Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"I am the mother of an orthodox gay young man."


I recently received the following letter from a mom.  Please read her story.  It's all too familiar.
But she has a great idea.  Let me know your thoughts.
Be well.

SD

Although in the beginning I felt I lived in an alternative universe, I have learned that my story is not unique.  So I send you my story in the form of a letter as a way to connect to other mothers and fathers who are just beginning to navigate the uncharted land we religious parents of gay children inhabit.

I am the mother of an orthodox gay young man who came out to us a few years ago after many years of dealing on his own with the reality of his life. Needless to say, during the years when he was grappling with how he would lead his life while trying to keep it from us, even to protect us, our relationship with him was strained. There was a gulf between us, and while we didn’t suspect the reason for it, it disturbed us greatly. He never wanted to talk about dating, marriage or, in fact, anything that would give us any real information about his life. To every probing question we posed we got a vague response. We suspected that he was no longer religious, but we certainly never suspected he was gay.
 
Of course he sensed the strain in our relationship. He knew we were concerned about him. But while he wanted to tell us the truth, he worried about what would happen to our family. Could we and would we accept who he really was and embrace him fully?
 
Finally when the yom tov visits home became intolerable, he had to tell us. 
So, on a beautiful, cloudless day that seemed to promise only happy things, he faced me and told me the real reason he had distanced himself from us. It was not a question of observance, but that he was gay. I remember looking at him in shock, not quite sure what I had heard. I was devastated. In that one moment, standing in the sunshine, my world shifted. Any expectation I had ever had for him as a husband and father was shattered. Any notion of who is gay or what kind of family that person would come from was obliterated from my mind. I was shaken and afraid, frightened for my son and what the world held for him, of course, but also frightened because I knew our lives would never be the same. I remember thinking, “How did this happen? How will I ever breathe again?”  I certainly didn’t think I would ever stop crying. Sleep evaded me for weeks. No one I knew could relate to this. There was no template for behavior or response in my community for such a revelation.  Yet, I loved him, and I knew that whatever the cost to our communal life, or the disconnect we might feel religiously, he was our son, and we would find a way to live with this.
 
Uncomfortable as we were, we were suddenly talking about all kinds of things. That wall of secrecy was down, and there was a mature adult talking openly about his life. Within a short time, my son told his siblings and they began the work of processing this new information and accepting him. But as good as their acceptance was in forging a more meaningful relationship with him and as happy as we were with the new communication that had opened up among us all, these things didn’t bring relief from the anxiety we faced each day when we would waken yet again to our new reality. And although my son insisted that there are many religious gay people in his world and although he remained observant, the Orthodox world we inhabit was not ready to deal with this openly. We knew no one in the same situation.  There was no one we could share this with. And there was grief, a grief we would have to muddle through on our own without the comfort of community.  We mourned the expectations and hopes we had to give up; we mourned the loss of our son’s expectations and the years he spent keeping this all to himself, and we dreaded the veil of secrecy that now surrounded our lives.
 
During the first weeks after my son came out, we read a great deal about homosexuality and Jewish attitudes towards it. It was not encouraging. We spoke to our rabbi who listened with sympathy and without judgment, but offered little help. We had long conversations with our kids, but there was no one else we could confide in. Often, I would start crying while in the middle of some task. I tortured myself with questions, possibilities. What would I do if someone found out? Now that I knew, how should I respond if someone asked me about him? What happens if he gets involved in a long term relationship? How can I live with this?
 
Yet from the very beginning, a great help in our struggle was the information my son gave us just a few days after he came out.  He told us to look at a blog written by an orthodox parent of a gay son. We read the Kirtzono blog from beginning to end that same night, and a new world opened to us. Sad and bereft as we were, we saw we were not completely alone. There was at least one other family facing the challenges that now shaped our lives. Through the blog we connected with Saul David and after several emails, he put us in touch with another family who had recently learned their son was gay.  This direct contact allowed us to start a meaningful conversation with each other. Their son had come out to them several months before so they were that much farther ahead in the coping process and could assure me that all the things I felt were normal and that despite the deep sorrow we felt, a day really would come when I would think about other things and be able to talk to my son about ordinary topics, when I wouldn’t cry in the supermarket line or feel desolate as I stood in shul on Shabbat, isolated and mute among my friends.
 
The knowledge that there are other people with the same issues has made an enormous difference in our lives. Years later we are still writing to one another. We cannot solve each other’s problems, yet we appreciate the emotional roller coaster of each other’s lives. She understands how my love for my son and my pride in the man he has become trumps all my previous notions. She knows the struggles he has faced and understands the courage he shows each day. Most importantly, I know she will get it when I say there are times when the sorrow comes flooding back again after months of coping if someone casually asks if he’s dating anyone or can they fix him up with this really great girl.

