I’m Queer, and I Love My Evangelical Mom
I got to give a funny speech at my college graduation, and I wanted to open with this joke: “When I first got into Princeton, my mom warned me it was a liberalizing, heathenizing institution. But I haven’t changed at all. I arrived here a conservative, Southern Baptist carnivore, and tomorrow, I’ll graduate a gay vegetarian atheist.”
My mom stared at me.
“So, you’re gay?”
I had shared with her a copy of the speech. She’d driven up from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, taken a week off from waiting tables, to see her son become the first in the family to graduate college. Now, that son was trying to come out to her—and 30,000 friends, family and loved ones—with a joke.
It maybe wasn’t my best choice.
“Can we not make this the discussion of the weekend?” she asked.
My heart sank. A plea for decorum and politeness. A request from the woman whose late-night Walmart runs for last-minute school projects helped get me into Princeton. An ask to not let my sexuality overshadow a weekend of celebration. A nudge back into the closet.
I felt embarrassed, like I had done something wrong—confessing and asking permission at the same time. This isn’t what was supposed to happen.
Pop culture had me believe one of two things happened when you came out to your parents:
1. Rejection. They reject you. They remove financial and emotional support. They kick you out of their house. They never speak to you again. They send you to conversion therapy to pray the gay away and erase a boy.
2. Celebration. They embrace you. Mom gets a rainbow tattoo on her forehead. She joins the Queer Student-Parent Alliance. If there’s not a Queer Student-Parent Alliance, she starts the Queer Student-Parent Alliance. She drives you and your boyfriend, Simon, to prom. She attends every Pride Parade in a 100-mile radius. She carries a sign that says “I Love My Gay Son.”
The next day, I gave my speech.
“When I first got into Princeton, my mom warned me it was a liberalizing, heathenizing institution.”
I paused. It’s scary speaking to 30,000 people.
“But I haven’t changed at all. I arrived here a conservative, Southern Baptist carnivore, and tomorrow, I’ll graduate a feminist, vegetarian atheist.”
I didn’t know I liked boys until college because southern Virginia didn’t have any cute boys. That, and being raised evangelical Christian discouraged me from even entertaining an exploration of my sexualité. In college, I studied religion, cheap beer and the hot dudes who played shirtless beach volleyball outside my dorm. Against a backdrop of aged buildings and underage drinking, I became and realized I was an atheist and realized I was gay. I became an atheist through reason and rational thought. I realized I was gay because I wanted to have sex with hot dudes.
After graduation, I didn’t talk about being gay with my family. I moved to Chicago and bounced around the boys of Boystown. I hydrated myself with booze and sidetracked myself with boys. I worked at an LGBTQ community center, met older gay couples and learned about the power of anti-anxiety and depression medication, fitness and cognitive behavioral therapy—thank you, Dr. Dave! When I landed in a long-term relationship, I stopped going home for the holidays. Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came and went. Then another year. And another. I decided I’d rather be with my boyfriend than go back to a place that might not 100 percent accept me. Had I given them a fair chance? Or had I decided for them that I would accept only 100 percent support? Did “Can we not make this the discussion of the weekend?” mean “Can we not have this discussion ever?” Was that wrong of me?
I was brave enough to come out to 30,000 people. Was I brave enough to come out to two?
“I love you unconditionally,” my mom says to me in between bites of an Olive Garden breadstick. “But I can’t change what I believe.”
It’s a few days after Christmas, and I’m visiting her for the first time in four years.
I had gotten dumped and moved to New York, which is what you do when you get dumped. I decided to visit my family, too, apparently another thing you do when you get dumped. It’s amazing what a four-year timeout will do to put everyone on their best behavior. My mom and I played Rummy, went to the mall and made time for a mother-son date at the iconic Italian restaurant where we celebrated every birthday from age 12 to 18. I can sing the branded birthday song from memory.
“I know,” I say in between bites of my breadstick. And I mean this: I do know. What she believes is that being gay, which I am, is a sin and that marriage, which I’d like to do, is between men and women, whom I don’t really want to do. But I know this belief. It’s the belief I was raised with; it’s the first layer of paint I’ve painted over. It’s been there so long, it looks like the wood.
How can she love me unconditionally and believe this? Can both those things be true?
In a booth with an over-attentive server, I gently interrogate her to test the boundaries of this unconditional love. What did she believe about gay people? About me? Could I bring a new boyfriend home to meet her? Would she be at my wedding?
“I love you unconditionally.” (That’s a 2. Celebration. Point for Mom of the Year)
“I can’t change what I believe.” (Back to 1. Rejection. Kick me out of the house.).
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” (1. Heard this before…)
“You want me to carry an ‘I Love My Gay Son’ sign in a Pride Parade? I will.” (2. You pick the city, I’ll pick outfits!)
I invited my mom to New York to visit me and co-host a comedy show with me to celebrate my first album, “Clean Comedy,” which you should buy. (Yes, I just shamelessly plugged my album. I grew up evangelical; I lived full of shame for too long.) For the show, I asked all my queer alt comedian friends to perform and gave my mom a buzzer. She got to censor them if they went dirty. She buzzed the 20 comedians about 70 times, including an unexpected buzz when my friend Blythe mentioned she was vegan. We laughed and joked on stage, reminding us both we have a lot in common.
But she didn’t buzz someone just for saying they were gay.
It was another milestone—a comedy graduation where now I was openly gay and sharing my gay crew. Only now she was on stage with me, not in the crowd.
Why do I feel the need to perform these moments with her? Maybe it’s why people break up in coffee shops, so no one makes a scene. Maybe I need the backup of my peers so I don’t revert back to a little kid who did as he was told. Maybe I need the draw of the spotlight to share my truth. (Dr. Dave, let’s discuss at a later time.)
“I love you unconditionally, but I believe what I believe,” she says as we walk to brunch the next day. (2 then a 1)
“Tell me you love me unconditionally period.”
“Unconditionally. Period.” (2)
The more comfortable I am with myself, the better vantage point I have on her, on me, on us. It feels like everything has changed. And yet nothing has changed—she’s still her, and I’m still me. But maybe she’s not the villain I had created in my mind, pushing me into a closet out of individual hate. She’s part of a specific organized religious group that sees a group of people as different and less, and she unconditionally loves one of those less-thans that was pulled out of her stomach during a scheduled C-section because my skull was too big for a natural birth.
Like Heisenberg observing a particle, the more we try to measure our relationship, the more we affect it. We move, mostly forward, sometimes back, along a tightrope of affirmations and microaggressions, over breadsticks and buzzes, in the crowd and on stage.
I called her about writing this essay.
“If you’re going to drag me, wait until I’m dead,” she quips over the phone. (Did my mom just appropriate gay slang?) Maybe we didn’t change each other’s foundational beliefs, but I feel more at peace than I have in a long time. I hope she does, too, because I love her. I love how she raised me, and I love how I’m able to live today. I love who she was, is and will become. I love my Christian mom the way she must love her gay son.
Not just 1 or 2, but a third, quantum, indescribable thing that is in the middle and both at once.
Zach Zimmerman is a queer New York comedian whose first comedy album, “Clean Comedy,” debuted at #1 on iTunes and the Billboard Top 10 Comedy Albums. You can download “Clean Comedy” here.