The envelope was labeled “Do not read until after I’m in school.” It sat, unnoticed during the morning rush to get to school. Late spring in Maine means that in addition to some color finally appearing on the landscape, school activities amp up, as do work projects. It’s a beautiful, hopeful, happy time of year. True to our routine, I drove Tim to school, chatting about everything and nothing. We planned to meet at his lacrosse game later that afternoon.
As I washed breakfast dishes before heading to my home office I noticed the note. Tim was and is a gifted writer who has often been more comfortable expressing himself in writing , so a note from him was not unusual. I opened it casually and started reading as I headed back to my office.
Unlike any other notes we exchanged, this one was a life changer. It began with Tim’s assurance that not only did he think I was doing a bang up job as his mother – this was his way of letting me know that my new status as a single mom was not scarring him for life – it also stated emphatically that he felt he was a happy, well-adjusted kid.
The next paragraph went straight to the heart of the matter. “I wanted to let you know that I’m gay.”
In order to understand the impact of Tim’s unequivocal declaration, some background is in order. From the second he came into this world, Tim has been unique. Because of his older sister’s complex medical issues – that’s another blog post altogether – a high risk neonatologist who was coincidentally a good friend attended Tim’s C-section delivery.
“Candace, there’s a problem,” he said, as my son was delivered from the neat slit through skin and muscle, blessedly shielded from my line of sight. “His ear is deformed. We can’t be sure if anything else is affected.”
“Does that mean he wouldn’t be able to go into the military?” I slurred in an anesthesia-induced haze, trying to make drugged up lemonade out of lemons.
After a battery of tests in the first weeks of his life, Tim was eventually diagnosed with hemifacial microsomia, a birth defect that varies in severity from minimal to profound, but usually presents with an ear deformity and facial asymmetry. Tim’s “Little Ear” looks a tiny, pink nautilus shell, sitting daintily under his dark brown curls, or in bold relief when he shaves his head. On that side he has no hearing, no ear canal, and no nerve conduction. His facial asymmetry seems no more noticeable than my own, other than a pair of charmingly mismatched nostrils.
Because children with hemifacial microsomia can have other medical and psychological problems, Tim saw a team of specialists at Boston Children’s Hospital from the time he was two. He was poked and prodded, questioned and tested. Tim was the kind of kid who never met a stranger. He was an early talker and reader, who loved engaging with the doctors, nurses, appointment secretaries and parking attendants during his hospital visits.
At one visit he was placed on a makeshift stage with his case manager and the cranio-facial doc in charge of his case. The small amphitheater was filled with doctors and med students from various specialties. To this day, I’m still a little surprised Tim didn’t go into acting as a career. This articulate, charismatic eight-year-old had the crowd spellbound with his smart, well-considered, and funny answers to their questions. He didn’t hesitate to amend the doctors’ remarks when he deemed it necessary.
From the beginning doctors told us that Tim could have an ear constructed from cartilage harvested from a rib or two. When he was eight, we visited two world-renowned ear docs famous for this delicate and somewhat risky surgery, one in New Hampshire and one in Los Angeles. We discussed the procedure with Tim, knowing that it was a huge commitment for all of us, but especially for him.
His conclusion was brilliant in its simplicity and showed us how comfortable Tim was in his own skin. “I’m not going to do the surgery. They can’t guarantee it will work. It will take at least three surgeries, and in the end, it’ll just be a fake ear. I won’t be able to hear. I’ll keep my Little Ear."
And so he did. From then on it was never an issue. Because he was so comfortable with himself, it made it easier for others, especially friends and classmates, to ask him about it. Early on he proudly labeled himself a mutant like his favorite comic book heroes, wearing his otherness like a badge of honor. I swear there were kids who met him who were jealous of his special ear.
Tim’s anomaly wasn’t the only thing that made him different than most of his peers. Though he was a big kid and reasonably well coordinated, he never really got into sports. He was the kid at T-ball the coach would put in the outfield, where he would commune with nature or check out patterns in the clouds. His favorite activities were reading and computers.
From his first day there, the small, progressive private school he attended was a place where, no matter his differences, Tim was made to feel accepted and valued. This was a school that celebrated otherness, a school where having two mommies or daddies was a non-event, where the geeks hung out with the jocks, where the school maintenance engineer was also a renowned poet. This was the perfect environment for my son to be exactly who he was, with enthusiasm and without fear.
