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Wrestling With Mixed Emotions Over Child's Self-Discovery

October 09, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before Gilbert Morales had mustered the courage to come out to his parents, his father made the discovery himself. He had pried open a locked wooden chest where his son kept photographs of and letters from his first boyfriend. Morales' father immediately ejected his son, then 18, from the family's San Gabriel house.

For the next six years, Morales' life was a tornado of different jobs, drug addiction and constant moves. He finally found shelter in a transitional housing facility run by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, got off drugs and contacted his mother. Two months later, he visited.

"I said, 'I am gay--so let me know now if you can't deal with it because then I won't bother you,' " recounted Morales, now 25. His mother assured him that she could handle it. "She is cool with it now," said Morales, who works as an outreach specialist at the Jeff Griffith Gay & Lesbian Youth Center, a Hollywood drop-in center. But Morales remains emotionally estranged from his dad.

"I really feel like my mom is both parents," he said.

Wednesday is National Coming Out Day, sponsored by the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign Fund Foundation in Washington, D.C. Celebrated each Oct. 11 for the last 12 years, the day is about promoting understanding of the gay and lesbian community.

Morales' family's reaction to his homosexuality is a reminder of how difficult the process of coming out can be for gay and lesbian youths. No matter how many gay and lesbian characters are elevated in the popular culture, gay and lesbian youths "still feel an incredible sense of being the only person coming out in the world because they are usually the only gay person in their family, in their neighborhood or their high school," said Vernon Rosario, a child psychiatry fellow at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.

"Parents are the most difficult to tell because acceptance and validation by parents is one of the most fundamental needs one has," said Ian Stulberg, director of education and training for Mental Health Services at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. "My father was the first person I told, but I think it was unusual that I felt safe enough in his love to risk rejection from him."

That was in 1965. Stulberg was 15. "I broke down at the kitchen table crying," recalled Stulberg, who said he told his father that he had "homosexual feelings" and that he was miserable because he wanted to be "straight." "My father didn't want to see his son in such emotional pain, and he didn't want me to live like that," recalled Stulberg.

His parents offered unwavering support. Unlike other painful life passages parents may share with a child, parents don't personally know the isolation and shame of being gay. "If you suffer prejudice from society," said Stulberg, "most people can go to their parents about the bigotry. But that is not the case with most gays and lesbians because the family may harbor the very same prejudice [that] society at large does."

It was 1968 when Adele and Lawrence Starr found a note in their West Los Angeles home from their son, Philip "He wrote: 'Mother and dad, I have left home. I am a homosexual,' " said Adele. "We were scared out of our wits," she said. "I never knew anything about homosexuals except all the negative things you hear."

It wasn't until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Assn. removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual's list of disorders. The American Psychological Assn. passed a resolution to support the move two years later.

None of that would help the Starrs as they grappled with their son's letter. They published a personal ad, which read: "Philip, we love you." Someone showed the ad to their son, and he came home. Philip Starr saw a therapist, who quickly announced that he was "normal."

Meanwhile, his parents found invaluable support and information from other parents of gays and lesbians and helped establish a local chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG, founded in 1972 in New York, is a national nonprofit organization that offers support and education for the loved ones of gays.

Starr, 80, said the organization helped her learn to accept and understand her son. "We would have these meetings, all of these parents sitting in a circle talking about how wonderful our children were," said Starr, who still volunteers at the L.A. chapter of PFLAG. "We realized that there was nothing wrong with our children--that what was wrong was a misinformed society."

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Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at kellehr@gte.net.

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