“Two men kissing is disgusting”, said my mother one day.
“Only if they’re doing it right” or something clever like that is what I would like to have said, but I didn’t. I just shut down inside.
It was 1980, I was 16 years old and struggling with coming to terms with my homosexuality. I felt very, very alone. We were watching a local news story about a mysterious ailment that was afflicting gay men in New York. There was no name for the strange illness that would become HIV/AIDs. They were interviewing two lovers who were sick, and at the end of the interview, the men kissed each other. Just a light, loving peck. Then my mother made her comment, and I could feel my stomach twist itself in knots and my heart sink to my feet. I would not be having a conversation about liking boys with my mother, at least not anytime soon.
I tried liking girls. At that age, I could easily develop a crush on anyone, boy or girl. There were several girls I developed crushes on. That was easy. I could start a relationship, and we could get to the making out phase, but then I would find some way to sabotage it. Back then (and I did not do this consciously), I pretty much found a way to make whatever girl I was dating break up with me. I didn’t want to be the bad guy. I hated conflict. I still do. I get actual panic attacks in such situations. I can’t breathe or talk or think. So the easiest thing was getting them to call it off. I don’t think there is anyone on this planet who was happier being dumped by his girlfriend than me!
I went off to college 2 years later, where, as does happen when exposed to a large number of new people, discoveries start to be made, discussions about sex happen between people, you meet other people who are homosexual or who are also struggling, and you begin to grow up and begin to understand your feelings and desires a little better. As I left school to go home for spring break that freshman year, I felt that it was time to tell my parents. I arrived home to find my mother in tears, my father having left her for her best friend, which was a complete and total surprise to me. So, probably not a good time for the “hey Mom, I’m gay” conversation. As it turns out, my Mother was fully aware of the 10 year affair my father and her (former) bff had been having. Mom had found airline tickets in her name for trips she was not taking (this was back before you needed ID, Blood samples, DNA, and an anal probe to board a plane) and all sorts of things that belonged to her bff’s kids in my father’s car and briefcase, etc… She just chose to ignore it. For 10 years. And now she can’t deny it, because he has left, and she is a mess, and I am stuck in the middle of it, and that is so another story for another day, but the point is my mother had a very unusual way of dealing with things she didn’t like; she ignored them. She had an Olympic gold medal in denial. A bit of foreshadowing, but this ability becomes important as we move along.
My mother was on the phone when I came home for the summer after Sophomore year. She was talking to a friend that was moving to Marin County. She was very excited for her friend. My mother told her friend how much she LOVED San Francisco, except for all the gays . Well, shit. So I asked her what she would think if I or my brother were gay. “Oh honey, neither of you are” was the response.
That summer, I took my mother to see Torch Song Trilogy starring the fabulous Harvey Firestein on Broadway. She laughed until she was in tears. I think it was the first time Mom had seen an actual openly gay man, and she didn’t recoil, she didn’t vomit, she laughed, and at the end, she cried. I asked my Mom if she identified with Arnold’s mother in the play. She thought the character was a little over the top, but I told her I thought they had more in common than she realized. Thus began my quest to expose my mother to gays and gay culture as a means of coming out. There wasn’t a lot, but I took her to see La Cage Aux Folles (original French version), Victor/Victoria, rented The Boys in the Band, whatever I could find. She finally admitted to me that gay people were okay, and she seemed to have broadened her horizons. She was never a bigot, don’t misunderstand me, she just had never met anyone homosexual before and it was never part of her world. At least I had changed that a little.
After the umpteenth time she asked me why I didn’t have a girlfriend, and after the umpteenth time of rejecting the blind dates of nice Jewish girls she kept trying to set me up on, I told her that I didn’t want a girlfriend, that I wasn’t attracted to girls. “Oh Honey”, she said, “you just haven’t met the right girl”. I had actually brought boyfriends home by then (best friends, according to my mother). My mother treated them like family, but she would simply not acknowledge what was going on. I am pretty sure I could have fucked them in front of her and she would have thought “how nice, you are practicing for when you have a girlfriend”. The art of denial was on full display.
I had moved to Los Angeles following graduate school. I had already come out to my brother. Looking for apartments, I told Mom I was looking in West Hollywood. “Oh Honey” she said “my friend says that’s where all the gays live”. “Yes, Mom…I fucking well know that”, I wanted to say. “It’s a nice neighborhood and I can afford it” is what I actually said.
Life moved on, I had several boyfriends, my first real love, and my first real heartbreak. All of which I commiserated with my brother about, but not my mother. During Thanksgiving one year while we all gathered at his house, I remember sitting on the stairs and overhearing my brother’s and my mother’s conversation in the kitchen.
“He is homosexual”, said my brother.
“He is not” said my mother.
“He is”, shouted me from the stairs,
“You are not” answered my mother.
It became a running joke between my brother and I. Every time we talked, he would ask if I had come out again to Mom.
A few years later, Mom died suddenly. I had given up on ever coming out to her, because she simply would not allow it. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had stood in front of her covered head to toe in rainbow while kissing a man. I WAS NOT GAY, and that was that. Because she dealt with things that didn’t fall into her world view by simply denying they exist, while she loved me, I don’t think she ever really knew me, and that makes me sad.