(On Aug. 14, I posted a piece entitled "Cal State Professor Supports Controversial Gay Parents 'Study'." In it, I basically expressed confusion over why Robert Oscar Lopez, the self-described bisexual author of a piece about his "two moms," would write for the NOM-affiliated Witherspoon Institute supporting a controversial report on gay parenting by Mark Regnerus that an academic audit found is "severely flawed." Lopez got in touch with me and explained his views and why he had written the piece. Since I believe we humans are more complicated than we recognize at times, I asked him if he would re-write the email in a form that I could publish - which is below. It is posted as sent, albeit I added one word for clarity. I request that comments remain civil and respond to the substance about which one might agree or disagree, rather than getting into delete-able personality attacks. Thanks - Karen Ocamb)
A Response from a Gay Prodigal Son
By Robert Oscar Lopez
I learned in the Army that courage is not the opposite of fear. Cowardice is the failure to act because of fear. Courage is confronting one's fears.
In that spirit I begin this missive at the request of Karen Ocamb, to explain and respond to the controversy provoked by my August 6 article in Public Discourse, "Growing Up with Two Moms." Part of the problem with discussing gay parenting is that everyone has to say everything they are going to say in 700 words. So this may get long. I apologize in advance.
I got this a lot in the last two weeks: "Why didn't you just write an editorial in a liberal pro-gay magazine?"
Which brings me to the long story I have to tell in order to answer Karen's question. I hope you don't get bored.
My development as a writer has taken place in the conservative world. I speak right-wing language and wield right-wing gestures; it is who I am. My monograph wears a political sign in the title. I invested ten years in the world of right-wing letters, and The Colorful Conservative, for all its obscurity, is the fruit of that investment.
It is the world of right-wing letters that has, for better or worse, given me the most crucial support I've needed as a writer. Part of this is my own ideology, which is complex but leans right. Part of it is also a question of who saw literary potential in me, and who didn't.
I spent many years trying to find my way into gay liberal discourse, but my writing never took hold there. I finished my first novel in 1995, Johnson Park, but publishers who liked gay authors didn't care for the book. In 1996, one famous editor, whom I won't name (there are many unavoidable anonymities in this post), said that my narrative about five gay boys growing up in Buffalo and New York City in the late 1980s was "beautifully written, but too specific."
It could very well be that I am just a terrible writer; I am more than willing to accept that explanation. The fact is that liberals - especially gay ones - have never liked what I write, how I write, or who I am. They have an enormous reserve army of other writers more talented than I am who are more likely to appeal to their interests. To tell the story of my lesbian mother's journey from poverty in Puerto Rico to her death at the age of 53, and her profound love for her best friend, I found it would be impossible to go through liberal venues. They didn't want her story or at least they didn't like the way I was telling it, and unfortunately I was the only one who had written the whole thing down. It is still very likely, it seems to me, that her story is going to die - but at least because of Mark Regnerus and Public Discourse, there is a sliver of it hanging out there in cyberspace.
Lest you think I am improvising a lame excuse, I will go down the history of my efforts to give voice to the story that popped up uncomfortably in Public Discourse on August 6, 2012.
As early as 1996 I was shopping around fiction that referred to my experience growing up as the son of two lesbians, but a prominent gay writer told me my story was "radioactive," especially since I ended up bisexual myself and fell into the sordid world of Bronx drag queens and underground leather. He told me, "this story could do serious damage if it got into the wrong hands," referring to the passage that year of the Defense of Marriage Act. My story, he knew very well, confirmed what many conservatives said about gay parenting as they lobbied for passage of DOMA. Antigay forces said gay parents would turn their kids gay and lead to alcoholism and reckless behavior. Check, done - that sounds a lot like me circa 1996.
My brother, who at the time was working in a (very low) position in the Clinton administration, reacted with anger when I called him to say I was disgusted about Clinton's signing of DOMA. "How can you work there, when your brother and mother were both gay?" I said over the phone. Those words were jagged and heartless; I regret ever speaking them. It took years to repair that relationship. That was the only time my brother and I ever alluded to my mother's lesbianism aloud. Since then, we have never talked politics.
