by Sarah Epstein*
*Because my gay son does not feel safe enough to be completely “out,” I have used a pseudonym. I have changed the names of my family members as wel. I very much regret this necessity.
It is 1990, and my younger son, David, is seven. He is standing at my dresser, digging through his favorite drawer of my jewelry box. He has extracted several ropes of fake pearls and a Venetian glass necklace that my mother gave me when I was a little girl. Looping them around his neck, he is peering at himself in the mirror.
As I watch him, something goes off in my head. David often plays with my jewelry. So did his older brother, Jeffrey, when he was little. But certainly not past the age of, say, four. And never the way David is now doing, lovingly stroking the glass beads and holding them up to view.
There had always been something different about David, things that I’d been picking up for the past few years. Like the fact that he didn’t hang out with packs of basketball-playing boys as his older brother did, but preferred the company of little girls. “He’s so mature for his age,” my mother often remarked. Yes, he was. Adults adored David. So polite, so considerate, people told me. So different from other children. Different. When I potchked in my garden, David helped me. He’d dig the holes for the plantings, carefully water the seedlings. Or he went ice skating with me when our family was on vacation in the Adirondacks. Holding hands, we glided on the bumpy surface of the frozen lake. When I fell, David helped me up, and we hugged. We women insist that we want to find such kind, gentle traits in all men. Don’t stereotype, I told myself. But when David and I were skidding around on the ice together, my radar told me that he would not grow up to be like most men.
It was that moment when David was seven, trying on my beads in front of the mirror, that I suddenly, absolutely knew that David was gay. I didn’t share my epiphany with anyone. Part of me was still hoping I was wrong, that I had been misreading the many signals. As my son approached adolescence, I paid even more careful attention. He began to spend a lot of time in his room, alone, listening to music and reading books. Among his favorites were Franc’s Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and The Little Princess. Hardly the choices of other boys his age.
One Saturday morning as my husband and I were making our bed, he asked me, would it bother you if one of our kids were gay? I shrugged carefully.
“If one of them is gay,” Arthur continued, “it’s not Jeff.” We sat down on the edge of the bed together and talked. It was not only I who had sensed since he was young that David was homosexual.
“Are you okay with it?” I asked Arthur.
Of course, he said. He only worried, he said, about what David might suffer in a world where homophobia is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination. My husband’s words stirred up my most primal parental fears. Gay teens, I had read, were at particular risk for suicide. And homicide. And AIDS. I stuffed my scary thoughts into a dark corner, and assured my husband that David would be fine. For the time being, we decided, we would keep our realization to ourselves. The better to protect not only David from a hostile world, but ourselves as well.
In the meantime, I worried constantly. Once David came home from school and told me that a friend had taunted him with the words, “You’re such a girl!” My heart hurt. Did David yet sense that he was gay? He certainly knew what homosexual meant. I had made a point of bringing up the subject occasionally at home. I had told him, for example, that one of my best friends at college was a gay man.
I consulted a psychologist. Yes, she said, kids who are gay know it when quite young. At least, they know that they are different from their peers.
How can I help him? I asked her.
Wail until he tells you, she said. I sat on my hands, and began to notice how casually people tossed off anti-gay slurs. One day, in a liquor store, I overheard a conversation between two men. One of them said “faggot,” upon which both broke out in guffaws. My throat tightened. I stood still for a moment. Then I walked over to them and stuck my face right into theirs. They turned to me, startled. Who, they were doubtless wondering, was this crazy woman?
“Do you know what homophobia is?” I asked them continued to stare at me.
“It means hating people because they are homosexual. How do you know that there is not somebody in this store who is gay, who can hear you spewing your garbage?”
Neither man said a word. I turned my back to them and walked away. This crazy woman, I was thinking, is the mother of a gay son. And she’s not just any mother. She’s a Jewish mother.
