In the mid-1980s, when I was about 11 years old, my mother took me on a 32-mile bike ride around Cumberland Island, a protected wilderness off the coast of Georgia. I was tired and angry, so angry that I refused to talk to her, to anyone.
Just the week before, Mom had come into my room where I was building with Legos and told me she was gay. I burst into tears and tried to run out. She blocked the door and held me as I cried.
I'm still ashamed of how I treated my mom after she came out. I'd grown up in a community suffused with homophobia — neighbors and family members alike tossed around works like "dyke" and "faggot" all the time. At first, that atmosphere turned me against my mother. It made me so angry at her I could barely speak. As I grew older, thankfully, that anger dissolved into love and acceptance of her and our unusual family.
I felt a persistent, nagging pressure to uphold an image of perfection for myself and my family
But even after I made peace with my family, I still had to face the world around me, a world that was still at war with families like mine. Bigotry and stigma were constant shadows throughout my childhood. As a result, I felt a persistent, nagging pressure to uphold an image of perfection for myself and my family. Every argument between my parents, every bad choice I made, every lousy report card I took home, felt like a referendum on the way I was being raised.
So much has changed since I was growing up in the '80s. Today an estimated 110,000 same-sex families are raising kids, and same-sex marriagemay soon become legal nationwide. I'd like to add another change to this list: I hope families like mine will be free from the stigma I faced. I hope families like mine will be free to be imperfect — just like every other family.
As the ferry roared across the Cumberland Sound toward the island, I was struggling with the things I'd associated with the word "gay," none of them good. In many ways, Mom was still in the closet herself, so she offered little advice about what to do, how to make sense of what she was.
I had an older cousin who called people gay or a faggot when he was angry or making fun of someone. At my grandparents' house in Atlanta I'd heard those words ring out when my cousins were fighting. Mom would take me on bike rides with her lesbian friends, along the country back roads around Athens, Georgia. I'd be toward the back in a long string of short-haired athletic women, snaking through fields of soybeans and collards. More than once on those rides, a truck roared past too closely, a greasy baseball cap leaning out and yelling, "Dyke!" Everyone would stop, check to see that I was all right, and then we'd move on.
Gay, faggot, dyke. I knew those words were shameful, and I knew that our family — me, my mom, and the woman with whom she shared a bed upstairs — was different in some way. But before that morning in my room, I'd never heard my mother describe herself as gay to anyone. My grandparents, a military couple descended from North Carolina tobacco farmers, never spoke openly about my mother's sexuality. In the South in the 1980s, such things simply weren't talked about.
When I spoke with adults who grew up like I did in the early days of gay parenting, I discovered many common experiences. Like me, they faced stigma from their extended families and communities. Like me, they responded to that stigma in a familiar progression: first by regarding their own families with suspicion, then by feeling a responsibility to show the world an idealized version of their families.
There was no room for me to share when things were hard at home, or when I needed extra support
One adult child of gay parents — I'll refer to her as Ann — recalled that even though her home life was great, she dealt with biting prejudice, loneliness, and isolation in her small town, where she knew no other gay families. "I had quite a few friends whose parents wouldn't allow them to visit our home because of our family," she told me. One of those friends told Ann that her dad believed gay people spread HIV/AIDS.
You don't live in communities like Ann's without bringing at least some of that homophobia home. For me, some of it was directed at my mom in ways I'm not proud of.
Mom paid the ferry driver as I unloaded our bikes. At first, we made good progress. The morning was cool. Live oaks created a dark tunnel over the sandy road that runs like a spine down the length of the island. The plan was to ride the road all the way to the far end, cut across at the First African Baptist Church, and ride back on the beach.
We said little as we pedaled. I trailed behind her, sullen and quiet, stopping occasionally to stare at the palmettos just to make her have to wait for me. I was also tired, having slept poorly the night before at the motel. I'd been tossing and turning in our shared queen bed when I said something that today feels unimaginably cruel. Still angry and confused about Mom's coming out, I'd stood above the bed and exclaimed, "I can't sleep with a faggot!"
"Only bigots say that!" she snapped back at me. "Do you know what a bigot is?"
I didn't know what a bigot was, but it sounded worse than what I'd called her. I exiled myself to the floor and tried to sleep in a pile of blankets.
Ann said that her childhood, while happy, was also marked by secrecy and confusion: "I didn't understand the term 'gay' or that my mom was gay until people outside of my immediate family started giving looks or making comments or asking questions," she said.
Ann remembers kids at school using the term "gay" as a slur, and uncles warning her and her brother that they would grow up to be gay, since their mother was. It all created tremendous confusion for her. "All I knew was I was scared," she said. "I was scared of others finding out, I was scared what they would think of me, and I was scared they would harm me and my family."
