There are things that my family has agreed not to talk about. Not formally and certainly not out loud, but through a selective, half-conscious telepathy that seems bred into each of us, along with brown eyes, guilt, and a propensity towards gaining weight. Weight, in fact, is one of many things we don’t talk about, as well as autism and whether it runs in the family (it does), sex (no one admits to having it), and the Baltimore Colts (whose overnight decampment to Indianapolis in 1984 still haunts my mother now, thirty years later).
There are many other unmentionable topics. Even as a child, I understood that our silence about these things was an attempt to make them go away. By not ever discussing them, we could turn obvious facts of our family into strange, dreamlike things that only strange people noticed. The problem, however, was that I couldn’t help but notice them, and since it seemed I was the only one who did, I began to feel strange.
“Why don’t my grandparents sleep in the same bed?” I wondered, and then decided there was something wrong with me for noticing that they slept in different rooms. The irony of this particular example only became clear to me many years later, when my uncle mentioned off-handedly that he was sure my grandmother had been gay – a rather explosive thought that I wished I had learned much earlier, when I was still muddling through the truth about my own sexuality.
But that revelation came only recently. When I was young, I just knew that no one else seemed to see what I saw, or feel the frustration I felt. I understood that this was my fault, and did my best to ignore it. By the time I reached my early twenties, I’d developed a defense mechanism of forcing forbidden topics to the depths of my subconscious, where they could swim in safety until something forced them to surface.
This is exactly what happened when I realized I was going to come out to my parents.
This wasn’t a thought-process, you see, that I ever remember having. One day I was skipping along through life, and the next, I knew I had to talk to my parents about my sexuality. It was just one more thought in a mundane stream of consciousness: I’m out of milk, why is the F train always so late, I’m going to come out to my parents.
I was living in New York City at the time, a safe place if there ever was one for figuring out your identity. I was twenty-three and very confused; although I wasn’t dating anyone, I had begun to feel as if all of the pieces of my life were flying up in my head and resettling in strange, unexpected shapes: the close friend I had in high school, and my intense jealousy when she slept with her boyfriend for the first time; my own first boyfriend, who was prettier than most of the girls in school, and who came out to me after we’d been dating for six months; and so on. Where once there were vague shadowy outlines, I now saw giant blinking neon arrows. I couldn’t keep ignoring them.
In fact, once the thought emerged that I was going to come out to my parents, I had no peace. It hovered in the back of my mind, stinging me, with the constant angry hum of an affronted wasp. The only way I knew to settle it was to obey it.
That summer, I went home to suburban Massachusetts for a quick visit, although the reason I gave myself for going home has long since escaped me. I think now that I fell into that trip as I fell into so many things in my early life, with the unseen yet insistent aid of my subconscious: my own personal puppet-master.
“I need to talk to you about something” was the first thing I said to my parents when I walked through the front door.
My mother ushered my father and me into the living room, and we sat on the couches, facing each other. I shifted on the white cushions, my stomach doing somersaults. This was inconvenient, for I had decided that I wasn’t nervous. I wiped my sweaty, not-nervous palms on my jeans.
“Savtah called,” my mother said at last, having decided that if I wasn’t going to say anything, we should at least talk about something. Savtah, my father’s mother, must have seemed as good a topic as any.
I nodded, and wondered if I should mention the fact that I was single. I decided against it on the premise that less was more when it came to dating, romance, and sex. Especially sex.
“She wants to see you while you’re home,” my mother continued, then added her standard disclaimer for all family activities: “No guilt, sweetie. It’s totally up to you.” Her eyes shone with sincerity, overshadowing the tension in her cheeks and around her mouth, so that later I would have to wonder if the tension had really been there, or if I’d just imagined it.
My father nodded in earnest agreement, his glasses reflecting the sun in bright bobbing spots on the white walls. “No guilt at all. You only have to come if you want to.”
“Okay,” I said, guilt joining the bubbling stew in my stomach. “Um…”
My parents looked at me expectantly. I waited for one of them to help me, but they seemed as lost as I was.