The women’s movement made it okay for Jewish mothers to acknowledge their lesbian daughters. But up to now, we haven’t heard much about their gay sons. And why? Is it because the subject is still verboten? Picture two yentas cluck-clucking in hushed tones over poor so-and-so’s son. But offensive as it is, the crude Jewish-mother stereotype, the one Harvey Fierstein depicted so scathingly in his play Torch Song Trilogy, sometimes seems true. She’s standing on the corner with you waiting for the school bus, or car-pooling with you for Hebrew school. When her son finally gets the courage to tell her he is gay, she says to him, “How can you do this to me?”
“My dreams were crushed,” said one mother to me recently. She was describing what it was like for her when her son came out to her at age 26. Her son is now 40. “I walked around with my head down,” she said. To this day, she said, only her closest friends and family know. “And I’m sure that they are glad that it’s my son who is gay, not theirs,” she said.
How can you be so selfish, I wanted to scream at this mother, who still thinks that his homosexuality is a shanda. It’s not about you. It’s about your son.
Yet, for 16 years, this same Jewish mother has been active in Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians, or PFLAG, a national organization dedicated to supporting families and educating the public. Of her four children, she says, she is closest to her gay son. The new openness about homosexuality, she said, is “a wonderful thing.”
So like any stereotype, the one about the narcissistic Jewish mother is only a crude outline. The truth about her is more complicated. Eric Marcus, author of Making History: the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, who is gay and has been writing about gay issues for 13 years, says that none of his friends’ Jewish mothers rejected them outright. It is not only Marcus who tells me this, but also the experts.
“A Jewish mother’s connection to her son is so strong, that she’s not gonna let him go,” said Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of psychology at Cornell University who has conducted studies on how parents respond to their children’s coming out. Nevertheless, he said, a Jewish mother will often scream and yell when her son tells her that he’s gay. When his Jewish partner came out, he said, “his mother cried every night.” But she still loves him.
Compare the reaction of the Jewish mother with the shocking figure cited by the Hetrick- Martin Institute in New York, which studies and treats gay adolescents; 25 percent of gay teens who come out to their parents are thrown out of their homes. Thrown out.
In stark contrast, Jewish mothers are right out there, sporting red ribbon pins set in Magen Davids as they participate in the struggle for gay rights. Mothers like Jeanne Manford, who in 1972 marched with her son in New York’s Gay Pride parade, carrying a poster with the words: PARENTS OF GAYS UNITE IN SUPPORT OF OUR CHILDREN. Manford and a handful of other parents with gay children started a group, “Parents of Gays,” which eventually became PFLAG. Like many gay men of his generation, Manford’s son Morty died of AIDS in 1992. This issue proved that society’s insistence that the gay community remain invisible was not only discriminatory but lethally dangerous.
Agnes Herman, 79, speaks about the difference between then and now. Her son, Jeff, who like Morty Manford died of AIDS, came out to his parents in 1969, when he was 20. Like every one of the dozen or so mothers I spoke with, Herman had picked up signs of her son’s homosexuality when he was still a child. (According to Cornell psychologist Savin-Williams, so do most mothers of gay sons.) Herman is a social worker, her husband Irwin a rabbi. Back then, she said, both of them were scared to death of the subject. She was scared to tell her family, her friends. In those days, she said, there was nobody to talk to, only secrecy.
But today, says Herman, families no longer have to bear “the terrible burden of a secret.” Today, Jewish women’s organizations including Hadassah support causes such as AIDS research.
Rita Kaplan knows all about the pain that comes from silence. Kaplan, 73, also lost her son, Paul, to AIDS. Her husband’s cousin Alvin, she said, was also gay. Everybody knew, but nobody talked about it. In 1943, Alvin was discharged from the army for reasons never explained, but surely, said Kaplan, because he was homosexual. Soon after, he committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Her husband’s brother, she said, also had a gay son, Ronnie. Like his cousin, he died of AIDS.
Kaplan said that neither her husband, Stanley, founder of the Kaplan testing empire, nor his brother, both of whose sons died of AIDS, ever talked about it. The Kaplan’s family foundation actively supports AIDS research and other gay-related causes, both here and in Israel.
