This was it.
The expectant tension was building in our awkward phone conversation to an almost unbearable degree. I felt myself struggling to regulate my breath and appear nonchalant. He struggled for words, a way to open the door, for the very first time to anyone.
His fear became so present, it felt like we may shatter when he finally found the words.
My brother is gay.
When he finally told me, a few months from graduating high school in the spring of 2004, every single bad, derogatory, judgemental comment I had ever heard about gay people played out in my memory. We did not grow up in a home where bigotry and hateful speech was ever uttered. But we grew up mormon. A place where they talked about the sin of homosexuality. A place where t.v. shows like Ellen, or Will and Grace were considered immoral and inappropriate. Where traditional marriage was considered vital in protecting society and moral character. Where being gay was being a sexual deviant by choice. Where in 2008, the mormon church would rally tremendous money and forces in to support Prop 8 in California.
It was not a safe place for my brother.
I remembered every single off-hand remark or gesture he must have been exposed to. The jokes that were just not funny. The gossip that had been circulating in our ward in Colorado about a girl my age, who had “decided” to be a lesbian, cut her hair, and ran off with another girl after high school. The head shaking and tsk-tsking and whispers of how painful that must be for the family, how disgraceful.
Shame and horror over those flashes burned in me, a small taste of how it must have burned in him for years. I wanted to crawl through the phone and wrap my arms around him. I wanted to look him in the eye and tell him how I loved him. How it changed absolutely nothing about how I felt about him. How it was going to be fine. But I was thousands of miles away, and he was hiding in his basement bedroom in my parents house, filled with fear at being fully seen for the first time.
We went from rarely ever speaking on the phone, to talking for many hours every day for several months. If more than a day would pass, he would call, filled with fear of what I must be thinking of him, the judgement I was making, the disgust that must have been percolating for him. His vulnerability made me throb with empathy. My mother and father called too… begging for me to tell them what was going on. What was wrong. Demanding that I let them in on the reasons for our daily contact. Their fears were an endless ticker tape of threatening possibilities in their minds. It was the only time in my life I lied consistently to my parents.
Here is the part where I have to be brutally honest. and own the course I had to take. It’s not easy to write now, but it is real.
I had no idea what to think. Like anything else, if it isn’t happening TO you, it is easy to dismiss.
I never considered that my brother had chosen to be gay. That was ridiculous. I heard the pain in his voice. I could feel his fear. I knew that an alarming number of gay kids take their own life. There was no issue of choice.
But the first thing I wanted to know was… why?
I did research. I read about sexual abuse. Or having a broken and damaged relationship with a father. There wasn’t a lot more to read about the subject, in 2004.
I confronted Gardner, asking questions without malice, but honest innocence and a desire to understand. He was not abused. Nor did he blame my father.
Eventually, I realized, it simply doesn’t matter. If he is not choosing to be gay, it matters not what the origins are. The result is the same.
Then… HOW? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How could he possibly be attracted to… MEN??? He was so patient, calmly explaining things to me over and over. He asked me to tell him why I loved Rick. Why I was attracted to him. And when I did, he said, “me too.” And I understood a bit more. I never made a conscious choice to like men instead of women… It just IS. And the things that I loved about my husband and reasons for my attraction were all basically things that my brother was also wanting in a relationship. I am not interested in having a romantic relationship with a female, and neither was he.
It was the first time I had ever really pondered love, attraction, relationships, sex, so comprehensively, and from such a distance. I realized that my perception of being gay was just about the sex. What a ridiculous, simplistic view. Love is love. Sexual attraction is important, but certainly not the most important part of a romantic relationship. DUH. It seems unnecessary to even write about this, but it was a revelation to me. An idea that had never presented itself in my community, in my upbringing, in my religion.
Then… what can be done? I read and researched ways to “cure” being gay. He could go to terrible places that teach inauthenticity, repression, shame, and impossible expectations. When those don’t work, they hook you up to electrodes and physically “shock” those deviant gay feelings right out of your body.
Several months in to these discussions and as my understanding unfolded, I remember telling my brother that after careful consideration, I felt that if it meant fitting into mainstream society, avoiding painful rejection and ridicule, and being able to have a traditional family, I would give it a go… and have a relationship with another woman, despite it not being my preference. So… maybe he should go try to date women first.
In that conversation, my ability to empathize with desperate gay people who marry, have four kids, and are caught cheating on their wives with other men was born. These horrifying, naive suggestions… this ill-formed advice was rampant in mormon culture at the time. Marry! Have kids! Find out that you were wrong about who you are all along, and we were right! Jesus will change you!
Thank God my brother weathered these inane conversations with me. He watched my understanding unfurl from a tightly folded, tiny piece of closed-minded ignorance into a greater understanding. With the understanding came more real support and love.
