Coming out still a difficult process

In the space of a single generation, homosexuality has gone from classification as a mental illness and a criminal offence to new recognition as a legitimate state worthy of legal protection and equal rights, just like race or religion. And polls consistently show that a majority of Canadians support the wider view of marriage. To the shock of our neighbours to the south – and the chagrin of the Vatican – unassuming Canada has become only the third country to allow same-sex marriages, after Belgium and the Netherlands.

So, being world leaders here, you’d think that coming out of the closet would be easy, right? Hardly. It’s one thing to support gay equality in theory; it’s quite another when it happens in your own family.

“Some gays and lesbians still have a hell of a time when they come out,” says Eldon Hay of Sackville, N.B., president of PFLAG Canada, an organization for parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays. Hay, who is also a retired professor of world religions at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, a clergyman with the United Church of Canada and the father of a gay son and a lesbian daughter, says: “It’s a deep-seated, viscerally orienteprejudice.”

Being the parent or grandparent of a young person coming out can be tough enough. Coming out yourself at a later age comes with another set of issues entirely. Here are two coming-out stories: one a man who came out at 52, the other a young woman who came out at age 31.

Living in denial
When you first meet Kelly Walker, you’d never guess that this big, jovial, gregarious, charismatic, deeply spiritual man had undergone long periods of emotional turmoil. Today, Walker, 62, is a successful author and corporate speaker, specializing in burnout, leadership and change. He’s also gay. But he spent much of the first half-century of his life doing everything he could to deny that reality, including becoming a monk, working as a psychotherapist and being married to a woman.

Growing up in Etobicoke, Ont., young Kelly sensed he didn’t fit the mould, but he didn’t know how he didn’t fit. He went out with girls, went to dances, did all the “normal” things. At university, he and three buddies would go out together, each with a girlfriend. And yet, it wasn’t until years later Walker learned all three male friends were gay and eventually came out of the closet. But back then no one knew, not even themselves. “We didn’t know how to refer to how we were feeling,” Walker says. “And even if we had been able to admit it to ourselves, there was no safe environment to come out. Homosexuality was illegal then.”

At age 20, Walker, a Catholic with a firm belief in God, pursued a spiritual direction. He entered a monastery. As a Dominican friar, he preached throughout the world and taught in several universities. He always struggled to be true to his vows for 20 years but somehow didn’t feel he was true to himself despite his deep love for the church. He plunged into a systematic depression called burn-out, ultimately leaving the monastery.
Walker re-entered the world 40 years old and overwhelmed. “I was so sexually naive that I didn’t know if I was heterosexual, homosexual or what,” he says. “But I had such hope that I wouldn’t be gay.” Fearing he might be, he continued to deny the reality to himself while continuing his journey towards what was considered “normal.”

And then Walker fell in love – with a woman. She was an Anglican priest. The two got married when Walker was 45. “I didn’t want to be gay, and I married a woman I loved very much,” he says. They made a good team: she was the priest, he was the church’s musical director and preacher. He also worked as a psychotherapist. In his private practice, he helped people cope with life transitions – including coming out of the closet – all the while denying his own homosexuality, not just to others but also to himself. He says, “I helped people liberate themselves from all kinds of prisons. Often, I’d see these people bravely take risks and proclaim their own truth – and I still hadn’t proclaimed my own.”

Several years into the marriage, he and his wife sought counselling for sexual dysfunction. Walker, plagued with fears of homosexuality, also sought psychiatric help. One psychiatrist had assured him before the marriage that he wasn’t gay. She confidently told him, “Everything will be fine.” It wasn’t.

After much anguish, the turning point for Walker came when another psychiatrist said to him, “It’s very clear to me that your soul is homosexual.” That was the expression Walker needed to hear. “It meant that the gift of my being was homosexual,” Walker says. “It was not a choice I made. It was who I was created to be. When I die and face my Creator, I don’t want to say, ‘You gave me a gift, and I spent my life hiding it.’ It became a spiritual issue for me not to be living in integrity with that gift.”

It made sense to him, but he was well aware that it wouldn’t to many others. It was a period of fear, hurt and confusion for him and his wife. She was enraged, hurt and confused. But as public figures, they decided to be upfront with their small-town congregation. At a Sunday service, Walker and his wife spoke about the end of their marriage, and they explained why. “We were scared to death,” Walker says. He was amazed when the entire congregation came forward to embrace them and show their support for the couple at the Kiss of Peace – the traditional handshake that symbolizes respect and harmony.

The couple separated and, at age 52, Walker began his new life as a gay man. About a year later, he met up with Ray Harsant, an old acquaintance from the community in which he was raised. Like Walker, he had not only denied his own homosexuality for many years, he had had a seven-year marriage with a woman he loved. Harsant, now 55 and a human resources consultant, maintains an excellent relationship with his son, who is now 28.

In the year following the breakup of Walker’s marriage, he and Harsant began a relationship that has lasted nine years.

