My mother turned 80 this week and arrived in San Diego from Ireland, where she has lived all her life. She had four sons, lost her husband 24 years ago and her youngest son 11 years ago to a heart attack. She survived the blitz in Belfast, 30 years of sectarian violence we call “the troubles,” and is very proud of her gay son.
I am not sure what was more difficult for her over her long and full life, my coming out at 21 or all the other challenges she has had to face.
I still remember that life-changing conversation so well almost 40 years ago! My younger brother was getting married and she had met one of my college girlfriends so the conversation turned to the subject of marriage. I had just met Frank Wilson in Durham and we had fallen in love, so instead of taking about a concept like being gay, we talked about a relationship – my relationship with Frank.
There is a courage that you find when you are in love. My mom also offered me the moment when she started asking about my marriage. So out it came. It’s a kind of birth. You fear that moment for years, but when it happens, there is an often a sense of “this is it!” She sat down and looked pale, trying to be brave. She asked me not to tell my father because, she said, he would inevitably blame her for making me gay. There is a default position “What did I do wrong?” that all parents need to wrestle with.
With a heart of gold, my mother has a tough exterior, given all she has been through. But she later confided in me that my news broke her heart and she cried for three days. She liked Frank and later came to be very fond of him and his family, but the triangulation with my father’s intense homophobia was very difficult for her.
Five years later when Frank and I were asked to leave a congregation in Dublin when a friend told my boss that we were a couple. My boss fired me immediately and we had to leave Ireland. We also had to tell my dad. We only did so for fear of possible negative press. His reaction was as my mother had been expecting and he told me he never wanted to see Frank ever in his house again. He never did.
Watch what you pray for
Frank died of AIDS four years later and I had already moved to Los Angeles, so my parents and I were not really in one another’s lives. My dad hardly acknowledged Frank’s passing, which was so difficult for me to fathom. My three very straight brothers had varying degrees of early homophobia that took time to repair, largely as a result of having great women in their lives who challenged them on their attitudes. They all had a hard time with this because for most of our lives at that point it was illegal to be LGBT in Ireland and the social stigma was overwhelming.
When I came out, I knew it would be difficult for them to deal with the social implications of having a gay relative. Yet we had other gay family members. My father, of course, blamed my mother’s genetic pool for his poof of a son. I was lucky not to be around all this and was happily making my way in Los Angeles.
For many of my generation, it was just easier to leave and build separate lives than work through the crap. It was a kind of societal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but it meant separation and cut off from our families that have taken years to repair. My dad eventually came around and invited me and my partner to stay with him for a week. He worked very hard to understand what we were all about. Six weeks after his courageous welcome, he died, so we were gifted with time and closure. I spoke at his funeral.
The gay Eighties
At 80, my mother wishes all her kids were gay. She is a wonderful advocate for inclusion and is very proud of all the things I have done with my life. We are about to board a plane and travel to New Zealand where my youngest brother lives with his wife and two grown children. My Irish brother will be joining us later, but it is a wonderful time to celebrate our dispersed and complicated family and catch up on so many years living apart.
I used to visit New Zealand regularly so this is about my 10th time there and it is a great country where LGBT people have equal rights, including marriage equality and immigration rights. I have a good friend who has worked on New Zealand’s gay television show and he wants to interview me on my work. So my mother is telling me I am working too hard and need to shut down my computer to board the plane, so we can celebrate her birthday, together for the first time as a family for over a decade. So off we go. It has been quite a journey so far … so wake me up in 14 hours!
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.