The past few months have seen a wave of ugly attacks portraying the LGBTQ community as “groomers”, people and parents out to prey on and corrupt children. Well, I grew up in this community and consider myself much better for it.
I am the son of two homosexual mothers. The only harm I suffered actually came from the people who discriminated against us. Thanks to their efforts, I spent part of my childhood in hiding with my family. The experience had concrete and painful effects.
It’s almost easy to forget now with the legalization of same-sex marriage, widespread celebrations of pride, and the growing portrayal of different sexualities and gender identities in the media, that for decades homophobia was universal. People whose expressions of love or self differed from the norm were often forced to hide who they were. It was so mundane, we even had this understated euphemism for it – the closet. But make no mistake, the pain caused by this system was extraordinary.
My experience with the closet was unusual. I’m a straight man, so in many ways it’s not my story to tell. However, I am an example of how the damage caused by decades of discrimination against the LGBTQ community was greater than many realize. Families from all walks of life have been affected – and it has touched deeply. So, although the LGBTQ community has become more accepted in recent years, I fear that we put aside these past experiences, that there is not always enough attention given to the magnitude of the impacts of the homophobia. It is important that we remember.
Today, estimates vary, but it is clear that millions of children are growing up in loving and happy gay families. When I was born in 1984, it was very different. My situation was unusual.
While my parents lived openly at home, one of my mothers worked at a big company in Manhattan. She was in the closet from her job and felt it was necessary to keep it. She was probably right. Years later, I can’t imagine the pressure she must have been under every day, especially back when we had to come up with elaborate tricks to deal with potential emergencies. If I visited him at his office, my mother would tell my colleagues that I was his nephew. I remember how much it hurt to be part of that hideout, and yet for her it must have been so much worse.
Our openness at home, however, meant that everyone at school knew our family. But meanwhile, being out brought its own set of problems. For me, as a kid, that meant getting into fights. There was this nagging feeling of being constantly discussed and looked at as the child of two women. This meant not being invited to a certain friend’s house and not knowing why until I overheard that his parents called my mothers “perverts”.
One day in kindergarten, we made Thanksgiving decorations. I vividly remember seeing the two vice principals at my school pointing fingers at me and laughing at me. They said it was no surprise that I was “dirty” because of my family. A classmate teamed up with a teacher to ask repeated technical questions about my birth, questions that seemed repetitive and intrusive. Even with many caring and welcoming friends, I couldn’t help knowing that my family was not always welcome.
Sometimes the barriers to acceptance were official. When my sister was born, she spent time in the intensive care unit, where some hospital staff did not want either of my mothers and I to see my sister. My parents did all sorts of complicated paperwork, but we weren’t technically family — after all, it would take nearly three decades for them to be legally married.
In college, when I changed schools, I decided it was time for me to be the one in the closet. I really wanted to take a break from the tension of being different. But hiding my family came with its own set of hassles. I told everyone who met her that one of my mothers was an “aunt”. It hurt to say it. The lies were accompanied by lingering fears of being found out. Would I lose friends? What if I brought a girl home? What questions would she have?
This all happened in New York, which already had a large and thriving LGBTQ community. But when we left the city for less welcoming territory, I knew we had to be on our guard, watching what we were doing and saying. An uncle of mine lived in Texas, and during one of our visits there, I saw a large sign outside a church condemning “homosexuals.” Anti-gay comments were a regular part of casual conversation. Sometimes I spoke up. On other occasions, it was safer and easier to stay back.
The stress aggravated by these situations was intense. It cost me dearly. Of course, I also know that I was relatively lucky. As a straight man, my experience of confinement and anti-gay discrimination had a clear limit. On my own, I could transition into the straight world and let go of some of the constant baggage, worry, and calculation that simple life required for my LGBTQ family and friends.
Gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming people have experienced far worse and more direct violence and discrimination than I have. My mothers were active members of the larger LGBTQ community. They had several gay, lesbian and transgender friends who meant a lot to me over the years. From many of them, I heard overwhelming stories of families or religious groups fleeing them. Some would not speak of these experiences. Instead, they showed the impact with distant stares and cut silence.
And of course there was the more intimate violence exerted on the community. This included gay bashing and even self-destruction that was, at times, a consequence of the trauma of living a life that was simply not accepted. I’ve seen too many people I love take the anger they feel from being pushed back on themselves.
During my childhood in the late 80s and early 90s, these personal struggles took place against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. One of the most horrific examples of the inequity facing the LGBTQ community is the fact that the explosion of HIV and AIDS has taken a generation of gay men from our midst as public health authorities dismissed as a “cancer of homosexuals”. In my family, we have lost a handful of friends to the virus. Some of them even died alone due to the stigma around the disease and the breakdown of family relationships.
These losses have been slowed by the arrival of new drug treatments that have both prevented the spread of HIV and enabled people to live with the virus. One of my mother’s friends, Gary, was one of the lucky ones who survived long enough to be helped by modern drug cocktails. However, a few years ago he fell ill and his immune system failed. He was a gardener and an artist who made beautiful hand-fired ceramics. I think of him when I see vases he made or trees he planted. It’s a bittersweet reminder of the lingering impact of this past pandemic.
I recently had to share some of the content of this essay on Twitter due to the wave of proposed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in several states that would ban educators from discussing gender identity and sexuality. sexual orientation in schools. This push has been accompanied by vicious rhetoric portraying LGBTQ people as a danger to children. The rhetoric – and the possibility of more children feeling unwelcome in school – reminded me of the dark days my generation and our parents went through. It seemed like we needed a concrete reminder of what we would lose if all of this progress backtracked.
After I posted my experience on Twitter, I was asked to write this essay. For weeks I hesitated.
I’m a journalist by profession and talking about my own experiences and points of view makes me uncomfortable. Rather than sharing opinions, I prefer to stay in the realm of objective truth. Also, I’m a straight person, and this is first and foremost a queer story. The focus should always be on the voices within the community. However, I thought we had done more to put all questions about the basic acceptance of the LGBTQ community behind us. This should not be up for debate. And I think my story is a helpful example of how it is discrimination rather than acceptance that causes real harm to children.
While the general society’s reluctance to accept LGBTQ people led to painful experiences in my childhood, being part of this community taught me a lot. It gave me strength and joy. Experiencing discrimination first-hand – and seeing its lasting scars – has made me more empathetic. I also consider it an honor to have been able to experience gay culture in a community that, even through intense discrimination and enforced secrecy, was able to create a separate world where art and humor thrived. The community that my family was a part of and that I was able to experience let the rage of repression explode into joyful release, creating a culture and a movement that, yes, has managed to forge its way to much more acceptance , but also showed me as a child then and as a man now that no one should feel less of a person because of who they choose to love, what they choose to wear or how they express themselves. And no child should be afraid or isolated at school because of who their parents are.
Indeed, we must appreciate the victories. It’s part of what Pride Month is all about. But it’s important not to forget how we got here or how easy it can be to slip back.
Hunter Walker is from Brooklyn, NY He has written for a wide variety of websites, including the New Yorker, rolling stone, New York magazineand Atlantic.
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