First published at 365gay.com on July 9, 2007
If I were the religious type, I might be preparing for Armageddon right now.
You see, last weekend my partner Mark and I drove out to his parents’ house to help with yard work. This in itself would be unremarkable except that, as recently as Christmas, Mark’s father insisted that I would be welcome at their house “over [his] dead body.”
We arrive. Mark’s father greets us at the door. He appears to be breathing normally. This is progress.
Mark and I have been together for nearly six years. When we first started dating, he was fresh out of law school, living with his parents while he looked for a job. He had not yet come out to them. “I figured I should wait until I had someone special in my life to tell them about,” he explained to me.
“Isn’t that sweet,” I replied to him. “What a bad idea,” I thought to myself.
Just as I feared: when Mark finally did come out to his parents, I personified for them everything that had gone wrong. I was “that man” (they could never bring themselves to use my name) who had corrupted their son. Never mind that Mark had been dating guys for years before meeting me: in their minds, his being gay was all my fault.
We hoped that their wrath would subside quickly, but it didn’t. They refused to come to our house. They refused, even, to meet me. So we decided to ambush them. One Sunday, Mark’s sister invited everyone out to lunch. “We won’t tell them you’re coming,” she explained sympathetically. “In a public place, they’ll have to be nice to you.”
Mark’s family is Asian. Like many Asians, they believe in “saving face.” They abhor public scenes. (By contrast, my family is Italian. We believe in expressing ourselves. Public scenes are our forte.)
When Mark’s parents arrived at the restaurant that day, Mark took a deep breath and blurted out, “Mom, Dad, this is John.”
“Nice to meet you,” I offered. They responded with a look that could wilt flowers.
We managed to get through lunch. But our ambush only caused them to dig in their heels deeper. They refused to attend Mark’s 30th birthday dinner because “that man” would be there. They refused to attend his sister’s engagement party because we were hosting it at our house. We seriously worried that they might refuse to attend her wedding.
When they finally bought their plane tickets for the wedding (held at a Mexican resort, on “neutral” territory), we were apprehensive. “These all-inclusive resorts have unlimited alcoholic beverages?” we asked his sister. “We’ll need them.”
Adding to the drama was the fact that my own parents would be attending. My Sicilian mother meets my Filipino mother-in-law. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. Our friends wanted ringside seats.
The wedding went off without a hitch. My parents—who have been wonderfully supportive—introduced themselves to Mark’s parents. “You have such a lovely family,” my mother said to Mark’s mother. I watched for the flower-wilting look, but I couldn’t detect it. Maybe the margaritas had kicked in.
But it wasn’t just the margaritas. The wedding seems to have been a turning point. Maybe it was Mark’s parents’ seeing us interact closely with my parents, and realizing that they were missing out. Maybe it was their seeing that I actually had parents, rather than having emerged directly from hell. Whatever it was, they softened. Dramatically.
Mother’s Day came, and we all went out to brunch. I didn’t have to ambush them.
Father’s Day came, and they actually visited our house. They complimented us on our garden, our food, our furniture. When they finally drove away, I turned to Mark and said, “Who were those people and what have they done with your parents?”
“I have no idea,” he replied, dazed.
Then last weekend we went over to help them with weeding and planting. “John, work in the shade,” his mother insisted. “The sun is too hot.” She brought me a towel so I wouldn’t have to kneel on rocky soil. She brought me bottles of cold water. (I checked the caps before drinking them. Tamper-proof.) Both she and his father were extremely gracious, and I don’t think it was just for the free yard work.
In recent years gays have seen tremendous social and legal progress. There is much work to be done. But some of the most important work, and the most powerful, occurs on a small scale. It’s mothers’ introducing themselves to mothers-in-law (even when there is no “law” recognizing the relationship). It’s yard work; it’s brunch. Raise a margarita and drink to that.