The first time I realized my family was different, I was about five years old. It was a beautiful summer day. My grandmother was in the kitchen rinsing fat, red strawberries. I watched as she used a paring knife to snip the green tops from the berries before slicing each one into eighths. The berries leaked their pale pink juice on the bottom of the bowl she had tossed them in. As my grandmother sprinkled white sugar onto the fruit, she asked me to go and see if my mother wanted some strawberries and shortcake. With a big grin on my face, I ran from the kitchen, heading for the staircase which would take me to the second floor where my mother’s bedroom was.
Although it was early in the afternoon, the second floor was as quiet as a tomb…and dark, as if it were deserted. A little startled by this, I shook an uneasy feeling from my stomach and proceeded down the dimly lit hallway toward my mother’s bedroom. I imagined the tangy sweetness of the sugarcoated strawberries and the soft yellow cake with the generous dollop of whipped cream I knew my grandmother would have waiting for me back in the kitchen. My fingers touched the cool surface of my mother’s wooden bedroom door. With an unexplainable nervousness rising in my chest, I pushed my weight against the door until it slowly eased open. There on the bed lay my mother and her friend Elaine. They were both fast asleep, their semi-nude bodies tangled in the sheets, close to one another. Even to my five-year-old mind, something about the picture looked odd. So odd, that I didn’t bother to wake them up to ask about the strawberries and shortcake. As quietly as I could, I tugged the door shut and crept back down the stairs. I don’t remember what answer I gave my grandmother, but I didn’t tell her, my mother or anyone else what I had seen. Somehow, I thought I might be punished for seeing something I was sure was probably classified as “grown folk’s business.” But it’s an image that my mind has never forgotten.
My mother sat my sister and me down a few years later to talk to us about her lifestyle. I think she thought neither of us had a clue, and while my younger sister Prentesse probably didn’t, I had already figured out that Elaine was more than just my mother’s best friend. I didn’t know the name for it, but I knew that she and my mom were close to each other the way I saw men and women on TV get close during love scenes that caused grown-ups to make me turn my head or leave the room until I was told that the coast was clear.
“Mommy is a lesbian,” my mother gently told us when I was eight years old and Prentesse was six. “Mommy loves Elaine and Elaine loves Mommy,” she said in a way that let us know that we were now one big family. Prentesse and I began calling Elaine “Mommy Elaine” and her five grown children–four sons and one daughter–became our “aunt” and “uncles.” You see, Elaine was 18 years older than my mother so her children were all around my mother’s age. Elaine’s daughter, Stephanie, was also a lesbian and had a son my age whose name was Terrence. To make matters more odd, Elaine’s youngest child, Darryl, and her oldest son, Charles, were gay as well. And in the late 80s, long before the scandal of “Down Low Men” (men who are married to women but secretly have sex with other men) Elaine’s oldest son, Charles, lived as a Down Low man. He was married to a woman, with whom he had three children, but he had male lovers in the shadows. He also held an important position at his church (I’m not sure if he was pastor, deacon or if he had some other role), but he eventually died of AIDS in late 1989. I’ll never forget his death because I was in the fourth grade then and I didn’t dare tell a soul outside of our “family.” Elaine’s third youngest child, Lionel, finally came out and admitted that he, too, was homosexual and that he’d been hiding it for years. This meant that all of Elaine’s children–Charles, Stephanie, Lionel and Darryl–were gay, except for one: her son Will.
As a matter of fact, from the time I saw my mother and Elaine in bed together when I was five, until my sophomore year at college, I never told a single person outside of our home that my mother and much of our new “family” were gay. I just didn’t think anyone would understand and I can’t say that I understood it myself. These days, in the age of gay rights, the fight for legalized gay marriage and TV sitcoms like the now canceled, but long-running show Will & Grace, it’s far more likely that children will show understanding toward a kid who has gay parents or even look at it as normal. But back then, I felt that my mother’s lifestyle was something other kids had never heard of and, if it were explained, they would simply write us all off as weird and perverted. I’d heard kids use the word “gay” in conversation to express extreme disapproval and disgust as in:” Ew, why are you sitting so close to me? What are you gay or something?” Or, “Look at how he walks; he’s so gay.” I even had a sixth grade math teacher named Mr. Braxton whom all the kids laughed at because it was evident that he was gay. I’m sure the teachers and other adults had no idea that we children knew that he was homosexual, but his effeminate mannerisms and a certain habit gave him away. Mr. Braxton kept a yellow, plastic bucket half-full of water by his blackboard. Each time he finished writing notes on the board, he’d carefully rinse his enormous hands in the bucket, sponging them down thoroughly, then go straight to a large bottle of lotion he kept on his desk. Exchanging knowing looks, my classmates and I would watch him as he pumped globs of lotion into his palms, carefully massaging it into his thick fingers. Yes, we could tell that Mr. Braxton was very gay. And among us kids, there was not a kind word said about him. So there was no way I was going to tell other kids my mother’s secret. Before long, keeping her secret became my secret.
