Is my son gay?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 5, 2005

As a mom, I can’t help wondering — but is it any of my business?


Dear Cary,

I’m writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I’ve got one of them — a 20-year-old son, not a column — and I’d appreciate some advice.

“Kent” is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he’s a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he’s now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He’s funny and good company and we’ve always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.

So … is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He’s always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.

My gaydar has never “pinged.” My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, “He’s not gay.” And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn’t be, at least as much, if I wasn’t watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn’t happen with Kent.

I suppose you’ll ask, “Why do you need to know?” And I don’t, of course. It’s his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.

Can you give me any guidance?

Stymied

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Dear Stymied,

I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “What does ‘knocked-up’ mean?”

He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether (“She’s not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?”), use condoms (“Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!”), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely (“If she gets knocked up, you’d better hope you’ve got John Law on your side”). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved — and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.

Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn’t mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.

So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.

If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends — the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out — dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman — would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time — a good amount of time — to ask him about his dreams for the future.

He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.

Put it this way: You’re a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I’m sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.

So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:

“You know, ‘Kent,’ I’m a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I’ve been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we’re really not, so I’m just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named ‘Kent’”?

To which he may reply, “No, Mom, my name is not ‘Kent’! That’s the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I’m gay!” [LAUGHTER]

OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can’t put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can’t get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.

I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it’s vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor’s chisel — is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.

You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, “This is what I am.” One’s identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another’s life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?

I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that’s OK, we don’t have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He’s not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.

I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things — religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn’t had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn’t mean he’s gay. We don’t know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he’s going through alone.

The trick is to give him enough room to talk — and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.

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I’m gay and I’ve got nothing to apologize for

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She and I slept in the same bed. Her boyfriend wants an apology. But nothing happened!

 Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, JUL 7, 2005

Dear Cary,

My best friend (a woman) met a man last summer whom she is now living with in another state and will most likely marry in the next couple of years. I am a gay male, and he does not seem to have much experience or familiarity with gay people, although he doesn’t sound like a bigot at all. The problem is that, for New Year’s, she and I, along with two close friends of ours (a straight couple) flew to San Francisco and spent three nights in a single hotel room together. We had already made the plans when she became serious with him, and he did not come with us, although she invited him.

She indicated shortly after the trip that he was upset when he learned that we had shared a bed together, but I didn’t hear anything else about it and considered the issue dead. Then, last weekend, my friend visited and said that he is still very upset about it, and he wants an apology from me. When she asked him what’s wrong with sharing a bed with a gay man, he said it just doesn’t look right.

I think the larger issue is that when they first met, we talked on the phone a lot (an hour or so a day) and there was a transition period where we started spending less time talking so that she would have room for this relationship. But I think there was some distinct jealousy from him at the beginning, and admittedly it was tough for me at first, also.

I am very happy for her, and overall he sounds like a great guy who cares a lot about her. But my question is, should I apologize to him even though I think we did nothing wrong by sharing a bed? I’m not opposed to the idea of swallowing my pride for the sake of moving on, but I also don’t want him to think either of us was doing anything wrong or trying to hurt him. I have not met him in person yet, and they will both be visiting next month for a wedding that we’ll all attend.

I would truly value your opinion on this matter.

Sleeping on It

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Dear Sleeping on It,

Because of the complex emotions and cultural signals involved, I think you ought to arrange to have a private chat with him when he visits.

I don’t think you need to apologize per se, but you do need to acknowledge his discomfort and its cultural and psychological origins. In other words, don’t disrespect him. Like it or not, you offended him by sharing a bed with his fiancée. His world has been disturbed and he feels it ought to be put right. That’s a normal human reaction. He hasn’t put it very delicately, but perhaps where he comes from when some guy shares a bed with one’s fiancée for three days over New Year’s what is called for is not delicacy but rather old-fashioned bluster. I think a simple acknowledgement that you offended him, an expression of regret for offending him, and a promise to be more sensitive to his concerns in the future would suffice.

