by Paula Whyman
My older son, now seventeen, came out two years ago to his dad and me and, over time, to his friends at school, his grandparents, and many important people in his life. I understand that coming out is a process. With each new person, in each new situation, my son must “come out” again and again. This week, he came out online, in an essay he wrote for a national student think-tank publication for which he’s been a regular contributor. In the past, he has written about topics like income inequality, space exploration, and immigration. He formed and expressed intelligent opinions about each of those issues, but he’s never written about anything personal. Until now. In the days leading up to the Supreme Court decision about marriage, he thought about what he believes needs to happen next—that is, confronting and extinguishing the discrimination that still exists against LGBT people, and treating the mental health problems that result from that discrimination.
I’m thankful that my son is a teenager at this fortuitous moment in history. My family is lucky to live in a liberal town, where my kids attend a high school with an active Gay-Straight Alliance. My son is lucky that his parents are supportive, and he doesn’t have to fear discussing his sexual orientation with us. And yet, he was hesitant for a while. He expresses it best, in his essay, when he describes the process of accepting himself before he could be open about himself with others: “Personally, the most distressing part of my coming out was not worrying that others wouldn’t accept me, but my own internal struggle to accept myself, to accept that despite how I had been raised and taught, being gay would be part of my identity.”
In conversation with a colleague recently, I mentioned that I was glad my son is now at a point where he can talk about being gay and how it affects his life, if he wants to. This colleague said something like, “But why talk about it? He doesn’t have to talk about it. He should just be.”
I immediately thought: Don’t ask, don’t tell. Aren’t we past that?
It also reminded me a little of times I’d heard people say similar things about Jews—Why can’t we ever stop complaining? Is it never enough? Of course, religion is a choice. Sexual orientation is not.
At first, my colleague’s comment made me angry. But then I understood that if you take for granted being part of what we consider the mainstream, you might never notice the number of times you do talk about such things. You wouldn’t notice, because you wouldn’t stop to think about what impression it might make on those around you if you “let on” that you are straight. You love the people society tells you it’s “acceptable” to love. You have no inner conflict that tells you you’re different than almost everyone you see on television or in books or movies, or the couples you see on the street, or the examples your parents have demonstrated as acceptable by their deeds, and even by explicit instruction. This, I think, is what a lot of people mean when they say “privilege.” A word whose ubiquity and the sometimes confrontational tone in which it’s announced has occasionally irritated me, because it suggests that you can usually tell who has the advantage of “privilege” just by looking.
But clearly, you can’t. This might be almost as bad an assumption as it is to judge someone from the lofty seat of that privilege without taking into consideration how different life is when you don’t have it.
Here’s something that happened. When my son was younger, I enrolled him in a ballroom dance class, a club, really, which served as a local debutante training ground. You had to be officially invited in order to participate. I’m allergic to the idea of debutantes, as much as I am to country clubs and fraternities and all such similar groups. Why? Maybe because I’m Jewish. This dance class was once restricted. Now, we were included, and still the whole process and milieu reeked, to me, of WASP privilege. Going there to pick up my son, I felt as strange as I had entering a restricted country club many years earlier.
Of course in this class, my son danced with girls. That was the only option— Perhaps at that point he didn’t know there would ever be another option. Yes, he learned to dance very well, and he wasn’t nervous about being asked to dance or asking the girls to dance—at least not for the reasons straight boys tend to be nervous about such things. But he was young, and he couldn’t tell me how he felt about being forced to take this class in which he had no choice but to go through the motions, I can only assume, pretending he wanted to dance with girls. For my part, because I didn’t yet know better, I assumed he wanted to dance with girls, and that this class would not only teach him to dance, it would build confidence. I made an honest mistake, as a parent, one of many, many mistakes. One of the many times I inadvertently sent him the message that he was somehow a misfit. I couldn’t have known.
If we can’t talk about who we are, it makes it much harder to be who we are. This is true on so many levels. Not every teenager who’s gay will want to write an essay in which he or she discusses it. But for every teenager who feels he must remain silent, I hope there are another fifty, or five hundred, out there saying the things the others feel they can’t yet say. Because only by speaking up and speaking out does anything get accomplished, if the latest Supreme Court ruling is not proof enough.
This is what I hope for and dream of for my son. That, someday, he can just be and not always feel that he needs to explain or justify or advocate or, yes, fight for the life many of us take for granted.
A lot of people, perhaps even a majority, are finally getting past thinking that they can disregard or discount someone just because of whom they love. What would be nice, someday, is if we could stop talking about this because it’s “different,” and instead talk about it simply because we want to know each other and we value the great variety of human experience. Because there are so many human differences, they should have long since become unremarkable as “issues.” But obviously, we’re a long way from there in just about every category.
Paula Whyman’s debut linked story collection, YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER, is forthcoming from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 2016. Her fiction has appeared in many journals including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She’s a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Studios of Key West. She lives in a suburb of Washington, DC, where she is working on a novel.
Find out more at her website, PaulaWhyman.com.
Author Photo by Jo Eldredge Morrissey