Referencing his partner, Harsant says that for someone with strong traditional and evolved moral values, coming out poses particular challenges. “It involves great excitement, great fear, great shame, great ambivalence,” he says. “Kelly was a very holy man when I first met him, and he remains every bit that – except enhanced.”

Dominic Morrissey, Walker’s musical director, a friend before, during and after Walker’s coming out, says something similar, “To me, he’s just always been Kelly. He’s always had massive charisma – when he walks into a room, you can feel the room lift – but I know he went through a lot of turmoil when he and his wife split up. Now, he seems eternally happy – and at peace with himself.” Morrissey and his wife chose to ask Walker to be godfather to their four-year-old son, Noah.

Walker knows that while his life now feels right, there will be some who will see it as wrong. But he says that 52 years is a very long time for anyone to spend in a closet. “It took many years to be able to live in a right relationship with myself, with another human being and, if the truth be known, with the whole world. Age is a wonderful thing,” he says. “It makes you either face your truth – or hide it forever. I want to be fuller, holier and more exciting at 80 than I had ever dreamed of at 40.”

Next: A parent’s journey to acceptance

A parent’s journey to acceptance
It was a perfect day for a wedding. In a church bathed in glorious June sunshine and bedecked with roses and peonies, the misty-eyed couple exchanged traditional vows and wedding rings before four attendants and 40 guests. The bride wore an elegant cream-coloured jacket and skirt. The other bride wore a dusty-pink pantsuit. There was no groom.

Two weeks after Ontario’s ruling on same-sex marriages, Beth, a  lawyer, was legally pronounced “spouse and spouse” with Anna, a corporate analyst. (Names have been changed since Beth often appears before conservative judges.)

Among the guests was Beth’s mother, Susan, 63, a retired teacher in Hamilton, Ont. Today, Susan takes the wedding pictures everywhere she goes, but she acknowledges that her acceptance of her daughter’s orientation has been slow and painful. “It was a huge personal struggle for me, which surprised me,” she says. “I’d always thought I was a pretty liberal person. It’s easy to be liberal – until you find out it’s your own kid.”

Beth came out to her mother four years ago at age 31. She had been a studious and quiet child. Beth, who had two long-term relationships with boys in university and law school, didn’t even come out to herself until her late 20s. “It was an evolutionary process over a few years, not a big seismic change,” says Beth, now 35. Telling her family was also a gradual process. She introduced her mother to some of her gay and lesbian friends. Then, she took her to a birthday party in a gay club. “Are you trying to tell me something?” Susan asked her daughter. “If you are, it’s okay with me.” But Beth wasn’t ready to talk.

The subject didn’t come up again for a year. One day over lunch, Susan mentioned to Beth that she had bought a copy of pop singer Cher’s book about her lesbian daughter, Chastity Bono. Later Beth asked her mother, “Did you buy that book for any reason?” Susan searched her daughter’s face. She knew.

There’s a saying that when the child comes out of the closet, the parent goes in. While intellectually prepared for the reality that her daughter was lesbian, Susan began to reel emotionally. “I felt shattered,” she says now. “I thought maybe it was just a phase she was going through. I even thought that maybe my divorce had something to do with it. You go back and think, ‘Did I do something wrong?'” Having envisioned a happy, traditional, normal life for her daughters, she didn’t tell any friends or relatives for a year because she couldn’t do it without bursting into tears.

Meanwhile, Beth’s younger sister, Lynn, was living a traditional life. A vice-principal, she married a football-playing man who worked in manufacturing. When Lynn got pregnant, she and her husband asked Beth to be the baby’s godmother. That’s when Beth said they may want to reconsider, and told them why. Learning Beth was a lesbian came as no surprise. “We had suspected it since there had been no man in her life for some time.” says Lynn. “It didn’t affect our decision at all.” Beth became the boy’s godmother.

Susan, however, was still struggling. Moreover, her ex-husband, who had moved out of the province, still didn’t know about Beth. “You have to tell your father,” Susan said, but Beth didn’t.

Meanwhile, Anna was becoming more a part of Beth’s family. When the same-sex marriage laws changed in June 2003, Beth and Anna made immediate plans to get married in Toronto during Pride Week. Not sure how her father would respond, Beth called and invited him to the wedding. He came.

“He was very supportive,” says Beth. But her father won’t talk about his daughter. “My private thoughts are just that – private,” is all he’ll say.

Anna’s own parents didn’t go to the wedding. Her coming out at age 20 had been so upsetting to her father that she still hasn’t told him she is now married.

Many of the gay and lesbian guests hugged Beth’s parents. One young man told them how important it was for Beth to have her parents there, adding sadly, “My father would never do this for me.” Since the wedding, Beth and Anna have been enjoying married life in Riverdale, a gay-positive neighbourhood in Toronto. They go to church. They’re talking about having a child someday.

And Susan, encouraged by the joy on her daughter’s face at her wedding, continues to work toward acceptance. “It’s not so much a burden anymore,” she says. “I know some parents are crusaders, but I’m not ready to beat the drum. I’m okay, but I’m not there yet.”