the framework of a legal family unit.

Advice to parents
My advice to any parents who read this would be to please, please remember that your child did not just wake up one morning and “decide” to be gay or lesbian. This is not a “choice” for them. They were born this way and you as their parents brought them into this world and have hopefully loved them up to this point in their lives. So why would you feel any differently now?

If anything you should love them more, as we do our son, for having the courage to be honest with you and ask for your support. More than likely it has been a hard and lonely journey for them up until this point. Now they need all the love and support in the world, especially from their own family.

I can honestly say that our son has brought us all, family and friends, closer together. As he himself has said he is like “the glue” that holds us all together!! It has not always been easy for us as parents, especially since for most of the year he is away from home, and I especially, miss him terribly. I do worry about him and I know I will continue to worry about him just because that is who I am, and because I realise that there are likely to be some difficult times ahead and I only want the very best for him.

But despite this, it has been and will continue to be a great source of pleasure to watch him live his life as it was meant to be. I cannot even bear to contemplate how difficult his life would have been if he had not taken this huge step. I believe that he will do great things in the future. As an openly gay psychologist, I believe he will be able to help many people, young and old, who might be struggling as he once was, to get to a point where they too can be at peace with themselves and their sexual identities.

I would like to say to other mothers out there, “It is a privilege to be a mother”. I feel that my son has taught me so much. I have learnt more during this time than in my entire life. I have grown both emotionally and spiritually in the last year and will continue to do so.

To my son, I would like to say “Thank you for being patient with me during the times when I have been on an emotional roller coaster, when I have asked too many questions and thank you especially for being so open and honest with us. You are a special young man. I love you!”

(Health24, updated January 2012. This story describes events that happened in the year 2006)

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