The seconds ticked by. My mother flicked her eyes towards the window. I realized that my desire to keep my mouth shut was being crushed by my desire to get this over with as fast as possible; I couldn’t bear any more small talk. I took a deep breath and blurted: “IjustwantedtoletyouknowthatI’mmostlydatingwomennow.”
My mother blinked. So did my father. I swallowed, then added, “That’s it.”
“Oh. Okay,” my father said.
“So…” I said, to help them along.
“Okay,” my mother added.
It was my turn to blink. “That’s all?”
“Oh, we don’t judge you, sweetheart,” my mother said. “We don’t label you.” She put her hands on her thighs and leaned back, pressing herself into the couch, away from me. “So, did I tell you about the literature class I’m taking this summer?”
She launched into a story about Jane Austen while I sat back on the couch and tried to summon a coherent question. Surely there were things they’d want to know, I thought. Surely they must have a reaction they wanted to share, or concerns to voice. Perhaps I just needed to help them.
When my mother paused long enough to take a breath, I said, “Listen, I…”
I wanted to say more, in fact had a complete sentence in mind. But “Listen, I” was all I could get out before my mother interrupted me with all the subtlety of a steamroller.
“The professor is fabulous,” she said, a bright smile pasted on her face. “You’d love her, Lizzie, I know you would!” While I winced at the old childhood diminutive, she plowed ahead, her voice growing louder. “She’s tough. Doesn’t take any crap from anyone.”
I opened my mouth again. This time, she overrode me before I’d gotten even one word out.
It was then I realized that maybe my parents weren’t going to say anything about this at all. I looked at my father: he was glancing between my mother and me, as if unsure of who to focus on. He saw me watching him and gave me an odd, awkward half-smile that I couldn’t begin to decipher, and turned his attention to the person who was doing all of the talking.
I settled even further into the couch. As my mother continued on about her English Lit class, the late afternoon sun glinted off the old, white coffee table. That coffee table, I remembered, was where my parents first taught my brother and me about sex. I was eight, my brother eleven, when a slim, hardcover book quietly appeared on its shiny surface one afternoon. It was called Where Did I Come From? and was full of funny, instructional pictures of a cartoon mommy and daddy. Years later, I still remembered many direct quotes, such as: “When a daddy loves a mommy very much, he wants to get closer to her. He wants to get as close as possible,” and “An orgasm is like a very, very big sneeze!” Without ever discussing it, my brother and I took turns studying that book. When one of us was done, we put it back on the table for the other to peruse. When company came over, the book found a new home on a bookshelf; and without any interruption or confusion my brother and I continued reading it, and then putting it back for the other to have a turn.
I looked at my mother, who was now explaining the plot of Northanger Abbey, and my father, who still wore that non-smile and refused to look at me, and knew that yes, our conversation about my sexuality was definitely over. As soon as possible, I slipped off the couch and into my bedroom, where I shut the door and lay down on my narrow childhood bed, staring at the underside of the bunk bed hovering over me.
Did that go well, I wondered? Did it not go well? I really wasn’t sure. No one had disowned me or thrown me out; I knew I should feel grateful and relieved, but I didn’t. I felt heavy, which was confusing, because no one had said or done anything judgmental or upsetting – had they? Once again, I wasn’t sure. I just couldn’t help but think that my parents did have concerns and questions, probably many of them, and yet I was reasonably certain we were never, ever going to discuss them.
I tested that theory the next time I was home for Rosh Hashanah, a couple of months later. I was in the kitchen with my mother, helping her make a vast trough of chicken soup, and I noticed something new hanging on the window over the sink. It was a glass rectangle, made to let the sun stream through it, with six lines of colors, one on top of the other: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
My heart started racing. I gathered my courage and asked, “Mom, is that a gay pride flag?”
She dropped her spoon in the pot with a loud clatter. “What?”
I pointed. “That flag. Did you buy it because of me?”
