Monday, October 18, 2004
What would you do if your child were gay?
These parents sought answers from an area group that provides support and education
By Maggie Downs
Enquirer staff writer
CLIFTON - After dinner, as the dishes were being cleared from the table, Mark Byers stretched his arms out into a T and said to his parents, "Guess what, everybody? I'm gay."
His mother, Dorothy, knew her son had been looking into acting school. So she asked, "Is this a line, or are you trying to tell us something?"
It wasn't a line.
"We didn't sleep all night. We just wondered what we had done wrong," she says.
Dorothy and husband Harold Byers soon sought help from the Greater Cincinnati chapter of PFLAG - Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays - a group that uses support and education to make the coming-out process easier.
PFLAG meetings follow a loose format, because people come to the meetings for different things. Some family members are looking for answers and explanations. Others simply want to hear about other people's experiences. Some gay people are seeking the kind of support they don't receive at home.
The organization also has an extensive library of research materials to borrow, from kids' books to adult volumes.
"If it hadn't been for finding an organization to put us on the path of understanding, it would have been tough going," Byers says.
There isn't a step-by-step guide for what parents should do when a child announces he or she is gay, says Marty Kwiatkowski, president of the local PFLAG chapter.
"We all come from different places. We all have different backgrounds. We all have different concerns," she says. "It's hard to tell someone to be supportive if they're not feeling that way."
The overwhelming emotion is fear, Kwiatkowski says. She says people remember the death of Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student who was killed when he was tied to a Laramie, Wyo., fence, beaten and left in near-freezing temperatures in 1998.
"They've all heard the stories about what happens to gay youth, and they are afraid for their child," Kwiatkowski says.
Parents also don't know how to break the news to other family members and friends.
"They wonder how they can explain this to people when they don't understand it themselves," Kwiatkowski says.
Many wonder how to reconcile this with their faith.
"We're a nondenominational group, but religion is probably the most difficult thing we have to deal with," Kwiatkowski says. "And because they're all coming to us from different faiths, it's expressed in many different ways."
All express the fact that they still love their child. They just don't understand what it means to be gay, she says.
She advises: "Come to a meeting, voice what you're feeling, and when you're comfortable, you can begin the process of getting to know your child all over again in an accepting, supportive atmosphere."
Dorothy Byers voted in 1993 in support of Article XII of the city charter, which prohibits Cincinnati City Council from passing a gay-rights ordinance. A decade later, she says the process of dealing with her son's gay orientation has been slow but rewarding.
"Back then, I probably would have said that being gay was a choice. I wasn't condemning anything, but I thought it was a little weird," she says. "This has really changed my personality. I've had to get brave about things."
Byers' son is now 22 and living in Boston, where he attends the Berklee College of Music. Sometimes he calls home to talk to his mom about his dates.
"Now I'm to the point where I don't even mention my son is gay anymore," she says. "For a while it was this big thing I had to get out, but now it's stupid to bring it up out of context.
"It's like saying, 'My son has blue eyes.' Who cares?"
About the group
What: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
When: The second Tuesday of every month from 7 to 9:30 p.m.