Hi Mum, I’m gay

Here is a tale of two sons. The first, Peter Wood, is a 57-year-old gay Catholic priest. He works in AIDS pastoral care and education in the Northern Territory, and has co-authored a new book on the issues parents face when a child announces that he or she is gay.

Wood describes the defining moment of his life this way: “I was cursed by my mother. She was not an evil woman – on the contrary – and certainly didn’t intend to do anything so crude or so cruel. Nevertheless, that is what it felt like: a curse.

“One evening, when I was about 15 and we were gathered in the kitchen … she said, in response to nothing in particular that I can recall, that she would rather her sons dropped dead, right there and then, than grow up to be queer.

“I had three brothers and I was the one who had (well-founded) doubts about my sexuality and who eventually came to understand myself as a gay man. I could never bring myself to tell her who and what I was. I feared she might have meant exactly what she said.” He now lives a celibate life.

The second son is the product of a different time and a very different family, although they, too, are Catholic. Andrew Dutton, 21, had known he was gay since he was 13 or 14. He did not come out until the end of secondary school. Like Peter Wood, his defining moment centred around a family meal.

He had invited his parents, Sylvie and Graham, to a restaurant, telling them he had something to announce. But when the time came he froze. Says Sylvie: “We were urging him to tell us and he shrank in his chair and looked terrified. He looked so sad and that’s when I knew … And I said, ‘You just answer yes or no to a few questions’.”

She made them silly ones, to make him laugh: “I needed that look to go away.” Did he want to become a priest? Was his girlfriend pregnant? Had he killed anybody?
Was he gay?

“He said this little ‘yes’,” she says, the thought of his distress upsetting her even now. “He couldn’t talk.” Her own first thought was of AIDS: “I’m going to have a dead son soon.” Her second was full of love: “If Andrew is gay, then gay is good.”

The foundations of this close family remained unshaken. Andrew was interviewed for this story in his parent’s home, his partner Douglas Leitch beside him, and his mother, father, sisters, aunt and grandmother all present. They are unswerving in their support of him and can laugh now about the funny aspects of his coming-out (Andrew’s aunt had asked him, “Why don’t you try kissing a girl?” to which he replied, “Why don’t you?”)

Andrew says his story is exceptional; he knows of few other gays whose coming out has been so untraumatic.

Peter Wood and his fellow author, Joan Golding, spend much of their time counselling parents who are struggling to cope with shock, rage, grief, guilt and shame. Their book, Coming Out, Coming Home: Growth in freedom for the parents of gay and lesbian children, is designed to inform and help people work through what is, for many, a complex process.

Joan Golding nursed her son Martin for three years before his death from AIDS in 1989. Martin was in his early 30s. Since then, his mother has become a volunteer worker with the Victorian AIDS Council, the Churches AIDS Pastoral Care and Education Program and the Victorian Department of Human Services.

Wood asked her to share writing the book, which includes chapters such as “First Reactions and Second Thoughts”, “God, Goodness and Gays”, “Homophobia” and “Parents of Gay Children”.

Golding says some parents, particularly fathers, react with extreme anger. “I remember a boy whose father went to his flat when he was out, took all his furniture out and burnt it on the nature strip outside.

“Some men feel there’s something terribly evil about homosexuality and they want to destroy anything connected with it. They also want to demonstrate that their own masculinity hasn’t been diminished by the revelation that their son is gay.”

While Golding says this is the worst response she has encountered, Wood believes that: “Anger expressed in action is probably easier to deal with than the ongoing coldness of ‘you are dead to me’.”

Both are critical of medical or religious figures who claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation. Wood once knew a man who had been a gifted pianist until his wealthy parents sent him to the United States for “treatment” for his homosexuality. He was lobotomised, his personality and his gifts destroyed.

Wood met him in a NSW psychiatric hospital: “The staff had a record of him playing the piano when he was a prodigy and that was the only thing that would quieten him when he was in his mania.”
Golding says some psychiatric treatments, such as aversion therapy, are sometimes as devastating to the subjects as surgical procedures: “They end up not knowing who they are.”

Golding and Wood’s book focuses on helping parents adjust to their child’s sexuality and to be wholehearted about it. In her list of unhelpful parental responses, Golding includes: “We told him we loved him anyway.”
She writes: “Better to say nothing at all! Families should love their children because of who they are, in every sense, otherwise their love cannot be said to be unconditional, which is the only sort worth having, isn’t it?”

Wood is similarly critical of his own church’s official attitude to gays, which is that homosexual activity is sinful and that homosexuals are deserving of compassion. “We don’t want compassion, we want respect,” he says.

But the book is also sympathetic to parents who find themselves pressured to deal with situations for which they are not ready. Children, says Golding, are often “not at all conscious of that and expect parents to snap to and be accepting”.

Wood writes: “I remember one fellow, who was himself very straight-looking and held a responsible job, who fell madly for an exotic and flamboyant character whom he insisted on taking home to his very middle-class parents for Christmas.

“He came to me in distress because the occasion had been extremely uncomfortable for everyone, loaded with pregnant silences, feigned attempts at joviality and even, at times, his mother weeping in other rooms. (His parents) had actually travelled quite a distance, but they had their limitations. We all do, in one way or another.”

Sylvie Dutton knows what hers are. She spent the first little while after Andrew’s coming-out in her own closet: “I told myself I was all right, but I was too scared to tell anyone.” So she joined P.Flag, a support group for families of homosexuals.

Now she has come to terms with homosexuality – Andrew jokes that she is more involved with the gay community than he is – but she finds homophobia extremely painful. “My child is hated by a lot of people and this has put a knife in my heart,” she says.

“I am still really sad that Andrew is gay, because he is in a minority group and no one wants their child to be in a minority group. And I worry about his safety; I would love for him and Douglas to be able to walk openly, hand in hand.”

But there is one place they are always welcome. Douglas’s parents are planning to come down from Queensland for a holiday soon. The Duttons will be having them to dinner so the families can get to know each other. It’s so nice when in-laws get on.

· Coming Out, Coming Home: Growth in freedom for the parents of gay and lesbian children, by Joan Golding and Peter Wood, Spectrum Publications, $14.95. P.Flag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) offers information and support and can be contacted on 9511 4083.

First published in The Age.