God Gave Me a Gay Son . . .

. . . and I did not always think it a blessing.

Author: Thomas A. Nelson '53

Nelson Classic Summer 04

Editor’s Note: On a peaceful Saturday morning in early September I sat in my backyard, savoring the scene before me: the grass and trees and black-eyed Susans, all feeling different now — as the sunlight and scents took on an autumn mood. It reminded me of a memorable essay from years back, and that got me to conjuring a list of all-time personal favorites published in the magazine over the years. I decided to share them with you, a new one each Saturday morning until the calendar reaches 2024. The summer 2004 edition devoted most of its feature section to the provocative topic of homosexuality. This essay, written 20 years ago, was the foundational piece that provided the impetus for exploring the subject further. —Kerry Temple ’74 

Mark gazed out the small window of his dorm room. It was Saturday morning and the bitter cold bleakness outside matched his mood. He may have made a mistake going to school so far north and so far from home, but he had chosen this school in northern Michigan because he loved the natural environment of the north country where he could ski, hike in the woods and enjoy the serenity of this sparsely populated place. Mark also had thought college would bring people into his life who wanted a good educational experience, people with whom he could be open and find companionship. But the dream turned into a nightmare.

His anguish — realizing that he was attracted to some of the young men around him and the conviction that those feelings would disgust people — fed his terrible feeling of isolation and left him feeling numb. He didn’t think it was his fault; he wondered if God had made him that way. But it wasn’t a problem he could talk about, not to family, not to friends. No one could help him. Even God didn’t answer.

So on this Saturday morning Mark realized nothing really mattered anymore. It could only get worse. And while it frightened him — having considered it for quite a long time — he also knew how he could fix it. The only way to confront this demon was to end it all. Nobody would understand it anyway. He didn’t understand it. But he knew he was gay, and he knew being gay was an abomination. So he would put an end to his agony. Suicide, he had decided, would be less painful to his family than revealing to them who he really was.
So Mark sat down at the small table at the end of his bed. He picked up his pen and wrote: The fog thickens . . .

I try to see through it at my paper and pen.
Through them to the world
The fog thickens . . .
They pound and laugh all around me,
Their laughter a testimony to my despair
"All that you need is wine and good company

I can be like them,
I am not alone.
I can be like them,
I will find happiness.

I cannot be like them,
I am alone

Why not just rest and forget about it?
Rest and forget about it.

Outside the wind howls.
Inside the silence howls.

It has been snowing for some time now,
And my soul is buried in a drift.
The wind blows too hard for the plows to clear the roads.
I am destined to die in a snow drift.

Then Mark went to the window and gazed at the gray blur of the winter storm. He thought: It will be easy. Just take that bottle of prescription pain killers. No more anguish. No more self-hatred. No more struggling. The hell with it then. God forgive me.

And the thought became the act.

The pills went down easily, and he lay down on the bed to die.

It was a sunny afternoon in San Francisco. My wife, Trish, and I had just arrived at our room in the Mark Hopkins Hotel for a business conference. It had been a long and tiring trip from Michigan. “Tom, look,” Trish said, “these flowers are from Tracey.” She was holding a mixed bouquet sent by our daughter, with a card that read: “Welcome to San Francisco. Call me when we can get together. Love, Tracey.” My wife sighed as she collapsed into the plush leather chair. “Aren’t our kids wonderful?”

“They sure are,” I replied. “I guess we’re pretty lucky.” As I gazed out the window savoring sights I hadn’t seen for 30 years, I thought how lucky we really were. Our six wonderful children all seemed so perfect. The company was paying our travel expenses, and tonight we were going to have dinner with Tracey. We hadn’t seen her in over a year. Her older sister was back home at work, and the rest of the kids, including our son Mark, were safely away in college. My life was going pretty much according to the script I thought I had authored.

