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

Tucker’s
Beau is particularly guarded about his erotic life.
“His embarrassment has metamorphosized into
anger,” Tucker says of Beau’s reaction
to Margaret’s delicate offer to listen if he ever
wants to talk about his feelings. “The idea of
privacy is very important for him. Whether
you’re gay or a heterosexual, that’s
definitely part of a teenager’s life that they
all struggle to share with their parents.
Here’s a kid who has been forced to share a part of
himself he never would have—or not in this
way.” But what little his mother knows, she
acts on at once. Without hesitation Margaret sets out to
chase off Beau’s older lover; she also covers
up a crime she believes her son committed and
frantically fends off blackmailers.

America’s
lasting economic traditions may best explain why moms so
often join their sisters at arms. Fathers remain the
primary breadwinners in many households, leaving
mothers with more flexibility to assume their activist
roles. That’s true in the case of the Shepards;
Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, still works
for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, while Judy speaks
at colleges and universities all over the United
States.

That’s
also true for Carolyn Wagner. Her son was 16 when classmates
attacked him at school, putting him in the hospital.
“That was my worst fear come true,”
Wagner says. The family later filed a complaint with the
Department of Education against the Fayetteville school
system—arguing it violated Title IX (the
federal statute that prohibits sexual discrimination)
by not adequately protecting William—and won explicit
protections for gay and lesbian students. “In our
case, my husband’s passion is no less than my
own, but the reality is, one of us has to
work,” Wagner says.

Collectively,
today’s fierce moms have altered the future of gay
rights. As more and more mothers speak up, it seems
that a new generation of dads is chiming in too. And
leaders in the movement say that rather than sobbing
over their “loss,” parents now arrive at PFLAG
meetings with their shirtsleeves rolled up, ready to
fight.

When Gleason
joined PFLAG in 1994 after learning that his son, Bobby, was
HIV-positive, he was the lone father amid a roomful of
mothers. “That’s not the case
anymore,” he says. “I’m not the only
dad anymore by a long shot.”

Still, all
revolutionaries know that sticking your neck out can be
intimidating at best and downright dangerous at worst. After
all, even fierce mothers of gay children have mothers
themselves. Rhea Murray says her mom can’t
understand why she takes what she considers
“unnecessary risks” for her gay son.
Like other moms who have deliberately gone off the
deep end, Murray says she has lost friends and received
threats as a result of her activism.

“[My mom]
just told me she had a nightmare that I was lying in a
puddle of blood and that that makes me a bad
daughter,” Murray says. “Well, I told
her there are worse things than dying—like not being
able to look at myself in the mirror.” The
question is simple, and Murray’s answer primal.
Her son needs her, and she can’t imagine not helping
him.

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