Does your mother know?

As the new movie The Deep End poignantly points out, our mothers can be our most formidable allies—and their activism only strengthens the more they learn about their gay children

BY Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

August 13 2001 11:00 PM ET

Mother may be the most widely recognized word on
earth. It’s the first one most of us ever
utter. And the women who give us life are often the
people who know us best, who love us no matter what, and on
whom we can rely to protect us from harm. But for the
mothers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered
kids, motherhood takes on a new sense of urgency. The
obstacles their children face prompt many to become
outspoken advocates for their kid’s rights or to
fight the threat of hate-filled crimes against them.

When Fox
Searchlight’s production of The Deep End opens
in theaters nationwide this month, moviegoers will
watch the character of Margaret Hall embody the spirit
of countless real-life mothers. Margaret dives
headfirst into danger, without regard for morality or the
law, in her attempts to protect her gay son. In the
thrilling fictional tale, she demonstrates the lengths
to which mothers will go to ensure their
children’s safety and their futures. But she’s
hardly alone.

In small towns
and big cities across the country, mothers are fighting
bigotry and educating locals, losing friends and seeking new
churches, cleaning the wounds their children receive
in school beatings and suing their school districts
for not protecting them. They are fierce moms, and
they take no prisoners.

Ask a few of
these mothers why they jumped into the fray (usually long
before their husbands), and their answers range from the
selfless to the spiritual. But the common refrain is
that the more they learn about their children’s
sexual orientation and everything their children’s
lives entail, the more they realize how important it
is that they actively defend their children and fight
for their rights.

Probably no
mother exemplifies this better than Judy Shepard, who has
become synonymous with the hate-crimes legislation she has
championed since her son Matthew was murdered in 1998.
Even so, Shepard says she was much less an advocate
when she first learned her son was gay. “I had read
that gay people were freaks of nature, and even the American
Psychiatric Association [at one time] said
homosexuality was [an illness],” she says.
“But the more I learned and the more involved in the
community I became…the more I realized how much
violence and job discrimination still existed. I had
work to do, and I had a window of opportunity in which
people would listen to me.”

People are
listening to Shepard and countless other mothers, whether
they be Pauline Mitchell, who is just now coming to
terms with the July murder of her transgendered son,
Fred Martinez Jr.; Patricia Kutteles, who is trying to
force the Army to accept some responsibility for the 1999
murder of her son, Pfc. Barry Winchell; or Dorothy
Hajdys-Holman, who has led an attack against the
military’s antigay policies ever since her son,
Allen Schindler, was ambushed in 1992 by two of his USS
Belleau Wood shipmates, one of whom beat him to death.
“I don’t want any mother to go through
what I went through,” Hajdys-Holman says. “I
guess you can do a lot of things to me, but you
can’t mess with my kids.”

In large
testament to the work these women are doing, more and more
mothers are becoming fervent activists—to ensure that
their children don’t meet fates similar to that
of Shepard, Martinez, Winchell, and Schindler. For
example, Carolyn Wagner led her family’s charge to
improve the climate in Fayetteville, Ark., for her gay
son, William, and says her activism was never
negotiable. “It’s not because that’s
who I was; it’s because that’s what I
had to be to be a mother,” Wagner says. “When
I decided to have children, it comes with certain
responsibilities. And this is one of those
responsibilities.”

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