In his coming-out note to me Tim assured me this wasn’t a phase. He was sure that being gay was who he was, as much as his eyes the color of Hersey kisses or his mop of brown curls, which over the years he had bleached and dyed and shaved but which always grew back in dark, loopy corona.
Because he was born empathetic and thoughtful, the note also referred me to several websites that would offer me advice on understanding my gay child if I felt I needed help. “Please don’t worry about me,” his note implored.
And yet, from that day to this, nearly two decades later, not a day goes by that I don’t worry about him and for him.
Some parents say: “Of course I knew my child was gay. I was just waiting for him to tell me.” I wasn’t that parent. While I wasn’t shocked at Tim’s news, I didn’t anticipate it. It sounds ridiculous now, but while I knew Tim marched to his own drummer, “gay” was not what I thought I saw. He was indifferent about his appearance. His room was a nightmare, dirty dishes vied for floor space with comic books, discarded lacrosse uniforms and underwear riddled with holes. My concept of a gay kid - fastidious in appearance and meticulous in all thing related to decor among other attributes - was embarrassingly flawed and stereotyped. Tim simply did not fit that tired cliche.
If I’m perfectly honest, Tim’s news was unwelcome in only one way. More than once I had asked myself the question: what would I do if either of my children told me he or she was gay? Asked and answered: I always felt that sexual preference was, in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal. Good health was at the top of my list. Compassion? Absolutely. Intelligence, a strong work ethic, and a good sense of humor – these were the things that were important to me, the things I wanted to see in my offspring. As for L, G, B, or T - it didn't really matter to me.
Except it did.
Because from the second I read his letter, my greatest concern was what kind of treatment Tim would experience as a gay man in our culture. I knew his life would be exponentially harder for him than it would be for his straight sister. I knew that as a gay man, he would have his heart broken by strangers - again and again. I knew he would experience hatred and violence. I knew that he would suffer discrimination of the most odious kind. I knew that he would get hurt.
I started this post last week – days before June 12, 2016, when a homophobic gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. This was to be a simple coming-out story, a tale of a mother’s love and pride for her extraordinary son. Instead, over the course of a day, it morphed into something darker.
In retrospect, my previous fears for Tim’s safety – and that of his husband, Jake, and legions of exceptional gay friends – pale when contrasted with the horror and scope of this event. They pale in light of the fact that homophobia is alive and well throughout the world. There are 10 countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. In Russia violence against homosexuals is on the rise with the tacit approval of the government.
And as fearful as I am for Tim, I am heartsick over the thousands of LGBT children who don't have the advantages that we as a privileged white family enjoy. The Orlando attack brought into harsh relief the fact that 80% of attacks on queer people happen to queer people of color. Almost 40% of the homeless youth population are gay or transgender. Nearly 60% of these LBGT young people will be sexually victimized during their homelessness. It is long past time that we acknowledge these appalling statistics and work to change them for the better.
We, as straight people, often talk about being allies, but it has become clear that this is not enough. We have to become advocates. Whether this is through appealing to our representatives, organizing in our communities, or offering our own mentorship, we need to do more than just stand by and encourage. We have to get in the game and take immediate action.
If you have a gay son or daughter, if you care for anyone in the LGBT community, the world has suddenly become a less safe, even more frightening place. The specter of random violence hangs over them like a pall. All LGBT people are at risk, but LGBT young people are in crisis and immediate danger.
The day after the Orlando massacre, Tim posted the following message on his Facebook page:
“One of many things to keep in mind today: every gay person you know has wondered at least once in their lives (and probably many more times than that) 'what if?'
“What if the 'pranks' at school go too far? What if I tell my parents (or sibling or best friend) and they can't handle it? What if I hold my significant other's hand in front of the wrong kind of nutjob? What if the guy I meet is actually some homophobic redneck who's just trying to lure me into his truck so he can drag me behind it? And now for good measure: what if some zealot decides to shoot up the club tonight?
“This month around the country we celebrate Pride, because we're proud of who we are, we're proud of how far we've come and because we're proud to have survived.”
Today and every day for the rest of my life, I celebrate the man my son is. I celebrate the LGBT community and their struggle, which they have taken up with courage, passion, and dedication without sacrificing their essential humanity. I celebrate their humor in the face of adversity, their style, their ingenuity, and their resilience.
I stand with them as they face an uncertain future, ready to support them on their journey.
I stand with them until they no longer have to ask “what if?”