When bestselling author Jodi Picoult found herself researching the topic of gay rights, a controversial issue in her native United States, the subject matter really hit home when her own son Kyle came out. Here she reveals what her hopes are for him and other homosexual teenagers.
|Jodi with her son Kyle and dog Dudley|
After college, I had a friend who, like me, was naturally, instinctually and wholeheartedly attracted to boys. His name was Jeff. My roommate and I spent many Friday nights with Jeff and his partner Darryl, catching the latest movies and dissecting them over dinner afterwards. Jeff was funny, smart and a technological whiz. In fact, the least interesting thing about him was that he happened to be gay.
Gay rights is not something most of us think about – because most of us happen
to have been born straight (at no point before falling hard for Kal did I actively choose to be attracted to the opposite sex). But imagine how you’d feel if you were told that it was unnatural to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. If you weren’t allowed to get married or adopt a child with your partner. Imagine being a teenager who’s bullied because of your sexual orientation; or being told by your church that you are immoral. In America, where I live, this is the norm for millions of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning) individuals. Only five out of 50 US states [plus Washington DC] conduct same-sex marriages, and only a handful recognise its legality.
Imagine how you’d feel if you were told that it was unnatural to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender
Those opposed to gay rights often say that they have nothing against the individuals themselves – just their desire to redefine marriage as something other than a partnership between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, same-sex couples and their friends and families argue that they deserve the same rights as heterosexual couples. The result is a country bitterly divided along the fault line of a single contentious issue.
People are always afraid of the unknown – and banding together against the Thing That Is Different From Us is a time-honoured tradition for rallying the masses. I’ve noticed that most people who oppose gay rights don’t have a personal connection to someone who is gay. On the other hand, those who have a gay uncle or a lesbian college professor or a transgendered supermarket cashier are more likely to support gay rights, because the Thing That Is Different From Us has turned out to be, well, pretty normal. Instead of plotting the demise of the traditional family, as some politicians and religious leaders would have you believe, gay people mow their lawns and watch American Idol and video their children’s concerts and have the same hopes and dreams that their straight counterparts do.
Meanwhile, Max has drunk himself into a downward spiral – until he is redeemed by an evangelical church, whose charismatic pastor has vowed to fight the ‘homosexual agenda’ in America. But the mission becomes personal for Max when Zoe and her same-sex partner ask permission to raise his unborn child.
What does it mean to be gay today? How do we define a family? Those are two questions I hoped to answer while writing Sing You Home. I began by speaking to several same-sex couples, who shared their relationships and their sex lives and their struggles. Some of these people knew their sexual orientation in childhood; some – like Zoe – had same-sex relationships after heterosexual ones.
Then I spoke to representatives from a conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family, who oppose gay adoption, and support seminars to ‘cure’ gay people of same-sex attraction. They also back the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 (although President Obama recently stated that he will no longer defend the act), which allows any state to refuse recognition of any same-sex marriage performed in any other state. Like Pastor Clive in my novel, their objection to homosexuality is Biblical. Snippets from Leviticus and other Bible verses form the foundation of their anti-gay platform; although similar literal readings should require these people to abstain from playing football (touching pigskin) or eating scampi (no shellfish).
I didn’t love Kyle any less because he was gay; I couldn’t love him any more if he weren’t
|Jodi & her husband Tim with their children (from left) Jake, Sammy & Kyle|
That circular logic was most heartbreaking when I brought up the topic of hate crimes. Focus on the Family insists that they love the sinner, just not the sin – and only try to help homosexuals who are unhappy being gay. I worried aloud that this message might be misinterpreted by those who commit acts of violence against gays in the name of religion, and the woman I was interviewing burst into tears. ‘Thank goodness,’ she said, ‘that’s never happened.’ I am sure this would be news to the parents of Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena or Ryan Keith Skipper – just a few of those murdered on account of their sexual orientation – or the FBI, which reports that 17.6 per cent of all hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation, a number that is steadily rising. And it’s not just in the US: in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Mauritania and other parts of Africa, being gay is punishable by death.
Yet as eye-opening as all this research was, something else happened that truly made the subject hit home. My son Kyle, a brilliant, talented teenager, was applying to colleges while I was working on the book. One day, he brought me his finished application to read.
Part of it, an essay, was about being gay.
Did I know that Kyle was gay before he came out in his essay? Well, I’d had my suspicions since he was five. But it was his discovery to make, and to share. I wasn’t surprised, but I was so happy for him – for being brave enough to be true to himself, and to admit that truth to his family. My husband gave him a huge hug. Kyle’s little sister shrugged and said, ‘So?’ And his younger brother still calls to task those who carelessly say, ‘That’s so gay,’ reminding them it’s not a pejorative term.
Learning that Kyle was gay didn’t change the way I felt about him. He was still the same incredible young man he’d been before I read that essay. I didn’t love him any less because he was gay; I couldn’t love him any more if he weren’t. In the aftermath, I saw him blossom, finally comfortable in his own skin, because he wasn’t living a lie any more. Yet, as a mother, I had my worries – not because of Kyle’s sexual orientation, but because the rest of the world might not be as accepting as our family. Because one day, when he least expects it, he’s going to be called a ‘faggot’. Because – simply due to the way his brain is wired – life is going to be more complicated.
As a mother, I had my worries – not because of Kyle’s sexual orientation, but because the rest of the world might not be as accepting as our family
Kyle is now at Yale University – which has a thriving gay community and a culture of acceptance. His boyfriend is a smart, sweet guy who has accompanied us on holidays and who makes my son incredibly happy. Still, it breaks my heart to know that, unlike Kyle, there are teenagers today who cannot come out to their parents because of deep-seated prejudice – which is too often cloaked in the satin robes of religion. Gay teenagers are four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight ones. I wish they knew that there’s nothing wrong with them; that they are just a different shade of normal.
If I had any one great hope for the book, it would be to open the minds of those who have them closed tightly shut against those who are different – so that, one day, my son’s children will live in a world where being gay does not mean you’re denied rights automatically guaranteed by marriage. I hope they are just as puzzled as I am now when I see old photos of racially segregated schools and water fountains, and I wonder how could it possibly have taken so long for this country to come to its senses?
I hope the religious leaders of their generation focus on the best literal interpretation of their Bible: love your neighbour as yourself. But most of all, I hope that it reminds people that while homosexuality is not a choice, homophobia is. Why not opt for tolerance and kindness instead?