/ 26 November 2008

The Second Coming (Out)

Back in 1991, during my first year at university, my mother and I had ”the conversation”. This is something most gay people dread: telling your parents that you’re homosexual. Maybe it’s a generational thing and easier for young people these days, but back then parents didn’t really talk to their children about their sexuality — or anyone’s, for that matter.

As the only son of a single-parent mother and growing up in rural Oudtshoorn, it was particularly difficult for me. Difficult not so much because of the fact that my mother was a church organist at the local Dutch Reformed Church, but because we were good friends and I coveted her approval. We’d been through our own personal Auschwitz with my drunk, wife-beating and philandering father; developed a predictable solidarity on account of that, and I simply loved her and didn’t want to disappoint her. And I still believe that no parent really wants a gay child — my mother’s sadness when I told her was not on account of any religious moralism or disapproval, but rather because, in her words, a gay life can be ”a lonely life”.

Nonetheless, my great disclosure was accepted with grace and love. My homosexuality comes up now and then and even though there is acceptance (if not exactly a happy embrace of the fact), ”the conversation” is not something that ever truly ends; one has it again and again: clarifying, explaining and adapting a kind of eternal explanation that changes in different contexts.

When I got a boyfriend and introduced him to my mother there was a pause: it’s one thing to admit to or be accepting of something in the abstract; being confronted with one’s son in bed with another man cannot be very easy. Silence about sexuality is a dubious luxury that straight people take for granted — the thing about being gay and out is that you necessarily, explicitly wearing your sexuality on your sleeve. You are saying: here I am, I am doing what is unusual and culturally deviant; I am a strange sexual being.

These dynamics of coming out and living a gay life are, of course, well documented and by now gracefully banal. What is less so is what I call a ”second coming out”. About 10 years after I first came out, my mother ”came out” to her friends, her colleagues at the church and her painfully conservative and repressive family. She came out not about her own homosexuality (my mother is rampantly heterosexual, albeit repressed because of my father’s violence); rather, she came out about being the mother of a gay son.

This is a very big deal: imagine growing up in the embrace of Dr Verwoerd and his merry men. Imagine coming from the rural Free State and being the first in your family to go to university, divorcing and ending up as a music teacher and organist in the Much Deformed Church in a small town — and then having to admit to those close to you that your son is gay. I think my mother is an exemplar of something gay people take for granted: one comes out to one’s parents and then the drama is mostly over. The truth is more encompassing — coming out is not only about the gay person and his or her immediate family members.

Parents might choose to keep their children’s sexuality under wraps as something never to be spoken of outside the family home. However, if the parent chooses to share the truth about his/her child’s sexuality at the cost of social sanctions to themselves, this opens up a new layer of personal, social complexity.

Of course, my own situation in this regard is suburban and rather soporific. The really interesting parent-­child and parent-society dynamics take place in even less accommodating traditional contexts. Things were difficult for my own mother, but I wonder how much more it might be so for black traditional families. Do these parents have the luxury of even considering coming out about their children’s sexuality? Socially and emotionally, the stress must be compounded exponentially.

These psychosocial dynamics say a lot about a society or the sub-cultures within a society. That is for the sociologists or psychologists to study. All I know is that coming out — whether at the primary (gay person) or secondary (parental) levels — takes guts. However, as the book says, in the end the truth sets you free. Well, not always, but it does help.

Pieter Fourie teaches politics at the University of Johannesburg