When your child tells you 'Mum, I'm gay'
Plenty of celebs are glad to be gay, but it still isn't easy 'coming out' to your family, especially in Northern Ireland. Yet attitudes, even among the churches, are beginning to change. Jane Hardy finds out more
Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FFLAG) is a UK-wide organisation, yet its volunteer-run branch in Belfast numbers only a handful of parents of gay men and women, far fewer than you'd expect statistically.
The situation in the province has a long way to go before acceptance of homosexuality is reached and total tolerance practised.
Yet there are some hopeful signs of change, including a report brought out by the Presbyterian Church last month at its General Assembly which recommended that the Church, known for its strict moral line, should create what it calls a 'safe space' for people struggling with their sexuality. This might even translate into some sort of helpline.
A spokeswoman and mother of a gay son - who belongs to the church and with worked on the report with facilitators Lindsay Conway and Bobby Liddle - says: "It's different in Northern Ireland from the mainland; the prejudice here is horrendous".
So much so that this interviewee declined to be named. "I need to protect my family from homophobia" she says, which rather gives the lie to the new liberalisation.
Evidently, then, coming out to your parents in the province requires special courage.
Lindsay Conway notes: "What we're saying is from a pastoral point of view, we had to approach things differently, change the language and get alongside the gay community. We're not about counselling people into changing orientation. It takes courage for the individual to come out, and even more to come out to clergy."
There is a sense in which parents of gay adults have to come out, too, after their children's announcement - to their own friends, family and society.
The woman who asked not to be named adds that she has only just told her elder sister about her son's sexual orientation, even though she has known about it herself for a decade. "There is a real reluctance - to be honest, an awful lot of gay people here haven't yet told their parents. You're up against a lot of ignorance, and I had to do a lot of research on the subject myself." She adds the professionals haven't been well-informed either: "Producing the church report is progress on a small scale, but - and this is a big but- people still end up keeping gayness in the family to themselves, sometimes ending up on medication. It's a difficult issue."
She admits that she never thought she would be in this position: "When the Victorians criminalised (homosexuality), we were all criminalised."
Yet the Presbyterian Church report has let in a chink of light: "We couldn't have produced the report five years ago".
Lindsay Conway says that the Presbyterian Church is prepared to repent of any homophobic attitudes in the past. "We need the gospel of reconciliation."
Myths still need exploding, of course, prejudices banishing. The mother adds: "I wouldn't say the Bible as a book is negative, but the way it's being relayed is negative. At the Church Assembly meeting when the report was debated, there was quite a lot of opposition but it has now gone through.
"It's going to be very slow over here, as people are stuck in their ideas, they think you're making up the prejudice. But they need to find out what's going on - unfortunately, there was no one out there for me. So the more people read about the subject, the better."
FFLAG is contactable via www.fflag.org.uk
'I felt everything had crashed down around me'
Cathy Falconer (49) mother of two sons, Kevin (29) and Barry (25), who is gay, is author of Good As You: Explanatory Study of Mothers' Reaction To Gay Sons. She lives in Londonderry. She says:
Barry came out to me almost eight years ago - I remember it all very well. He'd come out to his father the night before but it wasn't a planned thing.
They were out with some people: I don't know the exact way of it but the conversation got round to homosexuality. A person asked Barry: 'Are you gay?' and he said: 'Yes.'
When these friends left for home, my husband said, 'We'd better tell your mother'. Eugene then told me, and I felt as if everything had crashed down around me. It was a big shock, although I had suspected something for about six months, when none of Barry's friends were coming round, and he was withdrawn. He wasn't himself, and I was worried he might be breaking up with his girlfriend.
He always had girlfriends, funnily enough. I was thinking, 'It's not this, it's not that, he wouldn't be gay, would he?'
Of my two sons, Barry was always breaking the girls' hearts from the age of 14 to 16. His friends all kind of knew, before me. Barry broke up with this girl but hung around with the same wee group.
The biggest thing for me was what society in general was going to say or do. And then you, the family, come out, too, it's definitely a similar process. You have to decide who you can tell and who first - there's a pecking order. Can you tell your sister, brother, best friend? No ... we'll leave my mother for a few weeks.