Her eyes bulged; she swallowed. For a moment I worried that she might have stopped breathing. But she quickly picked up her spoon and said, “No, no, that’s just a little thing I bought from Audrey — you know, the head of my department at school? She makes little arty things. Anyway, you know we don’t label you, sweetheart! Now, did I tell you that your aunt is making the brisket and the chicken because Savtah can’t anymore?”
As my mother went on about family and politics, I inspected the glass piece. It was definitely a rainbow, and it was definitely in the shape of a flag. And why, I wondered, was Audrey, who was a very nice and very straight middle-aged woman, making gay pride flags? I wanted to believe that my mother had bought it for me; that even if she couldn’t admit it, she could support me in small ways like this.
I wanted to believe it, but I knew that wasn’t how my mother communicated. Love wasn’t the problem: she told me often that she loved me, and peppered her words with odd, affectionate nicknames that had no known origin, like “Lizzifier” or “Liz-von-Bunchee.” Her approval of me, though, was different, and I never knew if I had it or not. Approval, like weight and sex, was a forbidden topic.
For my mother, knowingly buying a gay pride flag would be the same as shouting her support from the rooftops: as far as I knew, it wasn’t going to happen.
I sighed, and went back to chopping onions, and wondered if there was a book about homosexuality for parents that I could buy, and leave inconspicuously on the coffee table.
I wish I could say that everything was different after that summer. My parents, however, seemed determined to prove that nothing had changed, and so they didn’t mention it. Ever. The conversation about my sexuality might as well have never happened. The only difference was that we silently adopted our own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy: my parents didn’t ask if I was seeing anyone, and I didn’t tell them.
For a while, I rationalized this to myself. I wasn’t seeing anyone; or I wasn’t seeing anyone seriously, so why push the issue? When I met someone important, I thought, I would deal with it. I didn’t have to say anything until then.
This, of course, worked about as well as the original Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. It was one thing to ignore my mostly non-existent dating life, but it was quite another to ignore who I was. And the more I learned to accept myself, and grow comfortable with the words “I’m gay,” the more frustrated I became with my family’s refusal to discuss it.
That frustration exploded almost three years after I came out. Plans for my brother’s (heterosexual, Jewish, and in all other ways perfect) wedding were in full swing when my parents called me to talk about the guest list. They wanted to know which cousins needed a “plus one,” and asked me if I knew. It turned out that the people they were wondering about were all gay.
I never realized how many gay cousins I had until I heard them listed like that. The numbers alone made me angry: even with so many of us, my family still couldn’t bring our lives and our partners out into the open. I didn’t even think about swallowing my frustration; I just yelled. I said a thousand things that needed to be said, and it was astonishing to me how I could feel so terrified while feeling so furious.
My parents, of course, denied that they were asking me about these people for any special reason. They also denied any intentional singling out the family gays, and went on to deny that there was anything odd about the fact that they had to ask me about these particular cousins, and not about the cousins who happened to be straight.
It took a great deal of persistence, but I did win that argument: my brother’s wedding stands out in my memory as the first time my aunt brought her longtime partner to a family event. But that occurrence, too, would have disappeared into the family vacuum if I hadn’t held onto it with a death grip, and continued reminding my parents about it whenever the subject came up – or more accurately, when it should have, but didn’t.
Over all of these conversations, I felt as if I was a battering ram, smashing myself against the wall of my family’s denial. This wasn’t really something I enjoyed. It made me feel militant and obnoxious, and besides, I never succeeded in doing anything except bruising myself. I kept trying, anyway, with a kind of stubborn insanity, until at last, I managed to make one small dent. It was so tiny, and so unacknowledged, that I didn’t see it at first, but it was there. It was just big enough.
I’d been dating Jen for about six months when I broke the last of the rules, and introduced her to my mother and father. They had plans to go out to dinner and the theatre with their friends Hazel and Dan, and had invited my brother, my sister-in-law, and me to join them; and I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity for my parents to meet Jen. There would be many conversational buffers, and they could have a brief chance to talk and then a longer chance to not talk.
