"Did I Make My Mother Gay?" by Meredith Fenton, audio transcript:
Flashback—20 years. I'm slowly dipping my toe into the lesbian waters of my women's college. I have left the expectations and mediocrity of my hometown, and have leapt madly away from the “country's most normal city” and into a sparkly non-binary pile of new normals.
It felt like everyone was gay at women's college. At least a little bit.
There was Nicole, the Southern Femme Grateful Dead-lover who wore a hat that says “I can't even think straight.” Or the Jewish asexual who all of a sudden started dressing like and then dating the autosexual across the hall. Or the Korean self-identified nerd with a penchant for other nerds.
I wasn't all that worried about what the future would bring, or even coming out quite frankly. I was just enjoying being free.
My mother figured it out pretty quickly. Maybe because I stopped going off campus to fraternity parties at MIT and started playing rugby. She'd ask all kinds of leading questions, and when I brought up the name of my first girlfriend, she'd say things like, “Oh Mari…I sure seem to be hearing her name a lot..”
Or she'd asked hypotheticals about what someone would do if they wanted to bring a girl to a dance on campus.
I let her ask her questions knowing exactly what she wanted to know, but not feeling ready to give it to her. My queerness was mine in a way that nothing in my childhood had been. I had always been defined by other people's expectations, and my struggle to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student and the perfect person. I wanted to be able to define this part of my identity for myself. And I thought that telling my parents felt like a crossroads where other people would start making meaning of my identity without my input or control.
I was going to tell them. I just wasn't in a hurry.
At the end of the year, I had only been home from college for a day or two when my parents sat me down for a talk. I assumed they wanted to talk about “it.”
I barely listened as my parents started talking—readying myself for them to ask if I had indeed started playing for the other team. But then I realized their speech wasn't about me at all. They were actually informing me that they'd be getting a divorce. It was only the second time in my life I ever saw my father cry.
I was surprised, but not shocked. My parents being together had always seemed like a matter of fact, rather than a matter of passionate love. They didn't fight all that much, but no one in my family did. We didn't really do conflict. And I had never really considered that they might someday not be together. I had been so focused on my own news and my own process that I had to shift gears to really digest the information.
A few days later, I finally came out to my mother as we drove across central Illinois toward a big outlet mall an hour or so away. We were on our way there because my mom had decided I might need a suit for all the job interviews she was sure I’d have in my senior year of college.
Mom, in her therapist way, said, “You've been quiet about the divorce. Do you have any questions?”
“I don't know. Are you a lesbian?” I stuttered. Why I asked this, I still don't really understand. But she avoided the question and asked, “Are you?”
Well, it all came spilling out.
“Well, you know, not a lesbian, really? I mean, yes and no. I mean, I don't really like labels, because gender doesn't matter. And I'm not going to love a person for their gender. But yes, I've had a few girlfriends even though now I'm single and…”
Her loving response matched the patience and kindness she had shown while testing her suspicions all year. Yet a few hours after my coming-out ramblings, when she told me that indeed she was in a relationship with a woman, I was shocked. I don't think my weird question came from a psychic sense about my mom; it was more about my own anxiety around coming out than it was having any inkling that my mom was on a similar journey.
I can't remember having ever wondered about my mom's sexuality before that day, but it was pretty easy to accept her new relationship and identity. Perhaps it was all the Audre Lord and Leslie Feinberg and Cherrie Moraga I had read that year, but I kind of felt like everyone was kind of gay. So anyone could come out at any second.
This conversation brought my mom and me closer in many ways, although the next several months showed me how different our experiences would continue to be.
My coming out was filled with events called the Dyke Ball and rugby after-parties all-women casts of Shakespeare and watching The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. No one batted an eye when you started dating a girl at women's college, and you could take entire classes on feminism and queer literature, and write papers about the Jewish lesbian experience.
My mom's coming out was filled with silences—awkward conversations with longtime friends, forced job changes and secrets. I knew for certain about my mother months and months before the rest of my family. I always felt bad for keeping the information from my siblings. But I also couldn't imagine what being a lesbian was actually like for my mother. So I stayed quiet.
I rejoiced that I had come out so early. Coming out for me was filled with flirtations and innocent firsts and access to a whole new culture, and a community that was filled with political rigour and subversive realities.
I knew it wasn't that way for my mom. So I shouldn't have been so judgy about the onslaught of the rainbow.
