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The (New) Parent Trap

The (New) Parent Trap

With Massachusetts on the brink of making history by becoming the first state to allow gays to legally marry, the parents of many gay couples find themselves torn between the love for their children and a traditional view of marriage.

LADLING BOWLS OF Irish stew at a St. Patrick's Day dinner, Anne Toran looks like a sweet little grandmother, her green knit dress a blaring symbol of her Irish heritage and her bright red shoes showing her joie de vivre. But it's the plastic rainbow lei around her neck that hints there may be something more behind the sparkling blue eyes of this mother of six and grandmother of 12.

On this March evening, she's the hostess of the Celtic Diversity Dinner in Falmouth, an event she helped found at her church four years ago out of frustration over gays being barred from marching in South Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade. That rankled Toran, 67, who has also established a college scholarship for members of the Cape & Islands Gay & Straight Youth Alliance and has spearheaded a movement to declare her Falmouth church a congregation that welcomes gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. It's quite an activist resume for a retired school secretary who says she did not turn political until she was in her 50s. Her transformation was spurred by her youngest child. "I have six daughters," Toran says with a boastful tone. "My youngest is my lesbian."

When Toran learned that Katy was a lesbian 16 years ago, she cried. "It wasn't because she was any less my baby. She is my baby," Toran says of her youngest daughter, who's now 38. "It was because I thought her life would be more difficult than my other daughters'. But it hasn't turned out that way."

It was Katy's coming out that spurred Toran to come out as an activist. "My agenda from the day Katy told me she was a lesbian has been that this is one of my children, and she is the same as my other children, and she deserves the same of everything," says Toran. That has meant major changes for Toran, a lifelong Catholic who was educated in parochial schools and shepherded each of her daughters through a Catholic upbringing. She abandoned that church after hearing the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth speak out at the first of many gay rights rallies she has marched in, and she has embraced a more liberal religious philosophy ever since. With her mother proudly in attendance, Katy, who works in San Francisco as a transit planner, and her partner, Joanna Totino, had a commitment ceremony at Toran's church four years ago. When they make their annual visit to the Cape this summer, Katy and Joanna will get a marriage license, with their baby daughter in tow.

"I was this mousy little thing that had no voice, and now I never shut up," says Toran, laughing. Her pen has been working overtime lately, drafting letters in support of gay marriage to her state representatives and local papers. Her husband, Fred Toran, a gracious gentleman of 75, supports their lesbian daughter implicit- ly, but he doesn't share his wife's passion or her energy for fighting.Also, he has maintained his membership in the Catholic Church, attending Saturday Masses so he can accompany his wife to her church on some Sundays. "They sing too many verses," he says with a wink. But ever the host, he helps escort the 130-odd guests at the Diversity Dinner to their tables and ensures they have plenty of stew.

TATISTICALLY SPEAKING, Anne Toran should not be nearly as supportive and tolerant as she is. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken in July found that support for gay marriage declines precipitously among respondents the older they are. While 61 percent of people younger than 30 would support a law allowing gay marriages, just 18 percent of people older than 65 would, to say nothing of becoming letter-writing activists and political organizers.

For many parents of adult homosexuals, their support of gay and lesbian issues has sprung directly, although not always painlessly, from the process of accepting their children. Most of these parents grew up in an age in which marriage between men and women of differing religions and different races was socially aberrant. Gays were deep in the family closets, and the notion of same-sex marriages was as remote as the idea that teenagers would one day sport multiple body piercings. "I knew nothing about homosexuality before Katy came out," Toran says. But having a homosexual child propels many parents quickly along the learning curve. For some, it's a path toward acceptance and support. For others, having a gay child does nothing to weaken their opposition to homosexual behavior. And still others have found ways to split the difference, drawing lines between places where they are comfortable -- such as continuing to embrace and support their own children -- and places where they are not -- such as accepting that marriage rights should be extended to gay and lesbian couples.

The debates, struggles, and reconciliations that have been playing out in parents' living rooms are no less emotional and passionate than the more public debate that has been raging around the state since the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that gays and lesbians have the legal right to marry under the Massachusetts Constitution. That SJC opinion was hardly the last word on the subject. It has ignited a war of words and passions. Sometimes those words have appeared in moving letters from parents of gays or in fervent pleas from devoted Christians who fear that gay marriage will undermine heterosexual unions. But just as often, words have been shouted across the State House steps or pleaded tearfully to lawmakers as they prepared to vote in the convention called to create an amendment to the state Constitution.

The last of those constitutional sessions, in March, narrowly created an amendment that would ban gay marriage but make Massachusetts the second state, after Vermont, to legalize civil unions for gays and lesbians. If approved by the Legislature again next year, that proposed amendment would go before Massachusetts voters in November 2006.