Have a sincere chat, but remember that you are also negotiating. By promising to not share a bed with her in the future, you can give him something he values greatly while giving up relatively little yourself. What you actually want is not so much the freedom to sleep with her. What you want is to be able to talk to her at length on the phone and spend time with her alone without his jealous interference, right?

So be ready and willing to make a concession that you will not share a bed with her in the future. But make sure he understands what you want. Also, try to help him see your friendship with his fiancée in a positive light. What you have is a perfectly respectable friendship. Unfortunately, contemporary social mores do not clearly delineate what is permissible and not permissible in a friendship between a gay man and a romantically committed woman.

The beauty of pledging not to sleep in the same bed with her again, whether it is right or wrong, is that the more secure he feels, the more trouble-free your friendship with her will be. If you play it right, you will get all that you want without giving up anything of real value to you. Sharing a bed with her is simply a symbol of the kind of intimate bond you have; it is not essential to your friendship. What is essential is that you be able to stay in contact on the phone and be with each other without him around.

The only thing I can think of that threatens to derail such a remarkably good-natured, supremely rational bargaining session is the subterranean existence of certain powerful but as yet unacknowledged emotions — what you might call a subtext, or a hidden agenda.

It might bother you more than you realize, for instance, that some relative stranger is seeking veto power over the way you, a gay man, choose to behave privately with your best friend. It might seem that he is reenacting ancient sexist rituals of control. You may feel that you are losing her forever; this may threaten to plunge you into great sadness. You may detect in his objections, nice a guy as he is, a cultural backwardness and ignorance that even in the complete absence of malice nevertheless results in stereotyping and stigmatizing of gays.

You might feel some or all or none of these things. So take a little inventory of your emotional state before you talk with him. You have an opportunity here to create an exemplary model of how straight men and gay men can negotiate the tricky issue of jealousy over women. If you react angrily to something he says, he may become defensive and possessive and your little man-to-man chat could come to nothing.

The important thing, remember, is for you and he to come to an understanding. Your shared love and admiration for this woman binds you together. In that respect, you are like brothers.

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I have a secret I have to tell

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Cary’s classic column from

 


I’ve never told anyone what my dad did to me when I was 10. Should I just keep it bottled up?


Dear Cary,

Well first of all, man, I’ve never done something like this, ever, so it’s kinda scary. But here’s the deal. I’m a guy and when I was in the fourth grade, age 10 I suppose, I was raped. I was raped by my dad. It wasn’t good, to say the least. I suffered some damage to my anal sphincter muscle then which is with me to this day. Of course, not as bad; it’s healed but there is a leftover consequence. After that happened things went from bad to worse in my family. All the gory details aren’t necessary for the purpose of this letter.

Anyway I think that I have suffered something like maybe post-traumatic stress from that time. I am now gay, and yeah maybe that’s an attempt at workin’ this whole sorry shit out. I’ve thought about that. In fact I fought being gay for most of my life because I really truly saw it as just fuckin’ evil madness. That’s true. In my earlier years I sorta made a pact with myself that I’d off myself if I ever acted on my impulses.

But it wore me down I guess and I gave in. Now I’ve talked to some counselors about this, really just hints and not the full story. For years and years I couldn’t even talk about it at all. But then I tried and no sooner than I’d start I’d break down and just sit there and bawl like a baby, totally unable to go on. And I was all grown up then. So I’ve never ever told anyone the full fuckin’ story from beginning to end. The thing about counselors is that in my opinion they are just doin’ their job, that they really don’t give a shit about me, at least in the way that I want. And I’d die before I’d ever tell a woman because they would just get all motherly on me and treat me like a child, a fuckin’ baby. No, I always figured that if I told someone, really told someone and not just throw out hints, that it would have to be a guy. I think that a guy would get it more and that I’d get the response that I want, which is basically, “Man! that fuckin’ sucks! I’m sorry you had to go through that shit!” End of story.

