by Terri Winder
In 2004, two-thirds of Utah voters approved Amendment 3, defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In mid-December of 2013, Robert Shelby, a federal judge, ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage would deny “its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”
Shelby continued, “The state of Utah has provided no evidence that opposite-sex marriage will be affected in any way by same-sex marriage. In the absence of such evidence, the state’s unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the state’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens.”
Consequently, there was a window of opportunity and a flurry of same-sex marriages in the state, including one in San Juan County. Meanwhile, the State made an appeal to the 10th District Court, arguing state’s rights, though many see it as a civil rights issue. It is a politically and emotionally charged topic, one that will have consequences beyond our borders and time.
I grew up believing homosexuality was wrong, an aberrant of nature. Now, I realize the same thing could be said about babies who are born with missing limbs or albino. My current understanding is that homosexuals believe they were born having an inherent same sex attraction; it is part of their genetic code.
And while many people believe that the practice of homosexuality is a sin, I have come to believe that the greater sin lies with those who treat the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) community with insolence. Whatever their path for arriving to the point where they “come out”, it is hard to believe that anyone would willingly choose such a painful course.
I don’t suppose anyone ever holds their newborn baby and thinks, “I hope this child grows up to be gay.” But it happens. If it hasn’t yet happened in your immediate or extended family you may be the exception not the norm. The next question is, what do you do about it? In many cultures an “aberrant of nature” is destroyed. Are we any different?
I remember reading in Carol Lynn Pearson’s book, No More Goodbyes : Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay Loved Ones about a mother who always dreamed of making a wedding dress for her daughter when she married. The mother did make a dress for her daughter’s wedding, only it was for her daughter’s wife. She made a tuxedo for her daughter.
The point of that story is that while the mother may have had a hard time accepting her daughter’s choices, she made her own choice to love her daughter, unconditionally.
I have been faced with a similar choice. With my son’s permission, I will tell you his story.
The youngest of 10 living sons, Michael was the first child we adopted as a baby. To use my grandmother’s hallmark expression, I loved him with all my heart. I still do.
As Michael was growing up, he was surrounded by sisters. He played with Barbie dolls, wore nail polish, and donned leotards to dance The Nutcracker. From a young age it was apparent that he was very artistic. He loved music and drawing. He loved nature and growing plants. He was very observant and gravitated to beautiful things. He loved life. He cared about people. He was always kind.
Unfortunately, when he entered kindergarten, his preference for staying inside and playing with the girls during recess earned him a label. It was a surprise to me to learn that five and six year olds use the words gay and faggot. They use the words in a mean way, as a taunt and a slur. And the attendant humiliation only becomes more hurtful with age.
As Michael came to me during his grade school years, devastated by the slander, I tried to reason with him. I told him they didn’t understand what they were saying. I told him he could live in such a way to prove them wrong. I expressed confidence that this experience could teach him empathy for others.
What I didn’t fully realize at that time was how bad it had gotten. No child should have to live with such denigration. My greatest regret is that we didn’t move away when it became apparent the cruelty was not going to stop.
In addition, Michael suffered with another malady: ADHD. As I tried to explain to his teachers his struggle with this disorder I would share the following story:
My husband and I were going on a trip and Michael was the only child we were taking with us. He was very excited to go. We were in the car and ready to leave when I realized I had left a pair of shoes that I wanted to take just inside the front door. I asked Michael if he would go and retrieve them. He agreed. However, after running inside the house he didn’t return. When I finally went in to check on him, he was playing with the dog. Despite his eagerness for the trip, he had completely lost his focus, just that quickly. This is one of a dozen similar stories I could tell.
Every person deals with some kind of challenge in life, but these were pretty big burdens for a young boy to shoulder. Still, at the time, I believed Michael could overcome his challenges and be stronger and more compassionate because of them. I believed this because he often made astute comments that showed his depth of reasoning. For instance, while in fifth grade he was on a soccer team and he was feeling badly about not performing as well as he would have liked. I tried to console him by saying, “Michael, it’s just a game.”
“It’s not just a game,” he fervently responded. “In Blanding, sports are a way of life. And if you’re not good at them, you don’t have a life.”
In a way, it was the same thing as saying, “If you’re not an athlete, you’re not manly. You’re not accepted among your peers.”
I should have listened with my heart instead of with my intellect. I naively thought I could guide him through this minefield; but how could I when I had not walked it myself?
I remember another incident that illustrates Michael’s personality as a young teenager. I was driving my children to church and my second youngest son was telling us about a classmate who had stated that his life goal was to catch the biggest fish ever recovered from Lake Powell.
“That’s an interesting goal,” I observed. Then I asked my children, “What is your life’s goal?”
I don’t remember what the others said but I will never forget Michael’s response. “I want to be like Mother Teresa,” he said. “I want to spend my life taking care of orphans.”
Regrettably, Michael’s sensitive nature was a curse as well as a blessing. He keenly felt the cruel taunts that were tossed at him in the hallways at school or from moving vehicles as he was out walking. When he would come home crushed by someone’s blatant derision, I would tell him how grateful I was that he was my son, rather than any of those who were being so vicious. Later in life he would say, “People talk about putting Christ back into Christmas. Perhaps they should think about putting Christ back into the word ‘Christian’.”
In retrospect, I think a defining moment for him was when he was informed he couldn’t graduate from middle school. Despite our ongoing efforts to find help through medication and counseling, he had struggled to complete his school work because of his ADHD. He wasn’t able to participate in the end of the year water park field trip because his work wasn’t completed. Then, because of his poor grades he was reportedly told, “You don’t deserve to walk with your classmates, it would be fake…”
He didn’t want me to challenge those decisions, saying he “didn’t care”. Of course he cared—but at that point the damage had been done. Nothing could reverse the image of failure he now carried with him.
I think that’s when he gave up trying. Over the next few years he learned he could self-medicate. Caffeine and nicotine sharpened his thinking; alcohol dulled his pain. However, the price of escape was high: rejection by some family members, which increased his self-loathing, as well as eventual addiction.
Through all of this, the question of whether he was gay continually haunted him. I encouraged him to wait until he was older and more mature before making that determination. However, it seemed it was something others had already determined for him.
I’ll probably always wonder whether it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. What would have happened had we moved away and given him a fresh start somewhere else? Would he still have turned to addictive substances? Would he still have tried to take his own life at age 17? Would he still have eventually turned to a gay lifestyle? Would he have had a better chance at fulfilling his life’s goal if we had been better at doing our part in providing an opportunity for a new beginning?
I may never know the answers to those questions. This I do know: Michael and the experiences we have gone through with him have taught me many valuable lessons. His heartache, my heartache, our family’s heartache…it is all symbolic of growing pains. And I am still growing, still learning. Next week I will share some of what I have learned.