This is one of the first features we ever ran, and it kicked off our 'My most sleepless night' series. You can now listen to the audio version, read by the author too
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One of the most sleepless nights I have ever spent as a parent was the night in 2008 when my then 20-year-old son announced he was gay.
Earlier that evening we had been out at a gig in Camden, with a couple of my oldest friends. It turned out that – out of my earshot – my boy had asked one of them what my reaction might be to him coming out. “Don’t worry at all' was the response, “your mum and dad are the most liberal people I know”. He was right. We are liberal. We deplore bigotry. We take pride in our broadmindedness. We also have several gay friends, including a gay (male) couple with two young adopted boys.
Why then, when he told me, did I cry uncontrollably?
Okay, between loud sobs, I did attempt to get the right words out: “Look, it’s all right”; “I don’t know why I’m crying”; “It won’t make a difference to the way mum and I feel about you”; “I can’t understand my reaction, maybe I’m a little shocked”. I even came out with the classic line: “Whatever you choose is fine by us, we’ll always love you”. All to little avail.
My boy’s face fell away. His look of surprise changed to disappointment and slowly grew into despair. He shouted tearfully, even angrily, “Jeff said that you and mum were the most liberal people he knew! How fucking wrong was he?” and marched off towards his bedroom, turning for a brief second. Then the killer “Are you such a fucking idiot? Do you really think it’s a matter of choice? Do you think I don’t want a normal life, or children? Do you think I’m actually choosing to disappoint you, shock my friends and upset everyone we know? Jesus Christ!” The door to his room slammed and I was left alone.
I couldn’t talk to my wife. She was staying away with a friend and given my own unpredictable response, I didn’t want to break the news over the phone. But I was desolate. I was also extremely angry with myself for feeling so terrifically, overwhelmingly ‘sad’.
Fortunately I had my laptop with me and without really thinking, I found myself searching the web with terms like ‘My son is gay’ and ‘How to cope with gay son’. I am delighted to say that the results were completely illuminating and extraordinary helpful. A clear vindication of the web as a force for the common good. It turns out that all parents have the same reaction: we grieve. But we’re not grieving for our children.
In 21st century Britain, being gay is hardly a drawback. Today, shame, secret lives and sordid adventures in public lavatories are typically the sole preserve of politicians, clergy and – probably – premiership soccer players.
No, we grieve for the destruction of our own parental fantasies. The little snatched dreams we have always used to entertain ourselves since our kids were tiny babies. Musings about our children's ‘normal’ future, thoughts of possible grandchildren to come - in essence an over-arching belief that our kids might eventually turn into ourselves and enjoy all the same things that we do. But these are all artificial constructs of our own making. They actually mean very little. But it really hurts when they evaporate, suddenly and violently. Once I understood this, I came to my senses.
My son was still the boy I loved: enthusiastic, sporty, charming, trusting, funny – albeit still rather too fond of playing FIFA on his PS3. No difference at all. When I talked to my wife two days later, I was relieved and relaxed. Her immediate reaction was much calmer than mine, although it took her a little longer to adjust.
My daughter feigned no surprise of any kind and displayed a degree of hilarity, to the extent of sending my son a copy of Barbra Streisand’s 'Greatest Hits'. A committed indie-music fan, he was less than amused and I was forced to retrieve the CD from the bin. Let’s face it, ‘Guilty’ is a great song, even if, like myself, you are a died-in-the wool metalhead.
And today? My son is in a great relationship. As a couple they look like brothers. Both bearded, a tad overweight, but great friends, they share an enthusiasm for cooking, movies, beer and holidays in the sun. They also show no interest of any kind in aerobics, soft furnishings, floral displays or light opera. All my son’s ‘straight’ friends continue to be his best mates, and both he and his partner have already been invited to two weddings this summer. My boy is still a serious hockey player and the only team member allowed to bring his partner to the club’s decidedly alcoholic extra-curricular events. Girls not invited it would seem (and much to their probable relief).
Meanwhile in the 21st century and the era of Elton and David (and closer to our home, Stefan and Patrick) it would seem grandchildren are not inconceivable, although I would guess that my lad’s rather hedonistic lifestyle makes that choice some way off. I reckon they’ll probably start with a dog and see where that leads.
So, if your son or daughter comes out, don’t worry about your initial reaction. Don’t be disappointed with yourself. It won’t last. Nor will the sleepless nights.
Critically, don’t fret about the perceptions of your own friends and family. If, in the scheme of things, their opinions are of little real importance, they might tell you something about these people and possibly their shortcomings that you ought to know. Then again, they might surprise you. My 87-year-old mum has a picture of my son and his partner in pride of place on her living room sideboard.
Realise instead that you’ll get to meet some interesting people, go to some exciting places and do some things you might not have done otherwise. It will change you of course – but for the better. You’ll start frowning at homophobic remarks and loudly applaud when sportsmen and politicians have the chutzpah to come out, rather than stay in an unhappy closet. And trust me, you will be prouder than ever of the wonderful, remarkable child that you brought into the world.