Now I want to know just why I have this overwhelming urge to tell somebody, to come clean? This fuckin’ urge drives me nuts. I always thought that when I found the right guy, Mr. Right, that he would be the guy I told. But I haven’t found that guy yet. I’ve thought about seeing another counselor and being completely open and honest when I do, but truthfully I have no stomach for that. I’ve had both good and bad counselors in my life. They’re not all good. Plus I’d be just another interesting, at best, case in their career. So like I fought being gay, now I’m fighting this maddening urge to really open up. I don’t know why? Talkin’ about the past can’t change it! It’s fuckin’ done with! I don’t want anybody to “do” something about it because nothing can be done! But it seems to haunt me all the time.

I now have this friend, a straight guy, whom, I guess, that I can say that I love. Not in a gay way. I’m not into him that way, but more like a brother. When I started coming out, especially at work, I had some good experiences and, of course, some bad. I found that my women friends could roll with it much better, but my guy friends had a real difficult time. Even though I told them straight out they would deny it and act like I was totally wrong. You see, I’m, as they say, “straight acting, straight appearing.” The trouble is that I figure that I’ve been gay since junior high. Some of my friends are now, at best, my former friends, but this guy whom I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph stuck by me. Later when I tried to end our friendship because I figured that no straight guy could ever really get a gay guy, he told me to “fuck off, he was gonna be my friend no matter what the fuck!” Man, you can’t help but love a guy like that. But anyway, I’ve been thinkin’ about tellin’ this guy, this friend, my story, but I’m really really afraid of loading him down. I love the guy. I don’t want to do anything wrong here. So some days I feel close to tellin’ him but other days an alarm goes off in my head and says, “Don’t! don’t fuckin’ do it!”

If I really love the guy then I’ll do what’s best for him, not what may give me some relief. So my question or questions: Why am I plagued with this urge to open up, to spill my guts, to bleed in public? And: What should I do about it? Ignore it? Wait and see if our friendship can take it? You’ll probably say see another counselor. That truly is last on my list. I’d rather ignore and fight it than go through that shit again.

Well man, I appreciate your ear. And I’ll appreciate any thoughts on this fucked up story. You know, it’s pitiful but I think I may know the answer, man. I’ll see if you agree with me. But probably the right answer is: Just hang in there, keep your mouth shut, and find Mr. Right! Because it’s just not about tellin’ your story, it’s about finding love. Oh Jesus! What a fucked up world!

Love ya, man. Keep doin’ good!

Sign me “Steve,” there are a lot of fuckin’ Steves in this world!

Oh P.S.: Now don’t think of tellin’ me to go straight! I had this counselor once who told me, “You’re NOT gay, you’re just hurt!”  I thought, “Tell that to my dick!” No man, I’m gay, no doubt about it! And after all this time I’m just startin’ to be happy with it. It’s startin’ to feel really good.

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Dear Steve,

We’re not just mechanical beings. We live in a moral and spiritual universe and you had a moral and spiritual crime done to you and so you’re in a moral and spiritual hell. And that’s the truth. And you’ve glimpsed what it might be like to start climbing out of that hell, and you want to climb out of that hell, but you’re scared, and I don’t blame you. There are a lot of cruel, ignorant, unfeeling people in this world who cannot deal with the truth of others’ suffering.

Some people could not deal with this. But then there’s this friend of yours. He is genuinely a good person. You can tell him. He’s not going to walk away from you. He probably already senses your pain. For all we know, he may have a story of his own to tell. So I say find a quiet, private place and tell your story. If it helps to write it out first, then write it all out and then read it to him.

He is not going to think less of you for telling him what was done to you, nor for feeling the pain in front of him and crying it out.

