Evelyn came out to us when she was thirteen.
I'd been telling my kids for years—since I first started talking to them about love and sex—that they could like boys or girls. I just included it in the conversation because I wanted them to grow up knowing that was perfectly acceptable in our house. If one of my children turned out to be gay, I wanted that child to feel totally included and normal from their very earliest days. I didn't want them to come to the realization of their sexuality with any unnecessary fears or misgivings about whether they were loved absolutely for who they were.
I parented this way because I believed I was here to help my children become the fullest expression of their deepest, most authentic selves—whoever that may be. I do not believe in the parenting model that is about shaping our kids to our own likeness or our molding them into the people we wish we were or want them to be. I don't believe in projecting our personal fantasies onto our children. Be brave enough to live the life you want to live. Don't ask your child to carry your dreams for you. They have their own to shoulder.
Because I raised my kids this way, I thought I'd done enough to pave the road out of the proverbial closet. I didn't take into account the other people in my child's life. I didn't consider the way my mind defaulted to heterosexuality when I imagined my children's futures, or tried to picture their partners someday. I didn't think about the cultural stigma around homosexuality that still exists to some degree in our country. I didn't account for the jury of her peers or emotional maturity or self awareness or any of the other nuances that play a role in how a child comes to understand and identify their sexuality.
So I was shocked by several steps along the way in Evelyn's coming out journey.
I was shocked that she denied even the possibility of being gay when I first questioned her about it. I was shocked that she told her sister before me, and asked her to keep it a secret. I was shocked that when she did finally tell me what was happening, she labeled herself as questioning rather than queer. And I was shocked that it took her a period of months to finally come around to seeing and talking about herself as a lesbian.
I realized later that laying a foundation of acceptance and safety is just the first step towards ushering LGBTQ kids into a healthy adolescent and adult self-image. And that as parents, we are not the only influence on our children. Parenting a queer teen comes with its own challenges. Not because queer kids are any more difficult to raise than their hetero counterparts. It's simply because queer teens are facing difficulties and prejudices that other kids aren't. Because I'm not gay myself, I didn't always feel confident in knowing the best way to help Evelyn grapple with her sexuality and her relationships. But I was committed to giving her my best effort every step of the way and learning alongside her what it meant to grow up queer in America. I was her advocate and had been her entire life. And I wanted to advocate for her in this regard too.
It's surprising, the individual things you grieve when you are grieving a child.
I miss her long fingers and her tinkling laughter. I have cried over every song she sang and every t-shirt I ever bought her, as well as every song she'll never sing and all the t-shirts I won't get to buy now. I grieve her friends and the university she didn't get to attend. I grieve how terrible she was at Spanish and how excellent she was at calculus.
And I grieve the experience of mothering my gay daughter. I grieve championing her rights and marching with her in Pride Parade. I grieve our long talks about girlfriend woes. I grieve supporting her as she fought to establish a club for LGBTQ kids in a high school that tried for more than a year to stop her—the same school that virtually ignored her death when she passed only months after graduation. That made no announcements and offered little in the way of support to her younger brother, girlfriend, and club members who remained on campus the following school year.
I grieve her activist spirit and the pride she took in fully becoming who she was. I grieve her in every aspect of herself. Which means that I even grieve her sexuality.
I don't think this is questioned when someone loses a heterosexual child. It goes without saying that they miss the grandchildren they will never have, the wedding they may never attend. The son or daughter-in-law they will not gain. But I have felt hesitant to express this aspect of my grief. As if my child's queerness is not something I am allowed to lay claim to. It's true, I didn't determine whether or not Evelyn would be gay. But I nurtured that part of her with as much love and respect and support as any other part. I am as proud of that part of her as I am any other part. And I long for that part of her as much as I do every other part.
When Evelyn was alive, I felt vitally connected to the LGBTQ community. Their cause was my cause because Evelyn was my cause. In a way, we are living our children's lives alongside them, taking their interests as our own—before our own. Their interests become our interests. Who they are becomes who we are. Evelyn's queerness was a part of me because it was a part of her. And now that part has died, along with all the rest. I still feel a burning, maternal protectiveness toward queer teens, but I no longer feel connected to her community in the same way. I still want to champion the cause that meant so much to her, but I no longer know how to do that if I am not at her side.
Being Evelyn's mom took me on a journey of compassion and openness and authenticity that I must now travel alone. The doors she opened within me will never be closed. But we will open no more doors together in the wider world. The work she was doing has come to an abrupt end, and I mourn the good she would have created if she were still here. I want to keep doing it in her name, but without her I don't know how, and in some respects simply can't.
In my small ways, I will continue. I will use my vote as my voice. I will continue to write her into my books in ways big and small, obvious and not. I will hold space for every kid like her in my heart. I am happy to know her club still continues at her high school. And I spend time with her girlfriend regularly, whose loving presence in my daughter's life can never be underestimated or repaid. And even if I don't feel like I can always express it in a way that will be welcomed or understood, I will still grieve her queerness as I grieve all the rest of her.