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When Your Daughter Or Son Comes Out

“My son is gay.”

Over the years, friends have spoken those words.

“My daughter is gay.”

Some spoke so low I could barely hear.  Some cried.

Can this reaction stem from homophobia?  Absolutely.  Is homophobia the only power-source for this reaction?  Absolutely not.

Sometimes parents need time to adjust.  My friends knew that the problem was in their assumptions, not in their daughter’s or son’s sexuality.  These people are loving parents, LGBTQ+ allies.  In fact, one couple — shaken and tearful — is same-sex.

When we meet our children either at birth or at adoption, we bring a book’s worth of unconscious expectations.  Sooner or later, our kids tend to kick those assumptions to the ground.  Two super-athletes produce a poet; two physicists sire a basketball player; two straight parents raise a gay child; two gay parents raise a straight child.

As moms and dads, we find that different issues derail us. One musician is fine with a gay son, but horrified when he wants to be a surgeon instead of a violinist like his dad. A Republican mom brags about her surgeon daughter, but is appalled when the young woman votes a Democratic ticket. An English professor is proud of his Democratic son, but deeply ashamed when he drops out of a prestigious Ph.D. program to become a chef. When our children catch us by surprise, we lose our balance.

At that point, a complex and nuanced journey begins. The first steps toward resolution lie in accepting that as parents, we are unfailingly human. We need to have a bit of empathy for ourselves as emotionally ungainly, intellectually clunky. Our initial reactions may be politically incorrect, or even clash against our own core values – not necessarily because we are bad people, but because we are irrevocably human.

The problem is not when adjustments are challenging, or even excruciating. The problem is not when a surprise brings us to tears. Rather, the problem is when parents refuse to adjust. When parents get stuck in their initial reaction, their mindset can cause a rupture in their relationship to their child. The problem worsens when parents try to shove the responsibility onto their children — try to force their son to squelch down an important part of his identity, their daughter to recreate herself in the image of parental expectations.  The problem is not when an adjustment is needed; the problem is when the need is ignored.

We’re all emotionally imperfect. We can be decent to the bone, and still shock ourselves, ambushed by our “wrong” feelings. However, once we recognize our feelings, we can adjust and change. Owning those feelings — even the feelings that are ugly — is a crucial part of human decency, and of parental love.  All of my friends reconfigured their views of their daughters and sons, to match their children’s true selves.

Development is a lifelong process. We help our children grow, and they help us do the same. When they surprise us, we may react in a ways that cause damage. We can get stuck in hurt and anger, or we can stop, regroup, and begin the process of forgiving each other.

Forgiveness is an essential piece of this process, as is apologizing for the hurt we cause those we love.  Parents, there’s no shame in apologizing to your daughters and sons; in fact, there’s tremendous integrity. If your initial reaction to your child’s coming out is hurtful, please do apologize. If you need help getting past your reaction, allow your sons and daughters to guide you. Your children may be angry at you, feeling you let them down when they most needed support; you may be angry at them, for waiting this long to tell you something so important, or for shaking up your view of them. Sometimes, we all need to stretch to find forgiveness – forgiveness of ourselves for our wrongness, of our parents for their mistakes, of our children for knocking us to our knees.

My advice: Turn to each other, keep working, call a friend for perspective, talk to a professional.  If you feel stuck, push forward. Don’t give up.

When you’re ready, even if you’re a work-in-progress, place your arms around each other’s shoulders — poet, lesbian, surgeon, straight, chef, Republican, scientist, professor, gay, athlete, Democrat.

Daughter, Father, Son, Mother.



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No Big Deal

Preparing to publish my first novel (Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable), I searched for the correct genre.

Although sex and sexuality play key roles in the story, there are no descriptions of steamy foreplay, not one pounding orgasm. A few lose their virginity, but the act occurs off camera, conspicuously minus the DirtyDancing-esque scene where “Baby” loses IT to her dance instructor in a miraculous first experience: no awkwardness, no nervousness, no pain, smoothly choreographed from tender start to climactic finish.  So forget Romance and Erotica genres.

As for Paranormal — no character turns out to be a vampire, werewolf or zombie.  The protagonists, antagonists, stars and supporting players are unmistakably human. No Family-Genus-Species variety, whatsoever.

