Tuesday 27 March 2012

Being Gay - Such A Disappointment (Part 1/3)

Over the last few weeks, one subject has really taken me by the scruff of the neck and given me a thoroughly good shaking. It has troubled me that so many people think that a gay sexual orientation is disappointing for a human being to have. "Being gay is okay, but really, it would have been better to be straight," so many people believe. In this post, I want to unpack this notion a little to see what is truly there. So let's start with one of the hardest things that most gay people find difficulty in doing.

Why is it that so many gay people, myself included, have found it so immensely difficult to come out to parents? I did it over twenty years ago, but boy oh boy, I certainly put it off for a very long time - wanting to, struggling with the desire, but then backing away from it only to have it return relentlessly until I actually did speak to them and tell them the truth about myself. A massive struggle! In BGBC I did discuss this topic at length and talked about the fear of rejection as being the fundamental reason for the dilemma. And while I do believe that fear of rejection is the crux of the matter, I think now there is perhaps another way of characterising this difficulty. This alternate characterisation is strongly associated with the fear of rejection and I think is actually a part of it. It is this concept of disappointment.

We do not want to be disappointments to our parents. We do not want to feel like we're letting them down. And coming out as gay can have this quality of feeling like we're a real downer on their happiness, a lead balloon in their once blue sky. "Oh Ashley you know told us he is gay. We'll love him of course and support him, but it's such a disappointment for us. Not that we'd tell him that. We're still getting used to the idea." These are the secret words we fear. Recently, on a gay Christian website, a mother of a young man who has just come out to her has written in to ask for some input from the forum. Allow me to quote just one small sentence, actually a question. "Why do I feel so disappointed inside when he's the same person today as he was yesterday?"

I feel dreadfully for this poor mum. She and so many others see being gay as a second-best, a silver medal, a downgrade from the optimal. Her disappointment is actually a form of grief. She is struggling with the loss of an image - the image of the trajectory she always believed her son would take. The sense of disappointment is palpable, but she, like the rest of us to some extent, has bought into believing a fairy tale.

The fairy tale goes like this. You get born. You go to school, you live in a loving family, you pass all your exams, you go to university or get a good job, or both, you meet your opposite sex partner, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a house, you have kids of your own, and finally, you live happily together forever. This is the trajectory that most parents just naturally believe their kids will take. It's all very linear. A moves on to B then on to C, then onwards to the end, each milestone all very 'normal' and even over the course of a lifetime. From the point of view of queer discourse, we might call this a heteronormative myth, that is, a fairy tale-like belief based on the notion that heterosexuality is the assumed norm for everybody and that a nice neat linear trajectory along the lines I just listed will ensue.

But not everyone lives this myth and many people have to deal with all manner of meanderings, twists and turns off this straight and narrow path. Some of the more common ones I hear about in my Consulting Room on a daily basis are: miscarriage or still-birth, developmental disorders, learning difficulties, illness, disease, accidents, misadventure, confusion as to direction, failure at education, tyrannical bosses, harassing colleagues, dislocation, unemployment, teenage pregnancies, affairs, divorce, redundancy and dementia to name but a few.

Of the hundreds of possible twists, one such meandering is when a child turns out to be gay. From that point on, the rest of the fairy tale stops dead and all the dreams and expectations for that child according to the assumed 'normal' trajectory evaporate in the disclosure, "Mum and Dad, I need to tell you something." When you are brought up your whole life to believe in the fairy tale and see other people purportedly living it, then you just come to expect that it will be true for you too.

So what's wrong with the fairy tale? Nothing in itself. Some people do in fact manage it, at least on the surface. But it does tend to corral our thinking and expectations into a very narrow view of how our lives and our kids' lives will turn out. But as any adult knows, life is never this black and white, never this clean-cut and neat, so when the kids deviate from this well-imagined path, there can be a sense of disappointment.