“I’m the only one who talks in this family,” said Rita Kaplan. “But somebody has to talk. Right?”
Ninth grade. Hormones surge. This is an awful enough time for hetero teens, I tell myself. How much worse it must be for a gay kid. Especially one who hasn’t yet told anybody. David isn’t telling us much about his life outside our home. Are other kids harassing him at school? Has he had any sexual contact yet, with either sex? Kissing, hugging? Or even oral sex, not an unlikely possibility for a 14-year-old? He has certainly had opportunities. For the past two years he has been attending a Reform Jewish sleep away camp. My husband has several long talks with him about safe sex, in which he mentions gay sex. AIDS is a nagging fear.
Two days after David’s fifteenth birthday. My husband Arthur goes to pick him up from a play rehearsal. It is late; both guys are tired and cranky. I am in bed, half asleep. When they arrive home, I hear them arguing. David had to wait at school for a few minutes, and is giving his father hell.
“Don’t you pull that obnoxious teenager stuff on me,” Arthur shouts at him.
“You mean obnoxious gay teenager.” As soon as the words slip out of David’s mouth, he races up to his room, slamming the door. Arthur follows him up the stairs. He knocks on the door. Entering his son’s room, he finds David lying on his bed, sobbing. He cradles David in his arms.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Arthur says. David alternately sobs and talks excitedly. His relief at letting out his secret, Arthur tells me later, was palpable.
I am asleep during this exchange, and only learn about it later when Arthur gets into bed with me. I wake up and immediately sense his agitation.
“What’s wrong?” I murmur.
“David told me that he is gay,” my husband says. His voice quavers a little.
For a few minutes I allow myself to feel sorrow. I am thinking that my son will sleep with men, experience persecution, and never have children. But with my sadness comes gratitude to David for trusting us. What more potent subject for a teenager to talk about with his parents than his sexual feelings?
I clutch at Arthur’s hand. “Thank God.” I whispered. “Thank God he told us. Now go to sleep.” It is very late. Arthur turns over on his side. But now I am alert. I lay awake for a while and try to banish from my mind the story about Matthew Shepard, murdered five months earlier in Wyoming.
A few weeks later, when Jeff returned home for spring break and David came out to his brother, the four of us agreed that David should not come out at high school. Even though two years had already passed since Ellen De Generes’ doppelganger sit-com character had told her viewers that she was a lesbian, despite all the hype about what a brave new world it is for homosexuals, it’s not yet safe. Especially for a gay teenager. Jeff told us that the homophobia he’d himself witnessed at the high school was ubiquitous and ugly. When two gay guys who decided to come out walked hand-in-hand down the halls, people had shoved them, spat at them, called them names.
It is especially hard for gay boys, for whom the parameters of “normal” behavior are stricter than for girls. Nobody looks askance when girls hug, or have sleepovers. “If a young girl falls in love with her best friend, so what?” said Ritch Savin-Williams. For girls, he said, it’s OK to have what psychologists call “passionate friendships.”
But with boys, it’s a different story.
“Boys are far more self-conscious being physical with each other than are girls,” says Eric Marcus. “There’s less room for them to be themselves.” I kept my worries to myself, but suggested to David that he talk to a therapist. He agreed, and I found a gay male social worker (see sidebar), a family therapist.
Four months after David came out to us, he left for camp, eagerly looking forward to seeing his many friends there. A few weeks later, we received a letter. In it he announced that he had told one of his friends that he was gay. The friend was straight. “Because she is like my closest friend, and she’s kewl (sic) with all that stuff,” my son wrote. And now, he continued, “all my good friends know I’m gay, and obviously don’t care.” He had also made a few gay and lesbian friends. “They are totally open to the camp,” my son wrote. “Which is great!”
