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.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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