Raised in a traditional Catholic family during the 1930s and ‘40s, I enjoyed a thoroughly Catholic education, from elementary school through college. The church was a central part of my loving family. My two brothers and I were expected to excel in everything, but our grades in religion classes got special scrutiny.

After graduating from Notre Dame, I had a certitude about religion and morality. My understanding of the contemporary culture was defined by a black-and-white perspective on most issues. I felt comfortable expressing my views on those things, and often did. I was solidly Roman Catholic, more than proud of it and ready to defend it to anyone. My parents seemed reasonably satisfied with the product of their labors, as we had survived the Depression and the Great War, and we were all healthy, college-educated offspring. It was the ’50s, and I was a young man ready for career, marriage and family.

Trish came to our marriage as cloaked in traditional Catholicism as I did. She, too, had enjoyed 16 years of Catholic education, though she wasn’t the cocksure moralist that I was. Typical of that time, our children came early and often. Having five girls and one boy in the first eight years of marriage was part of our education. We felt blessed with such healthy children, and I often bragged about how we were “growing up with our kids.” Life confronted us with the usual mundane hurdles all families experience, and we handled them as best we could.

Soon the children were entering the teen years, the church was adjusting to Vatican II, women were being liberated, the United States was at war in Vietnam, the moon was the latest frontier for human progress. Hippies were in vogue, a president was assassinated, immorality seemed rampant. Just about every norm that appeared certain was being assailed. The world was going to hell and outer space at the same time.

Our best efforts couldn’t totally shelter our family from the dangers and challenges of those days. However, armed with self-assurance and the absolute truth endowed to us by our Catholic background, we confronted each issue with confidence. We sought opportunities to promote family discussions, and our dinner hours evolved into a ritual of stimulating conversation. We would discuss any topics that any family member wanted to explore.

I indulged in a lot of preaching during those family sessions. Often, I simply pronounced the official church teaching as the final word on various issues. I cautioned my children to beware of all the false propaganda that bombarded them from virtually every source. When they were confronted with a difficult choice, I urged them to consider the right thing to do. I would stress: “Use your intellect. Decide for yourself. What does the data say?” I wanted these as family mottoes. Of course, Vatican II challenged some of my long-held convictions. Still, my immutable Catholic dogma continued to fortify my comfort. In hindsight, I now realize I was suffering from an intellectual coma. My brain was in hibernation.

As we returned to our room after our first day of the seminar, we saw the red message light on the phone blinking urgently. My wife checked in with the operator while I mixed a couple of drinks. As I handed a glass to her, she looked puzzled and alarmed. The message was from my doctor. Some tests I’d taken just before leaving for San Francisco indicated a serious cardiac condition. I was to avoid any strenuous activity and see him as soon as I got home.

Eventually, at a few of these dinnertime discussions, the subject of homosexuality was ever so timidly broached. “What do you think, Dad?”

I don’t remember who asked the question, but it wouldn’t have been Mark. It had to be one of the girls. They liked to challenge “Dad’s agenda.” While I’d have preferred to avoid anything relating to sexuality, my answer was fairly easy, and it came quickly. I knew the words of the magisterium: “An abomination. Sex is reserved for marriage. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Natural law. Et cetera.” Concluding with a short lecture on the virtue of chastity, I clearly conveyed, “End of discussion . . . next topic.”

It was a well-intentioned automatic response, but one that avoided open dialogue of a difficult topic. Little did I realize the struggle my son was undergoing at the time. My brilliant pontificating was stifling his attempts to communicate and secretly causing him to question the worth of his very existence.

Taking a stroll in San Francisco two days later, Trish gently posed a question that was to impact my life far more than the doctor’s report that I’d been dwelling on. “I’ve been worrying about Mark,” she said. “He’s been seeing a lot of one young man and hasn’t been dating girls. The thought of it scares me. Does it scare you?”

My initial reaction was a quick little laugh. Then, a bit sarcastically, I said, “Relax. There’s nothing to worry about.” But a wave of panic swept through me. My God! No. It couldn’t be. The seeds of doubt took root. Dreading the prospect, I resolved to confront my son as soon as we returned.