When he returns from camp. David comes out to his two closest friends, both straight boys. “That sucks that you couldn’t tell us before,” says one of them. His friend’s awkward, slangy expression of support makes his kindness all the more genuine. Eventually David tells his favorite teacher. She says to him that she is honored by his trust. Everybody in whom David confides assures him that his “secret” is safe with them.
Every day, at school, David’s homosexuality must remain a secret, because he doesn’t feel safe. Every day, from 7:30 until he comes home, he must hide a huge part of himself. One night he comes into our room to talk. “Do you know what it feels like, not to be able to openly be what you are?” He is sobbing, and the three of us end up sobbing together on the king-sized bed. He lets me hug him, something that is becoming increasingly rare.
Still, he finds safe spaces. He begins to attend a weekend coffeehouse for gay and lesbian teens, which is funded by the state health department. Here gay teens shoot pool, dance, and drink soda. A staff of trained social workers is on hand, to whom the kids bring questions that they can’t ask elsewhere. What does it mean for a gay teen to date, to attend the senior prom? How do you practice safe sex? How can I make my parents understand that being gay is not a choice? The coffeehouse is a mother’s dream, the safest place on earth for your kid. Sometimes David’s straight friends, male and female, accompany him, to show their support. The coffeehouse, his friends say, is cool.
The Reform movement also provides David with a haven. He is in close touch with his camp friends. He goes to a Reform Jewish youth group convention in Los Angeles which features a workshop for gay and lesbian teens. He has signed up for it, he tells me, because it is a good place to meet somebody. I feel happy for him. He is also active in our temple youth group, where he meets a boy struggling with his sexuality. David and Jason (not his real name) begin attending the coffeehouse together. Jason’s parents, also temple members, are having a lot of difficulty accepting his homosexuality. Like many of the teens at the coffeehouse, Jason goes there without his parent’s knowledge.
Jason’s sister recently called him “faggot.” Jason swore back at his sister. His mother reproached him.
“She wasn’t cursing at you, Jason,” his mother said. “She was cursing at the idea of you.”
I fear that Jason is in for a hard time. But it will still be better for him than it was for gay Jewish sons born ten years earlier.
Kids are coming out at a younger and younger age, “because they feel much safer,” said Marvin R. Goldfried, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who recently launched a network for psychologists with gay family members. Indeed, the subject of homosexuality is now right out there. Network television now airs prime-time shows with gay themes. School boards across the country, and some synagogues, are refusing to sponsor Boy Scout packs after last June’s Supreme Court decision allowed the Boy Scouts of America, as a private organization, to exclude homosexuals. Still, I worry. As a Jewish mother, I’m keeping a close watch, even as my son David and I begin our search for the right college. I want all the usual good things, including a sizable Jewish presence. And one more thing: an active and visible community of gay and lesbian students, so that David can come into his own. I hope that he’ll date. And that he’ll find somebody Jewish.
“It works better for me as a rabbi not to talk about this issue”
Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have developed careful policies about being gay and Jewish. At the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College, the required course in crisis counseling includes specifics on how to minister to parents who tell you that their child is gay.
“I counsel them to leave the door open,” said Rabbi Paul Steinberg who teaches the course. “Otherwise, a curtain will remain, it can be velvet, or iron.”
But the news is not all good. The Orthodox movement has yet to budge from its stance that homosexuality is “an abomination.” Washington D.C. rabbi Barry Freundel, who is perhaps best known as Senator Joseph Lieberman’s spiritual advisor, told LILITH that he doesn’t accept the premise that somebody is born gay. Rather, he said, the issue is homosexual activity which, he said, is forbidden in halakha. When congregants confide in him that a child is gay, he said, his advice to them is to encourage the child to avoid homosexual behavior.
But did he not see, LILITH asked, any dilemma In such a response?
“As long as you think of homosexuality as a behavior, it doesn’t present a dilemma,” Rabbi Freundel said. Jewish law, he said, does not permit us to give in to all our desires.