I disliked being raised in a gay household for two reasons: I was afraid of what other people thought about it, and I resented that my father was long gone and that Mommy Elaine had tried to completely replace his presence. Growing up, I always felt my father’s absence like a deep crater scarring my insides. No matter how many nice “family” outings we went on–roller skating, picnics, bike riding, amusement parks, aquariums and museums–I always felt like our “family” was something freakishly weird and deformed, like a hunchback or a three-legged dog. I’d look at other kids with their heterosexual parents, and then I’d look up at the two women who were rearing me and hoped that it wasn’t evident that they were lesbians. I mean, people will believe that they’re sisters who have decided to live together and raise kids, right? I’d ask myself.
It didn’t help that Mommy Elaine had a manipulative side. While she was the more feminine one in the couple and the one who styled our hair and made delicious home cooked meals and desserts for all of us to enjoy, she didn’t love us with a mother’s love. It seemed that she merely tolerated Prentesse and me in exchange for having our mother in her life. For years, I had the distinct feeling that Mommy Elaine was trying to turn our mother against us. Occasionally, she instigated arguments between us and our mother, throwing gasoline onto my mother’s rage until Mom was worked up enough to spank us. By the time I reached my pre-teen years, I nursed a white-hot hatred for Mommy Elaine. I hated the sound of her voice, the way she laughed and the sight of her face. Each time she spanked me, I plotted on the day when I would snatch the belt from her and hit her as hard as I could.
Fortunately, by 1994, after ten years together, Mom and Mommy Elaine decided to go their separate ways. For the first time in our lives, Prentesse and I got to have Mom all to ourselves. We enjoyed not having to share her with crazy Mommy Elaine and her three-ring circus of gay kids, but we did miss Terrence whom we’d come to think of as our brother during the ten years our mother had been “married” to his grandmother.
It seems my mother never considered how her decision to be a lesbian parent would affect Prentesse and me. I suppose she felt her happiness was priority and that we were just as pleased about her decision as she was. Not until we became full grown women did Prentesse and I tell our mother how deeply we had disliked Mommy Elaine and how glad we were when she was gone from our lives. My mother was shocked and saddened to hear how unhappy we had been. She told us that she’d thought she was doing the right thing by giving us a two-parent home with two incomes, which meant that, although our father had left us, we’d been able to have everything we needed. But she failed to realize that one very important need did go unmet: our need for a close connection to our mother. We’d felt emotionally pushed to the back burner by our mother as she worked to cultivate her relationship with Mommy Elaine.
It may surprise most people to discover that, even though I was raised in a same-sex household, I don’t support gay marriage. I can’t speak for other children of gay couples, but I felt very uncomfortable about being raised by lesbians and was always afraid people would find out and treat me as an outcast. I don’t think that same-sex couples should make their children bear the cross that they have chosen for themselves by putting their children at risk for scorn and ridicule. While gay parents have chosen their lifestyle, their children have not made this choice yet are subjected to paying part of the price by facing public disapproval.
I also think that children should have the opportunity to be closely bonded to both biological parents. Little girls need their fathers just as much as they need their mothers; and little boys need their mothers just as much as they need their fathers. Fathers teach their daughters what kind of man she should select for herself and are often a girl’s first example of how a man should treat her. A father’s love also strengthens a girl and fortifies her against falling for all the cheesy one-liners spoken by horny teenage boys and sleazy men trying to get into her pants. In short, a father’s love polishes off a daughter’s development and all the teachings she has learned from her mother by adding that final boost to her self-confidence. When a child has both father and mother, it is like a balanced equation that adds up. (This is not to say that some mothers and fathers aren’t better off splitting up if they don’t get along, but fathers and mothers each contribute essential components to the healthy growth of their child.) Although Prentesse and I are now adults living happy lives, we didn’t feel that having lesbian parents was a fairytale experience. But we made it through and I guess that’s all that matters.
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