Since so many of you have asked to hear my coming-out story, I figured now, with Mother’s Day upon us, I would share it since she played such a pivotol role in me becoming the man I am today. The food portion of this post (an amazing recipe for cioppino) will follow shortly. So here goes…
Just because my desire to wear liquid eyeliner might mean I was gay, I still had no idea of how I was going to tell the people closest to me. This isn’t like the hairy mole growing on your inner thigh, that you’re perfectly happy to keep to yourself. That you can keep to yourself. And it’s not a small reveal like stealing twenty bucks from your dad’s sock drawer, because that he’s gonna forget about in a few days. This was a dangerous secret. The point of no return. There was no “I’m so sorry,” “Isn’t that hilarious?” or “Just kidding!” after sharing this.
This was especially difficult for me, because I was used to telling everyone everything. When I start telling a story, my brothers are quick to request the abridged version. My nasal cartoon vocalizations are just “too high-pitched for them to hear” for more than a few minutes. My hearing on the other hand, is cat-like, which is why I earned the moniker “Big Ears” from participating in conversations far beyond normal earshot. For example if my stepmother is whispering in the other room, I merely turn my head and focus my drums. It’s possible my hearing would be less acute if I allowed myself to be the audience more often, but that’s a conversation for some shrink’s couch.
I’ve also earned the nickname “Big Mouth.” I have this unique ability to stick large quantities of mashed foods in my mouth (potatoes, creamed corn, what have you) and still be able to whistle Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Of course, “Big Mouth” also referrs to my inability to keep secrets. I never reveal personal details and information to hurt people though. My intentions are always pure and unadulterated. I simply relay information to keep the channels of communication clear. I guess that makes me a bullhorn of knowledge. A public service announcement of private happenings. And if the going-ons are salacious, even better.
The point is, I’m typically not a secret-keeper. Even the monstrous ones I keep imprisoned for years, I feel like I’m going to have to share at some point. I mean let’s be honest, my mind can only hold so much, and with secret-prison overcrowding I’ve experienced lately, I have to let some out for good behavior. Keeping my sexuality to myself was different. I could feel it itching in the back of my throat for years, its rough contours painfully scratching and only to be relieved by speaking the truth. Strangely enough, for the first time in my life, I was scared of a conversation. Scared of getting wounded and terrified I would never heal.
One weekend in my third quarter of freshman year of college, I had driven down the coast to see my mother and, more importantly, to do laundry in her pristine machines. You don’t realize how amazing it is having your own washer and dryer until you’re forced to find seven dollars in quarters under couch cushions, in car ashtrays, and in the empty piggy bank belly that only contains pennies and extra buttons. The dorm machines barely scrubbed and dried my too-tighty-whities.
My mother and I decided to have a “mommy and me” day while the rinse cycle repeated. Only needing one car, she drove from Lakeside (aka the sacred land of Indian Casinos) and picked me up from my father’s house, which sits on the side of a lake in San Carlos (not Lakeside). She drove her new 14K gold sedan, which was voted one of the safest cars in its class. For my sake I hoped those credentials were true as we cruised downtown for lunch by the water.
With the isle of Coronado off in the distance and hundreds of sailboats racing out to sea it was a beautiful day on the San Diego bay. The sky was crystal clear compared to the dirty brown pollution line just above the horizon I was used to in LA. It was warm in the sunlight and a crisp breeze by the water kept us cool. The violet Jacaranda trees lining the boardwalk started to change from dead and twiggy to bright, green, and full of life while their teacup blossoms drifted through the air only to collect in piles on the sidewalk below. The day’s forecast was 75° and life-affirming.
My mother and I arrived at the Fish Market. We didn’t have a reservation. We, meaning my mother, figured the restaurant wouldn’t be too crowded to accommodate the two of us, and, if it was, we could always charm the hostess into seating us right away. My mother has this super power. A gift genetically passed down through generations of Rothman women. She can talk to anyone or anything and make them feel at ease in a matter of minutes. At the two minute-mark, people find themselves revealing their deepest-darkest secrets to some strangely familiar woman they just met in line at the post office. They have drinking problems. They’re obese and think buttered popcorn is a vegetable. She becomes their shoulder to cry on. To the guy who held the door open, “Oh, thank you, that was very nice of you. You know, most people don’t do that anymore. You’re really very handsome. Are you single?” The guy, door in hand, reveals he has commitment issues, hates his job and dreams about owning a bowling alley someday. Then, the counseling begins. People need help and my mother is the one to help them. It was as if they’d won a free session with a gypsy shrink with no formal training. She inspired a tearful college friend of mine to pursue her passion for musical theater instead of a profession in early childhood development. To strangers, she was a prize: a much-needed counselor. I was nervous introducing her to anyone because she was almost too honest. To family, she was honest to the point of offense. Her words could make us cringe, but that’s usually because she’s accurate. Striking at the core of your biggest insecurities, because without revealing the truth, we’re all just hiding from it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The restaurant was packed. The hostess wouldn’t have a table for us for another thirty minutes. My mother conjured her charm and instantly a table became available. She requested a four-person table to make sure there would be enough room for the small buffet that was soon to come. She ordered a Kona Coffee because she saw some other patron drinking one and thought it looked festive. Her cocktail belonged at a Luau. Since my mother was drinking, I ordered a “T and T.” I liked tonic water and it was easy to say in the presence of an impatient waitress. It was also the only cocktail I knew, other than a Long Island Ice tea, which was too cliché. I knew of T&T’s because my grandmother used to mix them in with her cereal in the morning. Something about being lactose intolerant.