And so to the troubling aspect about this disappointing gay life. Why is it disappointing? It’s the idea or belief that when your child is gay, he or she won’t get to live a life of happiness and fulfilment. This is the essence of parental disappointment. It is played out in society at large too so that there is a cultural sense of disappointment in young people turning out to be gay. “Oh did you hear about Sally and Greg? Their young Jason came out to them as gay. How disappointing for them. Poor Sally.” When my partner was 21 and out, he was seeing a medical specialist who offered him this little pearl of his wisdom for free, "well being gay is okay, but you wouldn't wish it on anyone would you?" Apart from the jaw-dropping insensitivity from a highly educated clinican whom you would expect better from, you cannot hep but notice the distinct notion of disappointment for my partner in his being gay.

I think one of the principal foci of parental disappointment is the idea that the gay son or daughter will not have children of their own. While this is understandable from a heteronormative point of view, it is not the point of view of gay people themselves generally speaking. In fact, some gay people do have children, either from previous relationships or as a step-parent, or with a gay partner through IVF or surrogacy. However, most gay people don’t have children and manage to lead happy lives without them, much in the manner of straight people who do not have children.

This is a very delicate point for people get extremely tetchy when you start talking about children, but I think it needs to be made if there is to be societal change around our topic in question. While the human race depends on sexual reproduction for the perpetuation of our species, and having children is an absolute miracle, having and raising children in the 21st century is not necessarily the only way to have a good life. And at the risk of offending every straight parent reading this, nor is it necessarily the pinnacle of human relationships. While having children is a beautiful act of creation, people can have perfectly fulfilled and happy lives without them. And let's be honest, children do not always bring happiness and joy to their parents nor are they necessarily always an integral part of the family unit. I regularly see people of all ages who are no longer in contact with parents or children for one reason or another and almost every day, I see empty nesters whose children have grown up and moved on and have very little to do with them. I only say this to suggest that having children is not for everybody and that despite its common occurrence, should not necessarily be the criterion by which we judge whether or not someone is going to be happy and lead a fulfilling life.

This is an important point because I think it is integral to the disappointment model of gay sexuality we are are examining. So, the next time you hear someone suggest that being gay is a disappointment, take the time to ask what it is that the speaker really means, what it is that is actually disappointing. For me now, the whole disappointment view is wrong and harmful and causes unnecessary suffering to all, both gay and straight. So a declaration: Being gay is no more disappointing than being straight. Let me elucidate.

Just about anybody over the age of 30 knows that life is a mix. In a wonderful first world country like Australia, for most of us, life has a lot of good, a heck of a lot of neutral and a little bit of bad. We each make our way according to our own lights and for the most part do the best we can. We have enough food to eat, clothes on our back and we make what we do of our educational and employment opportunities. Whether straight or gay, we want to lead happy and fulfilled lives where we can enjoy the fruits of our labours and feel safe and valued by our families, partners and friends. Such a life is deemed a good life.

As far as a gay trajectory goes, there is no real reason why any gay person would not be able to achieve such a life. Yes, there are yobbos out there who in a drunken state might pick on us, but they pick on others as well. No-one is really immune from such sociopathic behaviour. Often it's about being in the wrong place at the wrong time unfortunately. But aside from this kind of thing, which we gays for the most part are pretty good at avoiding, gay people can and do flourish. Not just exist. Flourish!

We have a great fun. We value our friends in a special way. We can establish incredibly loving partnerships that can be kept alive and thriving. We can work in fulfilling jobs and careers, get ourselves well-educated, keep fit, look after our homes, become involved in the community, dance and enjoy ourselves. We adore our music. We can even involve ourselves in personal development to grow spiritually if we are so inclined. We can travel the world to see its marvels and we can act out our lives in compassionate ways by helping others. We build a camaraderie that is second to none and in a country like Australia, we can feel comfortable in our gay skin and confident of being able to flourish. And to top it all off, we put an emphasis on our sex lives that can be rewarding and enriching. This has all the hallmarks of a successful life, a life lived to the full, a life of substance. Such a life is the very antithesis of the disappointment model of being gay. “Oh those poor gay things, will they ever be happy like we straight people are?” And to that the answer is a resounding YES. Our being gay does not preclude us from living well.