Thus, I make a modest proposal that this blog serve as a way for parents to make contact with one another, to establish a buddy system so that no parent feels s/he is alone following the disclosure that a child is gay. Perhaps we can develop a pairing of parents, so to speak, who are willing to communicate with one another.  The questions, the problems, the comforts of a shared experience are ours to offer to one another in a context of sensitivity, religious commitment, empathy and concern for our children.  We need to be supportive of our children, but we too need support and comfort. This can be done with a therapist of course, and that is a good option for many parents and family members.  But less intense help can also come from another parent who has been in our shoes. Perhaps there are parents who are willing to write or speak to someone just beginning the road to acceptance and understanding.  And perhaps parents who feel they would benefit from this kind of anonymous and discreet contact can write into the blog and find that other family who is willing to show them support and help them deal with the challenge of living with the knowledge that they have a gay child.

14 comments:

Questioning Yid said...

If I may interject briefly, the author talks about her grief and the roller-coaster ride of coping. The process she is discussing is nigh on identical to my own; the difference between our stories is that I'm the gay one in my story. I came out about a year and a half ago, and it has been the hardest time in my life. I've just been an emotional train-wreck. I have finally come to a pretty good holding pattern, I'm out to all of my friends in my new city, and I'm pretty comfortable in my own skin. But I went to a friend's wedding recently and had four different people tell me how the knew the perfect girl for me and I almost had to leave. It was devastating. I'm not out to my parents because I have already come out to them once, years ago, and it was a traumatic experience that I don't want to relive any time soon. The author should know that her son might be one of the best people to talk to in understanding her own grieving experience. Not to say she should go to him and pour her heart about it all, but ask him what it was like coming to terms with it. He may be going through much the same. And if he is, opening up this dialog might allow her to share her experiences with him in a kind and respectful, rather than accusatory, fashion. Coming out is a very difficult experience for everyone involved. While looking for outside sources of comfort, don't forget you've got one built into your family.

Saul David said...

Dear Questioning,

Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you are "comfortable in your own skin" and seem to be in a fairly good place.
If you examine this mom's letter carefully you will read that she has a pretty good relationship with her son and it was her son who guided her through the process of coming to terms with his sexuality.
But you seem to miss the point of this particular blog. Over the last 3 years I have shared my innermost feelings with the world in order to show other parents in my position that they are not alone. You have peers such as JQYouth who you can turn to. We parents have no one. This mom is reaching out to other moms and dads and offering a hand and an ear, reminding them that they too, are not alone.
It may serve you and your parents,especially well, if you could find a way for your parents to read my blog.
Good luck.
SD

Questioning Yid said...

SD,

I understand and I agree with you 100%. It is wonderful that she is reaching out to other parents and trying to build some infrastructure for support. I see that she seems to be close with her son. But from my experience of trying to come out and the experiences I know of others, some parents (from her letter, not likely the one in question) tend to get wrapped up in their own feelings and miss that their child is experiencing some of the same feelings of grief, loss, fear, embarrassment, isolation, etc. and that their child can be a wonderful resource in coping. I understand the point of your blog entirely. And I think it is lovely! I just think it would be unfortunate if a parent were to get the message that they could write their child out of their coping process.

Saul David said...

Dear Questioning,

The instant when a child emerges from the womb, he/she comes out with his/her hands held closely to the chest and with his/her fists tightly clenched. The baby's first impulse is to be unsure of the new surroundings that he/she is thrust into. From those first few seconds of life, it is role of the parent to protect and comfort the child from the outside world. That job never ends.
What this mom is attempting to do, and what this blog strives for, is just one aspect, of protecting and comforting our children. The role of a parent support group is to strengthen the parent and to provide the parents with support and tools so that parents and the child can move forward and help in the coping process.
This mom, nor I, in no way want to write our children out of the coping process. I believe the opposite is true. Since she had tools of this blog and the previous knowledge of another parent to guide her through the turmoil, she was able to embrace her child and move forward. Her idea is for other parents to find the strength through the experience of those who have previously lived through this ordeal specifically so that the child and the parents can move forward.
I have met too many young men and women who have been pushed away from their families. Maybe if their parents knew that they are not alone, this would not have happened.

SD

Erez said...

Dear Saul,

Would it be possible for you to link to some sort of email listserve for parents on your blog? This would provide a venue for parents to be able to communicate with one another and develop the "buddy system" described by the mother. I imagine it would be a very valuable resource.

Saul David said...

Dear Erez,
That is a good idea, but I don't know how to do it. Please be in touch with at kirtzono@gmail.com.

SD

דריו טוביאנה said...

Wonderful words have gone through this site.
I feel like to say thanks.

I probably never stopped enough time to realize the different phases my mother had to go through when I came out; despite I come from a different environment, feelings and thoughts must have been the same.
I loved reading this letter.