I’m walking a thin line here between sounding like I even pretend to know what you’re going through and just stating the facts. I think the fact is, once you tell your story you will be on a journey. Your life will change. You will see that as a part of humanity, you do have a moral and spiritual core, and it operates in powerful ways. That’s about all I want to say. The point is that we are not just mechanical. You share your story because life is not just about the mechanical, much as we’d like to stick to it being all mechanical. There is a moral and spiritual universe. We are living in it. When evil is done to us, it affects us, and we then are put on a course of correcting that effect. That’s where you are now. You’ve begun the process of correcting that evil, by writing to me. Now, I’m just a bystander, cheering you on. I’m shouting, Go, tell it, brother! Tell what happened! Tell it and get it out of you!

We use all these metaphors for the changes that happen as we tell our stories, and a lot of the metaphors don’t sound right. Of course they don’t sound right, because they’re only metaphors for what actually happens. But basically, there are reasons for us wanting to tell our stories; there is something that happens when we do that, and we do change, and life does get better, and I hesitate to try to put it in words because it will sound like more metaphors for things that don’t really seem real to you now.

I can say that I have walked through life with similar locked-up feelings and locked-up stories, afraid to even mention them. I had them locked up and I had some hazy notions of terrible things that would happen if I ever said them. But eventually life just got intolerable and I started saying some of them. And I felt weak and overwhelmed when I said them but I was in  a safe environment so it was OK to crumple up in a ball for a little while; it was OK to whimper and sob. It is almost funny now, saying “whimper” and “sob” but that’s what it sounded like, just like a stupid little kid bawling. And it still happens. I’ll be talking and something will come up and all of a sudden I’m that stupid little kid bawling again, and I want to be strong, or stop bawling before someone starts laughing at me, but it’s a safe place and nobody’s there but my protector so I just bawl and then I learn another new thing, another layer, another vulnerability, another thing I’d pretended I didn’t feel or that hadn’t really happened.

If you trust this friend of yours then go ahead and tell him. I don’t think he’ll refuse to be your friend. But you may want to structure it somehow. Or you may want to go to a group like Sex Addicts Anonymous, not because you’re a sex addict, but because these 12-step groups have a structured approach to telling your story. You do an inventory and you share it with someone and it’s completely private. And you share your whole story. You don’t leave anything out. You go at it in a kind of thorough, almost mechanical way, just listing all the things. I haven’t actually participated in this group but I have a friend who has described the process to me. It might work for you.

But I say definitely share it either with your friend or in a structured 12-step setting. Once you do, you will feel better. You may find the world looks a little differently to you.

Whether you’re gay or straight is not an issue for me. The issue for me is that you’re walking around with this awful pain and fear and this awful memory and you don’t have to do that. You can choose to take a courageous step and just tell it and experience what it’s like to tell it instead of always keeping it hidden. You can get some relief.

You will probably feel some things; perhaps for a few moments it might feel like you are back there having it happen again, but that will pass.

On the positive side, you might also experience the emergence of another part of you, the strong part that could reach back into time and protect that poor kid; you might feel in your body the strong part of you that would have fought this off if you could, or would fight it off today. You might also connect with who you were before this happened, and you might find that part of yourself is still there with you, the part of you that you love, that innocent kid.

It might be scary how strong the feelings are. And you might for a few moments, as I said, feel like you’re literally re-experiencing it. But that will only be memory. You will be safe. Just make sure you find a private place where you can talk with your friend and won’t be interrupted for an hour or so, where you can experience whatever you have to experience, and be accepted.

I say do it. Don’t hold it in. Just do it with someone you trust. And then, having said it, you can begin living your life with this event in mind, knowing how it has affected you, and how similar events have affected other young men. It may lead you in many different ways. You may want to make a private peace with it and move on, or you may find it gives you a purpose in life, that you want to work to help others, to give strength to others, to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them. You might find your best way to be useful in the world is to be a role model, and walk with your head held high, and do some good in the world, and redeem this experience, and help to ensure that other people have a place to go to tell their stories. That’s up to you.

The important thing is, you don’t have to live with this. You did nothing wrong. This is something that was done to you. You are innocent. You don’t have to keep it a secret.

Tell somebody.

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