I feel like a fraud.
The photos I’ve shared on social media of our gay son’s wedding portray a beautifully adjusted, warm, accepting and loving family.
Friends exalt my love, acceptance and transparency. They say I inspire them.
And while, today, I do feel all of those things for both of my gay sons, I still feel deep shame about how I acted toward them when they first came out.
For years after those two momentous days roughly a decade ago, my nights were riddled with sleepless worry ― worry about their safety in a world where those who are different are at minimum pushed to the margins and at the worst beaten or even killed.
I’ve never spoken about those terror-filled, sleepless nights publicly before, much less on a national news site. But it’s time for me to shed some light on the soul-eroding shame I’ve carried in hopes that it might save other parents or family members from experiencing the same agony.
When my oldest son, Luke, was 17 years old, I happened upon his journal in his bedroom and found he had intentionally left it open to a page that read, “God, if homosexuality is a sin, why did you make me this way?”
I asked Luke point blank if he thought he was gay and he replied yes.
I wept. My mind refused to believe that this was his truth ― that this was our truth.
My technicolored dreams for Luke’s life were detailed. In those dreams, I had a tow-headed, blue-eyed, loving grandson just like Luke. I had it all planned out. My dreams died a sudden, violent death on that muggy June afternoon.
Prior to Luke coming out, I had said things like, “Being gay must be biological. No one would choose to live a harder life,” and, “Who are we not to accept gay people for who they are?”
Until it was my child.
Suddenly I found myself steeped in shame, denial and anger. Unable to accept that Luke was taking us down this path ― or where it might lead ― I decided to wage my own personal “change the gay” campaign and I begged him to change. I even began to beg God to change him.
Luke didn’t change.
My husband and I consulted a psychiatrist to work through our thoughts and feelings and left the appointment feeling beat up.
We held the truth about Luke close to our hearts like it was a secret too dangerous to reveal to anyone else. We were afraid that our extended family might reject him. We knew that if they did, we would choose Luke and distance ourselves from those individuals, but the thought of losing those relationships was devastating to us.
After some time, our silence felt like a lie we could no longer hold onto and we finally opened up to them about Luke’s sexuality. We learned we had been suffering in silence for nothing. For the most part, our family and friends were incredibly supportive and, to my consternation, most weren’t surprised.
A few family members did indeed choose judgment and condemnation, and during family gatherings my emotions were strung so tight I felt like a tightrope walker crossing over a lion’s den. I ultimately chose to walk away from the people who refused to accept Luke and that move, as hard as it was, brought me great peace. But even with the support of most of our family and friends, I was still despondent about Luke’s sexuality.
Prior to telling our extended families, we told our youngest son, Will, about Luke. We assured him that we forbade Luke from telling classmates that he was gay, as Will was a freshman at the same all-boys private school and we worried about how he would be treated if anyone found out about his brother.
Will was incredibly upset ― not because Luke was gay, but because my husband and I had kept the truth from him like it was a dirty secret. He was also angry that we told Luke he couldn’t tell anyone because Will felt that meant Luke’s sexuality was something to be ashamed of and he refused to view it that way. At that time, we didn’t know that Will was also gay. The damage we inadvertently caused him by revealing our true feelings about homosexuality continues to haunt me.
As Luke’s graduation from high school approached, he chose to attend the private university where I was a professor. I panicked wondering if his sexuality could jeopardize my position. As ridiculous as that might sound now, at the time I was fully immersed in my shame and fear and couldn’t find my way out.
A week before Luke left for college to live on campus, I found him packing his winter clothing. The campus was only 20 minutes away from our home, which meant he could easily retrieve his winter clothing ― and anything else he needed ― at any time in the coming months. At that moment I realized Luke wasn’t planning on coming back. When my husband came home from work that evening I told him, “If we don’t choose to love and accept Luke, we’re going to lose him.”
So, we chose love. Or, at least, we tried to. But, sadly, it wasn’t that simple and I continued to struggle with Luke’s sexuality and what it would mean for his life ― and mine. When Luke left for college, I prayed while crying myself to sleep every night asking God to change Luke. If God was the Almighty, He could do that right? He could do anything!
I have a vivid memory of God’s response to my prayers. You know those memories where every detail about the moment is etched into your brain? It’s that kind of memory. Walking to my car I heard something tell me ― I believe it was God ― “You are saying the wrong prayer. Your prayer should be, ‘God teach me to love and accept Luke as he is.’”
From this, I developed a strong conviction that God was telling me to love Luke ― my child, and his. I was determined to transform my thinking and my heart and I committed myself to supporting my sons for who they truly are ― and nothing less. Now, when I’m told that the Bible condemns homosexuality, I choose instead to rely on what God told me, rather than a book that’s been manipulated by man for more than a thousand years.
