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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I am a Marine; My son liked dolls. What happened next.

I’m American Mexican, I stand proud at 6 feet 2 inches. In high school, I was voted “Best all around Senior.” I captained both the baseball and football teams. Like my dad and my uncles before me, I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps. “Semper-Fi” Devil Dogs.
When my wife Elizabeth gave birth to our first son, I was absolutely positive that he’d follow in my footsteps. He had to, he was a PLATA. He had to be named after me, ­ Edward.
It wasn’t long before it became apparent that Edward Joseph (EJ) was following his own path in life. When EJ was just two years old, I was very concerned to discover that his favorite toy was a Little Mermaid doll. He had discovered it at a friends house during a play date.
I thought to myself “my son is NOT going to play with a doll. (NOT MY SON)! I repeatedly threw the doll in the trash and replaced it with GI Joe figures, though without my knowledge, Elizabeth would go retrieve it and wash it or purchase him a new one.
Looking back, I think this was the first of many messages of non-acceptance I sent to my son. Elizabeth informed me, in her own wonderful way, that I was being Mr. Macho Marine again and that she was going to keep buying Little Mermaid dolls for EJ because they made him happy and that it meant nothing.
On the contrary, this was also among the first of many lessons in accepting my son the way he was created. I still had a long way to go.
Things didn’t get any easier for EJ. In elementary, middle and high school, boys were quick to notice that he was different, and to turn on him for what they saw as a weakness. At home, EJ was isolating himself in his room.
Eventually, after many long talks with mom, EJ came out to us, revealing the source of his torment:  He was gay.
I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t as quick to accept him as I should have been.  I had suspected the truth for a
long time, but I had always hoped that it just wasn’t so ­ that he would grow out of this effeminate phase to become the tough, athletic son I’d hoped for when I first held him in my arms.
Not feeling like he had the support he longed for at home, EJ looked for acceptance where he could find it, and he found it with a bad crowd: kids who abused drugs and alcohol.
I still think about that horrifying night when I called EJ to check on him, his speech slurred from alcohol poisoning. I still shoulder the responsibility; had I been more accepting of him, he might not have gone down this dark road.  But he survived.  And while we were disappointed in him, we realized that we needed to help him and help ourselves and that’s when we reached out to find support.
As soon as we got home from the emergency room at 5:30am, my wife and I looked on the computer. We found some frightening results­ what was likely to happen to EJ if I continued to keep him at arm’s length, and if we didn’t get help for ourselves and for our son.
We learned that gay youth are at high risk for suicide, substance abuse, HIV and homelessness.  And we didn’t want any of that to happen to our son. But he was very isolated and needed friends who would accept him for who he was. And we needed to learn how to support him.
Armed with these facts, Elizabeth convinced me that we needed to take action.  We left our church for one that would support our whole family, where EJ wouldn’t receive the message that he would go to Hell because of the way God made him.
With our new church, we started the first support group for our son and other LGBT  youth in our conservative
community. Eventually, I overcame my remaining reservations and welcomed EJ’s boyfriend into our home as part of our family. I now look at people as just that, people. No different than when I am with heterosexual people. In reality, we all have much more in common than the things we don’t. My EJ is a son, a brother, a friend, an artist, a cosmotologist and much more.
One Sunday morning, I read about an amazing social worker, ­ Dr. Caitlin Ryan, who had done the first research on how family acceptance and rejection affects the health and mental health of their LGBT children.
I immediately sent her an email telling her my story and that my wife and I along with some very close friends had started a GLBTQ youth group. Elizabeth and I reached out to talk with her and learn about her research with the Family
Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
We met, and her work opened our eyes, showing us how to help EJ and other LGBT youth and their families. Once we understood how best to help our son, we started working with Caitlin to create the first support group specifically for parents of LGBT adolescents ­ that’s based on her research and shows ethnically diverse families how supportive and rejecting behaviors affect their LGBT children’s risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse and HIV.
Her work shows families how to build their LGBT children’s self-esteem and well-being, and to strengthen their families. We’re making a difference in our own community, but the work of the Family Acceptance Project will make a difference all over the world.
I look at my family today, and I know that I’ve come a long way as a father. My son is very different from me, to say the least. But I’m no longer ashamed of or disappointed by those differences.
I’m incredibly proud of EJ for being who he is, in a world that has so much trouble accepting difference. He knows that our home is one place where he will always be accepted and where he’ll never have to hide any part of himself away. Not ever.


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