April Fool's day is as good a day as any to tell this story...
Last summer, as I was working on my Trial of Faith book manuscript, I mentioned to my brother Mark my recollection of his role in my coming out to my parents. When I came out to my parents, I made a special trip from Minneapolis to Massachusetts (where my parents were living at the time) so I could talk to them about it in person. By my recollection, my brother, in whom I had confided my plan, strongly urged me to reconsider coming out to them. When I insisted on going forward with my plan, he proposed that I let him break the news to them first. I reluctantly acquiesced. So my brother paid a visit to my parents the night before my arrival in Boston, and told them I was gay.
I was so certain of this version of the story, my brother's reaction to my account of it came to me as quite a shock. No, he told me, that's not how it happened at all. He had certainly not begged me to let him give my parents the news. It was the other way around. I had called him specifically for the purpose of putting him up to the task. I was the one who had asked him to tell my parents.
When we discussed it last summer, I simply assumed that my brother was confused. This was my coming out story, and surely I had to have the more accurate recollection of what transpired. Coming out to my parents was a major milestone in my life's journey. How could I remember it incorrectly? And on such a significant point! Obviously, I thought, this could not have been as important to my brother, so naturally his memories would be a bit more hazy than mine. He had to be wrong.
But recently, we discussed it again. And in the course of our discussion, I realized that he had very distinct, strong memories this episode. He was adamant that he did not remember it incorrectly.
To buttress his position, Mark went to his wife, and asked her to share her recollection of the incident, and her memory was similar to his. I had asked him to tell my parents. He had not been happy about it -- it required a special trip to my parents' home at a time when he was very busy with school, and he resented having to be the bearer of news that he knew would devastate my parents.
I on the other hand went to my sister Tina, and asked her what her recollection was. She remembered me talking to her about it shortly after my visit to Boston, and clearly remembered me telling her at the time that Mark had insisted on telling our parents for me, and that I was unhappy that he had interposed himself between me and my parents in this way.
So Mark and I each had witnesses who corroborated our versions of the story! Who was right? Both of us could not be!
A series of lengthy emails between me and my brother ensued in which we each shared more and more details of what happened. Gradually, we arrived at a version of the event that made sense to both of us, and seems to explain how we could each have such a different recollection of the story.
I was very anxious about coming out to my parents, and very worried about how they would react to me. I knew of individuals who had had disastrous experiences coming out to parents, and I knew that if I experienced utter rejection from my parents it would devastate me. Apparently I decided to test the waters by coming out to my brother first.
So the day before leaving, I called my brother, and announced to him that I was gay, and that the purpose of my impending visit (around Easter of 1989) was to come out to my parents. I told him that it would be unbearable to me if my parents rejected me because of this, and I told him I wished I could know how they would react to me before I flew out to Boston. When he heard the anxiety and dread in my voice, and when he heard me say I wished I knew how they would respond before going out there, he took this as a request to tell them for me, before I arrived, so he could report to me how they would respond.
In response to my question about how he thought they would respond, my brother told me he was certain they would not take it well. In fact, the news would be devastating. He expressed concern about the impact the news would have on them, even mentioning that my father's health had been poor lately, and that this would be a tremendous source of added stress for him. Of course, my brother was still in shock about the news that I was gay, which he had only just heard from me. So I heard the shock and distress in his voice, and I heard him tell me what a negative impact that this would have on my parents, and I took this as him urging me not to come out to my parents.
As my brother confirmed what he believed he had heard me asking him to do -- namely, that he should tell my parents I was gay before I arrived in Boston the next day -- I thought he was telling me that was what he felt he should do. I didn't like it. I had always felt that I should be the one to tell my parents. But hearing the urgency in my brother's voice, I acquiesced.
So we ended the phone call, each believing that the other had insisted that Mark should come out to my parents for me. Mark's sense that I was the one doing the requesting was confirmed when I asked him to call me after talking to my parents, and let me know if they still wanted me to come for a visit.
Mark regarded this as an inconvenience and a burden. His heart was heavy when he called my parents and told them he would come by later that day to share some news with them about my visit. He did not want to do this, but he believed that I had asked him to do it, and out of love for me and my parents he did.
I regarded this as unnecessary interference. I felt he had pushed himself into a process over which I wanted complete control. That was why I had planned a special trip in the first place -- so that I could tell my parents in person, and tell them my story my way. I felt frustrated and anxious that the manner in which my parents would learn I was gay was now out of my control.
My brother was right about how my parents would react. My dad in particular was furious. I don't know exactly what was said. No one has ever told me. Later, though, my dad said he was glad that I was not present to hear what he said. He had said some things that he would have regretted for the rest of his life if I had heard them. In our recent discussion, my brother confirmed that it was harsh. I probably would have been devastated by it.
The fact that my brother had come out to them for me gave them space and time to think things over before they had to react to me in person. By the time I arrived in Boston, my parents were calm. I told them my story -- about how I had wrestled with this knowledge about myself since I was 12 or 13, and how I had nearly committed suicide at the end of my junior year in college. The first words out of their mouths were expressions of sorrow that I had had to struggle with this all alone for so many years, and that I had been afraid to confide in them. During my visit in Massachusetts, we went for long walks, and talked more.
By the time I returned to Minneapolis, I felt that my coming out visit had been a success. I felt accepted and loved by my parents, and felt that their reaction to me had been as positive as I could have hoped.
All because of a complete misunderstanding.
Neither I nor my brother liked the idea of him telling my parents for me. Both of us thought the other had proposed the idea. If either of us had recognized the nature of our misunderstanding before my visit, I would have been the one breaking the news to them. And I would have witnessed a reaction that might have undermined our relationship with one another for years to come.
Was God at work in the confusion between me and my brother?
I'm not sure.
But I know this... When I left the Church, my parents and I literally almost never spoke to one another for almost three years. Our relationship was just starting to mend when I decided to come out to them. Had the interaction been disastrous, we might not have talked to each other again for another three years, or longer.
As it is, my relationship with my parents has grown steadily stronger since I came out to them. And that relationship was the main vehicle through which I gradually came to reappraise my relationship with the Church and with God. My relationship with my parents today is a major source of strength and happiness to me.
I'm glad I had to try to sort the truth of this story out, because my sister Tina reminded me of an incident that is of tremendous comfort to me. She recalled talking to my dad shortly after I had come out to them, and he was weeping. She asked him why he was crying, and he explained that it was not because I was gay, but because during my visit he couldn't remember ever having told me he loved me. He said he was afraid I might have left Massachusetts not knowing if he loved me.
I knew. And it was thanks to my brother. And a moment of confusion over the phone.