Whatever happens a year and a half from now, one week from tomorrow, gay marriage is set to become legal in Massachusetts. Despite the dueling protest signs -- "Let the People Vote" versus "No Discrimination in the Constitution" -- despite Governor Mitt Romney's attempts to stay the SJC ruling, despite the Legislature's proposed amendment, Massachusetts gays and lesbians are set to make history, becoming the first US residents of the same sex to legally obtain marriage licenses from a town or city clerk.

Although the protests on both sides of the gay-marriage debate have been most visible since the November SJC decision, the drama has been quietly playing out in families, as some parents struggle to align their children's decisions with their own long-held beliefs.

ICE PRESIDENT Dick Cheney is one of the most prominent parents of a gay child, with a lesbian daughter, Mary. In March, Cheney publicly announced his support for President Bush's proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. In California, state Senator William J. "Pete" Knight spearheaded the successful 2000 ballot initiative that defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Knight's gay son, David, and his partner were among the 4,200 homosexual couples who were issued marriage licenses in San Francisco in February and March, after the mayor issued licenses to same-sex couples, and before the California Supreme Court stopped it.

Knight has said he won't discuss the issue, calling it a "private family matter." But his son has been public in his opposition to his father's activism against gay marriage. In 1999, while the ballot initiative was pending, David Knight wrote an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times called "My Father Is Wrong on Gays." He wrote, "I believe, based on my experience, that [my father's] is a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing, but which serves his political career. How can I say this? For one thing, he has never discussed my homosexuality with me, and I know that he never discussed the issue with his gay brother, who died of AIDS."

Not surprisingly, Knight and his father are estranged. But that's hardly the case with all parents who don't support their children's homosexuality. Regina Griggs loves her son. They talk on the telephone. She dog-sits for him. They take family vacations together. And she's also hoping she can persuade him to give up his "homosexual lifestyle."

Griggs, 60, is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX). Its name and its mission are the antithesis of the support group PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). "I am opposed to gay marriage," Griggs says unapologetically, even to her 32-year-old gay son. "Homosexuality is not innate. People are not born gay. So why am I redefining marriage for a changeable behavior?"

Griggs was swept up in the ex-gay movement after her son came out to her about six years ago. Ex-gay activists maintain that gay men and lesbians can recover from homosexuality with the help of supportive parents, friends, clergy, and therapists much the same way that alcoholics can recover through 12-step programs. "I knew my son was struggling," recalls Griggs, so she began searching for ways to help him. She connected with a local Exodus ministry, and was encouraged by what she heard. Exodus International is an Orlando, Florida-based group that describes itself as "a worldwide interdenominational, Christian organization called to encourage, strengthen, unify, and equip Christians to minister the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ to those affected by homosexuality." Exodus referred Griggs to PFOX, which formed specifically to help parents and friends support loved ones in the process of trying to become straight.

"Recovery can take time," Griggs says. "People would be more compassionate toward homosexuals if they understood that this is not easy. If you send an alcoholic into a bar after 20 years, and someone opens a beer in front of them, they'll remember what it tastes like."

Griggs's son (she won't give his name, fearing he'll be harassed) is not an ex-gay. "He still lives the lifestyle," Griggs says. "He has homosexual friends. I've had them in my house. But he's not involved in gay-sex practices." She's aware her views anger some: "I've had people tell me, 'If anyone needs prayers, it's your son for having a mother like you.'" But, like Toran, who sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Griggs honestly believes she's doing the best thing for her child. "We love each other. We're a normal family," Griggs says. A Catholic, she clings to the belief that, although homosexuality is a sin, her son will be forgiven someday if he asks God to forgive him. "God forgives everybody," she says.

SOMEWHERE ON THE continuum between Toran and Griggs are the Gradys. Mary Ann and Lou Grady live in a tidy, three-level condo on the outskirts of Leominster. Married for 35 years, they have three children. Their oldest, a daughter, married a man in October. Their middle child, a son, is married with two children. And their youngest, Mark, 28, lives 2 miles away in a condo of his own with his partner, Josh.

Mary Ann Grady is a prolific letter writer, tossing off notes to newspaper editors about issues that annoy her. These days she's waging a campaign against the Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for the undeveloped land just beyond the sliding glass doors to her backyard. But she won't be writing letters in support of gay marriage. "I strongly believe in civil unions," she says. "Marriage in the church is between man and woman."

Raised in the North End in a large Italian family, Mary Ann attends Catholic Mass every Sunday. She was there in February, when in re sponse to a plea from now-retired Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, her priest passed postcards and pencils around so that parishioners could fill them out and send them to their local representatives to oppose gay marriage. She didn't fill out a card. "That crossed the line of church and state," she says. In 1998, she fell down the stairs in the middle of night, breaking her femur, an elbow, and her neck and crushing her hands. She was lucky to survive. From her fall and ensuing recovery, she gained a tremendous respect for life. "I'm alive, and I have a very good outlook, and that's why I don't begrudge anybody anything. I feel everyone is entitled to their own way of life."

