Graduating in a pandemic — when your child is gay

Graduating during the 2020 coronavirus is as weird as you’d think. For the last month, we’ve made our way to drive-past celebrations where my husband sticks his head out of the moonroof and beats a celebratory drum while I drive ever so carefully behind  a parade of vehicles. We’ve coordinated mailing campaigns for our graduates at church. We’ve planted signs in yards and had signs planted in ours. We’ve cheered on the celebratory FB posts by parents of graduates, and we’ve posted our own pictures. We’ve offered sympathy for those moms and dads who are sad to see their child’s senior year of high school end like this. 

  For me, though, there was no sense of loss until our immediate family   gathered around the tv on Friday night to watch graduation. Until the footage started rolling of our daughter singing “My Old Kentucky Home” — in her graduation robes but also in her childhood bedroom — I hadn’t shed a tear. The dim twilight filtering through the curtains we’d drawn so we could see the screen, her sixth grade brother shirtless, I in my rocking chair with my knitting, and and the graduate and her father on the sofa: what a strange way to watch a child pass that milestone from childhood to adulthood, from school days to adult responsibility. Only the technical difficulties in the video propelled us to laughter that held an element of hysteria.

 When your child is gay, this milestone hits differently. No matter how welcoming a school, no matter how cozy a nest, an LGBTQ student’s passage through high school looks different from the warm 1950s glow of what we imagine high school filtered through Happy Days and 90210 to be.  I don’t imagine that the 21st century high school experience looks like the  football captain-Homecoming-cheerleader-parade float-prom haze for any 21st century teenager.  John Mellencamp wrote “Jack and Diane” almost 40 years ago now. 

We knew high school wasn’t a rosy dream in the 1980s, too.

But for parents of gay children, it’s another thing entirely.  You lose sleep in a different way. For my daughter, her identity was also mediated through a late teen diagnosis of ADHD, but that’s another story for a different essay, when that piece of our history — the painful struggle to find that diagnosis and the missteps, both hers and ours— is less painful.  Life lesson for parents of preemie girls: take seriously the risk of ADHD in your healthy, sparkly, spunky girls. 

 For the last two months, I’ve watched and listened as other parents lament the loss of prom, awards nights, spring musicals and sports, and graduation. If I’m honest, all that I could think is that we had a few more months of keeping our daughter safe at home.

 My daughter went to good school, with a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, with truly progressive teachers, and with many tolerant classmates. I never feared for her safety too much on the basis of her sexuality. Something that I’ve learned is that statistics are only so helpful in letting a parent sleep at night. 

Whenever a woman is assaulted, we rightly call out politicians who rush to assure us that they are appalled because he is the father of a daughter, a husband to a wife, a son of a mother.  We don’t need those family relationships to know right from wrong.

And yet, since I’ve learned that my daughter is a lesbian, I find that my response to stories in the news about violence against LGBTQ folks has taken a turn toward atavism. My response — my rage and my fear — comes from the gut now and not the mind.  The statistic that LGBTQ youth consider suicide at three times the rate of their straight peers stops my heart. I may be stirring soup on the stove, scouring out a bathtub, or making a bed, but when that news story comes on, I am frozen and cannot move.

It’s all to say that as much as I know I should, it’s been hard to lament her senior year ending this way.  Two months free from knowing that your daughter is being told she’s going to hell? We’ll take it. Of course, the homophobia is ever present in social media and media. But two months away from being personally told that she’s personally going to hell? It’s hard for a parent not to see the upside.

A pandemic is not a good solution for keeping a child safe. As much as we rejoice that she made it through high school, safe and whole, adulthood beckons. In a few months, she’ll likely be off to college. We live in a better world than the one I grew up in. The closeted kids I knew in high school are shocked that it’s nothing to be “out” even in our rural school in the 21st century.  Until we live in an entirely different world, I will always be a little scared for her. My heart will always be stopping when I read that news story.  But as safe as we’ve felt in our socially distant home in spring of 2020, we don’t want the pandemic to last forever. We don’t want her in her graduation gown in that lilac room forever. It’s time for her go out into the world. It’s time for me to worry about her as all parents keep carrying their adult adult children in our hearts do. It’s time for her to make the world her own.

I’m still glad that high school is over.

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