While the book takes place in the 1973-’74 school year (ancient history from the perspective of today’s adolescents), it does not qualify as Historical Fiction. And although Caroline (the protagonist) experiences Hollywood High as an alien world, the book does not merit Dystopia.

I wrote Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable in reaction to the violence I witnessed, targeting the gay students. I created the story in support of the LGBTQ+ community, and as a voice against bullying. The novel unfolds through the eyes of Caroline, a 15-year-old girl, a straight LGBTQ+ ally. Her friendship group is bound by personal connections, rather than an are-you-gay-or-straight litmus test. Her inner circle includes boys and girls, from differing religious and socio-economic backgrounds, racially and sexually diverse.

Like many adults, I remember my high school years with high-voltage clarity: how the asphalt in Hollywood High’s quad became sticky in the heat – how we were incapable of stringing together a sentence without cursing – how the hallway walls reverberated with high volume as we herded from one class to another – how we forced ourselves to appear absolutely certain, although we felt absolutely confused all the time.  I remember the first time I saw blood in a gang fight, and the casually vicious hatred directed at the gay students. I also remember the gifted educators, role models for both education and decency, tireless in their dedication – and the students I met who showed an adolescent version of those same gifts.

The other day, a college freshman told me he liked my book, but was puzzled by the Gay and Lesbian genre. He hadn’t thought of the story as focusing on LGBTQ+ issues. He’s quite right, in that Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable is a story about decency and friendship. It’s about the dangers of unchecked bigotry. No huge division exists between the gay and straight characters. Both are presented as equally important and entirely normal — or in the words of my young friend, “no big deal.”

My novel is listed on Amazon as Literary Fiction, Coming of Age, Gay and Lesbian, Young Adult.  When my readers finish my novel, their most common questions (aside from Did-That-Really-Happen?) address genre. How can the category be Gay and Lesbian when there are so many straight characters? Why is the main character straight, but the plot has so many gay and lesbian issues?  Is my “target group” of readers gay or straight?

I hope that some day, if Gay and Lesbian remains a genre, the category will exist due to human interest, not due to the marginalization of a group. People are much too nuanced for simplified categories, and marginalizing is always a terrible mistake, damaging and hurtful on every level, for all of us.

Perhaps some books are meant for a clear “genre.” But some won’t easily fit into a category, and it seems my book is one of those.  What’s my genre? All of the above…and I have no idea. Or maybe, in this case, it’s “no big deal.”

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Speak Gay With Pride

“It’s so gay.”

Proper delivery mandates an exaggerated disdain, smirking recommended, condescension required.

The speaker is cool; the it is not; the gay most certainly is not.

As a mother of three – one middle teen, one older teen and one young adult – I’ve heard that expression more times than I care to count.  Not from my kids, but from their friends, all during high school.  These otherwise domesticated boys (I have never heard a girl speak those words) were invariably taken aback when I told them that phrase was banned from my home.

Reactions ran the gamut.

One young man was puzzled: “You mean you don’t allow the word gay?”

Another stared as my son explained that curse words didn’t bother his mother.  “You can say sh—“ he offered helpfully, “but not that phrase.”  “Why?” his friend was incredulous.  “Because it equates the word gay with a put-down.”  The boy looked genuinely confused. “Really? Are you sure?”

A third boy gaped as my son spelled out his mom’s language requirements.  His friend swallowed hard, and asked if he could stay while I helped my son with a project.  This boy sat still for the next two hours, staring at me, and looking quickly away whenever I met his eyes.  He accepted a glass of water, and thanked me so effusively that his gratitude clearly had nothing to do with his drink.

Another boy used that expression to mock a classmate.  When I stopped him, he told me he had never respected a parent more.  He refused all future invitations to visit, and I never saw him again.

A friend of my daughter’s was well aware of the house rules.  He periodically made a self-conscious show of using the forbidden phrase, and then apologizing profusely. When I told him I’d had enough, he thanked me.

But I first heard the most prevalent response from two tenth-graders.  One bravely challenged me, “Why do you care?  You’re not even gay.”  The other shot him a like-duh look, and turned to me, blushing deeply; “I’m really sorry; I didn’t know you were gay.”

In the 1940s, in the wake of World War II, terms of contempt targeted the Japanese  — in the ‘50s, in the Hollywood radical crowd, It’s so bourgeois — in the ’60s, It’s so square — in the ‘70s, It’s so retarded — in the ‘80s, It’s so lame. And in the ‘90s, He’s/She’s such a girl.

