Celebrating ‘National Coming Out Day’ — for Mom

Posted on October 11, 2010 in Reflections

I’m not sitting down to blog for National Coming Out Day
(which is, according to Wikipedia, internationally observed around
the world) because I’m a lesbian. I touched another girl’s vagina
once during my experimental University days and once was enough for
me to know that I am firmly in the penis camp. This isn’t to say
that I have zero attraction to women, because that’s not exactly
the case either. I’m one of those bitches that hardcore
lesbians hate. I just occasionally wanna kiss girls and maybe
touch their boobs. But we’re not here to talk about me. I’m
blogging for National Coming Out Day because my mother was a
lesbian. Even when she was dating and then married to my
father she was gay. My parents were a couple for 30
years. They met when they were 12 and became best
friends. They started dating at 15 and they got married at
20. 7 years into their marriage, they had me. 2 years
after that they crossed an ocean and relocated to a new continent
together. 3 years after that, they had my brother. 13
years after that they got divorced. For many years, my family
believed the event that predicated the failure of their marriage
was my father’s affair with the woman to whom he is now happily
married. However, the last three years have been revelatory
with regard to the full dynamics of the situation and their
relationship, due in large part to the fact that in 2008, my mother
was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I’m thinking about the
act of coming out, and the absence of that act, a lot on this day
because the truth is that my mother never came out to me or anybody
else really until near the end of her life. I’m not sure that
she even came out to herself and truthfully acknowledged her
orientation in her own heart and mind until she was in her
40s. And even after she acknowledged it to herself and
started a relationship with another woman that would go on to span
15 years right up until the day she died, even after they moved
into the same house, she never openly acknowledged that they were
intimate partners or that she was gay to me, my brother, most of
our family, her colleagues or her friends outside of the lesbian
community. It was only after she was diagnosed with cancer
she knew would sooner or later be terminal that she felt compelled
to share the truth about herself with the people closest to her
before it was too late.

I remember sitting in her car with her in the parking lot
of our family doctor’s office for an appointment shortly after she
was diagnosed. This was the moment she chose to tell me the
truth about her relationship with A and about being a
lesbian. It’s not like the thought had never crossed my mind.
A had been a part of my mom’s life, and mine as well, since I was
15 years old. What I knew for sure was that she was my
mother’s best friend, her roommate and the closest person in the
world to her beyond her kids. When they moved into the same
house, my mother played it to me and my bro like it was a
“roommates sharing expenses” type of arrangement and she never gave
us even the remotest indication to believe otherwise. A had
her own bedroom and to my knowledge the only times she wasn’t
sleeping in it were the occasions when other family members slept
over and the extra bed was needed. Of course it had occurred to me
that my mother had expressed absolutely no interest in seeing any
other men after she and my father divorced, but I just chalked it
up to being very career driven and uninterested in chasing men, in
not feeling the need for a significant other. I figured if she was
gay and she and A were together, she would certainly tell her
daughter, of all people. Particularly a daughter who was
raised to accept homosexuality as a normal, natural aspect of the
human sexual spectrum and who was very open about having openly gay
friends. On a couple of occasions over the years, a friend of mine
had asked me whether I thought that A and my mom were more than
just friends. I would always respond that as far as I was
aware, they were just friends, and until my mother told me
differently, that was my official statement on the subject.
I’m sure my friend wasn’t the only one who wondered about the two
of them, as in addition to living together, they also worked
together. In conversations I have had with my father during
this difficult time, he has told me about situations during their
relationship where he questioned my mother about his feelings like
something just wasn’t right between them, something that he
couldn’t put his finger on, some part of her that just wasn’t
happy. By the time my mother passed away, any lingering
bitterness between my parents (of which there wasn’t a great deal
anyway, much less than the average divorce) was firmly behind them
and when she died they were once again the best of friends they had
been when they first met at 12 years old. She had come out to
my dad some time before she was diagnosed, but had asked him not to
tell my brother and me. I have struggled profoundly with trying to
understand the reasons why my mother kept such a fundamental aspect
of who she was a secret from me for so many years, both since her
diagnosis and after her death. I understand in many ways why
she was reluctant to go public with being gay to the world at
large. She was in a prominent and high-profile position in
her community, and in the journalism community of Canada as a
whole. But particularly in St. Albert, where Catholic roots
are strong and where conservative mayors, MLAs and MPs are elected
consistently. As the top name on the masthead of one of the
most prestigious community newspapers in the country, I can imagine
she worried about how coming out might affect her credibility and
her legitimacy in the eyes of the politicians and community leaders
she dealt with on a day to day basis as part of her job.
Perhaps she worried even more about how it would affect the
reputation of the newspaper that she poured her heart and soul into
for 25 years and helped build into the juggernaut of community
journalism it is today. It is not for me to decide whether
she made the right call with regard to coming out and her career.
That being said, at her funeral it became clear she had
underestimated the respect and admiration those politicians and
community leaders had for her. Let’s just say there are some
names of people who sit or have sat on city council, in the
Legislature and in the House of Commons in the guestbook. But all
of that still doesn’t explain why she didn’t feel like she could
come clean to her own daughter and son. When she finally did
come out to me, I asked her whether she always knew she was gay and
if she had always been attracted to women, or whether it was her
connection with A specifically that prompted the revelation.
She told me that somewhere deep inside she probably always knew,
but didn’t want to acknowledge it because she loved my father very
much and wanted a family with him. When I asked her to
explain why she felt she couldn’t tell me and my brother the truth
about herself, she wasn’t able to explain it to me. She could
only tell me that she was sorry, and that she had made a mistake in
not being honest sooner, and asked me to forgive her. My mom went
to great lengths to hide the true nature of her relationship with A
from my brother and me. It affected many of the decisions she
made, decisions which continue to affect all of us after her
death. I can only imagine the hurt and anger that A must have
felt when she urged my mother to tell the truth, only to be
denied. My brother and I were virtually the last to
know. My dad and A’s family all knew significantly sooner
than we did. I can only conclude that for some unfathomable
reason, my mother felt like us knowing would change our fundamental
idea about who she was. I don’t think she ever believed we
would reject her or turn our backs on her or any of the stuff that
a lot of gay people worry about when they think about coming out to
their families. She just worried it would change our concept
of her somehow, and I guess that was something she didn’t
want. Since she was never really able to articulate her
reasons to me, I am left only with questions. I am hurt and angry
too. The relationship that my brother and I had with A was
probably never able to realize what it could have been if we had
known the true extent of its significance in my mother’s life from
the beginning. I missed out on so many years of knowing my
mother for the person she really truly was deep down, in every
aspect of her life. Not that her being gay changes who she
was fundamentally as a person, but I missed out on experiencing the
true depth of her life and her experiences because she chose to
keep this secret from me for so long. I am not in any way sad
that my mother was gay, only that she felt she couldn’t share that
fact with me or with the world openly until she was dying. If I
could give any piece of advice to anyone on this day who may be
struggling with the decision to come out to their loved ones,
whether it is coming out to your parents, your children, your
siblings or your friends — I know you may fear the
consequences. I know you may fear that the people you love
the most won’t be able to see you the same way again. But
those people love you and they deserve to know you for who you
really are. I know that my mother regretted her decision and
in her final years after she came out realized that everyone in her
life she cared about continued to look at her exactly as they
always had — as a smart, ambitious, brilliant, driven, loving and
compassionate person who was a force to be reckoned with and who
will forever be missed.