Mark defied all the popular stereotypes I believed about what being gay means. I was sure I could recognize a gay person a mile off. But my son was just too masculine. He never displayed the effeminate traits that I was certain a homosexual male would exhibit.

I recalled as typical of his “masculine toughness” an incident when he was about 8 years old. One day, when he was to play in an important junior hockey game, he had a dental appointment to have five teeth pulled. His mother insisted that the hockey game was second priority. So, after a little nitrous oxide, the five teeth were extracted. Getting out of the dental chair after this ordeal, Mark proceeded to the restroom where he promptly vomited. Then he calmly returned to his mother and said, “Now, can I please go to the hockey game?” She took him, and he played. This was my homosexual child? No way.

Nothing during Mark’s childhood indicated any sign of homosexuality. There was none of the verbal violence many young gay people endure from earliest childhood; no derisive jeering, no “faggot” or “queer” talk. He was seemingly happy, well-adjusted and “straight.”

Of course, there was that time in high school. Late afternoon one pleasant spring day, we received a phone call from Mark’s after-school employer. Mark had not shown up for work. His employer said he was concerned because “Mark is never late. He’s my most reliable employee.” We didn’t know where he might be, and a series of frantic telephone calls came to no avail.

Eventually, we discovered that our son had withdrawn all his savings from the bank, and he and two friends had taken a bus to Florida. While he soon telephoned to assure us of his safety, he had apparently resolved not to return. We were dumbfounded. Fortunately, economics soon intervened. When his money had nearly run out, Mark was relieved to learn we would not only welcome him back, but we were ready to wire him the return plane fare as well.

This incident was definitely disturbing to us, so we decided Mark needed professional counseling. The counselor came highly recommended and with all the appropriate credentials. His evaluation quickly assured us that Mark’s Florida escapade was little more than a “lark — a healthy, youthful rebellion.” His prompt conclusion: “Your son is a very normal, well-adjusted and intelligent young person. It would be a waste of your money and my time to proceed any further.” Without hesitation, my wife and I accepted his reassurance and breathed a sigh of relief.

My wife and I, like most parents, had hopes and dreams for each of our children. These entailed the usual trappings of health, education, spiritual welfare, material success and all the nuances these include. We wanted their lives to be happy and fulfilled. However, again like most parents, we unwittingly tried to fit our children into preconceived molds. Now, older and perhaps a little wiser, I marvel when I observe how different each of my adult children is. They are like startling reflections of the incomprehensible diversity of God’s creation. Nevertheless, back then, this father certainly had some definite assumptions about his son’s future. The possibility of homosexuality was a dim and distant issue about which I knew and cared little.

It has been said that possession of the absolute truth is the end of learning. While I understood there were many things that I didn’t know, moral issues were not among them. I knew the rules, and I knew the reasons. The possibility of a gay son was not part of my plan. Not only was I unaware, but my pontificating moral certitude had actually been adding to his anguish. I was unwittingly encouraging my son toward suicide.

I did not know then that the suicide rate for young gay persons is three times that for other teens. Their struggle to accept their sexuality is too often a lonely battle devoid of family support, not unlike my son’s. I fear that, like me, too many parents suffer from rigid moral convictions. Unfortunately, the result can be the ultimate of tragedies — the loss of a child.

Mark’s act of ultimate despair was overcome only through courage and God’s amazing grace. Years later, when I learned of his suicide attempt, Mark would tell me that as he waited for death to release him, he went through what he could only describe as a unique religious experience in which God spoke to him in a special way. Somehow he abruptly realized that God had created him just as he was, and so there must be some good reason for being who he was. And that God surely accepted him as he had created him, and so Mark should do likewise. He ran to the bathroom and forced himself to vomit the pain killers he had taken. Had he reacted soon enough? The next 36 hours proved to be a benumbed and desperate struggle as he dragged through a drugged twilight, not daring to allow himself any sleep for fear there would be no morning.

