November 26, 2012
Mothers of gay, lesbian, and bisexual children from all over the United States spoke out at the Museum of Motherhood in New York City, without ever leaving their homes. Their opinions on learning that their children were gay were given voice by the creative team of Maura McGurk and Mia Grottola, who conducted an anonymous survey over several months and presented the survey’s findings at the Museum’s conference on Evolutionary Motherhood.
The presentation was entitled Listen to Your Mother: Mothers Respond When Their Children Come Out As Gay.
The mothers’ responses uncovered a range of feelings and reactions to the moment when their children “came out”, or identified themselves as gay, to their mothers. The responses revealed a vulnerability and honesty on the part of the mothers, many of whom did not know their children were gay before the announcement. One swore out loud; one wished she had a fishing pole to reel back her son’s words; one felt shame for having made anti-gay comments in front of her child; another was relieved that she had inadvertently solved the “pesky daughter-in-law problem”.
McGurk and Grottola, who are a couple, analyzed over 100 survey responses, culled representative quotes, and presented them verbatim in a dramatic reading. The audience, many of them academics and mothers of young children, alternately laughed and cried during the presentation.
McGurk said that the inspiration for the survey came from her own, and Grottola’s, experiences coming out to their mothers, who had a hard time with the news. Subsequently, McGurk and Grottola had a genuine interest in trying to understand their mothers’ thoughts and fears, which led to this project.
McGurk said, “Mia and I were adult children when we came out, but that didn’t necessarily make it any easier on our moms, or on us. We planned for the moment, how we were going to say it, where, when. It seems like it should be easier nowadays than it’s ever been, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you hope for the best.”
To attempt to ensure maximum honesty, McGurk and Grottola created an anonymous online survey. Ten questions prompted mothers’ thoughts on everything from their first reaction to the news, to its effect on family relationships, to thoughts on their parenting styles. Each question had unlimited space to answer in narrative form. McGurk and Grottola publicized the survey mostly through word-of-mouth among their gay friends, and through PFLAG (Parents of Lesbians and Gays) support groups.
Both women realize that their admittedly unscientific methods must have affected the survey results, though they are not sure exactly how. Because the survey was conducted online, it necessarily required internet access and a degree of technical savvy. Since many of the survey participants were likely located through PFLAG, that could indicate a tendency to be more open to dealing with their fears surrounding their children’s sexuality, which in turn could make them more likely to plumb the depths of their feelings at a stranger’s request. McGurk wonders whether the mothers are involved with PFLAG because they enthusiastically support their children, or because they need assistance coming to terms with their negative feelings.
“It’s hard to say,” McGurk says. “We saw one mother who said she was literally on the edge, hanging on for dear life, crying while she was typing, because she couldn’t accept her son. We felt terrible reading this, because our instinct would be to reach out and help her somehow, but we don’t know who she is. And of course we feel awful for her son; we understand his perspective. On the other hand, there was a mother who said she didn’t like our tone, that one of our questions made it sound as if there was something wrong with being gay and her son is perfect just the way he is,” McGurk chuckles. “Mom, we’re gay too! We don’t think there’s anything wrong with it either! But there’s a mother who is fiercely in support of her child. We saw quite a bit of mama bear instincts throughout the responses”.
The survey, though it may not be representative of all LGBT children, found that most come out to their mothers in their late teens or twenties, though seven mothers said their children were twelve years old or younger. One child was four years old when he casually came out before school one day.
The survey did not ask when the coming-out conversation took place, but indirect references in the mothers’ responses show that some of the coming-out stories were from as far back as the 1970s, with some of the mothers now near 80 years old, with adult children in middle-age.
McGurk and Grottola, who were married in August, are exploring other ways to present the results of their survey. McGurk says,
“The dramatic reading was very powerful; we’d love to bring it to the stage. I’m an artist, so I think of this in a visual way too; maybe an exhibition will come out of this. I know this made a big impression on the mothers, on us, on the audience. We’re looking forward to bringing this information to more people; many of the mothers thanked us and said it helped them to process their unresolved feelings”.
Some excerpts from the presentation, including mothers’ quotes, can be read here.