It was Christmas Day five years ago that Emily received the news from her son in San Francisco that would change her life: "Mom, I'm gay, and I wanted you to know."
"For five years afterwards I kept trying to find out what I did to him," recalls Emily, a Prince George's County government employe and mother of three from Oxon Hill. "He was trying to tell me for a long time, but he was afraid I wouldn't understand."
Like other parents who join Parents and Friends of Gays, a support group for those either unwilling or unable to accept their child's homosexuality, Emily still finds it difficult to understand her son. And over coffee cake at the group's recent meeting in Chevy Chase, another mother tries to explain:
"Mothers have basic feelings of insecurity about their children," says Charlotte, a widowed government employe whose 24-year-old son is gay. "But if Andy was willing to come out of the closet, then I must be willing, too. It's been hard for me."
Parents and Friends of Gays is an international organization started 10 years ago in San Francisco as homosexuals were becoming increasingly open about their sexual preference. The group now has 120 chapters in the U.S. (including Washington, Montgomery County and Baltimore) and in countries as far away as Israel and the Philippines. In addition to providing support groups, PFG chapters actively seek to counter discrimination against homosexuals.
Washington chapter coordinator Gene Baker explains that although PFG receives a large number of calls from Distraught parents, they seldom muster the courage to attend face-to-face discussions at monthly meetings.
"I get people who call and say they just can't deal with it, and want to kill themselves and their kid," says Baker, 60, a retired watchmaker and gayrights advocate. "Fathers are very difficult to find. Very rare."
Baker concludes that fathers feel a deep shame about their homosexual children, possibly believing they have failed to convey a respect of masculinity to their sons. Adds Emily: "Rick's father won't accept it. He just cannot tell his family Rick is gay."
In many cases, says Baker, parents are the last to know about their son's or daughter's homosexuality. "They are preconditioned against homosexuality at home. That's why they're afraid to tell their parents."
When parents are informed, the common reaction is anger and guilt, rather than an immediate willingness to understand.
When Charlotte's son told her he was gay, she urged him to see a psychiatrist. "He told me, 'Your son is fine. Now let's work on you,'" she recalls.
Emily and Charlotte say they attend PFG meetings because talking about their experiences tends to lessen what at first seemed like a family tragedy.
"It's the vast minority who deal with it selflessly," says Baker. "The majority say, 'Why me? I'll just keep it to myself and my family, and no one will ever know.'"
Another source of frustration for parents is the negative, often humiliating way others perceive homosexuals.
"Sometimes I have to get up and walk away when people talk about homosexuality at work," says Charlotte. "They don't want to talk about it in a serious way. I have to learn to be quiet about it."
But at monthly meetings at different members' homes, parents are encouraged to speak out and ask questions.
They ask about dressing in women's clothing, or drag. They ask about rolereversal. Baker answers each question carefully, sometimes admitting that there are no set answers to their questions.
Baker contends that every family is in some way touched by homosexuality, and each has its different response. But at this time, the predominant response is guilt and pity. Says Charlotte: "You always have that guilt. Then you have to stop doing that. I have to remind myself to have empathy, not sympathy."
She says she now accepts Andy's sexual preference as a natural part of his life. She has addressed several groups on the subject and intends to continue her work with PFG.
"People are missing something if they don't deal with it," she says, gesturing to her son seated nearby. "I wouldn't change my relationship with him for the world."
The D.C. chapter of Parents and Friends of Gays meets the second Thursday of each month. Call Gene Baker at 726-3223. In Montgomery county, call Charlotte at 652-7975.