The struggles of a family

From a long-time STA parishioner

Nobody talked about same sex marriage as in the recent election – or even about attraction to the same sex - back in the 1950s when my sister and I were growing up in a rural community. She tried dating in high school and college – that’s what people did! Young women were expected to marry even as they were increasingly pursuing careers.  To be a single adult over 25, male or female, was to be suspect. For the years my sister taught in high school. She was like many young unmarried women in those days, silent and above reproach in her actions.

It was during the years after she moved out of state to study for her PhD in the 1970s – that she accepted her own sexual orientation and became a part of the gay community around the university.  The women’s movement gave rise to greater acceptance of women’s identity and life choices. Over the years she has had some long-term relationships and a supportive friendship community but never once did she actually discuss her situation with our mother – fearing that talking about it would be too hurtful. And Mother never brought it up although she was accepting of my sister’s life style.  It was not until my sister realized my daughter was a lesbian that she and I talked about it comfortably.

Nothing prepares you as a parent to see your teenager struggle with her own identity. Teenagers have enough challenges - it is an extra burden to feel outside the norm. My daughter did well academically and participated in many school activities, but never felt part of the “in group” of her peers in high school and never felt comfortable about the boy girl dating scene. During those years, the early 1980s, homosexuality became headline news because of HIV/AIDS, a time when homosexuality was seen as a threat by the public schools and hospitals and sinful by the church at religious education classes, from the pulpit and in the press. It was not an easy time for a teenager to identify as gay – it took a lot of courage to “come out.” It was not an easy time for priests and nuns here at St. Thomas Aquinas to know how to deal with ISU college students who came out of the closet only to find they had lost their faith community – many left the church and never returned. Nor an easy time for parents to figure out how to respond to their own son or daughter coming out.

From my daughter’s point of view, even before she “came out” when sexuality was taught in her religious education class at STA, she felt completely alienated from her peers and from the church. “It was truly awful” she said, “even if no harm was intended to any individual. It was hard to deal with, a very lonely time, being made to feel you were not a regular person.” She continued, “If the church believes people are made in God’s image, then how can anyone be diminished because of such differences as sexual orientation and gender?”

It was not until one of our daughter’s visits home in the mid1980s from studying abroad that her dad and I had a long conversation with her regarding what her sexual orientation meant for her life ahead and for our family. Her dad had difficulty taking this in; he went through periods of silence, of anger, of denial. He recognized that her personal and professional life would in many ways be shaped by her sexual orientation and society’s attitude toward gay sexual orientation.

There was never a question of her having our family’s love. What she needed was our understanding, approval and respect. Neither of our two younger children had difficulty in accepting that their sister was gay, “she’s my sister, that is who she is.”

Initially, her dad and I were hesitant to “bring it up” with friends and relatives. We had several friends and co-workers who lived the single life who we assumed were gay but they never did “come out.” Gradually it was liberating to speak more openly and to talk with others who had gay children - it passed from being “nobody’s business” to “this is real life” and to advocate for acceptance and equality.

My family experience strengthened my life long dedication to human and civil rights.  Through my work at ISU with diversity programs I saw the widespread discrimination against lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgender individuals but also saw marked changes in attitudes among university students, staff and faculty resulting in greater societal acceptance through the years – but there is a long way to go. 

My daughter has advanced in her profession without serious situations or intolerance toward gays. She and her partner actively support policies and legislation regarding equal rights for gays and lesbians. They have been active civically and socially in the communities in which they have lived.  What makes me sad is that neither attends church, they see no acceptance there. They have not chosen to celebrate with a same-sex marriage, but have a legal relationship providing them some rights and benefits. Both my daughter and her partner call me mother.  We are family.