Sally Kohn: Coming Out to My Parents

Breaking the news as a teen I expected an epic clash. What happened was epic indeed—and still affects me decades down the line

by Sally Kohn
heart yarn image
Photograph: Yaus + Junko

I come from a family of compulsive hobbyists. I can’t prove it, but I believe my first words were mommy and daddy, followed by glue stick.

When I was 11 years old, my parents moved to a 28-acre farm so they would have more room for their hobbies. My dad, who likes to restore old cars, has junkyard finds ensconced around the property, with two or more cars of a given model clustered together as if they were modern-art installations.

My mom has a knitting workshop in a spare bedroom. I use the words knitting and workshop loosely, since the hard work is actually done by the three machines arranged along a wall of the room. With the press of a button, they produce scarf after scarf, each one machine-made with love. But while my mother doesn’t really knit, she does collect yarn, so the whole workshop area is a whimsical display of brightly colored spools. Oh, except for one corner, which holds stacks of books about handwriting analysis—a hobby my mom took up when I was 11. Remember that. We’ll come back to it.

As for my own hobbies, I learned early on that if you’re having a bad day, you should do a project. Consequently, my parents’ house overflows with my handiwork. Woven baskets hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Framed drawings from my cartoon-illustration period. Binders of autographs I collected by writing to celebrities and politicians, a particularly useful hobby for curing the isolation of small-town life. And when my angst hit the usual teen apex, I found a new hobby in my high school best friend. Let’s just say we were doing more than macramé. While other kids were discovering alcohol and drugs and the dulcet tones of Kurt Cobain, I was discovering lesbianism. Turns out I liked it. A lot.

Until that moment, my relationship with my parents had been humdrum at best, awful at worst. I don’t mean the kind of awful experienced by kids in war-torn countries or war-torn homes. I mean the kind of thing that’s enough to make you resentful and pays for the second homes of psychotherapists. Please don’t ask for an example—my point here isn’t to resurrect the unpleasant past but to give my parents credit for our much happier present. Of my own behavior as a teenager, I’ll say this: I was an obnoxious jerk. I distinctly recall one screaming match in which I blamed my mother for everything that had ever gone wrong in the entire universe. Hormones make kids melodramatic, but I didn’t even try to hold back. And when it was time to come out to my parents, I was ready for an epically obnoxious clash.

It’s a funny thing about realizing you’re gay when you’re a teenager, a time of life when you hate your parents yet desperately crave their approval. As we’ve learned from the grim statistics of teen suicide, the self-esteem of youth is painfully tethered to the approval of others. And the fact is that, other than my new girlfriend, I didn’t have any close friends in high school. So my sense of self hung entirely on how my parents would react when they found out about my new hobby.

I wasn’t at all convinced they’d be encouraging. My parents had grown up in the ’60s, but the cultural politics of the era seemed to have entirely passed them by. Sure, they were liberal, and I think my mom once owned a pair of bell bottoms, but the drugs and the music and the free love and sexual liberation? It’s not that they rejected all that. I think they just didn’t know that stuff existed. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a mathematician. While the cool crowd was listening to Joplin and Hendrix, my parents were enjoying the Beach Boys. They were kindling-straight sticks in an era of driftwood. In high school, I had friends whose cool parents threw parties at which actual gay people drank chic beverages called spritzers. I couldn’t imagine my parents being cool enough to know what gay meant, let alone cool enough to be OK with me being it.

But remember I said that when I was 11, my mom took up her 108th or so hobby, handwriting analysis? I said that would be important. Here’s why: My mom took samples of the whole family’s handwriting—hers, mine, my dad’s—and sent them off to a woman named Patty whose primary qualification was having entertained people on cruise ships by analyzing their penmanship. According to Patty’s take on my sample, I was opinionated and strong willed, overachieving and prone to worry. Oh, yes, and possibly gay.

 I am not going to expound here on whether handwriting analysis is junk science or gospel. I’m also not going to imagine what might have made my penmanship particularly lesbionic, although I will say I find the observation surprising, considering that at the time, I put little hearts over all my i’s. Then again, I drew the little hearts to copy a girl in my class on whom, in retrospect, I had a crush. So Patty clearly knew her stuff—and knew mine, too, long before I did.

Given this pseudoscientific report, it turns out my parents had seven years to prepare for the possibility that I was gay. So when I finally came out to them, did they recoil? Did they judge me and condemn me? No. They were loving and supportive, as if we were suddenly the model family in an after-school special. And then they turned my being gay into their newest hobby.

I didn’t make it easy, of course. As an ornery and resentful teen, I refused to let them know anything about my love life (or my life in general, for that matter). Yet, in spite of the friction between us, what mattered was that my parents loved me and had been my biggest fans all along. Therefore, they were instant fans of homosexuality. And since I, their in-house homosexual, wanted nothing to do with them, they projected their feelings onto others, becoming the official parent fan club for every other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender person within a four-county radius.

Our town had a chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). My parents joined and, after a few years as active members, took over running it. Not content to stick to their region, they helped parents launch chapters in two other parts of the state. Today they still run the help line for PFLAG in eastern Pennsylvania. If you call Don and Melinda Kohn’s house, you can ask them for advice on, for example, how to come out to your parents or which local gay bar you should check out (they have an annotated list).

Better still, my parents were able to apply their old hobbies to their new one. My mom started “knitting” pink and lavender scarves for couples to wear at the local gay church’s annual Freedom to Marry event. My dad became a member of the gay car club, until it eventually disbanded. (I know—what’s a “gay car club”? As far as I can tell, members did the same thing as straight car-club members in our area, i.e., they parked their vehicles in the Burger King lot on Saturday nights and looked under one another’s hoods. The only difference was that the members of the gay car club were better dressed, with the certain exception of my father.) My mom now helps an aspiring writer friend by reading drafts of her erotic lesbian detective novels. And my father made friends with a local transgender woman who agreed to chaperone the gay youth prom and took my dad as her date.

When I was growing up, my family spent more time doing than being, making crafts rather than making emotional connections. As a result, I’ve never really expressed to my parents how deeply touched I was by their support. Millions of gay kids suffer depression, and many try to kill themselves, in large part because of the rejection they face from their own families. But though my parents were never exactly my favorite hobby, they were great where it counted, loving me wholly and unconditionally when it mattered most. And since we’re not the best at sharing our feelings with one another, we do what always works for the Kohns: We turned our feelings into a project. They became activists. I wrote this essay.

I think my parents gain a lot from their gay-rights work. Now that they’re both retired, they especially value being connected and helpful in their community. Plus, after being decisively uncool in the ’60s and ’70s, they’ve become the folks throwing parties with lots of gay people drinking spritzers. Hopefully, that’s enough reward, since I may never be able to show just how awestruck and grateful I am.

But I’ll keep trying. Maybe I’ll make them something. Like matching scarves. I’ll use the machines. 

Sally Kohn is a writer, television pundit and communications consultant. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Reuters, USA Today, Politico and Time. Along with her partner and their daughter, Sally lives in Brooklyn, within visiting distance of her parents.

Next: Love on the Half Shell
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First Published Mon, 2013-10-07 09:49

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