Updated: Aug 17, 2021
By Susan Berland
I grew up in a Jewish home and although we were not particularly religious, I still knew we were Jewish. We belonged to a Temple, intermittently, and I learned some of the prayers and what the holidays were about. While I don’t remember hearing anything negative in Temple about gay people, I do remember making fun of my high school biology teacher who we all suspected was gay. My two uncles were also gay and whispered about. Even though they weren’t ostracized from the family, they weren’t treated the same as the rest of the family.
I don’t know how or where I learned it, but I knew it was wrong to be gay.
I married young and had my two children young. When my oldest son Rick was about 3 years old, I told his father, “I don’t care if Rick marries someone of a different race or different religion, but I don’t think I could handle it if he were gay.” I didn’t remember saying that until my ex-husband finally confronted our son about being gay. He told him, “I don’t care if you’re gay. Your mother and I have known since you were three. Ask her about it.” It was when he asked me that I remembered that conversation. I never said that about my younger son so I must have had a mother’s instinct about Rick.
I didn’t think much about it until he was in middle school and I came home and found him wearing my jewelry. That freaked me out a little, I must admit. We were in family therapy and so I took this to the therapist, and she told me not to worry. It didn’t mean he was gay. By the time he was in high school, I strongly suspected he was gay. He didn’t have any of the (what was then) stereotypical gay mannerisms and I don’t think most people suspected he was gay. But I know now that I knew he was gay. He had a lot of friends who were girls but no girlfriends. I didn’t want to ask him if he was gay, however, because if I was wrong, I didn’t want to put any ideas in his head. Seems ludicrous when I think about it today. He graduated high school in 1986 and, when in 1988, my husband, younger son and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, Rick decided not to join us and at 19 was living on his own.
I received a call from Rick in December of that year. I had been planning a trip to Los Angeles at the end of January and he told me wanted to talk to me when I came to visit. I asked what it was about and he said he wanted to wait until we were in person. I hung up the phone and told my husband. “Rick wants to talk to me when I go to L.A. but he won’t tell me what it’s about. Do you think he’s going to tell me he’s gay?” I called my sister and told her Rick wanted to talk to me but wouldn’t tell me what it was about. She responded, “Do you think he’s going to tell you he’s gay?” My younger son was going to visit his brother that week as well and I found out later that Rick had the same conversation with him and Brian had had the same thought, “I wonder if Rick’s going to tell me he’s gay”.
So yes, I knew. But I didn’t want to know. I truly hoped it was something else. I really wanted it to be something else. I didn’t want my son to be gay. By then, I didn’t consider myself homophobic and had many gay and lesbian friends, but it felt different when it was my own son.
We met for lunch before I flew home and Brian was there, too. Rick hemmed and hawed and I finally said, “Just tell me. I know already and I don’t care.” He finally got the words out, “I’m gay.” I’m not proud of what I said but I know it could have been much worse. I turned to my younger son and said, “Now, it’s up to you.” They both knew I was talking about grandchildren. I don’t remember a lot of the rest of the conversation. I was fairly certain he hadn’t had sex with anyone as he had just come out to himself a month earlier. He had just turned 20. I said, “Get yourself to the LGB Center in West Hollywood and find out how to prevent AIDS because if you get it, I’m going to kill you.” Of course I wasn’t serious; my fear slipped out.
On the plane ride home I was kind of in shock, though not very surprised. I didn’t understand my feelings and why it bothered me so much – just that I was afraid for his safety, his health and I didn’t know how I would handle it if he brought a man home.
I had heard of a support group for parents of gay kids but didn’t know what it was called. This was before the internet and Google. I looked in the phone book in both the white and yellow pages and couldn’t find anything. A gay friend from Los Angeles had moved to San Francisco, so I called him. I didn’t want anyone else to know our news but felt I could trust him and that he would understand. Within a week, he called me back and told me there was a PFLAG (an in person, once a month support group for parents, families and friends of someone who is LGBTQ) meeting not far from my home. That was the beginning of my healing and becoming the mother I wanted to be. The people at the PFLAG meeting were so kind and understanding.
From not wanting anyone to know about “our secret” in February, I soon evolved into marching in the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco in June of the next year. And also had my own “Coming Out” story published in our local newspaper in October on Coming Out Day. I became an advocate for marriage equality when my younger son got married, and I saw how unfair it was that he could just go get a license and get married while my gay son, who had been with his partner longer, could not. I worked on the No On 8 Campaign in California in 2008 and celebrated when marriage became legal in California and then across the country!
My son has been out for over 30 years and I am again active in PFLAG, providing experience and much needed hope to parents whose kids have just come out. I feel honored and blessed to help many parents through my private Facebook support group. I learn every day from the brave parents who are fighting for equality for their LGBTQ children. I didn’t know it at the time, but my son being gay has been the greatest gift to me and my family.