ON THE DAY after Thanksgiving in 1979, I went shopping for Christmas gifts for my children. Once I arrived home, I carefully locked everything up and began to look around for a place to hide the key. I finally decided a good place would be a pine cone arrangement located in our bedroom. I began to move some of the pine cones aside and saw a small piece of paper folded up many times. I pulled it out, unfolded it, and saw these words: “Dear Mom and Dad: I love you very much. I hope you will not find this note until I am at least 18 and out of the house, but I am gay. This is not your fault. I am still your son. I love you, Paul.”
He was fifteen years old. I remember feeling so stunned, actually numb, and thinking: “I can’t handle this.” I never thought of my son and what he was going through in trying to understand himself.
My husband and I were very active in the Southern Baptist Church. We were there every time the door opened, along with our three children. However, when our eldest son conveyed to us through that note that he was gay, I thought only of myself and what other people would think. Would our friends turn against us? Would the church ask us to leave? I did not think about the courage it must have taken for my son to tell us he was gay. I did not think what he must be enduring in coming to terms with his sexuality.
I know now that my husband and I dealt with things the best we knew how, considering the bad information we had at the time. But oh, how I ache in my heart for putting my son through what he had to endure. I so regret those days and weeks that he had to go through while we tried to get him to change his sexual orientation. How sad, that he and other gay children go through the agony of trying to learn to accept who they are only to feel the sting of rejection from their own parents. Paul has told us he knew he was different from the time he was six years old. He didn’t know what being gay was, he only knew he was not like some of the other boys in our neighborhood. He must have felt so alone, with no role model or anyone with whom he could talk or ask questions.
We took Paul to psychologist after psychologist, trying to find one that would tell us he could “cure” him. We were fortunate that in the years of the early 1980s, the four psychologists that we talked with told us: “Your son cannot be changed. It is you that needs to change your attitude.” After hearing that for the fourth time, I decided that if I wanted to keep a relationship with my son, then I needed to learn something about who my child was.
As Southern Baptists who were uneducated about gay people, we understood only that the word meant someone who was different, who didn’t fit the norm, and was rejected by society. When our child suddenly applied that word to himself, we had to come face to face with what we had been taught all our lives and the person we knew our son to be.
When Paul was 22 years old, we learned that our other son is gay. He had a much easier time of being accepted by our family. By the time he told us, I had studied and read enough about homosexuality to understand and accept it without being concerned at all. I was able to tell him what I wish I could have told my older son: “I love you. It doesn’t matter. You’re still my son and I’m proud of you.”
Our daughter came out to us as a lesbian in 1993. While she was fearful of the coming out process, she knew she was loved and she knew she would never be rejected by her family. What a joy to be able to share in their lives. To feel a closeness that we would never have experienced had we not been willing to understand them.
There is one thing Paul said that will forever let me know he has truly forgiven us our mistakes in our journey to acceptance. When he was asked if his relationship with his family had ever truly healed, he said: “I don’t harbor any resentment toward my parents. My parents are like heroes to me.” Thank God for children who will forgive and who understand that we had to have time to learn, to become educated and change attitudes.
Our children have caused us to rethink all of our beliefs, to re-examine our own prejudices, and to have an open mind. They have made us more aware of the hurts in this world and helped us become more caring about other people who are considered different. We can honestly look back today, and know we have been truly blessed.
Our goal now is to try to educate others, and through that education try to eliminate hate and discrimination against LGBT people. We have learned that it’s not our children who need to change, it’s society that needs to change. Our children are okay the way they are.
I, as one mother who loves her children and aches at the pain visited on all our LGBT children, refuse to be silent.
Margie Candler is an advocate for LGBT rights and the mother of three gay children.