As I watched the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade wend its way up Oxford St, I paused for a second of reflection as I saw the group for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) marching up the street under the PFLAG banner. I admit to a tinge of envy as I pondered how proud both the parents and the children must feel at being able to express them selves so easily, and be so comfortable with each other’s sexuality.
This is not a privilege I have ever known with my own parents. Growing up as I did through the fifties and sixties, my parent’s generation was not given to liberal attitudes, and the prospect of having a gay son in the family would have meant automatic exclusion from the family unit, a prospect not many of us would have favoured. During the 70s, I had amongst my friends several gay men. Though not being out myself at this time, I enjoyed their company, finding them a constant source of amusement with their camp witticisms, and enjoying many social occasions at their homes. On the one occasion when one of them came visiting at home with a group of friends, my father told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was not to cross our doorstep again. This was only one of many rifts between my father and myself over the years. Thankfully, I was old enough to stick up both for myself and my friend, though making sure I did not ‘out’ myself.
My mother had left home when I was eleven years old, and shortly after my brother was killed. My mother accepted guilt for this happening right up to the present. She used the classic “well, maybe if I’d never have left…”, which is pretty inconsequential at this stage of the game. My mother was also part of the homophobe generation, though she seemed to have had little compunction about buying me dolls as I grew up, on the proviso that I never told my father.
My father killed himself in 1978, and I moved to Campbelltown with my stepfamily for a short period of time whilst the legalities of his death were sorted out. I accidently ‘outed’ myself to my flatmates when, on packing a bag for me to take down to my father’s funeral, they encountered some gay porn hidden in the drawers at home. So the cat was out of the bag in respect to that subject – at least with them. They weren’t particularly shocked, but told me I should tell my mother, who I had reconnected with only a short time earlier. The reconciliation with my mother had been shaky at best, and with her having remarried a man who reminded me very much of my father, I wasn’t really prepared to tackle the issue of being gay.
The opportunity came in 1980 when I went to live in Melbourne for a couple of years. I kept contact with my mother, and my old flat mates. While living there, I came out with a bang, and made short work of catching up on the life I had been denying myself, for all of my mature life.. There is nothing quite like the freedom you get from being far away from everyone you know. The flat mates kept telling me to be honest with mum. I kept putting it off. When mum found out I was gay, it wasn’t me who told her. My flat mates accidentally outed me.
When I moved back to Sydney, I never really set up an intimate relationship with my mother. I think all the years apart had played a role in distancing me from her. Anyway, she had established a life of her own with Ray, and produced a daughter. If we weren’t distant enough already, eighteen years between my half-sister and myself certainly didn’t help shorten the gap. I never really felt comfortable at their home in Toongabbie, and over the years my visits got less and less, until they were finally reduced to nothing more than phone calls. I did attempt a single reconciliation, and had my doubts about its success fulfilled . Over a very nice lunch in the city, a situation where I thought the two of us could discuss the issue of gay like mature adults, I gave up after having to sit through the old “it’s my fault you are like this…” line. I realised then that we were beyond reconciliation. But the saddest aspect of it for me wasn’t her inability to accept me as a gay person, but the fact that she would never really know me, the person I was, or the person I was to become. I wasn’t even really sad, just angry that she just would not accept things as they were.
In 1996, I became very ill, and ended up in Prince Henry Hospital, with a prognosis of about two weeks to live. However, new drug regimes and a lot of Capricorn stubbornness and determination turned the tables in my favour. I was released from hospital, and a whole new era of my life began.
My mother knew nothing of any of this. She knew nothing about my brush with death, nor the numerous operations I had over the next couple of years to try to save the sight in my eyes. She knew nothing of the thousands of injections I had been given, the litres of blood taken, or the 150 odd tablets I took every week to stay alive. Nor did I want her to know. Her reaction to me was that it did not exist. She lived in a vacuum- packed little suburban world, and things such as ‘gay’ could never break through the seal of that vacuum. Perhaps the saddest part of this was that she never got to be involved in my new life. She knew little of my community work, nor of my battle to return to work, of the success I was making of my writing, and my continuing attempts to reeducate myself so I could move in new directions. I felt particularly disappointed when I was given my UTS offer, and knew I could not share it with her.
The crunch came at the end of 1997. She had been having a number of tests, and had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. I thought it was terrible, but was still recovering from my own battles with ill health. She was admitted to hospital to have her bladder removed, and it came as quite a shock to me to find out she was there, as my step father never notified me. I rang him at Toongabbie to enquire about her health. He shocked me by demanded that I go out to Westmead and visit her. It was Christmas Eve, and I refused. I slammed the phone down. I knew he would go to the hospital and create a scene, whether I went to visit or not. As far as he was concerned, I should have been the loving, doting son. I wasn’t, and couldn’t be. I rang mum in the hospital, wished her a ‘Merry Christmas’, and that was the last time we ever spoke. She has never rung me, I have never rung her. I feel sad that it had to come to this, but I don’t have any regrets.
I envy those people walking up the street because they know how to love and accept what is. It may have been a battle, they may still not understand what it is all about, but they support their children in the most dynamic way, by walking up that street and declaring their support in public.
It was perhaps an odd anachronism that my partners’ family was more accepting of our relationship than my parents could even have considered. I have been accepted into their household, and I’m treated every bit as part of the family, though we are no longer together.
But I still wish that my parents had just taken the time to try to understand, not to be necessarily all over me about it, but at least accepting of me as being their child no matter what my sexuality. They have never allowed me the privilege of feeling like I ‘belonged’ to them in any sense of the word.
I know only too well that when my mother dies (if she hasn’t already), there will be no one to call me and let me know. To me, that is perhaps the greatest sadness of all.