Two years later, Will came out to us in the middle of a family dinner at a local restaurant. Even though I had had my transformative experience and had realized I needed to love my children exactly as they are, my stomach lurched; my throat contracted; my tears flowed. My first thought was, Not you too. I can’t bear the loss of another dream.
Even though I thought I had come so far in how I felt about homosexuality, I suddenly found myself plunged back into the fear and shame that I had experienced when Luke came out. Luke told us he wasn’t surprised, as homosexuality is often familial ― meaning that even though we still don’t know why someone is gay, it very well could be genetic. My despair turned to anger and I directed it at my husband, Joe. “What’s wrong with your sperm?” I asked him in a rage.
While now we laugh about my response, it was far from funny at the time. As hard as I had worked at accepting Luke being gay ― and as much as I did love my sons unconditionally ― I remained worried about the difficulties he, and now Will, would face because of their sexuality.
When Will came out, comforting him was not my first instinct ― or even my third, if I’m being entirely honest. Instead, Will was the one who comforted my husband and me by giving us a beautifully written note in which he explained that he had always known he was different and had come to accept that fact. He also expressed his worry for us, rather than himself, telling us he understood that it would take time for us to accept his sexuality.
After some soul searching, I realized that it wasn’t Luke and Will’s sexuality that concerned me, it was my worry for our sons’ safety. I worried about them being violently assaulted for being gay. I worried about their mental and emotional safety and the dangers they’d have to face living in a world that can be cruel to those who are different. I worried about their sexual safety. I also worried about our older daughter, Beth, who had to, once again, traverse the minefield of our family drama.
I realized that I needed to do something to combat the endless swirling worry that was getting me nowhere. I reminded myself of the message I believe God had for me and began daily gratitude journaling, as well as deep breathing exercises, to help with my anxiety. Slowly but surely it began to work and I settled into our new norm.
Just as our family normalized to having two gay sons, Will began dabbling in drag. When I first learned about his new hobby, the shame I had grappled with for so many years came flooding back.
About a year later I realized that being a drag queen was an important part of Will’s life. Rather than condemn this, I decided to tap into my empathy and curiosity and purchased tickets for our family to attend a drag show. I’m happy to say that the show jumpstarted a conversation with Will about the purpose and meaning of drag, and I began appreciating the beauty and art of drag.
Even more recently, Will posted on Facebook that he now identifies as genderfluid. This time, rather than feeling shame, I praised Will ― both privately and on social media ― for being himself, and I encouraged others to be themselves, as well.
It took me a long time but I finally chose love ― true, unconditional love. I finally accepted my sons ― truly and unconditionally. I’m proof that growth is possible.
I no longer yearn for my life to be different or for my family to be anything other than what it is. Relief comes with loving what is.
If you have an LGBTQ child and you’re living in a web of shame, I want you to know that you are not alone.
Eleven years ago, I wish someone had told me that everything was going to be okay ― someone who had lived through the death of their dreams and came out the other side stronger. Someone who lived knowing that society pushes children like Luke and Will to the margins but learned that they can thrive and find happiness being exactly who they are. Someone who would listen and give me space to grieve rather than deflect my pain or write it off by telling me my sons could adopt children or that being gay isn’t a big deal.
Now I hope I can be that person.
It’s going to be okay. I’m going to be bold here and tell you your life can be better than before, richer even. You’ll witness your children living their brave truth and your life will become multidimensional.
It’s okay for you to take your time to accept what is. Allow yourself to process whatever feelings you’re feeling ― grief, shame, fear, confusion ― and don’t beat yourself up for feeling those things. Someone in a support group once told Luke, “Give your parents time. It’s taken you 17 years to accept that you’re gay. You can’t expect your parents to accept it in 15 minutes.”
I suggest you take the same advice.
It’s okay to block out the noise of society telling you that your gay child is an aberration and instead tap into the infinite love you have for him or her. Using love as my North Star was a game changer for me and it can be for you as well. People will follow your lead and if they don’t, that too will be okay.
We all have dreams for our children. Experiencing the death of those dreams can be crushing.
The most important lesson I’ve learned as a mother of two gay sons is that I cannot depend on my children to fulfill my dreams, just as they can’t depend on me to fulfill theirs. In fact, it’s unfair to expect anyone else to fulfill my dreams or to make me happy.
Now I am most happy chasing after my own dreams while encouraging my children to chase after theirs ― no matter what they may be or how different they might be from the ones I initially dreamt for them.
Kelly Beischel is a success coach, speaker, author, and firecracker who uses the science of happiness to empower and equip women to have more of what they most desire. She is the founder of Dr. B. Presents where women, professors, and healthcare graduates go to master their minds and elevate their energy to create more magic in their lives. For more info, visit her official website here.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.