I wonder what’s next, the up-and-coming insult that will sweep the nation.

“It’s so gay.”

Those words pepper the speech of adolescents.  Some have no idea what they’re saying.  Some hope to be stopped and redirected.  Some are experimenting with the feel of the words.  Some are deliberately cruel. Some are testing the “it’s not my problem” approach to issues beyond their limited parameters.

Whoever these young men may be, whatever motivates them, we parents have a responsibility.  We correct our children when they forget to say “please” and “thank you.”  As they grow older, we correct them when they say “who” instead of “whom.”  We need to step up and step in.  Gay is an adjective, not an insult.

And what about empathy?  According to the unwritten rules, if I stand up for a targeted group, I must be a member.  If homophobia disturbs me, I must be gay.  And if I were, my stance would become more understandable, and more easily dismissed.

I am deeply gratified that my sons and daughter are comfortable bringing their friends to our home.  I enjoy talking to these vibrant young people, with ideas and perspectives that broaden my own.  I appreciate that they speak freely, while offering warmth and respect. However, we all know my place in their community: I’m the “Odd Mom.”   “Odd” is the parent who is comfortable with random curse words, but who will not allow put-downs regarding race, religion, gender, physical attributes, mental capacity, or sexuality.  An odd definition of odd.

I’ve accepted that I’m viewed as strange. If my brand of odd turns out to be the new up-and-coming insult, I’ll speak odd with pride.

Until then, let’s speak gay with pride.


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Tabasco Sauce

When my father died in 2009, I knew what to expect.  I’d been a psychotherapist for decades, and helped countless patients through deaths of loved ones.  I figured my appetite would turn strange, and my sleep would go haywire. I’d be sad and tearful (though always at appropriate moments, since my professional expertise would allow me to plan ahead). I reminded myself of the writings of Kubler-Ross, and was quite familiar with the stages of grief.  I was ready, and I knew what was coming.

I was wrong.

I confounded myself with my grieving process, taking myself by surprise at every turn.  I cried when I knew I’d be fine.  I was calm when I knew I’d break down.  I was exhausted after sleeping, and alert when I should have been wiped out. Suddenly, my favorite activity was laundry; I loved the soothing rhythm of the cycles, sometimes reading quietly on the floor, comfortably nestled against the washing machine. I couldn’t attend Oakland A’s baseball games — an activity my family enjoyed together — because the sounds of the crowd literally made me jump. My appetite wasn’t strange; it was alien. Even water tasted different. As for Kubler-Ross — I was Angry when I should have been in Denial, serene in Acceptance when I should have been Bargaining. Someone had dumped my orderly Stages of Mourning into a blender.

But my biggest problem was Tabasco Sauce.  My three children liked Ketchup.  My  husband and I liked hot mustard. In my favorite neighborhood market, to get from Ketchup to mustard, I needed to walk past Tabasco Sauce.  My father loved Tabasco Sauce, poured it on everything except ice cream. For months after he died, I couldn’t shop for condiments without breaking into tears.

As I stumbled through months of grieving, my husband offered to take over my usual household tasks.  But retaining a semblance of normalcy felt steadying, so I insisted on continuing my routine. It worked well…except for the market.  On that, he stepped in, so I wouldn’t have to look Tabasco Sauce in the eye.

Each morning I’d steel myself to face the day. I’d open my eyes and whisper, “This is my first (…second…thirty-fifth…) day without a father.” Then I’d buck up and get up — my new morning ritual.

When a friend’s father recently died, I thought carefully, searching for words of comfort and wisdom.  But what I ended up telling her was not from a book or an article.  What I said had nothing to do with years of professional experience as a psychotherapist. Instead, I offered the most heartfelt support I knew – from my own muddling through.

I told her that she could plow through every psychiatric treatise written on How-To-Travel-The-Path-Of-Healthy-Mourning — but bottom line: the experience would be spectacularly weird. I advised her to shelve dignity temporarily, because something as ridiculous as Tabasco Sauce might become the core of her grieving process. I said that the one thing she could count on was the unexpected. I explained that no matter how old the parent, no matter what medical conditions were on board, the finality of death would be an absolute shock. I said that whatever her level of eloquence under normal circumstances, the pain would be so searing it would defy language. I prepared her that no matter her age, she’d feel like an orphan.

