There are so many things about me that my parents don’t know.
They don’t know that I would describe my childhood as an unhappy one. They probably think we were quite a close-knit, loving, caring kind of family and that I have folders full of joyous childhood memories. I don’t. It’s not their fault, I don’t blame them for not knowing. I’ve always preferred shielding them from my real feelings, because having them look into my uncurtained eyes as I talk openly, would be too much to handle. That kind of emotional intimacy I prefer not to have to face, with them, particularly. I don’t want them to know how messed up I always felt and believed I was. And I haven’t ever told them that for the last ten years I am so much better. I live far enough away for them not to have noticed the difference too severely. Maybe it would have suited me if they still thought I was troubled, but since I never told them that I was, when I was, it’s irrelevant.
The relationships between parents and their adult children are complex. I believe it goes for us all, whether we come from a family where the parents are still together or one where we had to split the holidays. Whether it was dysfunctional as can be or as supposedly “normal” as possible, it’s complicated and often heart-tearing to have your own life as well as being part of a family.
Being a teenager makes nothing easier. I was too skinny, with too many teeth, in bright silver braces. I couldn’t catch or throw a ball if you threatened me with sure death – still can’t – and somehow I was popular with the boys. Ok, it’s not rocket science: I was willing and even excited to let them feel me up behind the assembly hall, where no prefects or teachers ventured. We smoked and sometimes we drank, yet in that particular group I was the nerdier one. Too slutty to be in with the good girls, too boring for the sluts.
My parents knew none of this.
After a stint in boarding school and a suicide-attempt at the end of grade 11 I chose to do Matric through correspondence, living in my parents’ house once again. Without the presence of schoolboys, I mingled with a much older crowd and got myself tangled up in threesomes with bored housewives and their smalltown husbands. On the one hand I was enjoying myself. I found a new way to satisfy my enormous sexual appetite. On the other I was terrifically sad and the involvements I brought on and sustained however long I wanted to, left me feeling worthless and used. When I visit my parents’ hometown now, so many years later, I can sit in the bleak winter sun and chitchat with the same people, but I can’t look them in the eyes and say it should never have happened. And my parents would die of belated worry if they ever had to know.
One such encounter with a married woman caused the end of my sexual identity crisis. After we were caught in bed together, by her husband, who for a change wasn’t in on the action, I knew I wanted her and if I couldn’t have her, it would have to be a different woman. Female. Definitely.
I was more sure about that fact than about anything else ever before, so I decided I would be honest with my family. Not about who helped me be sure – to this day they don’t know who my mysterious benefactor was – but about being gay. I don’t think it had anything to do with feeling like I owed them that much; it was about knowing something intrinsic to my being and not wanting to have to hide it from them the rest of my life.
On the day I told them I woke up with palpitations and never had a regular heartbeat the whole day, even afterwards. My parents were sitting in the lounge watching rugby; my younger sister was in her room. I called her to come sit with us, switched the tv off, sat down on the edge of my seat and monotonously said, with lips that didn’t want to help form the words: “I’m homosexual.” My mom said, “Oh thank goodness you’re not pregnant.” My father’s complexion changed to something greenish as he said, “Don’t label it so soon. How would you know if you haven’t been with a woman yet?” Like asking what brought this on? Then he saw it on my face: I DID know. “Let’s not be hasty and tell people.”
Because it was an embarrassment. I was an embarrassment.
My sister’s comment was my favourite, really very sweet and innocent (she was about 12 at the time): “But you SO wanted babies!” She loves me unconditionally.
So that was the first time I was upfront with my parents about anything. I wouldn’t say it paid off, not until much later. Nowadays we have a comfortable openness, at least about my relationship with my partner. Back then we went through all the Bible-bashing we could manage, back and forth, each to support his or her own viewpoint, hurting one another with every sentence. I was brought up Christian and at that time my dad was thinking about going into missionary work full time. A gay daughter wouldn’t fit well into that picture. Ironic that my faith and my relationship with God (yes, still the God of the Bible) grew much stronger and healthier after that difficult time than it ever was before.
My parents accept my partner as being part of my life completely. My dad introduced us to some of his colleagues as his two daughters, just the other day. I beamed the brightest smile! My mom loves her with a motherly love close to her love for me. My dad respects her in a strange way: he acknowledges her as the person whose person I am, since I’m not his little girl any more. My sister looks out for my wellbeing and feels that my partner’s personality is too overpowering for my own, but she has allowed herself to warm to her like I have warmed to my brother-in-law.
I am very glad I don’t have to sneak around behind my parents’ backs any more. I’m so over it. I wish I never did and I still sometimes have the urge to come clean with absolutely everything, but some things are definitely left better unsaid.