My son did survive his trauma. Mine was still to come.

My wife and I had returned from San Francisco. I was with Mark. We were alone in the car, returning home from the university for his semester break. Freeway traffic was light, and I had decided it was time to take the plunge. There was no prologue, no warning. I was abrupt and blunt. “Mark, are you gay?”

He looked startled. After a long pause, he quietly said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I thought a moment and said, “I guess you’ve just answered my question.”

To which he responded, again very quietly, “I guess so.”

With those three little words, the world came crashing down for me. Despite my mental preparation for this moment, I was speechless. We were almost home, and neither of us spoke another word for the rest of the trip. I was still in shock when we walked into the house. My wife looked at me and knew instantly that I had asked the question — and what the answer had been.

My son’s disclosure was a personal trauma. Initially, I didn’t think about the implications for him. My immediate reaction was mostly self-focused. “What had I done wrong? What will family and friends think? Could he change? What should I do? What can I do?” My heartache alternated between anger and fear. This son of mine, who moments ago seemed so perfect, was now a torment. Of course I loved him still. But how could my son be gay? He wasn’t like that. It simply wasn’t plausible. I just had to fix it. Yet what could I do?

I realize today how little I knew. My level of understanding homosexuality encompassed little more than a now defunct Freudian theory that a homosexual child is the result of a weak father and a domineering mother. As part of my selfishness, it gave me some immediate solace to place the blame for this tragedy on my wife. Of course, it’s her fault. A dominant woman! I thought. But I quickly found this strategy neither right nor helpful. It simply added stress to our marriage. Still, there was this weak father thing. I just couldn’t accept that idea. Maybe there was something I could do. I realized I needed more information.

I began by reading every book or article available in the Detroit libraries. I had an insatiable need to learn everything I could about homosexuality. Gradually the myths began to dissolve. I learned that some 5 to 10 percent of the population is estimated to be homosexual. Homosexuality is probably not the result of environmental conditions but more likely genetic in origin. It is the general professional consensus that it cannot be changed and that attempts to do so can be distinctly harmful. The best minds in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, psychology and biology generally agree that homosexuality is a normal variant of the human condition and certainly not some disorder that requires treatment. Even during that period, without the internet, there was plenty of “data” that homosexuality was a normal condition.

Following this phase of my education, I began to realize that this issue was about my son and not so much about me. My spell of self-indulgence was fairly brief, but I still feel sad that I wasn’t more help to Mark, immediately and without any equivocation. He needed it. He deserved it. My intellect began to awaken from its hibernation. I felt more empathy, a virtue too rare in my past. My predilection for expectations of the conventional gave way to a frightening vision of my son’s future. What was he going to face? It was not pleasant to contemplate.

The risks of violence, discrimination, harassment and ostracism are all too common for the gay community. The chances of my son being accepted as a normal member of society seemed to be slim to none. Otherwise decent people often oppose, with self-righteous moralistic railing, some of the most fundamental human rights for gays that the rest of us take for granted.

Homosexuality is not a condition I would have chosen for my son. So why now celebrate the gift of a gay son?

Since that disclosure some 20 years ago, because of Mark I have come to know many gay persons. We have dined together, walked together, traveled together, worshiped together, and laughed and cried together. I have some new stereotypes as a result. Almost without exception, I have found my gay friends to be likeable, loveable people of high integrity. More than that, most seem to have a resilience, a forbearance for life’s burdens. I have been deeply moved by their tales of adversity overcome. I have seen them subjected to insults and abuse by their government, their churches, their neighbors, some even by their families, then seen them respond with a patience I envy. They have taught me how a quiet tenacity can achieve success in the face of the most discouraging odds. I have watched gay people, young and old, routinely living lives of often heroic charity toward others, done without fanfare. It is a charity most of us professing Christians would find difficult to match, and it is too often accomplished while deprived of the nurture of “organized” religious groups that seem focused only on condemning them. By their example, they have shown me how to truly love my neighbor.