My mother used to go to Boston for seafood with her father and she loved traditional fish market restaurants. So we ordered enough food for ten small Native Americans with leftovers for their pet buffalo. We finished an ocean’s bounty of seafood: two salads, a pot of mussels, a giant bowl of seafood cioppino, and two baskets of bread to soak up the delicious broths.
Throughout the meal, we laughed about my brothers and talked about our day-to-day lives. I told her about my friends in the droms and life on UCLA’s campus. She commented on my ear piercing and asked why I needed more holes in my head.
“They’re notches for each time my friends and I get so drunk we end up at the tattoo parlor.” She knew I was lying. I was a good liar, but I could never fool my own mother. She would give me this half-smirking look; the right side of her mouth would curl up, presumably from the seventh nerve palsy she had as a child, and her eyes would glare into my soul. It was her way of seeking out the truth. After a few seconds of this look, I had to confess something. I told her peer pressure had gotten the best of me and not to worry because the holes were only in my ears. She smiled, and I could tell she knew I would grow out of it.
We concluded our lunch-feast with a tower of strawberry shortcake. It was fruity and covered in fresh thick whipped cream. We (she) paid and chatted a bit more with the waitress. As we were leaving the restaurant, I found myself stranded. I stared at the giant marlins stuffed, lacquered, and nailed to the walls. The image of being awkwardly put on display during harpoon practice was projected on the screen of my consciousness. I felt like I was about to be one of those fish (possibly a Rainbow Trout) scared stiff and empty. In the background, my mother counseled the hostess.
“Don’t worry about the father of the baby. You have to worry about yourself and focus on loving that child more than anything possible,” she said, as we made our way towards the double door, “You can call me if you need to talk and do yourself a favor…try to quit smoking.”
She never preached, only inspired people by telling them what they wanted to hear. She was sort of the mom everyone wanted. Full of every color, she filled in any white spaces left by other mothers. And she was mine.
We got into the car, burning our bodies on the sun-soaked scotch-guarded seats, and decided to make our way to the mall to do a little afternoon damage. My mother sat in the driver’s seat, because she was a backseat driver from anywhere else in the car (trunk included). She didn’t even need to be in the car, and my turns were too quick, and I “was going the wrong way.”
As she reversed out of our spot I asked her if she remembered telling me I could tell her anything and everything and she wouldn’t love me any less? She nodded and buckled her seatbelt. “I just wanted to make sure you remembered that.” I said.
“Philip. If you have something to tell me, you should tell me,” she insisted gently.
“No, it’s OK, it’s nothing,” I was being coy. I wanted her to ask again. She shifted the car into reverse.
“Philip, sometimes when you tell someone something that you haven’t told anyone before it feels really good to get it off your chest.”
“I’ve told someone. I just haven’t told anyone in the family yet.”
“Just come out of the closet and tell me already!” She said, and shifted the car back into park.
“What do you mean ‘come out of the closet?’” I asked.
She just stared at me blankly. I started to cry, the tears running like the River Thames down my chubby cheeks and into my lap. My lips quivered, “I’m gay.”
“I know you are.” She calmly put her familiar hand on the back of my head and caressed my hair. I was her baby again and in that moment I felt like nothing in the world could harm me until….
BEEP BEEP BEEEEP!
A car behind us throwing a fit because they wanted our parking space. There was time left on the meter and they probably sensed it.
“Shut up you asshole! My son’s gay!” my mother screamed like I was a pregnant woman in labor and social norms no longer applied. Watch out! Moving through! Gay son here! She shifted the car into reverse, releasing her road rage under her breath. The next words out of her mouth were “Jerk!” and “Moron!” but those weren’t directed at me.
I waited for her thoughts on my confession. Her hand on my head had elicited a sense of relief about my revelation. But what if she said something to shame me and make me wish I had kept my big mouth shut? I had been openly avoiding that moment for the previous six months, and secretly dreading it my entire childhood.