My mom had always been a really excellent care-package sender. For years and years when I went to Jew camp, my mail deliveries were the envy of all—they’d be filled with candy and Jewish tchotchkes and little things to survive the heat and the mosquitoes. Now, all of a sudden, my college mail got a little queerer. First, it was the world's smallest little pride ring necklace. Then a matted watercolor art of a rainbow with calligraphy of the blessing you say in Hebrew upon seeing a rainbow. Then there was the signed copy of Chaz Bono's book—on and on the onslaught continued accompanied by loving and supportive cards and updates.
At the time, it felt kind of like she was living vicariously through me. She might have still been fairly closeted, but she could encourage me to be a rainbow-attired, loud and proud homosexual.
But now I realize it was also just an extension of her enthusiastic stage-mother ways—she was ready to cheer her children on—no matter their endeavor.
One weekend, mom and her now-wife went to Provincetown, and a few friends and I met them there. They were staying at a little bed and breakfast, raving about the gay couple who made the food. Mom rented us a little studio apartment nearby.
We went out to dinner at a fancy-ish place with an ocean view. It was in the offseason and the nights got dark early. Mom and her wife were thrilled beyond belief to be somewhere where they could actually hold hands on the street. I realized just how rare that was for them.
That spring, I started my job search. I don't even think I wore the interview suit we had bought a year earlier even once. In fact, I'm pretty sure I did the phone interview for the internship I ended up getting while pacing around my dorm room trying to sound smart, but I wasn't even wearing pants.
The organization was COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), who I'd written to along with about 30 other nonprofit organizations that worked on women's and/or youth issues in San Francisco. I wasn't exactly sure how to get a job from 3000 miles away (this was long before the internet as we know it existed). So I sent off these form letters about my experience with youth and activism and hoped for the best.
COLAGE was the only organization I wrote to who requested an interview with me. They invited me to talk on the phone about a summer internship program. So during that pantless phone interview, I'm pacing back and forth talking about my camp counselor experience, how I'd been a youth group advisor, a student leader, the social chair of the LGBTQ group on campus. And then Felicia, the executive director at the time, told me a little bit about the organization, the kids they worked with and what the internship would look like. At the very end of the interview, she gave me the standard, “So is there anything else you'd like to ask or add?”
“Well”, I began, “about a year ago, my mom actually came out as a lesbian. So I'm thinking maybe this work could be interesting because of that, too.”
“Why didn't you say anything?!” Felicia exclaimed, sounding flabbergasted.
I tried to explain that I just couldn't imagine that there would ever be a group out there that was meant for me. I mean, I had grown up in this quote unquote, ‘normal town’ and was already an adult (in my eyes) when my mom told me she was in love with a woman. Plus, I was queer myself, so it just felt like I should automatically be fine with the whole lesbian mother situation. I figured that COLAGE was for kids who had really grown up with a gay parent, or had been born through a turkey baster or some other experience that I couldn't claim or relate to.
But I got the job and include me they did. And by doing so I found a world of community I didn't know existed, and up to that point I couldn't have imagined I would ever possibly need. I spent the summer interning then joined the board of directors before returning as a fulltime staff member four years later. I found my place among hundreds of other people with LGBTQ parents.
When I first started becoming a leader among the queerspawn, as we affectionately called ourselves, I was worried I was kind of a fraud. I mean, my mom had only been out for a matter of years, and most COLAGErs had been dealing with divorces or donor insemination or custody battles or a lack of protections for decades. But what I learned is that every single person who has or had an LGBTQ parent, even though the details of our individual stories may be different, there is something essential we share.
I learned so much from my queerspawn peers—about resiliency and hope that was honed from surviving bullying and surviving HIV and homophobia in custody battles. I learned that there are as many different kinds of families as there are snowflakes, and that each of them is worthy of respect for the ways they take care of each other, overcome intolerance, create new traditions and define what it means to be a family.
One year, I led a group of about 15 Bay Area teenagers through the creation of a poster series and art project. For our local art opening, I wanted to contribute my own piece of art. I ended up writing a children's story with illustrations called Sometimes Families Change. A friend attended the opening and the event photographer snapped a poignant shot of her reading my book while teary-eyed. It was a moment where I felt more deeply the power of my own journey, and my own story, and started to see that I was seen as a member of this group.
