“I’m gay,” he said. I smiled and replied with an, “I know.” Yet, I could tell the burden wasn’t lifted. It wouldn’t affect anything in our relationship, but I wasn’t the tear in his eye. He still had to tell his mother. Upon that realization, his apparent fear consumed us both. Her brand of Christian faith would not accept this, and somehow my atheism was going to be at fault.
My cousin’s son Jay was only 13 when he came out to me two summers ago. When a child confides in you such a secret, it conveys an immense amount of trust. I was apprehensively honored. In such a revelation, it opens the child to scrutiny, hurt, insult, and attack. It is when they are both their strongest and their most vulnerable. I wanted to thank him for trusting me, yet, I knew that this would destroy the few remaining relationships I still had with my very religious family. There was no way I wouldn’t bare some of the blame. I was already the immoral atheist on the outskirts, God’s perversion, a lost soul. They sent me what they believed was a good, shy but awkward, Christian boy from Queens, then after a few weeks with me, suddenly he’s gay? Its amazing how your lack of belief becomes the convenient source of all the world’s ills. I’d been inserted into a new dynamic of family intolerance.
His mother and I grew as siblings in an old school Brooklyn tenement, where a shout at the bottom of the stairs would assemble several three-foot Power Rangers. We’re family, so sending our children to vacation with each other seemed innocuous enough. My atheism was a problem for most of my family, but my younger generation seemed less bothered by it. “Send the boy to Alix’s house for the summer, he’ll straighten him right up.” I didn’t realize how literal they were being.
See, I’m one of the more successful men in our brood. I’m also the “manly man.” I’m sometimes an over-opinionated blowhard that conflates grandiosity and volume with manhood. And to my extended family, my mere presence as a Black man in my children’s lives is a sign of good fatherhood, because it challenges the narrative that plays itself out on society’s stage. The expectation that I’d rub off on him, must’ve made sense to them. I digress.
I cringed with a follow up,“Have you told your mom yet?” I dreaded the answer I already knew. “No,” to which my only response was a sigh of relief. Home for him was riddled with the alpha demands of Jamaica Blvd, where his flamboyance and pitchy voice made him a target. And his mother, being of that culture, upon confirmation of what I believe she’d always known, would fire first. This is the same area that birthed the rap persona known as 50-Cent, a survival costume which took nine shots to the torso to make his name. Screaming “thuglife,” while rocking a Beard wasn’t going to be enough for this kid, he needed a plan.
And yet, how do you tell a child to hide who they are, when the rest of the world irresponsibly tells them to do the contrary? Be unapologetically you, but what happens when your safety is at risk? This wasn’t an episode of Glee, it was a real life rap song with a homophobic hook. You can be unique in these environments, but you can’t be all that different. The smart kids get picked on because school smarts don’t serve them on a corner, where an aggressive posture is necessary to protect scarce resources or is required for their own survival. I was honestly surprised he hadn’t been assaulted yet.
This was difficult. I didn’t know what to feel.
We sat and we talked. I hugged him. I could tell he was afraid of going home. His tears flowed with rhetorical questions. Would he have to hide his affections for others? What about his mother’s boyfriend, who already chided his “feminine” ways? I couldn’t soothe with honesty, nor appease with a lie. His life was going to be different. And we knew that the prayers, the endless attempts to banish the gay away, were real. We discussed his familiar and recurring thoughts of suicide fueled by the fear of coming out or being discovered.
With too many uncontrolled dangerous variables, we worked on a safety plan that addressed coming out to the rest of the world – at a later date. Just a few more years, when he could find a safety net or go out on his own. I hated it, but I knew the arguments that they’d make, he’s too young to know his sexuality, he’s confused, the Devil is at play, etc. I tried preparing him for some of those, making myself ill in the process. He’s one of the most honest and gentlest people I know and he’d have to veil himself, while feeding his mother’s false sense of heteronormative security. Her hope of raising a “normal boy” without the assistance of a man, dashed. Her prize, snatched away by Lucifer himself.
By that measure, she’d failed. And now as a single mother with a gay son, who would want her?
Days before he was to leave, I guess he felt all too safe. Letting down his guard in a desperate act of optimism, he called and told his mother, “Mom, I’m gay.”
I was mortified.
He called me at work, silently crying, recounting the vilest of things no mother should ever say to a child. From the allusion of enjoying a prison scene to outright claims of possession, nothing was off limits. Nonetheless, blaming him was only the beginning.