The gay publishing world was hopping with new authors in the late 1990s. At the time I was struggling to make ends meet in the Bronx, and helping three friends who were experiencing rapid declines in health because of AIDS. I spent spare time writing personal essays and short stories. Two essays were published in A: Inside Asian America, including one about Andrew Cunanan. But the gay editors who were working with me said they found my authorship disturbing. "It's so relentless," said one. "There's too much anger, and you don't seem to know what to do with it." Many told me, as well, that my writing was dangerous because of the issue of my mother's lesbianism.
I had finished two novellas by 1998, For Love of Latin Men and Flamboyantly Yours, both dealing with Puerto Rico and alluding in careful ways to my mother's story. I tried hard to couch the story so it wouldn't trigger any alarms or hurt the gay cause. Publishers and agents again found the narratives strange and disturbing, this time also telling me it was "forced." I performed a section of Flamboyantly Yours in front of a crowd of people in Manhattan in late 1997 as a monologue. My mother was transposed as a young gay mulatto in 1940s Puerto Rico; I performed it as part of an acting class. The crowd applauded and the acting teacher said, "who wrote that?" I choked and said I'd gotten it from a friend. The next week I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had to leave New York City for extended treatment in Buffalo. My friend who was struggling with HIV moved into the apartment I had in the Bronx, but then he vacated the apartment suddenly and I don't know what happened to him. I believe he may be dead. My only copy of Flamboyantly Yours was lost, this being the closest thing I'd written to tell my mother's story, which might have gotten approval from a liberal audience.
After I recovered from cancer, I continued writing but there was a rapid move away from liberals toward conservatives, who were showing themselves much more receptive to my essays. My writing was contemptuous of dependency and hostile to the hypocrisy of wealthy white liberals, which oddly appealed to many conservatives. My two religious experiences in 2001 and 2008 drew me into deeper Christian territory, and writing became a way to connect with other religious people, including many who could not reconcile themselves with homosexuality but bonded with me literarily over spiritual matters. While a few liberal professors helped me at SUNY Buffalo, where I conferred my doctorate, our friendships ended promptly when I revealed I was bisexual and opposed Hillary Clinton within the same year. I do not know why the relationship soured but we are no longer in contact. When I shipped off to training with the Army Reserves, one of them made it clear that she could never respect me again for agreeing to fight in Bush's wars. (I never got deployed overseas.)
Those "irreconcilable differences" between my writing and the liberal gay world only deepened after I went into the Army Reserves. My mother's story was still inside me, begging to be told, but it seemed impossible for me to find a way to share it. It never felt safe and other issues always got in the way, something for which I take a lot of personal blame; I was selfish and couldn't give myself entirely to authoring her story, since my own was too painfully entangled with hers.
In the Army, for the first time, I was surrounded by a lot of conservatives who viewed the world as I did; my separation from liberal or radical thinking, which was an important part of my mother's Democratic psyche (she was religious but leftist), was final.
In the Army, also for the first time, I was exposed to gay men [who] had the power to overcome me physically. There were so many gays, both closeted and out, where I served - but these were unlike other gays I had known. They were masculine to a fault and extremely misogynistic. They were cruel to other gays because other gays reminded them of women. They were vicious especially to bisexuals because bisexuals both reminded them of women and slept with women, which disgusted this type of gay man. I cannot say too much, except that I returned from my first bout of active duty to civilian life, feeling that the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was a terrible mistake. I knew most servicemembers who used the separation chapter were young and vulnerable. I knew of cases where DADT had saved young gays or bisexuals from violent situations and prevented them from disappearing due to sabotage or suicide.
My unwillingness to rally for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell sealed my fate with the gay writing community. I wanted to tell my mother's story, even if it had nothing to do with what I had been through, but no pro-gay publications would allow me near them after I published my reasons for asking that DADT be preserved. Gay colleagues at my university snubbed and snarled at me but showed great delight when Dan Choi came to campus to speak.
I had submitted to countless pro-gay venues, including Advocate, Out, New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, but none of these ever responded. In the meantime, my work was taking hold at the right-wing American Thinker and I was finding my voice in hardcore conservative circles that shared my values. In a few pieces for American Thinker, I alluded to my mother's relationship with her partner and my own struggles, but nobody, it seemed, read them, with the exception of a few conservative men struggling with bisexual tendencies who emailed me for some advice.