It was five years ago that Lou Grady discovered their son Mark was gay when he inadvertently read one of Mark's e-mails to a friend. The message urged his friend to mail something to him carefully "because my parents are homophobes." At dinner that night, Lou asked Mark if he was gay. Mark said yes. Mark had been out to his friends for several years, just not to his parents. "I first came out in college on Groundhog Day in 1995," he says jokingly. "I saw my shadow, and it was pink." The abrupt nature of his coming out to his parents was harder for him, he believes, because he was so unprepared for it. "It wasn't long after the time Andrew Cunanan killed Gianni Versace," he says. "My mom was like, we still love you as long as you're not a mass murderer. My dad just said that he was so screwed up [himself], he could never judge anyone else."

Lou Grady likes to shock. In contrast to his smiling and affable wife, he is grouchy and brusque. Where Mary Ann tries to smooth things over, Lou likes to mix it up. A retired accountant, he focuses on the financial penalties gay couples suffer without the benefit of marriage. He believes married gays should pay the same taxes as married straights and thinks they should be able to inherit without taxes, like the surviving member of a married couple. "All the gays are on my side of the family -- my cousin, my nephew," he says. "I'm so [expletive] used to it." Mary Ann whispers to him, reminding him he's speaking with a reporter. "So what?" he barks.

SEX IS THE FURTHEST thing from Susan Merrifield's mind when she contemplates her daughter's 11-year lesbian relationship. "Sex is not the major concern of sexuality," she says. "People may at first be drawn together sexually, but the sexual act takes its place in a marriage, then the couple will grow together spiritually. Most people come to understand that sex is not why they're together. It's love and commitment."

That's what she's seen with her daughter, Adrienne Walker, and her partner, Heather Walker. They had a commitment ceremony five years ago, five years after they met in college. Merrifield hosted the bridal shower.

Merrifield, who lives in Plymouth, supports gay marriage: "I want my daughter to have the same rights that I have. She loves her partner just the same as I love mine." She admits to having had an adjustment period in accepting Adrienne's homosexuality, because she had never expected it. At first, like so many parents, Merrifield assumed it was just a growing-up period and that her daughter was experimenting. But as she began talking with other parents of gay children, her eyes opened. One conversation in particular struck her. "A man told me about this intense love he had for his gay son, and how he could have lost him, and he wasn't willing to take that chance," she recalls. "I felt the same way. I realized my daughter's happiness was more important to me than any feelings I had that were negative." A second major step was introducing Adrienne and Heather to Merrifield's friends. "I held my head high and said, 'This is my daughter.'"

Her last lingering sadness and fear was that she would not be a grandmother. But five years ago, Heather got pregnant with Henry. Then Adrienne got pregnant with a daughter, Avery. And Heather gave birth again, to James. "When I learned Heather was pregnant, I just started crying," Merrifield recalls, laughing now at how little she knew then about artificial insemination. "I put my head down to her belly and just said, `Thank you.'"

Her three grandchildren, plus a fourth through her son, keep Merrifield hopping. Along with her second husband, she sits for Adrienne's children at least once a month, taking them swimming and escorting them on museum trips, which gives Adrienne, a corporate lawyer in Boston, and Heather, a stay-at-home mom, much-needed breaks. Merrifield is also returning to her activist roots that she first cultivated in 1960s civil rights and peace marches and at Boston's first Earth Day. She writes to her representatives in support of gay marriage and holds candles at pro-gay vigils.

It's been a thrilling process for Walker to watch, and she feels her mother developing a new level of love for her through activism. "For years after she accepted me in the family, she was still ambivalent to show her pride for me to other people in her community," says Walker. "This marriage debate has rekindled some of her idealist roots. I think this has been another step of her acceptance and of her coming to be who she is."

Part of that process, in Walker's view, has been her mother's acceptance that she can be an important woman in Adrienne's life, even though Adrienne has Heather. "She felt like a third wheel for a while. I don't think she thought we could have the same mother-daughter relationship," says Walker. "When she became a grandmother, she realized that I needed her just as much as I ever did. I need a mom."

WHEN THEIR CHILDREN come out of the closet, many parents step into a closet of their own. Diana Laferriere knew that wasn't for her. She needed support from other parents who had been there. She reached out to support groups to help her deal with her son Dana's homosexuality. At H.O.P.E. Ministries of Connecticut, an ex-gay Christian group affiliated with Exodus, she found a way to love her son without compromising her notion that homosexuality is a sin. "We agree to disagree about the subject," says Laferriere, who lives in Watertown, Connecticut. She heads a parents' group called Voice of H.O.P.E. and compiles a monthly newsletter for parents of gay men and lesbians. Its purpose is to encourage parents not to turn their back on their children. She asks, "Unless my son brings his friends here, how are they going to know a Christian person?"

She's become an activist in her own right, most recently marching on the steps of the Connecticut State Capitol in support of passing a state Defense of Marriage Act, which would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Marriage is sacred, she believes, and should be reserved for the church. And children, she says, are best raised by a man and a woman. Dana once asked his mother if she would attend his wedding to another man in a Metropolitan Community church, a Christian congregation for gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people. "No," she told him. "He didn't marry that man. And he's probably been in relationships with at least 10 men since then," says Laferriere.

As difficult for Laferriere as accepting her gay son has been, it has been harder for her and her husband to get over what they both perceive as their own culpability in creating his homosexuality. At 66, Laferriere looks back with some regret on the harried atmosphere in which she raised her five children. "I was a super mom," she says. Though now retired, she worked a series of jobs, as a factory worker, medical office assistant, and, last, as an administrator in a car dealership. Her husband worked two jobs as the children grew, and she believes he was not around enough to provide the male role model Dana needed. Dana's brother was 15 years older than he, leaving him at home with his mother and sisters. "We both screwed up raising our child," says Laferriere, "but we're also now aware that we can't change anything we did yesterday."

Laferriere insists that she's close to her son and sees him once or twice a week when he stops by the house or they go out to lunch. She's careful to note, however, that they don't vacation together. "He loves your P-town up there in Massachusetts," she says. "I've never been there, but I don't think I'd like P-town."

She chides her oldest son for not wanting his children to be around Dana. "They were afraid it was going to rub off," she says. "It was crazy. If one of the kids was sitting at the table and said, `Uncle Dana, can I have a bite?' they were afraid [the child] would get AIDS. He doesn't have AIDS. And it's not transmitted by sharing food. That narrow-mindedness is difficult to deal with."

Dana grudgingly accepts his mother's point of view. And together, mother and son attend the Living Word Ministries in West Haven each Sunday. "We definitely have a difference of opinion," says Dana. "But, primarily, I know she loves me. I don't care what she thinks about my lifestyle." He respects the work that his mother does with parents of gays and with gays themselves. Through her ministry, she comes into contact with many gay men and lesbians who are alienated from their parents. She treats those people the same way that she treats Dana. She doesn't approve of their homosexuality, but she extends them kindness and support. "She's a pseudo-parent to them," says Dana. "I don't try to change her. I see how much they need her, and I see how much she gets out of it."

PETER BARNETT IS counting the days until his daughter Jessica's August wedding. Now retired and working as a painter in Monson in south-central Massachusetts, Barnett has little appetite for politics. He attended one civil rights demonstration, a 1962 march on Washington, while he was a student at Amherst College. Even then, he felt more like an observer than a participant. But gay-marriage issues are propelling him to take a stand.

In March, with his own handcrafted sign -- "If you mean equal, why insist on separate?" -- he stood on the State House steps with Jessica during the second constitutional convention. As he did in '62, Barnett felt like a spectator. "But it felt good,'' he says, "because I think Jess is really touched by the fact that I've done it."

Rather than chanting slogans himself, Barnett mostly watched and thought. Though not a churchgoer, he found himself composing a fantasy sermon in his head as he listened to demonstrators' passionately held beliefs on both sides of the issue. He mused on the notion of "traditional marriage" that opponents of gay marriage bandy about, and he imagined himself telling a congregation that it is certainly nothing like marriages in biblical times: "Those marriages were exchanges of sheep and goats or . . . land and money. When the Bible speaks of love, it is love between man and God or man and his neighbor. When it speaks of marriage, it speaks of faithfulness and duty." Today, he thought, we have something so much more than traditional marriage. We have "the right of each person to marry the one they love," he says. "Love is not a choice. We do not choose the person we fall in love with." He imagined a title for his sermon: "A Vote for Love."

Jessica Barnett, 29, is pleased, but not surprised, that she has received such unconditional support from her father, her stepmother, and her mother, from whom Peter is divorced. She grew up in an academic family, with her father teaching art, before switching to a career in computer programming. And her father, raised in Williamstown and Rome, grew up in an academic family, too. "I tend to think of us as a pretty traditional, New England, Democratic, liberal-minded group," she says. "I expected nothing less, and I got nothing less."

Her father beams when he talks about Jessica, and in his quiet, apolitical way, he softly advocates that she be allowed to marry the woman she loves. And in a very real sense, he's putting his money where his mouth is, since he's offered to pay for her August wedding. When Barnett left the State House, he handed his sign to a gay-marriage supporter who had admired it. He's not sure if he'll demonstrate again. But if he does, he knows what his next sign will say: "I am straight, but not narrow."

Michelle Bates Deakin is a freelance writer living in Arlington. 

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