But I also comforted her with the truth: Although at first she’d feel anything but lucky, in fact she was, as was I – we both lost our fathers well into our adulthood. One morning, for no clear reason, she’d stop counting her days without a father. Even though she’d initially feel broken, somewhere down the road, she’d think of her dad with warmth, not pain.

And she’d know when the deepest healing was in place, because she’d pull a bottle of Tabasco Sauce off the shelf, toss it in her cart and move forward, steady and strong.


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Everyone Can Be An Ally

I was born in 1958, to heterosexual parents.  I grew up in a home where gay and straight folks sat side by side at dinner parties.  Friendships formed around personal and intellectual connections.

I never gave it a thought, until third grade.

In a kickball game, a girl I’ll call “Susannah” crushed the ball and drove in three runs.  “Cory,” admired even by the fifth graders for his spectacular use of profanity, shouted a new insult.  I asked my mother what it meant; “It’s a rude, ignorant word for a gay man.”  I looked up, puzzled; “What’s gay?”  My parents never categorized people by sexuality, but that day, my vocabulary expanded to include “gay,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “homosexual” and “heterosexual.”

High school was an eye-opener.  The atmosphere radiated an edgy tension, with gang violence always ready to erupt.  The gay students were targeted continuously.  One day, a girl nudged me as a tall, thin boy walked by, frothy blond hair down his back.  “The jocks beat him up last week,” she whispered.  “He was in the hospital for three days.”  She skipped off to class.  A month later, she again took my elbow.  “Remember the blond guy?  I heard he died.  Beaten to death.  The jocks.”  She smiled sweetly, and shrugged.  “Who cares, one less—“ and she used the word I learned in third grade.

I cried that night.  I had no words to explain my tears for a boy I never knew, the possible victim of a piece of gossip that might not be true.  I promised myself that some day, I would write a book about that boy.  I would not allow my readers to be indifferent.  I would name the book after my high school, and its motto.

Years later, my husband and I were raising our children in Mill Valley, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and I began to write.  I created gay and lesbian characters.  I surrounded them with supporters who rallied for them, shoulder to shoulder, triumphing over a judgmental world.

I completed the final edits in 2008, and prepared to publish.

A few months later, I voted on the losing side of Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage. My reaction to the election was odd: I stopped publication of my book.  Something was wrong, and I was still figuring it out when my family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  I was pleased to live in a beautiful area, with such respect for education.  Then with a nauseating sense of déjà vu, I found myself voting on the losing side of Amendment 1, which prohibited gay marriages and civil unions.

The next morning, I knew how to fix my novel.  I had portrayed the road to full acceptance for the LGBTQ+ characters as much too smooth.  I rewrote the story, rebuilt the road, offered avenues for people of differing mindsets to become Allies.  As I promised myself back in 1973, I wrote about that blond boy, whose name I never knew.  I called my novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable.

I hope my book will be read by people who feel ready to question their own beliefs, who want to become more accepting but don’t know how.  There’s a path for everyone to become an ally.  All you have to do is take the first step.

You’ll find me waiting for you.

“Everyone Can Be An Ally” was first published in September, 2013, by the Chapel Hill News.

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For Those Who Love To Read…Or Not

Until age 7, reading was my secret.

Within the community of my ‘60s artsy elementary school, reading before 2nd grade was considered hazardous, a threat to free-flowing creativity.  The teachers loudly praised Willy’s talent with a paintbrush, Marsha’s coordination in dance, Jeff’s gift at charades, Lorelei’s ability to sing.  I wasn’t about to advertise my embarrassingly persistent craving for books.

Today there seems to be an unofficial Race To Read, with parents of preschoolers urging their toddlers to sound out Dr. Seuss. But decades ago, in my private grammar school, filled with film industry offspring, academic learning was viewed as a potential block to the artistic process.

My “unhealthy enjoyment” of math had already raised red flags in first grade. So I wrote my own math books at home, and stashed the worksheets in my T-shirt drawer. I had no difficulty hiding my admiration for the balance of numbers on either side of the equal sign, my awe at the concept of infinity.  I liked math and I respected math; but I wasn’t in love.

Reading was different.  I needed to read.  I grew up in a home with tens of thousands of books, and I tried (and failed) to read all of them. I raided my parents’ shelves for their cache of children’s literature.  I tread the paths of The Secret Garden, explored The South with Huck Finn, smiled through The World of Pooh.