These experiences forced me to confront the fallacy of my former arrogant certitude. I realized that I had been given the opportunity to learn from everyone I meet in life, but that I had been passing up many potential professors. I resolved to attend all my classes in the future. Through my involvement in PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) I have come to know many other parents of gay children. I have learned about the anguish and abuse society irrationally inflicts on their families. It has been a journey to a new perspective that has enabled me to understand my own failings and the world around me better. My struggle to be more fair-minded and less judgmental has been made easier.

I also have watched my children gain a unique appreciation of others. And I’ve found that not having all the answers has resulted in a closer, more trusting relationship with my God. It has been a bonus to watch Mark mature into the successful, happy adult that he is today.

Yes, Mark does experience more than the normal challenges of our culture than straight folks endure — despite the fact that being gay is only one small part of who he is. Yet he now seems to shrug off most of those gay-related burdens. He prefers to think of them as society’s problems, not his. His goal to lead a normal and happy life has been largely successful, but that other reality is always lurking in the background.

There is one challenge that gives me, his father, much anguish. It is his feeling of utter rejection by the Catholic church. After his long struggle to find a place in it for himself, it seems that too many official proclamations only remind him that he is considered depraved, disordered and intrinsically evil. He has given up on it. I am at a loss as to how to convince him otherwise. I’ve discovered that when I apply my newfound empathy, I’ve had a tough time not reacting as he has. I can only continue to pray and wonder about what it all means. I try not to let it destroy my own love for the church. Sometimes I’m not too successful at it.

I know that many of my Christian fellows and others would take grave issue with some of my views. They would argue with sincerity the same positions I once so adamantly held. I am well aware of the popular biblical arguments that are used to condemn homosexuality. I am also glad that some of the best biblical scholars have given us new insight into those popular literal interpretations touted by many to support their castigation of homosexuality. Sadly, too, I regret the promiscuous immorality displayed by some in the gay community. Yet I doubt that any segment of our society has a monopoly on immorality; heterosexuals are certainly just as accomplished at this. I also share a deep concern for the welfare of what some describe as the “endangered” American family, but heterosexuals have done their share to break up marriages and threaten the health of the American family. And how can we justify the dishonest labeling as “special rights” those basic civil, legal and human rights the rest of us take for granted?

Much of our Christian rhetoric is anything but Christian. I have personally seen the tragic human consequences of intransigent, righteous moralizing. I nearly destroyed my own son with such “loving” dogmatic proclamations.

Now, late in my journey, I find myself with more questions than when I started. Answers that I once was so sure of have fallen far short. Some have proven to be false. I have found many answers in unlikely places and from unlikely people. Most of the answers have given me joy; a few have made me sad. Many of my unanswered questions, my beloved church will not even address, acting as if “the data” were irrelevant. Like me, the church, too, has feet of clay. I realize now that the absolute truth is a far-off goal, attainable only in the hereafter. Perhaps now, though, I have a better understanding of humanity’s common struggle. For a Christian, I think, the task is to try to comprehend and apply the truth and the full implications of Christ’s final plea: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

For me, discovering the complex meaning of this message has been a lengthy journey that continues to this day. It has been a difficult lesson for me, and one that might never have happened. But, fortunately, God gave me a gay son.

Yes, God gave me a gay son — a fact I celebrate today — a son who has had a most profound effect on my life. While it was obviously not his intention, Mark, just being who he is, has taught me more about myself, about the nature of the Creator, his unfathomable love, and the diversity of his creation, than perhaps all of the academic and social experiences of my past. I believe most parents would agree that they learn from their children, probably as much as they teach. I have certainly enjoyed this reward of parenting from all of my six children. Being the unique individuals they are, they have all taught me — all in their own special way. But Mark had the advantage of being gay.

Tom Nelson is retired from Ford Motor Company and lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan.