Eager to talk but equally wary, Marie sat outside a coffee shop and divulged the secret she’s hidden for eight months.
It started last fall with a letter from her son Allan. Marie didn’t get very far down the page before she lost her breath, before she saw the two words her 29-year-old son was not supposed to write: I’m gay.
It seemed as if he had torn off a mask, Marie said, and exposed a face she’d never before seen.
Despite increased acceptance of homosexuality, parents like Marie still are shocked when the word is suddenly associated with their children. They expect their sons and daughters to be heterosexual. And when they learn otherwise, they grieve.
“For weeks, I couldn’t stop crying,” says Marie. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
Now, she’s passed that stage and faces the next hurdle: She must decide whether to stay in the closet — enduring the gay jokes, the probing about Allan’s lack of girlfriends — or to step out, like her son, and stand by him.
Some parents never emerge. Marie, who’s told four people so far, doesn’t want to be among them.
But she says it will take time, months or years, before she’ll feel comfortable going public.
That’s why Marie and more than half of the parents interviewed for this story didn’t want their last names to be printed. They did want to speak out, though, and defend their children, even if from behind closed doors.
* * *
In a telephone interview, Allan said his parents were the last people on his coming-out list.
“I didn’t think that they would disown me, but I knew they weren’t going to understand,” he said from his Los Angeles apartment. “All of the fears I had about their reaction came true immediately when I sent the letter.
“They asked: ‘How could this happen? Was it something that we did?’ ”
Marie, 57, said she and her husband, a 59-year-old retired military officer, were ignorant about homosexuality before their son came out.
“There was no reason for us to delve into it or read about it,” she said. “We always thought, ‘They live their lives, and that’s their business.’ ”
All that changed when “they” suddenly included Allan.
* * *
Jeanne, a self-described liberal, was visiting her daughter Michelle at college on Mother’s Day last year when her beliefs were tested.
“There was a young woman who had been hanging around Michelle’s group of friends who was obviously a lesbian,” Jeanne, 46, said. “It didn’t bother me, but I was curious who she was involved with. So I asked Michelle, ‘Does Donna (not her real name) have a friend . . . a girlfriend?’ ”
Jeanne then looked at her daughter and, to her own surprise, blurted out: “It’s either you or Laura,” another one of Michelle’s friends.
Jeanne says she’d never consciously suspected her daughter was gay.
“I didn’t know where that had come from. Michelle looked at me and said, ‘This may surprise you, Mom, but it’s me.’
“At that moment, I thought I was going to throw up, my knees were weak, there was a roaring in my ears, and I kept thinking, This is not happening to me.
“And what did I say? It was OK . . . It didn’t change who she was . . . We still loved her. All of those wonderful things mothers are supposed to say.”
Jeanne had planned to tell her husband, Arthur, when she got back home, but she let it slip on the phone that night. Arthur’s reaction was stern: “She can’t come home.”
Jeanne waited a day, gathering her courage, and then called him from a pay phone.
“You have three hours to pack your bags and get out,” Jeanne told Arthur. “She’s my daughter, and I’ll stand by her no matter what.”I can get a new husband.”
By that time, though, Arthur had softened. He wanted to take back what he had said.
“When I got home, we sat and cried,” Jeanne recalled. “He said, of course she could come home. She was still his baby girl.”
* * *
When the ground stops shaking — when parents return to their everyday routines from that initial shock — they’re often overtaken by feelings of isolation. “For a while, I thought nobody felt the way I did,” Marie said.
That’s when many turn to P-FLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), an international organization with two chapters in San Diego County.
Marie took that step one sunny afternoon in May, when she drove to Carlsbad for her first meeting. Her husband didn’t want to go.
“When I first walked in,” Marie said, “I started to cry, and I hadn’t cried in quite some time. I thought, ‘I can finally say what I’m thinking and feeling.’ And I knew those people weren’t going to say, ‘Your son is going to burn in hell.’ ”
About 15 people showed up the day Marie went, from a 22-year-old lesbian, accompanied by her mother and father, to a grandmother in her 70s.
During an hour-long rap session, the parents just talked.
“Even though you totally accept it, there’s still a certain sadness,” one mother says. “You just worry about your child facing prejudice on an ongoing basis.”
One of the few fathers who attended the meeting said he doesn’t worry about losing friends who can’t accept his gay daughter.
“If they don’t want to be my friend because of this, I don’t need them in my life,” he said.
And after a while, Marie joined in.
“There are just so many people who know so little. And I’m still learning.”
* * *
Parents reach acceptance at their own speeds. David and Deena Birnbaum turned into activists overnight.
Three years ago their son Andy, then 25, came into the house with a smile and a bottle of wine.
“I’d made up my mind that I was going to do it in a very positive light,” he said over the phone recently. “I knew they would have heard so many negative things through the media.”
So, after greeting his parents, Andy said: “Remember when we all thought things would happen one way and then they happened another? Well, I have wonderful news. I want you to know I’m gay.”
Deena, 54, who says her awareness of gay issues was honed on afternoon TV talk shows, wanted to “push the words back in his mouth.” But as she and David, 55, talked with Andy through the night, they realized their son was the same man they’d always known. Later, David and Deena went to gay clubs, read books, met gay men and women and “got an education,” she said.
“It’s a process of learning, of understanding, of experiencing — and we did that,” Deena said.
Today, David and Deena wear gay pride necklaces. They submit articles to newspapers and magazines, fire off e-mail to anti-gay politicians, march every year in San Diego’s Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade and welcome Andy’s boyfriend to their home.
“I tell everybody I have a straight son, I have a gay son, and I’m very, very blessed,” Deena said. “It’s given my husband and me a mission in life.”
* * *
The Birnbaums say one reason they made their private life public so quickly was so they didn’t have to hear anti-gay rhetoric from co-workers and acquaintances.
Parents who aren’t as open as Deena and David hear those offhanded remarks and jokes constantly.
“People sometimes say things that I consider very cruel,” Marie said. “And inside I’m ready to blow up, and yet I’m not able to say, ‘Hey, you’re talking about my son.’ ”
Jeanne, normally a calm woman, lost it when her teen-age son’s friend threw the word fag around one too many times.
“I had given him two warnings and had even said, ‘You know, I have several friends who are gay and I don’t appreciate it.’ But he said it again one night at the high school gymnasium, and I saw a side of myself that I’d never seen before.
“I grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him across the gym, and I said, ‘You are talking about my daughter. Shut up.’
“He was crying, and I said, ‘I don’t ever want you to come to my house again. You are not welcome.’ ”
Hennie Krasnow, 47, is less worried about words such as fag than she is about her son’s personal safety.
Nearly everyone at San Diego High knows Max, 17, is gay. Word spreads fast in high school. And not all of Max’s classmates are accepting; he’s had rocks thrown at him, and his car has been vandalized.
“I’m proud of him,” Hennie said. “He has so much courage, but I worry about his safety.”
But Max, an honor student who begins his senior year in September, says: “It really doesn’t bother me that much. I have a lot of supportive friends.”
Being gay, he says, “is about love. It’s about being happy.”
* * *
Above all else, Marie wants Allan to be happy. She’s not ready to be a champion for gay rights, but she does want to become a champion for her son.
So far, she’s had mixed results. One friend she told “said all the right things” at first, but hasn’t asked Marie about Allan since.
But that’s to be expected; Marie knows she can’t change everyone’s mind. But she can change her own.
“The next big step,” she says, “will be, if Allan has someone special, meeting that person and making him feel comfortable in our home.”
While that’s not something she had ever envisioned for herself, many things in her life have change since that one autumn day. It’s been a process of turmoil, introspection and, above all, growth. And the journey isn’t over.
“At first, it’s like standing in an ocean with waves crashing over you,” Marie said. “They’re so strong you can barely stand. But then the water gets calmer and calmer. You go weeks without having any waves.
“And then eventually, there aren’t any waves at all.”