Of course, then, as now, kids from gay families also dealt with the same list of problems kids from straight families face: divorce, alcoholism, abandonment, financial insecurity, and so on. These issues are in many ways amplified and rendered more shameful because our fallible parents also happen to be gay. We feel immense pressure to be standard-bearers for an idealized family life that straight families are never asked to attain. In many cases, that pressure comes directly from our parents, who have internalized a longstanding "model minority" expectation. Consider this recent video promoting gay marriage that profiles a pair of idealized dads and their kids. They're God-fearing, white, and thoroughly bourgeois. All that's missing is the white picket fence.
Another child of gay parents who grew up in the '80s — I'll call her Elisa — said that when people asked about her family her standard reply was, "Having two moms is amazing!" But the truth was more complicated: "It was amazing," Elisa said. "However, for me, there was no room for variation in my responses. No room for me to share when things were hard at home, or when I needed extra support. I was always hyper-aware that I had a responsibility to make my family, and all LGBTQ families, look good in public."
For Elisa, the pressure didn't end when she entered adulthood. "It has become so ingrained in me that I am to uphold the model of what LGBTQ families can and should be, by any standard of measure," she said. "This pressure and commitment is the result of many years of being asked to justify our right to exist, and defend myself against the stereotypes and expectations of other people."
Robin Marquis, national program director of COLAGE, a support organization for people who have one or more LGBTQ parents, said the children of gay parents bear a unique responsibility. "So many of us are so driven to do this amazing, creative stuff because we're under pressure to be poster children. I'd say 99 percent of us have a need to prove our worth."
Marquis, who grew up with two moms in the '80s in a closeted gay community in rural New Mexico, says it's vital for kids from gay families to speak honestly about what's different and difficult about their backgrounds. She said, "It's high time gay families were given the space to be imperfect."
I remember a handful of moments when I thought it might've been nice to have a dad around
Perhaps once the Supreme Court mandates legal equality for same-sex marriage, the space Marquis describes can open up some more. Perhaps an even more authentic form of equality will emerge when kids from gay families can say their families were and are just as messed up as everyone else's.
For now, though, with more openness comes more danger, as each perceived imperfection can and will be used as ammunition against gay marriage. The recent testimony of four grown children of same-sex parents against gay marriage is one example of how our voices may be used against our own families.
You also may have heard that Heather Barwick, the adult child of two moms in South Carolina, came out against same-sex marriage in a recent essay. She wrote that although her father chose not be present in her life, marriage between a man and a woman is best for kids, claiming that "by and large, the best and most successful family structure is one in which kids are being raised by both their mother and father."
While I disagree with her stance on gay marriage, Barwick's emotional struggle resonated with me. I think if we're honest, many children of gay families might find common cause with her when she says, "Many of us are too scared to speak up and tell you about our hurt and pain, because for whatever reason it feels like you're not listening."
Like Barwick, my father abandoned me early. As a child I wondered what my life would have been like if he'd been around, if my mother had been straight, and if the three of us had lived a version of the lives I imagined the straight families at school had.
That dreaming of something better, something more perfect and normal, brings the story back to Cumberland. By midday it was hot on the island, and deep sand made the going much slower. I trudged through the dunes singing a line from a Bon Jovi song over and over in my head: "Whoa-oh, we're halfway there / Whoa-oh, living on a prayer." Eventually we made it out to the beach, and the Atlantic opened up before us. A young foal, alone and mangy, stood by a National Park Service placard reporting we were still 10 miles from the boat back to the mainland.
"This sucks," I said, and threw my bike into the sand. "I'm thirsty again."
That's when Mom cautiously revealed we were out of water. She winced as she spoke.
"I'm sorry," she said, sitting down next to me in the sand. "I should've brought more." I could see in her expression that she was ashamed of how unprepared we were. For the first time, I saw how much she wanted this day to go well, how much pressure she was putting on herself, how much she wanted to be a good mom.
I remember a handful of moments like this one from my childhood, moments when I thought it might've been nice to have a dad around, some big fellow who could tote around gallons of water, a living caricature built like a horse who'd scoop me up and carry me out of places like this, as though a man — and only a man — would be magically and automatically endowed with such qualities.
But what really happened on the beach that day was perhaps even better. Mom produced one last navel orange from her backpack, punched a hole in the shiny peel with her thumb, and handed it to me. I held it above my mouth as Mom encouraged me to squeeze every last sweet drop out of that thing. I thanked her and said I felt better. Then we picked up our bikes and made it home.
Joshua Gunn is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Columbia, A Journal of Literature and Art, Poetry Northwest, and The Atlantic. He is the founder of Planet Nutshell, an animation studio.