After much prayer and deliberation with my sister, I had decided, by late 2011, to let my mother's spirit rest. She had passed away 21 years earlier; her widowed partner was now in her mid-70s. Her story did not need to be told. Too many skeletons would rattle. Too many feelings would be hurt. I would be emotionally wrecked in the process. The gay community would throw its entire artillery at me. I told my sister, "some truths are better left alone." She agreed. My book, Colorful Conservative, had little to do with lesbian parenting and came out in late 2011, so it was time to move on at last.
Then, a few months later, I saw in American Thinker a review of a study by someone named Mark Regnerus. It caught my eye because of the reference to adult children within my age range, who'd been raised by parents in same-sex relationships. "Don't comment," I told myself. "This is Pandora's box - it will turn into Hell."
But the Regnerus story wasn't going away. It appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I succumbed to my eternal inability to keep my mouth shut (something I must say, I inherited from an in-your-face 1970s Puerto Rican lesbian mom). I started commenting on the threads - not, initially, to defend Mark Regnerus, but rather to challenge the people who were attacking Mark Regnerus.
The people attacking Mark Regnerus were saying that the only kind of people who could count as gay "parents" were same-sex couples exactly like heterosexual married couples, which meant there couldn't be a divorce or a third party (the excluded biological parent) floating around anywhere. Darren Sherkat, an Illinois sociologist, used "bullshit" to describe a lesbian woman in a situation like my mother's. Sherkat was also eliminating me as an LGBT parent, since I was still married to the mother of my child, though I was bisexual. So his "bullshit" comment was a double slap. If my kid ends up gay, it will be a triple slap.
When I looked at Mark Regnerus's article in Social Science, I found the first public validation of what I'd been through in the 1970s and 1980s. All the factors he measured - divorce, suicide attempts, dropping out of school, unstable relationships - were things I recognized in the lives of people who'd grown up with gay parents during the same period. I knew tons of them. We had all been scared of ever speaking about how hard things were, because we loved our parents and didn't want to hurt the gay community. But the notion that there was "no difference" between growing up in a straight household versus a gay household simply didn't pass the laugh test for me or anyone else I knew in that situation. It was hard. My fluency in Spanish allowed me to read through 30 years of my mother's diaries after she passed away - I knew how hard it was, for her and for her partner and for her kids.
And it suddenly dawned on me. I realized why I'd had so much trouble with my writing in the gay liberal world.
They're embarrassed by me.
They think I'm disgusting. They think my mother's disgusting.
We ruin their perfect portraits.
They've wanted me to go away. And they almost succeeded.
I posted roughly five extended comments in the discussion section of the Chronicle explaining who I was. The Regnerus study made perfect sense to me, both as a scholar and as a human being who came out of the situations he was documenting. Someone who knew people at a place called the Witherspoon Institute (I hadn't heard of them) saw my comments and suggested that I write a 2,000-word essay about the Regnerus affair. I received an honorarium of $200 and the piece came out on August 6, 2012 in Public Discourse. I had no idea what was about to hit me. I won't get into the backlash since it's still ongoing.
Let's talk about the Regnerus affair for a moment. Certainly his data were not what the gay activist movement wanted to hear. But you know what? I was sick of telling the gay activist movement what they wanted to hear. So were lots of other people who had to deal with gay parents, siblings, kids, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. I knew my comments were going to set some people ablaze, because for many readers of the Chronicle, I was perhaps the first person willing to break ranks instead of doing anything to keep up appearances. In fact, the overwhelming need of LGBTs to keep up appearances had finally led to my breaking point.
I threw caution to the wind and told the truth in a comments section of the Chronicle, where I figured my mother's story would have one last little gasp of air - certainly, not the way I would have liked, but at least something. It was my way of saying:
Yes, my family was an embarrassment to the gay community. We were loud and uncouth. My mother was a manly stereotype who liked to take us to a trailer in a tacky park smelling of sulfur everywhere. She was born under a tree in Puerto Rico without a doctor and the midwife dropped her on her head, which was why everyone said she acted like a man all the time. She knew how to fight with a machete and loved getting drunk. She had a big broken front tooth that she thought was funny. Our house was a complete mess. I was a freak. It was the Jerry Springer Show. Because, damn it, that's what being a gay family is. You're weird, you're loud, you're wildly inappropriate. Since the basic facts about your household are controversial, you start losing any sense of what's controversial at all - which will forever make you poisonous to the hypersensitive, eternally victimized people in the gay community who were raised in 'normal' households and learned how to cover their ass, act professional, and blend in with boring white suburbanites. Kids from gay parenting make terrible writers - we tell people everything, because we've never been able to figure out what's better left unsaid and what's better shouted. Or at least, that's me - I won't speak for everyone.
