Parents must address the Elephant in the room
Being myself right handed and “straight”, it never crossed my mind that my baby son could be left-handed or gay. Being left-handed is thankfully no longer taboo but still his teacher felt she needed my permission to teach him to write with his left hand so that he wouldn’t struggle with writing. Sadly, being gay is still taboo and let’s face it, we largely leave our gay children to struggle on their own.
My son has never been one to tell or live a lie and when he was fifteen, he told us he’s gay. Did I already know? No, of course not. He had had a close female friend and never a boyfriend.
When his teacher told me that my son was left-handed, it was a surprise but not one I felt any fear or guilt about. We all know being gay is equally a fact of life. If your friend’s son was gay, you would say, “So what? That he should be happy and healthy!” But when it is your child, it is different.
My first thought – if he has never had a boyfriend, how can he know? How stupid! If he had said he fancied a girl but had never had a girlfriend; I would never have questioned his feelings so why the other way round?
By the next day, the penny had dropped. OK, my son’s gay. But then came the fears:
He is only fifteen. Finding a girlfriend would be easy but how would he ever find a boyfriend his age? I wanted him to stay safe.
His teachers praised him for his hard work and how he helped others. Would they think less of him if they knew he was gay?
He was a leader on Jewish summer camp. Would he still be trusted as a good role model?
I made the mistake of internet searching and finding those hate fuelled sites of how an “unhealthy” parent-child relationship or abuse could turn a child gay. It made me feel guilty and scared – which, of course, is how the whole taboo thing works and why the stigma lives on. (And just for the record – my son comes from a loving home where he feels he can be himself and has never been abused.)
I googled and rung “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians”. Why Jewish? I may not count as being religious but we have always done Friday night and my Jewishness is where my roots belong. I needed a safe place where I could talk to like-minded souls.
Going into the first meeting of “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” was scary. My fears about anti-Semitism plus homophobia all came together –would it be safe to go?
And then the thought – what would they be like, these other parents? When I first went to University, I casually mentioned to a new friend that I was Jewish. She was shocked, saying “I thought you were normal!” She had never met a Jew and didn’t know what to think or fear. I suppose I had much the same sort of fear about meeting parents of gay children. Would they not be normal?
I needn’t have worried. We couldn’t have felt more welcomed. Imagine transporting a section of warm-hearted, conventional, United Synagogue members into a sitting room with tea and cake and there you have it. Or perhaps not – as there was really quite a mix of Jewish denominations. Anyway, they were normal and that was good to see.
Years later now and in my turn, I am writing this so that others know of the important work that the group does. Set up in May 1996, “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” exists to be there for all those parents who have felt they had no-one to turn to in the Jewish community for support and advice. We are not counsellors. Some parents or grandparents who phone us or come to a meeting have just learnt that their child/ grandchild is gay and want to speak to other parents confidentially about concerns or what they are finding difficult to deal with.
What would you do if one of your children looked you in the face and told you he/she was lesbian or gay?
“How are we going to cope with this?”
“What do we need to say or do for our child’s happiness and health?”
“Should I send my child to a Jewish school if he/she may be gay?”
“How can we tell our family and friends -and how will they react to this news?”
“I am active in the synagogue community and would love to be truthful, but dare I?”
We aim to be a voice in the Jewish community to bring love and understanding to bear on “the Elephant in the room”. Whether you would like an understanding ear or feel positive about the situation and ready to give support to others, do please get in touch.
You can phone in confidence Alison on 0780 6636089 for London or Elaine on 07903 768918 for Leeds/ Manchester or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How we treat our gay children isn’t fair.
We all want for our children to feel loved, accepted and perhaps one day know the joy and fulfilment of being in a loving relationship.
We need to talk about the Elephant in the room.
From London Jewish News 19 June 1998
“The love learning to speak its name”
Katrin Levy hears of a group of parents trying to come to terms with the homosexuality of their children
What would you do if one of your children looked you in the face and told you he/she was gay? Some parents react with anger and throw their children out of the house. Others fight to come to terms with their feelings of embarrassment. “A gay child is the same person they were yesterday,” says Myrna Julius, one of organisers behind a support group of Jewish Parents of Gays and Lesbians (JPGL). “The only difference is their sexual preference.
When Myrna’s son Mark ‘came out’, he had just turned 30 and had been living in Los Angeles for nine years. “Until he told me, I had no idea that Mark was gay,” she says.
“He kept his sexuality a secret from everyone while he was growing up. We’ve always been a very close family, but he still couldn’t bring himself to confide in us”.
Myrna believes that Mark was probably afraid of being rejected, not so much by his family, but by community at large. “Ten years ago, gay people faced a lot more discrimination,” she says. “But when Mark told us he was gay, my three sons and I continued to give him our love and support.
“We’ve always loved Mark for himself; he’s real mensch. He just felt that his sexual preference has no bearing on our feelings for him.”
It is hard for any parent to cope with hearing that their son is gay, but Myrna believes the situation becomes harder still within a Jewish context.
“Many people are quite young when they realise they are attracted to members of the same sex,” says Myrna. “The negative attitude portrayed by society towards gays and lesbians often means they have to struggle through the difficulty and lonely years of puberty completely alone. Being Jewish often makes it harder.
“A few years ago, I publicly resigned my membership of the United Synagogue because if their attitude to gays and lesbians. I didn’t want to be a member of an organisation where I was felt I was made to feel ashamed and embarrassed of my child.”
Despite being very vocal in her support of her son’s right to be gay, Myrna has still found the last few years testing. “I was probably the first Jewish mother to openly acknowledge that my son is gay, but it was not an easy thing to do.
“By nature, I am a very private person. It is only because I feel so passionately about this subject that I have been willing to discuss it in the media. My heart goes out to all those parents who have found themselves in a similar situation and who have had no-one to turn to for support and advice.”
Her concern for other parents is part of the reason that Myrna, and others like her, have formed a support group to help parents through the traumatic experience of discovering that their child is a homosexual.
“A couple of years ago, I was approached by a young, Jewish gay man. He asked me if I would be interested in joining his parents to set up a support line for Jewish parents. I jumped at the chance. At the time, I’d been thinking about how helpful such an organisation would have been for me when I discovered my child was gay.”
From a small gathering of four couples, the support line can now boast a membership of over 20. They meet every two months to discuss their situations and gain vital advice and support from each other.
“Parents go through a great deal of unnecessary suffering when their child ‘comes out’,” says Myrna. “Their first feeling is of shock, but when that fades away, it is often replaced by anxiety, guilt and sometimes even disgust. Many parents believe they are somehow responsible for their child’s sexual preference,” she says. However, it can also take some time for parents to adjust to thwarted aspirations of seeing their child get married or of becoming grandparents.
“Everything that is taken for granted with a heterosexual child suddenly disappears,” says Myrna. “It can be lonely to suddenly be confronted with a whole set of circumstances and have no one to talk to about it. Often parents won’t confide to their family or friends about what’s happening for fear of being shunned or feeling awkward. The isolation can often be overwhelming, but it needn’t be.”
The support line is completely confidential and aims to provide a network of Jewish parents to talk to if they need advice or support.
“The meetings provide a forum for parents to vent their feelings in the company of those who understand, who have shared the same difficulties and have managed to come through it. We can offer advice and a book list covering most circumstances.”
Many parents can’t cope with their child’s sexuality. There are a number of stories of gay children being thrown out of their homes or even being sat shivah for, as the parents refuse to recognise their child’s existence as a homosexual. Myrna is hoping the support line will go some way to preventing such situations arising in the future.
“Our children should not be invisible,” she says. “They deserve the right to our love and support whether they or not they are gay.”