My other son Kevin was at Queen's University, Belfast, at the time. He was shocked, big time, having a gay little brother. My whole family was great, though. They said: 'We love him, it'll never change our view of him.' I was the one crying about it and reacting emotionally. They were all trying to protect me, and I was lucky to get that support. Some people who discover they have a gay son are afraid to tell anyone, and say: 'We'll keep it within these four walls as a private matter.' There's a lot of fear and a sense of loss, too, regarding grandchildren.
I have had experience of homophobia - at the start, I used to hear people making some derogatory remark, which made me feel as if someone had put a knife in my stomach and twisted it. Now, I'd feel able to say: 'That's not right.' People might come out with: 'No son or daughter of mine is gay.' And I'd think: 'You just don't know.'
I still fear society's - other people's - reaction and will until the day I die. It is ignorance, really. A lot of people hold on to the old myths, that homosexuals are perverts or evil, and that's one of the reasons I wrote the book. Everybody thinks: 'How could this happen, how did my son turn out to be gay?' And there are no answers out there. I was doing a master's degree at the University of Ulster, and needed a thesis topic, so I decided to study how other people felt when their children came out as gay.
I narrowed it down to mothers' reactions, as I'd never have got the fathers to talk to me. I interviewed 11 mothers from Belfast, Derry and Donegal, and all were saying exactly what I felt. The main worry tends to be: 'Is it my fault? I must have done something to make him gay. Why couldn't he be straight?' I wasn't the only one to feel this, which was a comfort. And, of course, Aids has been another big worry.
I could write the script for a parent of a gay child. What's the best time to come out? There is no best time, but young men often do it during the first year at university. They need to feel comfortable in the situation, and will often work out that mum's likely to be ok, dad not, and tell her first.
My son's coming out wasn't planned, as I've explained, but he was relieved when it was over. Barry now has a partner, Gary, and at the start that was another issue. He is mad about him and I'd certainly rather he was in a relationship.
Gary's lovely and they're very happy. They've got what every parent wants for their child - the chance to find love and happiness."
'My dad was ok but my mother was all tears'
Barry Falconer (25), son of Cathy and Eugene, partner of Gary, works as a hairdresser and lives in Londonderry. He says:
It happened in the house, actually, not in the pub as my mother describes it. My father and I had been out having a wee drink with some friends. I do indeed remember coming out to him - it was spontaneous, I hadn't planned it at all. I always thought my parents would be ok with it.
Then, suddenly, I am not sure how, we came on to a gay conversation, and I said: 'I'm gay.' He was fine, really fine, saying: 'You're my son and I love you, and as long as you're happy, that's all that's important.'
No, my mother wasn't ok. She was all tears and snotters, as they say. I wasn't expecting that at all. After that, she hid her feelings from me and kept it to herself. I never knew she was so affected, but she was right out of her comfort zone for a long time, with a breaking heart. I had always had girlfriends, friends and maybe something more, a bit of both really, but from 15 they were just friends who were girls.
It's not so difficult now for people at school, but definitely back then, if you were 14 or 15 you didn't talk about being gay. You just didn't have that option. My girlfriends weren't a smokescreen - I was just doing what everybody else was doing, going along with the crowd.
I told a close friend first, then a few days later, told them all. I don't think the scene in London is necessarily better, although Northern Ireland is very into itself - everyone just knows everyone else and there's not the anonymity of London.
I live with my partner Gary. We have been together seven years this July. We've talked about getting married and having a civil ceremony, but we'll see. Gary is a student placement officer at a language school, and we met when we both lived in the same block of apartments.
Coming out produced a great sense of relief. Nobody, gay or straight, discusses their sex life with their parents, but it made it easier to talk about what I did socially. Even my grandparents were pretty cool about it.
My father's parents are a bit older, a different generation, but they sussed it out. I have encountered homophobia, verbal abuse, but you just have to ignore it. There is no point in getting into it, and, after all, it is their problem. I don't know if life would have been easier if I'd been straight. But being gay is part of me, like the colour of my hair."