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Time to Give Thanks

Published Nov 2, 2009

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A number of years ago, more than twenty now, I was a freshly-minted lawyer, working my first job on Wall Street.  The AIDS crisis was urgent and everywhere.  What could I do to help?  I chose to volunteer my time as a pro bono attorney for Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the pioneer AIDS service providers in New York City.

My job was simple, albeit depressing.  I met with clients, all men, all newly-diagnosed, took their family history and other legal information, and created wills, powers of attorney, living wills, and the other documents that accompany the end of a life.  It wasn't at all unusual for a client to pass away between the time I met with him and the day he was supposed to come in to execute the paperwork.  The stream of new clients seemed never-ending.

The first time I met with a client who told me that he had no idea where his mother or father lived, no current contact information, and no plans to get in touch... I was shocked.  The second, third and fourth times I heard essentially the same story, I started to wonder.  By the time I'd heard it ten times, I was surprised when a client told me he was in touch with his birth family and knew how to reach them.  It seemed that New York City was full of motherless sons.

Lest this anecdote seem overwhelmingly depressing, I'll add that virtually all of these men had re-created their own families.  They had surrounded themselves with people who loved them - not necessarily folks related by blood, but certainly people who had a sense of shared history and responsibility that equaled that of a biological family.  Yet I wondered, what could possibly have been so awful, so shameful, so tragic, that would lead to the severing of all ties between a parent and a child, even unto death?  The answer, of course, was homosexuality: a "condition" so unacceptable and dire that it extinguished a parent's most fundamental instincts.

Those days have turned into these days, and not a minute too soon.  It's true that there are still families that will disown or eject a gay member, but it's also true that these families are considerably fewer in number than they used to be.  Parenthetically, there are also many families who seem to "permit" their child to be gay, as long as the subject never comes up.  (At PFLAG, we call this the "We'll Speak No More About It Syndrome.")  This refusal to acknowledge a fundamental fact about a child is rejecting and cruel.  By and large, however, the vast majority of parents no longer automatically reject a gay child. 

Many parents are not overjoyed to hear that a child is gay.  They have fears for the child, fears of physical and emotional danger, of unemployment and discrimination, concerns about religion and community acceptance.  Yet, most parents seem to be able to cope with their fears, and their other negative feelings, without taking the ultimate step of removing the gay family member.  Families, aided by greatly increased social acceptance, seem much better able to muddle through the issues the gay child presents to the family, rather than simply "pulling the plug" and excising the problematic member.

As we head into Thanksgiving, we all bring our "family" feelings to the table.  Unlovely emotions like sibling rivalry, jealousy, and resentment are often on the menu together with the turkey and cranberry sauce.  (How could I possibly still be competing with my 50 year old little brother?)  These issues will probably never go away for most families, so the holidays can be stressful and tension-filled, rather than nurturing and calm.  But, with all that, it's encouraging and even beautiful to see all the members of the family at the table in the first place.  Imperfect, contentious, dysfunctional -- but there.  I'm thankful.

The Shoreline/New Haven PFLAG chapter meets the third Tuesday of each month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, located at the corner of Cold Spring Street and Whitney Avenue in New Haven. All are welcome. Click here to get more information or to be placed on our mailing list.

Jane Ferrall lives in Guilford, CT, where she and her husband of 20 years, Bill, enjoy their family of four children. Among her other interests and volunteer work, Jane was a founding member and is the moderator of the Greater New Haven/Shoreline chapter of PFLAG.

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