D

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see there is a forum for all of us to discuss the challenges of being gay or being a family member/friend of an individual who is gay in the traditional Jewish world. It is truly a sadness that this is still so difficult.

I am the mother of 3 grown children, one of whom is gay. I and my family are still "semi-closeted" in our community and there are no other parents of gay individuals in my community who I have found to share this with. I do agree that might be a comfort.

Our experience was somewhat different in that my husband and I wondered about our son's sexual orientation from when he was a young child. He was always a wonderful boy and we enjoyed him a lot. Sometimes his choices, (i.e. desire to play w/ dolls, dislike of team sports, preference for playing with girls) made us uncomfortable but we learned to grow with him and appreciate him. So when he was in his later high school years, I opened a conversation with him so he could tell me that he was gay, if that were the case. And he did.

We took time living with the knowledge that we had suspected; we talked w/ our children, close friends and, gradually, with family members. My husband and I felt sad at first and we worried for our son. We also felt uncomfortable being open in our community (and do so only in a limited way). We all evolved, became more knowledgeable and sensitive to living in the world as a gay person. It is a journey. We watched "Trembling Before God," and I invited some of my friends to watch it with me.
Our son is doing quite well and I would never suggest to him that he try anything as drastic (and potentially harmful) as what some people refer to as "reparative therapy." He is a delightful individual and a treasure to many of the people he is connected with.
My husband and I have had several experiences over the last 10 years which have helped us understand how the Orthodox world could better
accept and welcome individuals who are gay. There are a few brave rabbis who are willing to help this happen but there are only a few who we have encountered.
I do hope that his blog helps to open the door in our communities and welcome individuals who are gay and their families.

WM

Saul David said...

Dear WM,

Thank you for your letter. I have learned over the last few years that there are so many parents like us and like yourselves who have faced the same situation, the same struggles and the same challenges, and have come through them a lot stronger and closer with our children. It is up to us, these families who have met the challenges head on and have continued to embrace and love our children, to offer our help to those families who are just now facing this struggle.

I can assure you that steps are being taken to set up a mechanism of an online, anonymous support group for parents of gay children within an Orthodox framework. My son and I have been discussing this for some time now and since this posting things have been moving a bit faster.

This past weekend, he and I discussed a proposal. His idea was for us to set up a "google group". We would use pseudonyms. It would be moderated by a young (mid 30s) rabbi, who has offered to be a moderator, and with a mental health professional as a consultant.

This is a work in progress, but I assure you that within the next few months, something will be in place.

It is because of people like you and the "mom" who sent me the letter that we are able to move forward and help other parents.

Thank you.

SD

Anonymous said...

My son came out a year ago, at age 20. I had
suspected he was gay since age 15 or 16. We were in the kitchen and I told him that if he preferred men he shouldn't be afraid to tell me so he did. However, he was very angry later and felt like my remark, which he interpreted as a question, forced him to open up before he was ready. I felt devastated that instead of being able to talk more freely with my husband and I, after the initial conversation he took more distance than ever. I found out that he had told her sister a few months before and several friends he trusted many months before. I wanted so much to know how he had been coping in silence for so long, his fears, doubts and feeling of isolation but he clearly saidhe had no desire to share any of this with us, he was sorry, we were good parents, but he did not want to go there and did not feel comfortable.
In the beginning I cried a lot and felt so isolated. I had been reading and educating myself over the 4 years I was pretty sure until he told us. I wish our son would be willing to share with us more than anything but it's not happening.
We are in touch with a parent's group which helps a lot but does not replace talking directly to my son.
A sad mom

Saul David said...

Dear Sad Mom,

You are facing the same struggle that so many of us are facing. I know that at times the sadness can be overwhelming. I understand how you are feeling and my heart goes out to you.

Just to let you know...we are in the process of setting up an online parents' support group moderated by a rabbi and a few health professionals. Once it gets rolling I will post the information on the blog.

In the meantime, if you want to continue this discussion privately, then please send me an email, anonymously if you wish and we can continue this. Also if you want to actually talk, we can set something up, also anonymously and strictly confidential.

It couldn't hurt.

SD

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Anonymous said...

Being a sheltered orthodox woman, my son being a gay transsexual I thought was unique. At first I thought he was crazy, then I thought it was something sexual, then later I realized the truth; my son has a soul of a woman. He does not choose to be that way but he just is. I feel really alone... It is not something I can easily discuss. Thank you.

Saul David said...

Dear Anonymous,

There is a group of people who are experiencing similar situations.
Go to temicha@googlegroups.com and join in the discussion. This may prove to be helpful.
Please keep in touch. You can contact me privately while remaining anonymous at kirtzono@gmail.com.
Be well.

SD