The Non-Normative Conversation:
A Mom Almost Talks to Her Queer Son
Words by The Mothership
I was looking for a parking space in West Hollywood the week before Gay Pride.
“Mom, what’s Gay Pride?” said my eight-year-old daughter, Shannon. I guess she’d read the signs while I was trying to park.
“It’s a big party for gay people,” I said.
“What’s gay people?” asked her brother, Danny, who was five.
Whoa, I thought. This is a Formative Moment. This is One of Those Discussions They Remember Forever and I am without a thought in my head. How strange. I have plenty of long-time gay friends, I’ve lived in West Hollywood—I’ve even done summer stock! I should know what to say.
“Well,” I tried. “Boys who are gay like boys better than girls, and girls who are gay like girls better than boys.”
There was a long silence from the back seat.
“Mom, are we gay?”
Truth is always good, right?
“Well,” I said. “I’m not. But you might be.”
You can cringe if you want. I completely understand. To this day, I’m not sure if I gave the World’s Best Answer or the World’s Worst Answer, or if I just said something stupid. But then that describes all of parenting—you’re never really sure if what you say or do is good, bad, harmful, lame, ridiculous, or might actually make an impact and turn these moldable little creatures into magnificent human beings.
The parental paradigm, in other words, is always shifting.
So when I got the email from Danny, now in college, that started, “Well here’s an email for you, potentially surprising (probably surprising), maybe totally predictable, but read all of it, and understand that things will be different once you read it!” was I surprised? Yes. No. Maybe a little.
Dan apologized for coming out via email. His father had been visiting him at school and he told him the night before. Now Dan wanted me to know. He wrote, “Something about the ‘coming out’ proclamation
seemed totally unsuitable for me, so I never wanted a grand statement. But I think the reality is, this kind of relationship is effectively non-normative, and there is no social apparatus for talking about it (at the beginning) normatively.”
1: of, relating to, or determining norms or standards <normative tests>
2: conforming to or based on norms <normative behavior> <normative judgments>
3: prescribing norms <normative rules of ethics> <normative grammar>
The boy always did love his vocabulary. But I saw he was right. I wanted to find a common language with my son. I wanted to talk about it, normative or not, but somehow like that day in the car, the words just didn’t come as easily as I thought they should.
So Danny and I took refuge in the language of academia. And Google chat. And text messages. Sometimes I think that Danny is impatient with what must feel like my slow grappling with this information. When I asked him if he told his sister, he wrote, “Yeah, yeah. I will. The whole point is to not make it a big production.”
“It’s kind of a big production,” I wrote back.
“I mean,” he responded, “it’s just like there’s not a societal apparatus for having non-normative sexualities. Your difference has to be announced, which is problematic, and useful, to be sure, in a political way.”
And then the killer: “There’s something symbolically violent about the identity game. IS THIS PERSON SO-AND-SO, I TOTALLY KNEW IT.” And then, even more damningly, “Which, for the most part, is done by traditionally straight people, done from a position of stable gender identity.”
That’s me. Stable gender identity. I suppose I have something that Danny, at this point, does not. And even pre-“announcement,” I totally knew he was gay. And I felt so very traditional, almost embarrassed, when I read those words.
A few months ago, I asked Danny if he wanted to come home for spring break, maybe even bring his boyfriend, Scott. (“I prefer partner,” Danny responded, which was refreshingly earnest non-gender-based early-twenties enthusiasm for the current relationship, which will undoubtedly go on forever.) During his previous two years of college, Danny had always politely refused. But this year, he emailed, “You know, I think I would.”
I told Danny I would like to give a party.
“That might freak Scott out,” Danny wrote.
“He’ll deal, “ I wrote back.
“Who would you invite?” Danny asked suspiciously.
“People,” I responded.
“I might not book something yet,” Danny said. “Scott might be totally embarrassed.”
Some general talk about plane fares followed, then “Scott is voicing his anxiety about being thrown a party” and then a plea for money to buy “suit things” for an upcoming interview.
Another message appeared on the screen: “Scott is attacking me for mincing his words. He, in fact, WANTS a dinner party, thus…throw a party!”
I hesitated before sending the invitations. By calling Scott “Danny’s boyfriend” am I making an “announcement”? Turning the event into a “production”? Where are the rules? Where’s the handbook?
I finally settled on “special guest, Scott,” figuring it was about as neutral as I could get.
Immediately, Danny emailed back, “Why is Scott a special guest?”
“Why not?” I answered.
“It’s a little weirdly ambiguous is all, I mean,” he wrote. “I guess our relationship will be news that night!”
The party was a huge success. People either figured it out, or didn’t, or were just glad to see the young man who was once the chubby-cheeked little boy that they knew and loved. But when one friend offered to take Danny and Scott out clubbing in West Hollywood, Danny told me, “I don’t know about that!” Danny was only willing to take his new self so far. The living room was fine—more or less—but Santa Monica Boulevard? Not so much.
And here’s the odd thing, or maybe it’s not: Danny and I have never once spoken in person about his new—ah, what? Identity? Orientation? Newest personality that Danny’s trying on for size? In all honestly, I’m a little worried to talk about it. Gay or straight, it’s not easy to negotiate the ground rules with a newly formed adult. As much as I’m not sure what my role is, I’m not sure he knows what his role is, either.
A few days ago, while I was at work, Danny sent me a message with a link to his newest college project website. I clicked on the link and QUEER CULTURE: ART, STABILITY AND CHANGE in very large letters popped up on the screen.
“Look, everyone!” I said with pride. “It’s my kid’s newest work!”
I told him it looked fantastic.
And he told me that meant a lot.
We stumble on.
Images: Photos.com, for illustrative purposes only.
When I read this article it reminded me of this book published in 1975 by Laura Z Hobson “Consentint Adult” – a series of letters from other and son on him coming out, and how impacts on the family. There are 37 years of history between the book and the article, but in some ways I must ask has society really moved on?