I knew that when she’d turn the scrutiny onto herself, the resentment would build exponentially, a bigoted backdraft would be released. Society tells her that as a gay Black man, he cannot exist and thrive. In fact, he was no longer a man at all. Her understanding was rooted in the belief that gay men do not survive Black America, where from bars to bedposts, manhood is measured in notches. Being less than a man in a male dominated world might make him less intimidating to White America, but he’d become a liability to his Black peers who’d need him to watch their backs. I knew acceptance would be years in the making if at all, I just needed to guarantee his safety.
I received the most unpleasant call from his mother. I was accused of using my background in psychology to convince him he was gay. He may have had questions, but I pushed him over the edge. The endless attacks on my children began streaming and my atheism was once again the source of bad decision making. My atheism allowed him to choose a gay lifestyle, because obviously he wasn’t gay when he left.
I needed Jesus. She needed someone to blame.
Of course, my rational arguments made not one dent in her fictitious narrative. And when I suggested that perhaps predetermined biology played a role in who he was, I was dumbfounded with the “God wouldn’t do that to me” argument. Evidently, being chosen to have a healthy, loving boy was also a curse. I knew that sending him into that environment would be calamitous, so I told her we’d extend his stay.
“Keep him,” she said. If only that offer were real.
The anger that consumed her would eventually subside. She’d eventually find that the questions surrounding his disappearance would not be easily avoided. He had always been her baby boy. He was her rock, but they needed space. These few remaining weeks would somehow give us those extra grains of sand to solve an issue families go lifetimes without resolving.
In that time, I’d have to convince her to tolerate her son, because acceptance was a universe away. Strong Black women are not afforded the room to feel or fail, our mothers bear the weight of families, but at a cost. She was raising a survivor. As a parent from that environment, I understood her very legitimate fear.
Weeks passed. More conversations with her than I care recall ended in frustration.
Sleepless nights racked up until the flight home could no longer be escaped.
“Send me my son,” was the gist of it.
“Is he going to be safe?” was my reply.
The laws are murky. There was only so much I could do about my fear, without an actual incident. Hold him too much longer, then other ugly accusations arise, even with advocacy intervention. I told him the second that he landed, if she laid a finger on him, first get safe – call the authorities, then let me know. My desire to escort him home was real, but it would’ve made this situation worse.
It wasn’t long past the first prayer vigils that he sent me a text letting me know he was out of the house and Protective Services was involved. There were several counseling sessions, but no hearing. The abuse wasn’t egregious enough and what child wants to see their parents incarcerated, even when they’re wrong. He eventually moved back home with a lot of supervision, which is still ongoing. Their family is struggling. I’m still blamed for turning him gay, because that’s what atheist do. We espouse freedom from text and ideas, tell people to be themselves, but without some natural godly order, everything goes to an orgy filled hell.
I recently visited my family in New York. My judgey Christian mom had a grand time meeting one of her grandchildren for the first time. That was satisfying. My aunt, Jay’s grandmother, seemed cordial enough. She didn’t speak much. I knew she also blamed me. I spoke to Jay for a few minutes, it was clear he wasn’t happy, but he was safe. However, my cousin, Jay’s mother, hid.
She couldn’t face me. She was as much my sister as my sister. And she hid.
I don’t know if it was shame or whether she thought I’d turn her gay too, but it was a stark reminder that bigotry is oft rooted in fear. Jay’s home and he still deals with his family’s bigotry. He will for years, but he’s safe. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a monitored work in progress.
So if you’re teen reading this, let me give you three reminders I knew going in with any teen coming out:
- Your safety is tantamount. Make sure you have a safe exit out if necessary. Regardless of marriage equality – actual equality is an ongoing battle.
- Understand that who you are is not defined by others, and your self-worth isn’t tied to your gender identification or sexuality. You are a beautiful confluence of genetics, experiences, and more. Find a support system of acceptance, not just tolerance, and no, God didn’t make you evil.
- It gets better, but it’s not overnight. It’s going to take some work in most families. Have a plan – and stick to it, but realize that plans sometimes change.
If you’ve got family or someone you trust, use them. I was never mad at Jay for his mother’s ignorance, that’s between her and I. Behavior, religiously motivated or not, doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility of your actions. He’ll succeed. I’m certain of it. It will get better, he may achieve greatness, but the relationship with his mom will disappear as soon as he can legally walk out the door.