"What's harder than telling your parents that you're gay? Telling your children"
When Fiona Shaw and her husband separated, each began a relationship with a same-sex partner. Here, she and her two daughters recall how they adapted to their new family life
Tuesday 24 April 2012
Fiona: The break up of my marriage and my coming out seven years ago happened when my children were just into secondary school. None of this came out of the blue – but for my children this was the first time their parents had spoken about anything they might have sensed or guessed at. They had to take on explicitly these two different, but connected, things at the same moment.
During that time, I knew the hardest thing for my daughters was the fact of their parents splitting up, rather than us both having same-sex partners. It was a terrible time for every- one: for their father, for me, and for them. But there was another dimension to what I was telling them that most children whose parents split up don't have to deal with. I was aware that at the moment that I struggled to step out of a closet, I might be building one for them.
How would they deal with this at school? What would they, could they say to their friends? Would they be ridiculed, stigmatised, whispered about, worse? In the ruthless, take-no-hostages corridors of their secondary schools, this thing would be far harder to have known than their parents' breakup. Of course I knew other separated couples who had to tell their children they'd no longer be living together. But none of them had to say: "Well my child, the thing is, I'm straight."
I was keen to be honest with mine about the person I was close to. So I was explicit about my partner Karen being important to me from the start. But I didn't want to make their lives more difficult than they had to be, and for quite a time Karen and I were discreet about our relationship. I also spoke to their schools about this, because I was concerned that they didn't get bullied about it.
One person I did think about during that time was my beloved uncle, who had died, too young, in 2004, and who was the inspiration for a character in my latest novel. After the birth of his daughter, he lived as a gay man for the rest of his life.
He was a passionate and devoted father, and when I was growing up, I used to wonder how he and she had navigated this territory. Now I've lived through my own experience of the closet, I can see how complicated it can be.
Fiona Shaw's latest novel is 'A Stone's Throw' (Serpent's Tail, £11.99)
Oddly, we were never directly told that our parents were moving into gay relationships. We were told that they were breaking up, but never explicitly that they were gay. We both certainly knew; I'm not sure how, but there was no question. Looking back, I can remember telling a slightly non-plussed friend that I thought Mum was in love with her friend, and Dad was in love with his. This was about a week before they told us that they were splitting up, I was about 12 at the time.
I was pretty passive throughout the break-up. For a while I thought I'd feel it later in life, maybe when Eliza was less upset over it; I think it's hard for families to hold too much fraught emotion at one time – people tend to balance each other out. Not living with both of my parents was very hard, all the usual divorce drama, but Mum being gay didn't upset me – truth be told, her sexuality was never an issue for me.
But I was a little nervous of making my parents' situation public knowledge at first. I told a couple of my closest friends, but I didn't mention it to most of them for months. I'm now not sure if I was waiting for the right time, or if I was scared of how they might react. Eventually I ended up doing it on the spur of the moment: I had a group of friends round for pizza, and Mum's partner was in the kitchen, making us the pizza but keeping out of our way, staying out of the picture.
When I realised what she was doing, I saw how ridiculous it was that I hadn't told them. I was fine with Mum's sexuality, and so my friends would have to be. I grabbed Karen's hand and introduced her to my friends. It was quite funny, there was a pause, and then they all started introducing themselves very quickly. Nowadays, I try to let people know as soon as possible, to avoid embarrassment for them later, and to see if they're OK with it. Nearly everyone is, and the few that aren't, aren't worth knowing.
I took the news of Mum coming out very hard. I think it brought me suddenly face to face with my mum's identity, not as a parent but as a person.
The idea of my parents having a sexual identity outside of the assumed familial form felt humiliating for me, aged 14, and I found my own humiliation very hard to understand or bear. I think one part of me was ashamed and terrified that I might be homophobic, and it took time to realise that that wasn't it – I was terrified of having a family whose shape there was no category to describe.
I didn't know how to place any of us as a unit, or understand how I might fit into the new situation.
Many of my experiences, looking back, were similar to any child whose parents separate, but I think it was easier for me to focus on the stigma I saw so rigidly attached to being "different". I became painfully closeted about my family – something that Mum probably found hard at a time when she was just coming "out of the closet".
It took a long time for me to talk to my friends about my parents' homosexuality. When I did I found that people were overwhelmingly supportive, and were interested rather than judgemental. We have built up new rituals; with my parents' separate partners but also all together. We spend time as a six quite often. I often feel like we all have a lot to celebrate: we have built a sort of family; it took a lot of work and several years of chaos.
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