LGBT Pride Month Passenger #1: QPOC on Parental Homophobia

*This is Part 1 in a special series I’ve put together for the month of June (Gay Pride month), that features in-depth stories on LGBT-identified passengers. Check back over the next couple of weeks for more pride-themed stories!

**Passenger granted me permission to share her story, but names and some identifying details have still been changed 

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“It was strange, she thought, how you could live all your life in a home defined by people who loved you and took care of you and shared ancestors with you and yet did not entirely see you, people whom you protected by hiding yourself.”

This passage from Carolina de Robertis’ Cantoras comes to mind as I reflect on my ride with passenger Erin*, who like her twin brother Brian*, is queer and comes from a family who took a while to accept this part of her identity.

“For the longest time, our parents didn’t know about it,” she shares, unwrapping a Tootsie roll from its crinkly wrapper and popping it into her mouth. “Neither of us felt like we could tell them.”

She and her brother have always been close, Erin says. Growing up, they both related to each other in feeling like they didn’t live up to neither their parents’ nor their culture’s standards. 

“I work for a music company, which isn’t the path my parents envisioned for me at all. They wanted me to be a pharmacist. And I tried to go that route! But I just wasn’t meant for it. My mind doesn’t work like that.”

From as young as seven, Erin felt like she put in three times as much work as her other Asian classmates did. Her brother, an athletic boy with ambitions to become a personal trainer, faced a similar predicament in that he too had chosen a path not condoned by his parents.

When the siblings came out to each other five years ago, it gave them an additional difference to bond over—especially because neither felt like they could tell their parents.

Erin describes how the two of them used to “cover” for each other when each of them wanted their significant other to stay over on special occasions.

“Brian would introduce my girlfriend as his. I would introduce his boyfriend as mine. Then at dinner my partner and I would secretly hold hands under the table, in true rom-com fashion,” she recounts.

It wasn’t the ideal situation, Erin admits, but the experience did at least strengthen the siblings’ already close bond. Sharing in it also lessened the emotional burden of keeping such a core part of themselves a secret from the rest of their family.

~~

The apprehension Erin and her brother shared was both understandable and familiar to me. Though I’ve been extremely lucky to have parents who responded with complete acceptance when I came out to them at the age of 18, over the years many queer friends and women I dated have shared their own less-than-idyllic “coming out to family” stories.

Most commonly, it was the women’s mothers who seemed to have responded with the most discomfort and disapproval, while fathers’ reactions ran the gamut from indifferent to accepting (if the person coming out was their daughter).

One’s mother cried inconsolably while his grandma accused him of being possessed by demons. Another’s mom, while out to lunch with her, tried to set her up with their male waiter right after she’d come out to her mom as gay for the third time. 

Still another friend’s parents simply refused to ever speak about it with him.

Beyond these more overt examples, parental rejection can also (and often does) take place in subtler ways. 

As lesbian author Sarah Schulman writes in her book on parental homophobia, The Ties That Bind, “Many gay people will say that their families are ‘fine.’ But when you ask for details, this means, basically, that the gay person has not been completely excluded from family events. Or that their partner, if they have one, is allowed in the house. Very few experience their personhood, lives, and feelings to be actively understood as equal to the heterosexual family members.”

This book was written in 2009, so I imagine (and hope) that fewer parents are this way now. But based on my own experiences hearing from the people I dated as well as LGBT friends, it seems like this attitude is still surprisingly prevalent, even in a place like the Bay Area where one would think it wouldn’t be.

I’ve tried hard to understand the mindset of parents who are unable to be supportive. I’ve gone so far as to wonder whether their own unresolved issues are at the heart of their difficulty. Schulman believes this was the case for her mother—that her unacknowledged and untreated traumas led her to “fear difference, fear the disapproval of the dominant culture, which kept her from being able to love her lesbian daughter.”

Or maybe they had a specific idea of what their kid’s life would look like. When their child comes out to them, that image shatters, and the resulting dissonance is too much for them to handle. They insist on putting the broken pieces back together despite both their child’s protestations and the obvious pain this attempt at re-assemblage is likely causing them.  

Lesbian author Sarah Schulman

I’d like to give these parents the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think that their response derives from wanting their kids’ lives to be as pain-free as possible. Or from not wanting them to face discrimination, struggle to pay rent (two women’s paychecks are likely to be lower than a woman and a man’s), be denied opportunities, or hurt in any way.

