Telaina Eriksen’s teenage daughter wasn’t afraid to come out, so why is so much of the world still afraid of her?
My daughter Casandra just turned 17. She is many things—a swimmer, a water polo player, a reader, a high school student. She likes tarot cards and writes in her journal every day. She is teaching herself to play the guitar. She is a profound introvert. But if she knows you and trusts you, she is relaxed, funny, and philosophical. She stands 6’1″ in her athletic shoes and is skinny, with long slender hands, arms, and legs. Casandra works hard in every area of her life—in academics where she carries a 3.8, in athletics where she refuses to complain and is relentless about improving her times and endurance, and in personal relationships where she doesn’t always understand the shallowness of her fellow adolescents. She wants to, in some capacity, help people in her future career through psychology, social work, or criminal justice.
My daughter is many things. And she is also gay. Or a lesbian. Or queer. She uses the word lesbian usually because it is what my 51-year-old sister uses, who is also gay, and this was a hard fought word to gain and own for my sister.
For the last four years I have known I was a parent of a gay teen. I was, of course, parent of a gay child the entire time and didn’t know it. I had no “concerns” or “suspicions.” But I also felt deep in my body how hard it was for Casandra to make friends. How she didn’t seem to feel safe in the world. After sixth grade, she changed schools because the girls at her previous school were hateful and thought she was weird. She did better at the new school, and in seventh grade a situation occurred, and she told us that yes, she was attracted to girls.
With a gay sister and many gay friends, I was better equipped to receive this news than many parents. The first thought that entered my head was for her safety. At the very school Casandra attended, a gay teen had been bullied and shortly thereafter, killed himself. Not long after safety concerns came another thought: Did I do something wrong as a parent to cause this?
I hated myself for asking this question because it reaffirmed heterosexuality as the norm. It indicated that something was currently “wrong” with my daughter. Had I failed in some way? Not loved her enough? Loved her too much? Had my hormones been out of whack when I was pregnant with her? I worked and traveled the whole time I was pregnant. Had I been under too much stress?
I wanted someone to talk to and some books to read. Most of the books I picked up were horrible stories about children being kicked out of their homes. I just wanted someone to tell me it was going to be OK. I wanted someone to say that these sad stories of homeless and depressed and suicidal gay teens didn’t have to be our narrative, or her fate. I wanted guarantees of no bullying, no strange looks from other parents or strangers, no discrimination.
I then gave many of these books to Casandra and after reading them she said, “Wow, I’m lucky.”
This made me cry. That my daughter felt lucky because we hadn’t beaten her. Or kicked her out of our house. Or screamed at her. Or told her that God didn’t love her. That instead we took her to swimming and her music lessons and helped with her homework and made dinner and watched movies together and read together and even went to church together. Things we have always done because we are a family. Things that some parents felt they needed to withhold from their gay children because…the Bible said so? Because their gay children make them uncomfortable? Because their gay children don’t exactly meet ridiculous cultural norms and standards? What on earth did their children owe them? Their children had never asked to be born, and had especially never asked to be placed here in this unkind and homophobic country.
I felt confused. Not about my love for her but about what to do. How to help. Other moms would post pictures on Facebook of their daughters in revealing dresses going to the winter formal or the prom and I knew I would never be able to do the same. I would never see my daughter walk down the aisle of the Catholic Church and into the arms of the person she loved. Casandra would go out into the world and be called “dyke” and “pussy eater.” She would read posts on Facebook and hear hateful things about how she was condemned to hell because of a single passage in Leviticus. I wanted to wrap her in an unbreachable bubble to keep out the contamination.
Her sophomore year in high school she wrote a status update on Facebook on National Coming Out day. She was not going to hide. To say you are proud of your child is a loaded cliché. What you are saying is that your child reflects well on you with his/her achievements and accolades. But to say I was proud of Casandra, who, at 15 years old, was ready to take on any comers with her coming-out status update on Facebook, is an understatement.
Around the time of Casandra’s coming out on Facebook, I realized I had stopped being scared of what the world might think about and do to Casandra and instead I started getting really pissed that the world wasn’t a better place for my daughter. She deserved more from me. She deserved more from the world.
I also realized that being gay freed her in some way that I would never be free. She and the woman she falls in love with will make their own gender roles in their relationship. They will need to talk about the chores and roles that many heterosexual couples take for granted. If Casandra chooses to have a child, the baby will be wanted and planned and celebrated. If she never chooses to have children, she can achieve great things in her career by having that as her focus. She will never (has never) focused on her body as it appears through male eyes; nor has she ever gotten her worth from having the latest fashions and makeup.
You expect certain things when you have a daughter—you might think you will talk about boys and gossip and shop. What I receive by parenting Casandra is so much better than any expectation I had. I have had a chance to grow as a person and a parent, to love in a way that passes boundaries, to show myself and my daughter that my love is not conditional on her compliance to societal norms.
How little and small my previous expectations of raising a daughter were, and how much I would have never known about myself and about our world if my daughter was just another girl in a prom dress.
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her two teenage children, and her Shetland Sheepdog Sprite.