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

It’s a
sentiment echoed by celebrity mothers as well, including
Betty DeGeneres. “For a mild-mannered person, I
do change into a mother tiger when I feel the need to
defend Ellen,” she says in reference to her
actress-comedian daughter. “Certainly Ellen is more
vulnerable to attacks because she’s a lesbian,
but I’d be the same way about [my son] Vance if
he were unfairly criticized. It’s a mom
thing.”

Dave Gleason,
president of the Dallas chapter of Parents, Families, and
Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says some 90% of the calls he
receives are from moms. And Cathy Renna, who travels
widely in her work as news media director for the Gay
and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says that
when these mothers choose to speak out, they captivate their
audiences more than any shocking statistic or
impassioned speech she could ever muster.

Gabi Clayton of
Olympia, Wash., whose bisexual son, Bill, committed
suicide in 1995, thinks she knows why. “Audiences
that aren’t open to my message may find me less
threatening than a father giving the same
message,” she says. “And they hear me out
because I’m a mom.”

At the same time,
many people have long held mothers responsible for
their children’s homosexuality. It’s for that
reason that mothers often become such ardent
activists, according to Jack Drescher, MD, chairman of
the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on
gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues. “Mothers are
relieved to join a movement that doesn’t blame
them,” he says. “It is an enormous relief for
moms, who have all heard cultural stereotypes that
domineering mothers can make their children gay. In
one way, by embracing the movement, they don’t have
to blame themselves.”

That is, if they
can let themselves off the hook. Tilda Swinton, the
Scotland resident who plays Margaret Hall in The Deep
End,
says mothers take responsibility for whatever
happens to their kids, good or bad.

“Any
mother will tell you that the buck stops with you and on
some visceral, primal level you are in the
maker’s chair—for everything,
particularly those things that go awry,” says
Swinton, the mother of 3-year-old twins. “I can
feel that primal urge, that if there’s any shame
to be had, you are so keen to take it on yourself, because
you just want that child to remain clean in some
way.” It would follow that mothers who fear for
the futures of their gay children would want to clear the
way for their happy adulthood. Why not educate their
communities, eradicate bigotry, and fend off
homophobic assailants? And let’s not forget joining
in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which has plagued gay
offspring for decades. It’s all part of the
job.

Most fierce moms
say they are first and foremost protecting their young.
But many say a sense of sisterhood motivates them to protect
other mothers from the fear and pain they have faced.
Rhea Murray of Seymour, Ind., began fighting for her
gay son’s right to live openly in their small
Midwestern town without fear shortly after he came out 10
years ago. “There’s this innate she-wolf
energy that bubbled to the surface,” Murray
says, recalling the ostracism and threats she has endured
along the way.

For mothers who
don’t embrace their gay children at first, guilt
mayalso play a role. Valerie Kameya, 33, was 20 when
she told her mother that she’s gay. And the
child of Asian parents remembers well her mother,
Ellen Kameya, telling her that she was destroying her
family’s honor. So when her parents began
speaking about gay issues to Asian families near their
Los Angeles home, Valerie says, “I thought she was
trying to overcompensate and speaking up for my
approval.”

Ellen Kameya says
she ceased to be “one of those chair-warming
ladies” when she realized she could make a
difference. As she came to understand her
daughter’s hopes and dreams, she let go of some of
her own for Valerie’s life. As Ellen met gay
kids on campuses, lesbians in lasting relationships,
and same-sex couples with children, she found new hope.
Only when her supportive mother asked if she’d
considered artificial insemination did Valerie become
uncomfortable. “To me,” Valerie says,
“sex and parents should be separate, period.”

In between pride
parades and PFLAG meetings, gay kids need room to
explore their lives on their own, experts say. “We
all have secrets, in a sense that we’re all
alone and we all need to be self-sufficient,”
Swinton says. In The Deep End, Margaret and her son, Beau
(played by Jonathan Tucker), never discuss his
homosexuality or what it means to either of them.
“It’s difficult for families to see their
children as separate from them and to accept that they
have not only a right to privacy but an inner life
that demands it,” Swinton says. “You cannot
stop someone from having a soul. That’s not so
secret.” So most moms who evolve into
activists—like Ellen Kameya or even celebrity moms
like Cher and Betty DeGeneres—take what their
children share with them and run with it.

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