"And another thing, Mom," my daughter said over the phone one balmy spring afternoon. "I'm gay."
"Oh my," I said. I felt suddenly upside down.
The phone call from Atlanta to San Francisco, linking us in comfortable familiarity, had begun with small talk and moved gently into the news that she and her husband of nine somewhat tumultuous years were getting a divorce.
"Oh my," I think I had said after the first shoe dropped. The questions had fallen on top of each other after the divorce announcement: "Are you okay? Are you sure? What will you do? Should I come?"
She was fine. The two of them had worked out everything, drawn their own papers, agreed to continue raising their 7-year-old daughter with two strong and loving parents, even though one parent (her dad) would move to another small house not far away. My daughter had explained this calmly and it seemed to make sense, and she did indeed sound better than she had in a very long time. But the other shoe was quite a drop.
"I think I've always been gay," she said. My mind raced backwards into her childhood, through the intense high school relationship with a best girlfriend that I wrote off as part of the normal coming-of-age struggle through her marriage to a closed-in but strong, handsome and decidedly macho young man she had known most of her life. "I know this is right."
It is the conversation every mother would like not to have. We talk about how the news is being received: She has told friends, and parents of her daughter's friends, and found most of them warmly accepting. Her older sister has exploded in disbelief for a moment or two before settling into her traditional role of helper/advisor. Her father-in-law has driven over to hug her and tell her she would always be his daughter. Her mother-in-law will not speak to her again. Her (formerly) borderline homophobe older brother has been a rock of support. Her father offers to call in his lawyers, his shrink, his counselors. (She declines.)
"I just want you to be happy," I say. She knows that. "And I know there are going to be some really rough times ahead." Of course she knows that too, in her head; but I feel it in the pit of my stomach. "I love you," I say, and we hang up.
For a few minutes I sit on the side of the bed and consider my left toe. For years I have talked about 'my daughter the free spirit,' 'my daughter the bonzai grower, the orchid expert.' 'My daughter the Deadhead,' 'my daughter the rock climber.' Pride in her ferocious determination to dance to her own music has been part and parcel of my unabashed adoration of this youngest child. 'My daughter the lesbian?'
She is unquestionably stronger, happier, better than she's ever been. I do not think of her as my daughter the lesbian. Only as my daughter the greatly loved.
I call some very close friends who are gay.
"You understand, people will say their marriage was a lie," says Jim, whose partnership with Richard, now past the quarter-century mark, followed a doomed attempt at traditional marriage and family. "That's not so.
"When you're gay," he continues gently, "it's the last thing you want to believe about yourself. So you do everything you can think of to prove it's not so. Including finding someone you really love and entering into a heterosexual marriage." Makes sense.
Another friend asks if I know why I'm distressed.
"Loss," I say. "I feel like the daughter I've known and loved for 34 years has suddenly disappeared forever."
"Think that through for a while," he suggests. So I sit down, finally, and make a list, my conditioned response to distress. On one side I put all the qualities that define my daughter: bright, funny, loving, pretty, outgoing, stubborn, curious, good with children..." On the other side I intend to list everything that is changed by her being gay. It is blank.