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

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.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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