Finally, I reached age 7, the magic number: I could officially learn to read at school. My teacher wrote on the chalkboard — “Cat” “Hat” “Bat” “Rat.” I reminded myself to reign it in. If I sat quietly, then maybe in a month, I could visit the school’s library. Maybe, if I got really lucky, my teacher wouldn’t get mad if I checked out a chapter book.  Nobody had to know I’d been reading for years.

Then Hope raised her hand. “How do you spell ‘girl’?” Before I remembered, I heard myself answer, “G-I-R-L.”  The class stared.

“How long have you been reading?” my teacher asked quietly.

My lower lip trembled, and I couldn’t speak, imagining the worst possible punishment: she’d forbid me from reading. But my teacher was kind. In spite of her concern that my creative potential had been compromised – a concern that would follow me through graduation – she hugged my shoulders.  “It’s okay,” she calmed me. “These things happen sometimes.” I melted into her arms.  I was flawed, but forgiven.

Over the next month, she fed me Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series.  I forged ahead with Nancy Drew and her astonishing life, stumbling into a new mystery every day of the week – all with enviable blonde hair, two ever-present girlfriends who were unfailingly content in her shadow, and an uber-hunky boyfriend who worshipped her and then conveniently disappeared from the text until his presence was required for a date, a prom, or a moment of adoration. From the girl-sleuth, I launched into A Wrinkle In Time, The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes, and the list continues to this day.

I emerged from hiding. I could finally publicly admit my fascination with a curious phenomenon: black print on white paper could take me by the heart, or by the throat, and pull me into an intensely emotional journey, cover to cover.

As an adult, when I began to write my first novel, I was told that with the advent of texting, instant messaging, Snapchat, and All-Things-Tech, many teenagers were no longer interested in books.

I accept that as a challenge.

If I’m going to call myself a writer, then I’m responsible for creating a novel that compels people to read. It’s my job to write each sentence in a way that propels the reader into the next sentence. I wrote my book for adults and teens, for book lovers, and for those who have never made it through a novel. I hope all types of readers and potential readers will give my book a chance.  If you provide an open mind, then I’ll provide the story. Once you read the first paragraph, you can choose to try the second paragraph, or you can put it away forever. If I don’t catch your interest, the fault is mine, not yours.

Maybe you won’t like the book; maybe you will.  Or maybe you’ll fall in love, and step into a lifetime of literary journeys.  What have you got to lose?  The downside is a bit of your time; the upside is infinite.

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A Real Couple

In 2004, Gavin Newsom (San Francisco’s Mayor) became a soldier for marriage equality.  For a brief window of time, before lesbian and gay marriages were temporarily shut down, same-sex couples obtained licenses and exchanged vows throughout California.  My husband and I were living in Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and we attended two weddings during that pivotal period.

Hillary and Kathy walked down the aisle wearing classic black suits. My husband sang an a cappella Hebrew prayer. The wedding took place before fifty people, in a restaurant, with many guests participating in the ceremony.  I was honored to officiate, standing under a huppa (a hand-stitched canopy).  Hillary stomped on a glass, and Mazel Tov filled the room. People heaped their plates from the buffet, and mingled on the deck.

A few weeks later, Trixie dressed in a traditional wedding gown; her bride, Carla, wore a tux. They were married by a judge, in City Hall, with a sit-down dinner for 200 guests.  They walked down the aisle to The Crystals, “Going To The Chapel.” Carla led Trixie through the first dance, replete with twirls and dips.  They invited “anyone who is married, who couldn’t marry before” to join them. Five couples walked onto the dance floor, two gay, three lesbian. Nobody dancing, not a single person, grew up expecting to marry.  Not one of them took this moment for granted.  The quality of joy was elemental.

At a certain point, both couples toasted their guests.  Curiously, these women, so different in style, chose the exact same words.  “We want to thank all of you for always treating us like a real couple.”

As a straight woman, I never experienced the casual chipping away at the spirit, being treated as less than a full person, less that a real couple.  Now, two couples, four fine people, stood empowered before their loved ones, celebrating their unions, finally recognized as real.

Today, nearly two decades later, both of these couples remain together and strong. I carry their weddings within me, the validation they experienced, the empowerment. They were a part of history, today’s yesterday, two real couples paving the way for a better tomorrow.

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