When I read your open letter to Matthew Dooley, the Notre Dame athlete who came out to his family and his whole school community, I was reminded of that day twenty years ago when you came out to us.
It was a very cold day in March and you were home for your grandfather’s 80th birthday party. You first took Dad for coffee and then you both came home, and you said you wanted to go out for coffee with me. Ok, that was a little odd, since you just went out for coffee, but I was game. After all you were home from Seattle for the weekend and I was glad to grab a few moments alone with you.
We were in a coffee shop and the words came out. I don’t know about Matthew Dooley’s parents, or Michael Sam’s or Ellen Degeneres’ or any of the parents of the very public folks who have come out in recent years, but I was shocked.
Did I suspect you were gay back in your teen years? It is hard to go back. It was a different time for me and for the country. I knew little about gay stereotypes except for the over acting of some comedians. Mostly as a mom I was worried about raising my kids safe, healthy, and with good strong values. For Mark the worries surrounded some risky behaviors. For you it mostly surrounded health. You had severe asthma attacks as a child, allergic reactions, and, most terrifying, encephalitis. During the teen years those health concerns surrounded the worry that you were depressed. You seemed to remove yourself from the family. That signaled depression to me. So the foremost concern I had was for your wellbeing.
In your high school musicals you seemed to find a home and to come out of your shell. I was pleased, but I was so naïve. Because football players had lead roles I, wrongly, believed that the school encouraged students in a wide variety of interests, that there were no strict gender stereotypes for young men. Only years later did I learn that drama clubs were a home to gay students.
Today I cannot believe any parent would not consider the issue with his/her child, would not ask him or her if there was a concern about sexual preference, especially if the child seemed depressed. It is what I wish I had done in hindsight.
But you handled the whole coming out process for your surprised parents in the gentlest way possible. You talked to us each alone, so we did not have to worry about the other’s reaction. In the months that followed you kept the doors of communication wide open. Phone calls and letters flew back and forth between coasts. Yes, you could give other young people great advice on the art of coming out. Since then you have claimed your place in forming your own family and in your profession. And I will always remember with gratitude the kind way you let your parents know more about the real you.