There is nothing disappointing about being gay, or having a gay son or daughter, or for that matter, having a gay father or mother. Disappointment doesn’t come into it. When expecting parents are asked which sex they would like, you often hear the formulaic answer, “we don’t care, as long as it’s got ten fingers and ten toes and is healthy, that’s all that matters.” Why not take that thought one extra step. “We don’t care whether he’s straight or gay, as long as he’s happy, has opportunities and gets to live out his life in a meaningful way being loved and valued.”

Wouldn’t it be grand if we lived in a world where being gay was as equally valued as being straight by parents and society? “Mum and Dad, there’s something I want to talk to you about.” “Oh you’re gay, how wonderful for you.” What a world that would be. Let’s try to live that world now. Let’s try to make that world the reality, so that in the end, there is no difference in how we are all treated, no difference in how we are all thought of. Let’s discard the old disappointment model of being gay that sees our orientation as being inferior and second-rate and accept the idea that being gay is a wonderful gift, a fantastic different way to live life and experience it, just as much the gold medal as being straight. After years of self-rejection over my sexuality, I can now think how blessed I am to be gay and how lucky I am to get to live this kind of life. You know, if I had been straight, I wouldn't be the man I am today. I would be somebody else. And I'm pretty happy with the man I am today.

So parents and friends, if your loved one tells you that he or she is gay, rejoice with them and don't be disappointed. They've just begun a new adventure. 


  1. Gay sons and daugters only see from one perspective.
    Disapointment is a natural feeling and I believe it is tied into grief that parents feel when they find they have a gay son or daughter.
    Social norms dictate we will have a straight son or daughter and when that life long dream is shattered we are expected to suck it up and be just fine and dandy - - - Take of your Pink Glasses they only let you see half the picture.

    1. Dear Anonymous. I really do prefer that people give their names in comments and stand behind them as I have done. It just feels fairer.

      I'm going to disappoint you unfortunately by leaving my pink glasses well and truly on my head. And for good reason. While majority rules, majority is not always right. Sometimes, majority can be tyranny. No-one of the majority can truly understand the implications of experiencing life in a minority status, where the majority has all the power, all the institutions, all the money, all the acceptance and all the normativity of being the dominant force in a given society. So pervasive and taken for granted is this that many people in the majority don't even know they are in the majority. For them, that’s just how life is, everywhere.

      However, as I have argued in my book, it often takes the voice of the minority to bring attention to the plight, inequity or injustice that often goes unseen and unremarked in the minority. In Australia at the moment, the disability lobby has advocated strenuously on behalf of their constituents against the tide or 'the dictates of social norms’ as you put it, with the result that the majority, in this case, the Government of the day on behalf of all Australians, legislating a national disability insurance scheme; an incredible change in the face of years of stasis. A voice crying in the wilderness making a change in the majority.

      Now this is what I am trying to do in this post; to bring to light that being gay or lesbian is a good life, a life that can still flourish in every way and is the equivalent of being heterosexual in value. Thus, to have a gay son or daughter need not be a disappointment but a true joy that a son or daughter has found themselves and who deserves not “grief” but celebration and support.

      I don’t want society to stay the same. I want society to change. The dictates of social norms are wrong and I want them to change. And change they are. Kids these days are growing up with gay friends at school and most young people know someone who is gay. For most of them, it is no big deal. I want it to be ‘no big deal’ for the older generation too. I want society to change and evolve to the point that a gay son or daughter is not a disappointment to his or her parents and that the response to their disclosure is, “oh wow, that’s great – how can we help?”

      It’s not about “sucking it up and being fine and dandy”. Being gay IS fine and dandy. That’s the whole point of my post. It’s not your life they have to live. It’s their life they have to live. You can’t navigate it for them anymore than your own parents could navigate your life for you. We each have our path and we are the only ones who can tread it. You don’t have to grieve a life that is not yours to grieve. You have not lost anything. You can let the heteronormative fairytale image I described in my post go. Being gay is not a choice any more than being straight is a choice. Gay kids need unconditional love and support from their families until and even when they reach adulthood. The last thing they need is some parent standing on the sidelines emanating grief and disappointment at their life.

      Don’t be disappointed if you have a gay son or daughter. Be grateful they are healthy and finding their own unique way through life. That’s what you wanted for them when they were born. Stick with that plan now. It was good then. It’s still good now.