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When we are with other families and friends of gay people, we feel we can be completely ourselves.

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Ohio

A Gay Son's Father Comes Out

by Clifton Spires

MARCH 26, 2001. A year and half ago, my wife, Joy, and I, along with a lesbian friend, decided to form a chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Sandusky, a North Ohio town of about 30,000 people. Joy and I wanted to do something for Rick, 29, our gay son who disappeared from our home and our lives more than four years ago. We also did it for ourselves. When we are with other families and friends of gay people, we feel we can be completely ourselves.

I am currently county news editor for The Willard Times-Junction. I am also a freelance writer, and sometime actor. My wife, Joy, who is physically disabled, is a former newspaper editor, reporter, and police dispatcher. She is currently writing a book on how physical appearance affects the way people are treated. We also have another son, Jonathan, 18, who is straight.

Sandusky, and nearby Norwalk where we live, rely heavily on the tourist trade from nearby Lake Erie. The centerpiece of it all, after the lake, is the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky. The park is a major employer, and many other local businesses, like restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops and so on, are heavily dependent on it. Manufacturing and trucking are other important activities. The local high school team is known as the Norwalk Truckers, and their girls' marching group are the Truckerettes.

Both cities are dominated by conservative, very religious Catholic families. But except for extreme right-wing letters in the local paper, and the occasional anti-abortion demonstration, the general attitude is "don't ask, don't tell." There is also a growing amount of liberal groups, including Unitarians, pagans, and drumming circles.

When we first formed PFLAG, the local daily newspaper, The Sandusky Register, offered to do a feature on the group. We declined because we didn't feel ready for the exposure. Everyone was at different stages of "outness," and we needed time to get comfortable with each other.

By October 2000, when we marked the first birthday of our PFLAG chapter, we found we had actually met some of our first goals—to stay alive as an organization, grow in membership and affiliate nationally. Increasingly, more gay and lesbian people were joining the group, making the meetings more diverse, stimulating and fun. The simple fact of surviving that first year gave us more energy.

To celebrate our accomplishments, we contacted The Sandusky Register and accepted their offer to feature our PFLAG group. Then the question became, who would do the interviews? Joy and I were willing, but some of the parents were simply not ready to go public, or did not want to put their children at risk. Some lgbt members were afraid they'd lose their jobs if their sexual orientation was publicized.

Several months earlier, when the Register did a large article on gay people working at the nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park, there was a big backlash from anti-gay and conservative groups. The paper was targeted by hateful phone calls and a church-organized letter-writing campaign. Even some Unitarians said, "They shouldn't have published it; it will just make people afraid to come here [to the Park]."

We also feared an article about us would instigate physical violence against ourselves and our homes, not because anything had ever happened in our peaceful communities, but because it could. Probably nobody expected violence in Laramie, Wyoming where the college student Mathew Shepherd was killed for being gay, or Jasper, Texas where James Byrd, Jr. was brutally murdered because of his race.

We kept on going despite our fears, and in the end, there were seven PFLAG members at the interview with The Register: two sets of parents, our lesbian co-founder and one gay man who would talk, but not be identified by name, and our treasurer, a woman who fell into the category of "friend." As the evening wore on, all of us, PFLAG members and reporters, realized that we were doing something very important.

This wasn't your typical newspaper story about politics or crime or money or cute little kids selling lemonade. It was about people showing by example that acceptance and tolerance is the only path for all of us to take.

My heart soared listening to our group. My wife, the group's President, spoke with gentle and articulate passion. Our friends, Liz and Ron, eloquently expressed how much they love their gay son, Aaron, and how they have the same hopes and concerns for him that they have for their other children. The gay and lesbian representatives, whom we jokingly pseudonamed "Will" and "Ellen," spoke courageously about their own lives and on behalf of millions of other gay and lesbian people. Mary, our treasurer, explained that gay outreach and acceptance is part of her calling as a Christian.

We waited tensely until the article was published, nearly a week later. On Wednesday, January 31, 2001, I got up at 6 a.m., drove down to the nearest service station and checked for The Sandusky Register. On the front page, above the fold, was my picture, holding a large photograph of our gay son, Rick. The headline was, "Love, not judgment."

Nothing was sensationalized. Nothing was embarrassing. PFLAG's goals were accurately discussed, and the icing on the cake came the following Sunday when The Register ran an editorial commending the presence of PFLAG in the Sandusky community, and wishing its members well.

To date, there have been no hate messages on our telephone answering machine, or on the e-mail address we set up to field such messages. We have received a few inquiries from people who wanted help in accepting a gay loved one, or just wanted to be part of a positive movement.

It took a year of preparation for Sandusky/Firelands PFLAG's official "outing." It was time well-spent.

Related links:

For Love, not judgment, The Sandusky Register article about Sandusky/Firelands PFLAG.

For Our opinion—PFLAG an example of courage, compassion, The Sandusky Register editorial.

For Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). PFLAG, an international organization with 450 chapters, provides support for people whose loved ones have diverse sexual orientations. They also work to expand awareness and understanding of lgbt issues.

For Clifton Spires' "Family 101" e-group, a supportive parent's look at the gay civil rights movement.

For information about supporting your gay children, see Tackling Gay Issues in School.

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