Does your mother know?

By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

Originally published on Advocate.com August 14 2001 12:00 AM 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.”

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.

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.