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Guest Post: Things I Didn’t Know

Following is a guest post by Lori Brown, chair of the PFLAG chapter in Bellevue, Washington. It was originally published on the blog PFLAG National: Focus on the Field and has been reprinted here with permission of the author.

Editor’s note: The red “Reject” signs posted by those opposed to Washington’s freedom to marry law send more than a political message, they send a harsh message of judgment and rejection to gay youth and adults alike. American Foundation for Equal Rights summed it up well when they debunked one of the opponents’ “reject” ads: “[They] compared an entire minority group to criminals, called them unnatural, said they’re less fit to raise children, demeaned their relationships, and called them uncivilized. And then they say that’s not bigotry?” Washington voters must approve Referendum 74 on Nov. 6 to keep Washington’s freedom to marry law on the books. –Laurel

Things I Didn’t Know

I would like to share with you some things that I have learned about my son – and about myself – that I didn’t know four years ago.

Here is my son Ian’s first grade school picture. I have used this picture many times when speaking to parents because it demonstrates how self-assured and happy he looked when it was taken. This is before he discovered that he would have a tougher time in school learning to read, write, and spell than most of his peers because he was born with dyslexia. His second and third grade pictures show a child who is trying too hard to look happy – a forced smile with sad eyes. Thank goodness he was able to reach his full potential because of teachers who knew how he learned best.

Here is a picture of Ian at 13. He is a big baseball fan and one of his favorite teams is the St. Louis Cardinals! At this time of his life, he was collecting baseball cards and baseball caps from major league teams. He still has quite a collection. In this picture, he is wearing his Cougar cap, telling us that he wants to attend Washington State University after he graduates from high school. Ian did in fact attend Washington State University with a degree in Business Administration. His last semester, he made the President’s List.

The picture was taken about a year before he began questioning his orientation during his freshman year in high school. That year he had a meltdown, which I thought was due to his adjustment to a new school as most of his friends went on to different high schools. His sophomore year did end up a success, but I still didn’t know what was really bothering him.

Several years later, the Christmas of his sophomore year at WSU, Ian declared his major and applied for the business school. I went into the computer room to call him to dinner, expecting to find him there. The room was empty, but the computer was on. There was a webpage up that showed a rejection from WSU. Ian had not been accepted into the business school. It said he met all the requirements, but there were a lot of applicants and he should resubmit in a few months.

I went up to his room and there he was lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling. I told him that I saw the rejection notice and that he just needed to resubmit, reminded him that he had never really been rejected before, that he had been accepted to all the universities he had applied to, that in this life we all face a little rejection. He sat up in bed and with tears streaming down his handsome face he said, “But Mom, you don’t know. I could be rejected by my friends, my family members, maybe some teachers and people at church.” And so I asked the question that needed to be answered that night: “Ian, are you gay?” He nodded yes. I brought him into my arms and we hugged. He wiped his eyes, went into the bathroom, and threw up.

One thing I knew before Ian’s coming out was that one’s orientation is not a lifestyle, a preference, or a choice because we have gays and lesbians in our family. My husband’s brother is gay. He was able to marry his partner, Ted, because they live in Massachusetts. Our niece Kelly has a domestic partnership with Anne, who gave birth to their twins two years ago. They live in Minnesota.

What I didn’t know is how this “coming out” would redefine my life forever. I didn’t know the coming out process is so gut wrenching for our children, even if they have been born to an accepting family. I didn’t know that Ian had to travel his own journey of self-acceptance before he could ever “come out” to his father and me. And I didn’t know that my prayers would be answered the following summer because by that time, I realized I needed to know more. I didn’t expect to see a “closet” float being pulled down the streets of my city surrounded by people dressed as parents. This closet float said, “Closets are for Clothes Not our Kids,” and that is how I was introduced to my PFLAG family.

Through PFLAG, I was able to attend workshops and conventions from Olympia, Washington to Washington, D.C. I didn’t know that gay children in their early teens are nine times more likely to attempt to take their lives than their peers. I met the mothers of some of these children. Rejection is sometimes too tough to bear when it seems like the whole world is judging you.

I used to think that it didn’t matter if one called a committed relationship a civil union, a domestic partnership, or a marriage. But I can’t help but think of the 1960s when I was growing up. There were so many things I didn’t know about the Civil Rights Movement.

When I was a young girl, I didn’t know that there were fountains in the South for “Whites Only.” Think of how that would feel! You weren’t “good enough” to drink from the “Whites Only” fountain if you were African American. It’s separate but equal, and extremely hurtful.

Years later when I was in the teacher’s lounge in Alaska, I asked my friend and colleague Rosemary what is was like to grow up in New Orleans…all those great restaurants! I didn’t know she hadn’t been allowed to eat at those places as a little girl because of the color of her skin and that when her 80 year old mother would visit her in Alaska, she would still ask if the restaurant they were walking into was “acceptable.”

So when you see the bright red Reject 74 signs on the street, I hope you remember that this is another form of rejection for those children who are traveling their journey to self-acceptance.

I know now that it is so important to call the committed, loving union between two men and two women, marriage. It makes their love valid. It is a sign of the acceptance of a civilized society. The approval of Referendum 74 won’t separate families; it will unite them. It won’t threaten my marriage of 38 years; it will only make me value it more. And finally, passing this referendum won’t hurt children either; it might just save some of them.

Thanks for listening,
Lori Brown, Chair
PFLAG Bellevue

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Laurel Ramseyer