These parents are not wrong that sexism and homophobia can make life more difficult. They’re also not wrong that depending on where you reside, living “the gay life” isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. 

It’s just that when you consider the alternative— living an inauthentic life inside the prison of expectations that others have built for youthe latter strikes me as infinitely harder and more painful (and I can say this from firsthand experience).

~~

How did things end with Erin and her brother?

After continuing with the “charade” (her words) for a few years, Erin no longer felt comfortable keeping it up.

“I had a conversation with an LGBT friend,” she recalls.  “And at first I felt like she was judging me when she said she thought I should come out to my parents. I felt like she was overstepping. I felt like she didn’t understand, so I didn’t want to hear it. But with time I began to agree with her.”

“Hiding it had seemed like the best option, until one day it didn’t. I was ready to take the leap. Whatever negative reaction I might face seemed better than the secrecy.”

So Erin finally told her parents—and as she’d expected, they didn’t react positively. While they didn’t do anything drastic like cut her off financially or kick her out of the house, they did withhold affection— giving her a colder shoulder while treating her brother (who still had not come out to them) more warmly. 

In time, Brian too (following his sister’s lead) worked up the courage to tell them. Where before he’d kept quiet when they made condemning remarks about his sister’s sexual orientation, now he spoke up for her.

“And one day he just finally said, ‘I’m gay too, guys.’ They hung up the phone on him. He called me crying. And for maybe about a year after that, they were more distant towards both of us.”

For many months, when having dinner together during visits home, the four of them shoveled down their food in silence. Her parents looked down at their plates, across the table at each other, over onto the Andy Warhol paintings on the walls (their mom had an affinity for his work). They seemed to look at anything and everything except for their children. 

“You could hear every stomach rumble, chopsticks hitting against the glass dish, my dad clearing his throat gruffly, the hardwood chair scraping against the floor when Brian scooted his back. It was silence that felt painful. For all of us, I think,” Erin recalls.

The cold treatment gradually subsided—replaced by, if not altogether warmer, then at least more neutral treatment. Erin can’t remember when she first noticed it. She thinks it started with the little moments, such as when her mom “set the plate down gently, like she used to, and actually looked at me—instead of letting it clatter to the table and walking away right after.”

Or when her dad’s smile reappeared (“his real smile, not the tight-lipped cordial one he’d grant me every now and then, but the kind that reached his eyes, made them crinkle”).

Gradually they reached a place where her parents were greeting the siblings with hugs once again, asking them questions about their day, their jobs, their friends.

It can take an uncomfortably long amount of time for friends and family to adjust. Erin found that enduring that discomfort though was the price she had to pay if she wanted a chance for a deeper, more authentic (if more complicated, at least at first) relationship with them.

Basketball star Layshia Clarendon, whose dad took some time to accept her sexual orientation

  I think of other examples of parents who took a bit of time to come around, but who eventually did. One is basketball player Layshia Clarendon, whose dad after initial ambivalence grew more accepting over time, (and the two are now very close). Another is a family member of mine whose parents did not fully embrace his coming out at first, but learned to with time.

Some parents require more time and patience than others to get there. In my opinion though (or it’s at least my hope), if they can really tap in to the love they have for their kid and allow it to wash out the prejudice—then it may not happen right away, but at some point they will come around.

And when they don’t? Lesbian Instagram influencer @Raffinee, who is currently raising three beautiful kids with her wife, said that her dad does not accept her lesbian marriage. He did not attend her wedding, nor is he involved in her children’s lives. Immensely painful as this probably was for her, she didn’t let it stop her from continuing to live the life that felt most authentic to who she is.

“My parents may never come to a gay Pride march with us,” Erin acknowledges towards the end of our ride. “But at least they know who we are now. It feels a lot better to not be hiding anymore.” 

 I hope that every day her parents are growing more comfortable with their kids’ authentic selves. And I hope the same for LGBT families across the world—wherever they are in their journey or process of acceptance.

*Check back soon for another Pride month story! If you liked this post, consider sharing it on social media. You can also follow us on IG @lyft_tales

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Photo credits

White rabbits– https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32380699152.html

Sara Schulman– https://www.queer-art.org/-sarah-schulman

Andy Warhol endangered species– https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21653348

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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