For nearly eight years, it was my job to be a queerspawn. My job was wrapped up in my identity which is wrapped up in my sense of family. The purpose I felt standing in solidarity among a diverse community of people with LGBTQ parents has been unparalleled in my professional life.
When it's your job to be the professional daughter of a lesbian, you can't help but think about your mom's sexuality quite frequently. When it came to my mother, I felt like I was leading our way into the queer experience in so many ways. But I also learned about queerness and women's herstories and life outside of the bubble from my mom and her wife and their friends.
She lived in a town where her neighbor—a city council person who lives three doors down, responded “Why should I? There aren't any gay people in my district” when asked if he would support a nondiscrimination ordinance. This was the same town where my stepmom was often told how nice it was that she had quote ‘that roommate’ to travel with. The same town where classrooms and school hallways are the sites of daily homophobia.
Hearing about my mom and her wife's experiences kept me humble, and helped me stay grounded in the realities facing LGBTQ communities outside of my bubble. Those lessons deepened my politicization, increased my respect for those who live at the margins, and gave me a way to develop a true adult relationship with my mother and her community.
And I did the same for her. Around the same time I became a professional queerspawn, I started performing drag and femme cabaret. My mom, once again, was my consummate number-one fan. And by coming to the shows I'd put on her world was expanded. They don't have drag king shows in Peoria, Illinois, especially not ones that are infused with body-positive, racially and gender diverse groups of folks using performance to talk about the war or safe sex or white privilege.
I think about the ways that LGBTQ parents often politicize their kids. I mean, so many of my peers in COLAGE talked about going out with their radical feminist mothers to Take Back the Night rallies, or being taken along to an underground drag show by their fairy godfather.
In my own journey, those roles were sometimes reversed. For example, about a decade ago, my mom came to visit to see the full-length drag musical I co-directed, which was a queer retelling of the Harry Potter stories. She brought her best friend from high school who coincidentally has also come out as a lesbian. After the show, she commented on how powerful it was to see such a diverse group of people demonstrate love for one another on stage. She was blown away by our willingness to talk about things like racism and cultural appropriation and fatness. Seeing the art I was creating through her eyes gave me a broader understanding of its meaning.
Dating trans masculine and genderqueer folks meant having all sorts of conversations with my mom and her wife about identity and binaries and the fluidity of it all. Even when this knowledge was new, she immediately landed on the side of acceptance and wanting to learn more. My mom even co-led a workshop about trans inclusion with an ex of mine at the Michigan Women's Music Festival.
I've pushed her on the painful and complicated truths of the occupation of Palestine. We've talked about the realities of racism and the queer community and the complicated victory that was marriage equality. She is someone I can always count on to listen to my more radical beliefs. And in my years working with LGBTQ families, I saw this mirrored through my peers. It was often the kids of queers who led their parents in conversations about what it would take to respond to the AIDS crisis, or cultural competency around gender identity. Perhaps younger generations are always a little more radical than their parents. When people learn I have a lesbian mom, their response is often something like, “Wow, that must have been so cool!” And while it has been cool, it isn't because of those immediate reasons that come to mind. It's not the case that I got to inherit queer cultural traditions from my mom. She had none to pass down.
But it has been cool. Not only because my coming out was probably easier than most. I always knew my mom would accept me even before she was gay. But because of our shared identity, she has been able to become a part of my life and my community in a deeper and more meaningful way. She has become a mom to many—often to friends of mine, whose own parents haven't been as accepting. She's the most active “liker” of all my friends’ content on Facebook, she's always donating to my friends’ crowd-funders and she cheers loudly at our shows. And through all of this, we've come into our own identities and queer long-term relationships, while forging a true and real relationship as adults.
For years, the biggest pushback to queers having kids was the assumption that they'd somehow make their kids gay. So I often joke about whether what they might say, in my case.
Did I make my mother gay? Although my siblings have accused me of turning our mom a time or two, I think that's just sibling humor. Because the truth is, it really doesn't matter. The world I want to live in is a world where everyone can be who they are, and love whom they love. And that both of those things can change, whether at the age of 20, or the age of 50, or many times over the course of a lifetime. Causality aside, I'm grateful. My journey and her journey, our journey has made us both who we are today, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Essay published in Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up With LGBTQ+ Parents, edited by Sadie Epstein-Fine and Makeda Zook (Bradford: Demeter Press, 2018), p. 125-132.