But my mother's story is amazing because it's painful. Here's someone whose father never finished fourth grade, who was born under a plantain tree and didn't have shoes when she went to school, who went on to finish medical school and open a clinical services business in an all-white town in upstate New York. While girls in her town were running around acting like flirts and airheads, my mom was in the rooster cages with her father. She loved cockfighting, building things, and the outdoors. At the height of her business success in Buffalo she had two offices and oversaw a staff of fifteen people. And nobody ever gave her handouts. She built that on her own, Obama!
Men quaked in fear of her - especially her father, who reared her to be more of a man than he was. Women didn't know what to make of her. While they were all dressed up in frills and rouge, preparing to get knocked up, my mother had this insane idea that she was going to become a doctor. Who but a wild-eyed lesbian would ever dream of such a thing? She was valedictorian of her small-town high school and headed to university in the capital of Puerto Rico, leaving behind the valley full of sugar cane and plantain trees. Her father sold his small plot of land to send her to school. She never forgot that. When it was time to go to medical school, she went to Buffalo, where her relatives had settled during World War II to pick apples.
And when she got to Buffalo, she met someone who wouldn't give her up. There was a friend, a woman who was quieter and meeker; she knew how to handle my mother's wild temper. Six children between them couldn't shake their friendship. Soon the husbands were gone, and they had clear sailing for two decades, to raise their children as best they could together. Nothing could ever separate them - not my mother's bouts of rage, nor her partner's melancholy moods. They stayed together.
When my wife gave birth to our first child, my mother's partner coached her through the delivery, and I closed my eyes and promised I would stay as true to my wife as my mother's lover was to her. I learned devotion from them. Had I been raised in a 'normal' household, I would have been too quick to feel shame and embarrassment, perhaps, and I would have fled my wife as soon as any scandal arose (of which, with me, there is always too much). For that I am grateful.
All that I have written in italics above is true. But what Mark Regnerus found was also true. The gay liberation movement was a necessary thing to overturn Victorian repression, which for 100 years had kept men who loved men and women who loved women in a state of terror. But like so many liberation movements, it wrought enormous casualties, and the gay community has simply never taken responsibility for the people who were wounded so that they could be free to pursue love on their own terms. For us to be free, other people had to suffer, and we simply haven't said "I am sorry" enough. Politics has gotten in the way.
Since "Growing Up with Two Moms" came out, I have received messages in the hundreds about those unsung sacrifices at the altar of gay liberation. My article prompted many to contact me: The women left by husbands who wanted to celebrate their gay freedom, the kids abandoned or confused by parents divorcing over sexuality, the parents still wounded by how their gay children purposefully hurt and embarrassed them, the people who weren't gay but looked gay to others and got savagely pressured, the people raped at drunken parties, the drug addicts or alcoholics who had to get out of gay life in order to be free of their addictions, the people horrified at the bathhouses, the squeamish people alarmed at the Gay Pride Parades who didn't know what to say.... So they told me their stories. Their stories are real. I've seen them. We cannot try to erase them.
I say "we" because I am bisexual. We, the LGBT community, are grown up now. Marriage equality isn't life or death. The major battles have been won. We are not victims. It is no longer necessary for us to stick to a certain script - "I was born this way," "I didn't choose," etc. We've made choices. I've done horrible things. So have many of us in the LGBT world. We've chosen to snoop into other people's lives. We've created a discourse community full of Kathy Griffins and Dan Savages, nasty and mean and pointlessly crude. We've turned away from people who needed us. We've thought too much about ourselves, what we want, what we need, how we suffered, how we feel, who we are .... And now it is time to think of others. It is frightening to leave the victim position and understand that our choices have impacts that burden us with guilt and responsibility. It means we don't get immunity anymore. It means we have to decide for ourselves rather than letting other people, gay leaders or straight leaders, tell us what to think and feel and believe and study. It means that some things we may want, such as children, might not be right for us. It is scary to be grown up enough that others will tell us what we do not want to hear. But courage is not the absence of fear.
Robert Oscar Lopez is assistant professor of English at CSU Northridge. He is the author of the Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman. More of his writing will be available at wildwestcoconut.blogspot.com later this year.