Embracing our gay children: a life and death matter
I was holding my son as tightly as I could before he finally gave in. The weight of his body and burden became mine as the fear overwhelmed him. The sound of his sobbing frightened me; it was similar to what I had heard from victims of tragedy in my reporting: an uncontrolled continuous wail.
Alex was 17 when he came out to us and it was sooner than he wanted to. Being the noble young man he is, he didn’t want us hearing about it secondhand, so he called a family meeting with his mom, his sister, and me and struggled to begin. He sat on the floor, pulled his legs in tight as protection, and tried to find the words. When he couldn’t, I took the risk and asked whether it had to do with his sexuality. That was when he collapsed into my arms.
Coming out is toward the end of the process for our gay children, but for parents, it’s the beginning. There is remarkably little written or support available for parents who want to protect and guide their children through this vulnerable transition. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Studies show one in three gay youth attempt suicide in the coming-out process, a percentage much higher than the national average for their age. Alex’s school had a general anti-bullying strategy, but counsellors and teachers are reluctant to venture into such personal realms as sexual identity.
The Internet pointed us to multiple resources for kids, but few for parents. Eventually, my wife found a youth group in Vancouver where Alex could safely meet other students like himself.
When we dropped him off, it felt like the day we gave him over to kindergarten -- we knew he was walking through a threshold, and we felt powerless to protect him. We were so worried we waited outside in the car the entire time to make sure he was safe and happy.
Sharing our son’s coming-out process made many friends and relatives uncomfortable. We didn’t know other families like ours, so we mostly muddled through, explaining and answering what few questions arose.
Today, at 26, Alex has the love of every generation of his family, lives openly and has a successful career in advertising.
My wife and I, until recently, still hadn’t met other parents who had navigated those years. Then one day, we came across a feature in the Ottawa Citizen written by Shelley Page profiling a local and fully out young hockey player.
I recognized Scott Heggart from a YouTube posting that a friend in London had forwarded me a few months earlier. Scott was 18 at the time, and in the video, he lamented the suicide of Jamie Hubley, another gay Ottawa student who had been mercilessly bullied at his school.
Scott had experienced a mostly positive coming-out experience, as our Alex had. Yet that posting, which went viral as part of the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign aimed at gay and lesbian youth, displayed a wisdom and perspective far beyond Scott’s age. Reading Shelley’s story, I was also introduced to Scott’s loving family, whom I contacted shortly thereafter.
I was interested in comparing notes -- the mistakes we made, how we came to terms with a future for our sons different than what we imaged, and the steps we took to keep them safe and emotionally stable.
But I also had in my mind doing something I have never done in my reporting career: taking a stand on an issue some find controversial. I wondered if exploring Scott’s coming out, and his family’s acceptance of him, might provide other parents an example of how to help their kids. And I wondered if viewers might be more open-minded hearing about it from someone they had come to know on TV.
As I was working on that story for W5, I was also reading Douglas Brinkley’s remarkable biography of Walter Cronkite. I was surprised and relieved to learn how Cronkite had driven CBS reporters to cross a similar line in their reporting during the civil rights movement in the U.S. The systemic racism toward African-Americans, he believed, compelled journalists to put aside their notions of neutrality and play a role in shaping American’s acceptance of equal rights.
To Cronkite, there was no "other side" that needed equal time in CBS reporting of segregation; there was only one position that was humane and moral. That’s how I feel about what I consider the civil rights issue of my time: legal and societal equality for gays and lesbians. I cannot see a valid or moral argument for limiting them. I will not accept that my son has fewer rights, must hide who he is, or be afraid to celebrate true love in front of us.
Cronkite’s example helped ease my reluctance to reveal my bias, and as long as I’m being transparent about it, I feel comfortable sharing with W5 viewers and you this aspect of my life I never have discussed before.
I hope if you watch the story, you’ll be challenged by any preconceptions you may have of gay kids or their parents. The Heggarts were brave in allowing me to explore their moment of family crisis, none more so than Scott himself.
Together, we hope to shed light where it’s needed. Far too many closeted homosexual kids are alone and in need of their parents' love and support. Too many of them are dying. That’s not only a story worth covering - I believe it's one worth having an opinion about.