“You’ve fallen into the trap of using bedroom behavior to define somebody,” he added testily. “And your magazine, which is feminist, should certainly be opposed to that!”
The Conservative movement’s position towards gays is not much better. It is an open secret that there have been gay rabbinical students at Jewish Theological Seminary. But the movement, in a “don’t ask, don’t tell approach,” does not ordain openly gay rabbis.
And on this issue, the movement is torn, said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin of Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation in suburban Chicago.
Had any of her congregants confided in her that a child was gay? “Not to my recollection,” Rabbi Newman said. But perhaps three or four gay congregants or their parents, she said, had casually mentioned their homosexuality to her in passing.
“But it’s not something that’s openly talked about,” Rabbi Newman said. “And what about the people who were too scared to tell me?”
One Conservative rabbi, speaking off the record, said he was “deeply troubled” when LILITH told him that state money supported a teenage gay and lesbian coffeehouse. The gay life style, he said, is prohibited by halakha.
“I used to say this from the pulpit,” the rabbi told LILITH. “But then I realized there were congregants who had gay children. So I toned it down. It works better for me as a clergy member not to talk about this issue.”
When asked about the Reform movement’s vote on gay commitment ceremonies, one rabbi snapped, “That’s all the movement thinks about these days.”
So what should a Jewish mother do?
“Any indication of a boy’s feminine side throws us into panic, and makes us fear that they are gay” says clinical social worker Don Cornelius. For example, Cornelius said, a boy’s trying on his mother’s jewelry doesn’t always mean that he is gay
If you suspect that your son may be gay, it may be helpful for family members to talk with a competent psychotherapist. Experts caution against therapists who offer “reparative” treatment, i.e. treatment that purports to “cure” homosexuality Local PFLAG chapters (www.pflag.org) may be a source of referrals. And the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Psychiatric Association all have divisions specializing in gay and lesbian issues.
Cornelius, who is himself gay, adds, “On the one hand it is affirming for a gay person to speak to a gay therapist. But the real test is whether the therapist’s clinical point of view is compatible with the patient.”
Typically when a teenager tells a parent or a school counselor that he thinks he might be gay the response is, “Oh, don’t worry about it, everyone has those feelings,” said clinical psychologist Ed Dunne, director of the Pride Institute at The Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. But this dismissive response, said Dunne, is incorrect, and has the potential to harm the teenager. Last year Dunne surveyed 50 gay and 50 straight adults about whether they had struggled with their sexual identity when they were teenagers. All of the gay adults, but only two of the heterosexual ones, he said, had struggled. Many psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists, he said, are as guilty as parents of resorting to a dismissive response to a gay teen’s approach. Instead, Dunne said, a therapist should be asking a questioning teenager such things as: How much do you know about coming out? About the gay and lesbian community?
PFLAG offers parents referrals to support groups. For Jewish gay and lesbian resources, check the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Jewish Organizations website (www.wcglio.org). The National Union of Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Students (www.nuils.org) also lists resources for college students.
In New York, the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West; sponsors a monthly advocacy group, “New Jewish Voices,” for the p ents of gay children, as well as programs for gay teenagers. Call 21 580-0099.
Eric Marcus’ What If Someone I Know is Gay? (Price Stern Sloan, 2000), is a straightforward book for teenagers with an extensive list of resources. The American Psychological Association has just published Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out by Cornell psychologist Pitch Savin-Williams.
Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, edited by Marion Dane I collection of short stories by well-known authors of young adult fiction such as Lois Lowry and Jane Yolen — that address gay themes. Harvey Fierstein’s funny and poignant Tore/? Song Trilogy, which won the Tony Award in 1983, still speaks directly to any gay teenager, and especially a Jewish one. Ditto for Lev Raphael’s Dancing on Tisha B’Av.
Finally a word about the Internet. Bearing in mind the usual caveats never to post your address or phone number and to always use a pseudonym, there are bona fide moderated chats and bulletin boards especially for gay teenagers at www.OueerAmerica.com and www.Planetout.com.