“Just make sure you wear a condom.” She said. Her words were deliberate, as if she knew the importance of tone in serious situations. “The worst thing you can ever do is come home and tell me you have some sort of disease.” She was worried. A true Jewish mother. “Have you had sex with another man?”
“No. Not yet.” I said, being the queerling I was at the time, but I loved that she called my potential lover a man, because my mother sometimes had a way of making me feel like I hadn’t grown up at all since my Bar Mitzvah. But in that moment she acknowledged that I was both gay and grown-up. I could tell she respected me for coming to grips with a reality she knew was challenging and foreign. On some level she could understand what I was going through but never completely know herself. If she could swallow her protective maternal fears, I had to do the same. There was no excuse for turning back now. There was only forward a direction I would go, exploring my new life. She more than anyone didn’t want me running back into the darkness of the closet.
“It’s okay honey.” She said, “I love you, and I’m glad you told me, because now we don’t have any secrets. We‘ll be closer than we’ve ever been.”
I smiled and thought about what she had said as the anxiety subsided.
“WAIT!” I said. “you already knew?” Most of the fat girls from high school were surprised. What did I do in front of my mother that was so obvious, that was so gay? She proceeded to ramble off a list of things I did growing up: I used to wear her stockings, tried on her heels, played in the bathtub for hours, helped her cook, ran around the pool naked screaming “I’m a fairy,” played with Ken dolls instead of Barbies, spray all of her perfumes at the same time, and obsessed over my spandex leggings at gymnastics. Now that I think about it, how could I have been so naïve to think I was hiding anything?
“You have a ‘special quality’” She said, making bunny ears with her fingers.
“Well, you introduced me to The Sound of Music and ‘Andrew Lloyd Weber.’” I said, making bunny ears of my own.
“And I took your brothers to those same musicals and they’re not gay.” She said, “besides, I wanted to expose you to the arts, make you well-rounded.”
“Well-rounded?” I was coming out of the closet and she was calling me fat.
“Cultured. Like my parents did taking us to Radio City Music Hall as children. I was exposing you boys to the arts.”
Well with the secret out, it was time to expose ourselves to fashion, and perhaps to a few unsuspecting shoppers. She was right, and looking back I’m glad she did expose me to the arts. It’s like I got to review the Gay SATs before taking them in my twenties. With her training and etiquette I was sure to become a homo any accepting mother could be proud of.
We arrived at Horton Plaza, a mere few blocks away, tears crusted at the edge of my red eyes. We entered my home away from home, Banana Republic. Mom and I explored our respective sides of the store (hers: women’s, mine: TBD). She had no concept of how loud her voice was and if she did, she obviously didn’t care who heard her. She screamed from across the store.
“Now that you’re gay you can be in touch with both your masculine and feminine sides.” I guess she thought I was a hermaphrodite tranny. Flamboyant salesclerks sighed in my direction.
“Mom, I’m not a frog. You’re embarrassing me!” My palms were clammy. She launched into her theory on embarrassment from across the store.
“I’m not embarrassing anyone but myself. Since I’m not embarrassed by my own son nobody is being embarrassed. Besides, why the hell do you care what these homos think?” Her reasoning may have been circular, but she had quite a developed theory about embarrassment. She employed it in her justification of her shameless flirting with waiters, with bellboys, with the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window guy, and especially with the sales clerks in stores. I unsuccessfully tried to squint my eyes and crush her head with my thumb and forefinger. She made her way to the register, a few items in hand.
“Are these on sale?” she asked the pimply faced sixteen-year-old with a headset covering half his face like a Borg from Star Trek.
“Were they in the sale section?”
“No,” she said.
“Well then I guess they’re not on sale.” He said, starting to remove the security tags.
“Well then I guess I’m not buying them.” She said. As we walked towards the exit I reinacted that scene from Pretty Woman in my head. You work on commission, right?
“So. Which of your brothers are you going to tell first?” she asked as if it were funny.
“I don’t know.” I thought about it. She was getting involved. “But I do know I want to tell them myself and in person so I can read their facial expressions. Mom, promise me you wont say anything.”
“If I raised them like I know I raised them, you won’t have a problem. And don’t worry about me spilling your business. You can tell them whenever.” She kissed me on the forehead as we left the store empty-handed.
Click here for the Dungeness Crab & Mixed Seafood Cioppino recipe
To my mother
If it weren’t for your open-mindedness, kindness, and love, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Because of you I’ve learned to love myself, flaws and all. You’ve taught me that in finding peace within ourselves, our paths to happiness will be blocked by fewer debilitating insecurities. For that gift you’ve given me, I want to say “thank you.”
There will be ups and downs from one day to the next, but you will always be my mother…I will always be your son….and I will always love you. Happy mother’s day.