As advisor to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my university, I have to judge when to stay out of students’ way and when to step in to advise. They do great work on their own. For example, a few years ago they decided to change the name from Gay-Straight Alliance to recognize that many students were coming out as trans and genderqueer. But when they want to host an event with a famous speaker, I can help them find funding and coordinate PR. Basically, I don’t really run anything, but I’m pretty much always available if they need help.
Following the heightened awareness of LGBTQ suicides in mainstream media, I’m more attentive if not necessarily more concerned about queer students on our campus. (I’m pretty much always already in concerned mode.) I usually observe when I attend events, although for the Coming Out Day SpeakOut, I shared a story as most everyone else did. What struck me was that my students’ experiences haven’t necessarily been better than mine. Although my mother loves me unquestionably, she said some unkind words as she adjusted to the news that I’m gay, and a generation later, parents still have trouble dealing with the news that their children are queer.
More to the point, their problem seems to be that their children aren’t heterosexual, and sharpening that point even more, there’s disappointment that their expectations for the child’s future aren’t going to be met. It’s not that parents don’t support their queer kids, but there’s a break in the support. For those of us lucky enough to have trusting relationships with our parents, it’s painful to watch them for that moment–maybe longer–and wonder if unconditional love is no longer guaranteed. Our relationships with our parents are changed forever by that experience. If all goes well, the break results in a stronger bond, as with a bone. But it was clear as I listened to my students’ stories that a few of them are still waiting to find out if their parents love them as much as they used to.
The only report of a loud, proud parent came from an ally whose mother has befriended many of the GSA students. It’s wonderful that they have her to connect with, but it’s unfair to let the other parents off the hook. They’ve raised wonderful human beings. To treat their children differently because of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is selfish. Life is full of horrible surprises, but their children coming to terms with themselves is not one of them.
To be fair, my students’ parents are probably coming to terms with themselves, too, and there needs to be some patience for that. It was easier to see that in my own experience. I understood that my mother’s brief problem with my coming out said more about her than about me. It did scare me, though, to wonder if I would lose her or, worse, if she would keep me at arm’s length for the rest of our lives.
I hope my students are as lucky as I have been, yet I’m damn pissed that they should have to depend on luck to get what they deserve as wonderful, honest, honorable people. I just can’t stand the irresponsibility of adults anymore. If you’re a parent and you can’t decide whether or not to accept your child because you’ve got shit to deal with, oh, come on, just deal with it. And if you must involve your children in that process, assure them that your shit is not their fault. They’ll probably get it, because they’re strong and smart unless you’ve worn them down. And if you’ve done that, get them help, too. Please don’t give me a bunch of nonsense about how they’re your kids. They end up being mine, too, especially when you don’t give them the support they need. They’re a big part of my world. And because they love you, I have no choice but to admit that you are, too.
It breaks my heart to listen to them talk about how much they care about the opinions of their conditionally-loving parents. As outspoken as these students are on campus, I know most of them hold back when they’re around their families out of respect and/or fear. They find solace in their friendships and organization meetings and, for too many of them, in discussions with friends as they huddle outside buildings to smoke, which somehow helps them deal with stress. Sometimes they invite me to join them and I wave the smoke away from my face.
They’ve already learned that fighting for equality is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. They want equality. They want it now. And if they can’t have it at home, they’re prepared to go someplace else. It’s their families’ loss, but it’s hard to pretend they won’t lose something, too. For all the impatience that comes with youth, they’re willing to wait a little longer for that.