As the chosen date approached, I put a great deal of time and effort into thinking about everything that could go wrong. Would my parents treat Jen like some weird diseased alien? Would Jen notice how strange my family was, or would I be able to slowly introduce her to our peculiarities over time? I thought so much about it that I was sure I had covered all of the possible problems, and then about a week before the show my mother left me a long voicemail. I’m sure there were many things mentioned in the voicemail; I can’t remember them now. They were all obliterated from my memory as soon as she said, “Oh, and don’t worry: I told Hazel and Dan that you’re bringing your – ” She paused “– friend, so they’re prepared.”
I sat back and stared at my phone, and tried to figure out what had just happened. Had I failed to mention to my parents that Jen and I were dating? Is that why they thought she was just a fun, special friend? I shook my head; I had a vivid memory of sitting with them at an Indian restaurant, and telling them I had a serious girlfriend, and that I wanted them to meet her at some point. I could still smell the curry and awkwardness in the air.
“What’s wrong?” Jen asked. We were sitting in her apartment, relaxing after dinner.
I told her what my mother had said. We looked at each other. “I need to call them,” I said. “I have to talk to them about this before they meet you.”
I retreated to Jen’s bedroom and sat down on her bed, and when my mother picked up the phone and got my father on the line, I said, “So – you told Hazel and Dan that I was bringing my friend to dinner?”
My mother either missed or chose to ignore my emphasis on the word “friend,” because she said, “Yup, don’t worry! They know she’s coming.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. They probably didn’t know any better, I told myself. I avoided the next logical part of the thought, which was “because they never asked.” I didn’t want to get angry and say something I would regret.
“Why did you tell them she’s my friend?” I asked.
“We thought that’s what you wanted,” my father said.
Too late, I realized; I was angry. I was also still, somehow, terrified. I gritted my teeth. “Why would I want that? I told you she was my girlfriend. Did you not want to tell Hazel and Dan?”
My mother’s voice seemed to go up an octave. “Oh, no, no! We were just trying to protect you!”
“We were just trying to do what you wanted!” my father said again, his voice high and earnest. My mother agreed. I could picture them nodding at each other, wide-eyed and innocent.
“It sounds like you’re embarrassed to tell them I’m dating a woman,” I said.
My mother’s voice went up another octave. “Oh no, sweetie!”
“No, of course not! We just wanted to protect you!” my father said again.
And so it went, on and on, as if our conversation was on repeat. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth time, I lost my temper and entered full battering-ram mode. I asked them the same blunt questions and refused to change the subject. All I wanted was an opening; just one tiny crack in their denial; anything that would let us actually talk about all of this. But every time I tried, a wall of “Oh no, sweetie, no!” rose in front of me, and the whole cycle began again.
Finally, out of patience and close to tears, I told them that whether or not they were comfortable with it, I needed them to refer to Jen as my girlfriend, both next week and forever after. I also told them that I needed them to stop referring to other gay family members’ partners as their “friends,” if only for my sake.
After we hung up, I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, just as I had over six years before. I felt as if I’d run a marathon without moving an inch from the starting line.
But I was wrong; we did move. When my parents met Jen the next week, they did more than respond to her like normal human beings: they embraced her, with her sweet, calm demeanor and bright intelligence, right away. They introduced her to Hazel and Dan as my girlfriend, and in fact never used the word “friend” in my presence again.
It took time, but they eventually stopped flinching when I put my hand on Jen’s knee, or kissed her on the cheek. They began to tell their friends and co-workers about her, and later, when I told them our good news, they transitioned to “fiancée” with ease and joy.
One afternoon in July, two and half years after that phone conversation, the one that seemed so useless to me at the time, they walked me down the aisle at our wedding.
We’re still the same family, of course. Without a battering ram, forbidden topics still stay locked behind those impenetrable, infuriating walls. And the one or two times I pointed out to my parents how much they had changed, they insisted they had no idea what I was talking about.
But I know better. I found a way to give them that coffee table book, after all.