Eventually, we made plans to tell my parents. It was truly a scary time for me, knowing it would change my family in drastic ways. I didn’t know if my parents would be able to handle it, to be honest. I felt fiercely protective of him… the idea of him witnessing their shock, the potential of hurtful words and tears… I could barely stand the idea of it. If it was scary for me, it must have been a time of blinding, paralyzing terror for my brother.
We knew the long road we would be going to down to redefine expectation and the story of how everything has to be. What it means to support and what it means to be honorable and authentic.
What it means to really LOVE someone.
It’s crazy what happens when you are willing to take a step outside of your judgement and examine what you have been standing on. The foundation of your ideas about something that seems so foreign and threatening…. is really just irrational fear. It is dishonorable enmity born out of ignorance.
Once armed with my newly developed understanding, and countless hours of conversation, once my brother had moved out of my parents’ home and lived a comfortable distance away, I told my parents for him, as we had planned. Their initial reactions, their shock, their questions were first absorbed by me.
Even then, I did not support gay marriage….because what about society? and the children?!!?! what about the children!!! Every single message I had ever heard in my life surrounding gay marriage was about how it would destroy the very fabric of society, and children would suffer. It sounds real. And scary. Who wants the fabric of society shredded? And poor little children to suffer?
I remember a specific, terrible night when my brother and mother and I went out to dinner and my brother was left to defend himself on this issue.
I loved him. I supported him. I did not think he chose to be gay. But should he be allowed to destroy traditional marriage? Bring kids into a home without a mother?
I had two little girls at the time. How would I explain their uncle to them? Will I allow him and a boyfriend to come visit? Display affection?
It all seemed so scary…. so scary because it had been presented that way to me by my culture and my religious leaders, and the politics I subscribed to. It takes a lot of de-programming to see the underbelly of this particular bigoted beast.
Gay Love is simply LOVE.
Love is love, people.
It turns out, it was really not that hard to explain to my kids. One day, they asked me if my brother had a girlfriend. I told them he did not, but he actually wants to date boys, so he would have a boyfriend someday. They nodded, shrugged, and asked for a snack.
One day, my brother had a boyfriend. I showed my kids pictures of them together. They thought he was really cute, and their uncle looked really happy.
One day, they came for Thanksgiving. And they held hands, and kissed after the Thanksgiving toast. They played games and made the kids laugh and made memories.
One, big, happy family. It was normal because it was normal.
We are complicated beings. Emotionally. Sexually. Intellectually.
Being in love can be complicated, as most of us know.
But supporting love is not complicated.
The other day, my husband and I were visiting my brother in New York. His roommate asked how it was, when we found out my brother was gay. And I wanted to say it was great. I was the loving, supportive sister who made him feel totally safe and secure and loved. While that was always my intent, that is not what happened. Most of that journey is a great embarrassment to me now. Peeling back layers of judgement and fear can expose some pretty ugly pieces. Under all that, is the glorious recognition that none of the differences that keep us separate and critical are there.
I felt the need to outline this story because I recognize there is a huge leap in understanding that must happen to help people out of their locked-in beliefs about the LGBT community. I try to exercise patience with others as my brother did for me, while I found my way out of that trap of intolerance. In fact, it is not a leap, but a shedding of skin, the callous layers that we keep to protect us from people that are simply wanting all the same things everyone wants.
Love. Acceptance. Safety. Affection. Respect.
Surprise findings: Giving another human being these things is not going to shred the very fabric of society, or ruin your children.
Your children will benefit from your willingness to get rid of those callouses and be open to more LOVE in the world. They may be one of those tender souls that the anti-gay movement is so visciously attacking. It may be your vulnerable child you are burning painful scars into with your bigoted remarks and support of anti-gay rhetoric. It might be your child that will sit at the lunch counter and be refused service because of who they are.
Enormous, painful, angry, wrenching rejection… that is what has been happening in my family since my brother came out.
But thankfully, my brother was not the target. My parents refused to be a part of their culture, an organization that they had previously devoted their entire lives to. My other brother and his wife refused as well. We have all marched out of the mormon church.
We reject the notion that my parents should reject their son. We reject the ridiculous stand that suggests that my brother should live his life void of the most basic human need… the need to love and be loved. We reject the idea that being gay is like be an alcoholic. For holding hands with someone, feeling love and affection and connection found in romantic love is not the same as having a beer. We reject the preposterous suggestion that only a married mother and father can raise a healthy child. We reject the idea that being openly bigoted toward the LGBT community is in anyway associated with being Christ-like. We reject the theory that eliminating more judgement, bigotry and hate in our society by allowing gay people to get married and yes, buy a wedding cake, will threaten others’ ability to carry out their religious freedoms.
It is not “hate the sin, love the sinner.” That is not love.
The fact that you watch Ellen, are friends with a gay person, tolerate them at your dinner table or let them give you a hair cut does not translate into real love and acceptance.
It is not possible to “love gay people” and stand against their ability to be a normal, everyday, respected members of the community. That is not love.
Love thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others. Magnify joy. Celebrate love. This will not shred us, it will make us whole.