It started the day my son, Justin, had a hickey on his neck. Having a fairly close relationship with Justin, I asked him about it. First of all, like most 18-year-olds, he denied it was a hickey. I quickly grounded him in reality, stating that I most certainly knew what a hickey looked like. He was flustered but also pleased to be sporting this huge purple blotch on his neck.
"Who is she?" I asked. He had several friends who were girls, and I really couldn't imagine him wrestling romantically with any of them. They had always been strictly platonic. He wouldn't tell me who had delivered the hickey.
Being me, I started listing friends, and acquaintances, hoping to hit upon the right name.
"Joanne? Li Ann? Hui Fen? Alicia?" He denied them all with a foolish grin. As a joke, I brought up the name of a guy friend of his, who had just recently started showing up around our house. I hadn't met Alvin yet, but I knew my son had been out with him the night before.
"Alvin?" I teased.
"No," he said. But he smiled a smile that I didn't understand and left the room.
I thought about that for a while. As the days progressed, I started to notice some changes about Justin. He was dressing different, wearing newsboy caps, scarves, and sporting an "indie" beard. He was spending a lot of time with Alvin, to the exclusion of his other friends. I still had never met Alvin. One evening I was supposed to pick up my son from Bangsar, where he was hanging out with Alvin. I wanted to get petrol first, so I came into the parking lot through another entrance. As I pulled in to the dark lot, I thought I saw my son and another taller boy, definitely locked in embrace, up against a van in the shadows. When Justin became aware of my approaching car, he quickly pulled away from the boy and pretended like nothing had happened. He got in the car and the other boy slunk away, giving me a level, defiant stare over his shoulder.
"Alvin?" I asked Justin.
"Yup," he said, and changed the subject. I let it drop. I was too much in shock over what I had just seen. In fact, I started doubting immediately that I had even seen what I knew I had seen. The only thing that remained firmly lodged in my mind was Alvin's thunderous dark-eyed look, aimed directly at me.
In the next days that followed, I was haunted by that look. Alvin came over to the house, or met Justin in the car porch, but it never happened when I was around. They waited until I was at work, or somewhere else. Justin was becoming more and more flamboyant in the way he was talking, dressing and acting.
I left Justin a note on his computer one morning, that said, basically, that all I ever wanted for him, since he was born, was to be happy and to be free to be who he was. It was a little ambiguous, I know, but I thought that if Justin was gay, that the note would tell him that I would still accept him, and that my primary desire here was his happiness. He never said anything about the note.
The day that I was taking Justin's laundry out of the washing machine and a "gay pride" sock fell out and landed at my feet, I decided that Justin was really, really trying to tell me something. I couldn't wait any longer. I had to talk to him.
It's hard to pin down a 18-year-old, for a heart-to-heart talk. Justin wasn't the most receptive to mother-son talks anyway, always brushing off my concerns and barely listening, since he was a little boy. But I felt strongly that he needed to have a "safe sex" talk from me more than almost anything else. I had found out that Justin lied about Alvin being 18. He was 23 and working as a freelance model. I felt that Justin might be in over his head with someone more experienced than him. I knew this wasn't going to be easy.
Not knowing how to begin, I decided to just jump in. I couldn't make my mouth form the "g" word, though. It's not that I didn't want to say it, I just didn't know how it would be received by Justin. What if he wasn't gay? Would I hurt him worse by asking him if he was?
I asked, "Is Alvin more than a friend?" Justin wouldn't look at me and gave me one of his famous "non-answers."
"I don't know," he said.
I persisted. "Because if he is, then there are things we need to talk about."
Justin was panicking a little, "Just stop!" he begged.
"I'm not stopping. I need to tell you this stuff because I love you and don't want anything to happen to you."
"You need to stop!" he pleaded again.
"Why do you want me to stop?" I kept my voice calm.
He turned away and mumbled with a catch in his voice, "It's embarrassing." My heart broke for him. I understood what he meant. He wanted to be true to who he was, but he wasn't ready to take on the full load of being gay. He didn't want to be outed by his mother. But, in effect, he just had been outed by his mother.
I apologized for bringing it up, but I also told him that if he was gay, that there were things that I had a responsibility to address, his safety being my number one priority. He said that, yes, Alvin was more than a friend.
I told him that he couldn't tell me to stop talking anymore, that I was motivated by love, and that he was going to listen. What I told him was that I was completely okay with who he was. It didn't change anything. Justin would be Justin, until the end of time. I very lightly touched on safe sex without saying the "s" word, because saying it made him cringe visibly. And I left the conversation open, telling him that he could always come to me and that I would always be a soft place to fall. And then I backed off and stopped. I could feel that it was about as much as Justin and I could handle at that point.
The next days that followed were hard for me to deal with. Now that I knew for sure that Justin was gay, I was terrified. I couldn't imagine a harder life for him. I knew he would be up against discrimination for the rest of his life, and my heart ached with the thought of it. I was grieving for my boy. We had always had a close and warm relationship. He was a lot like me in a lot of ways. But now, he suddenly seemed older and unreachable to me. He had crossed over to a land that I knew nothing about. I was scared and distraught. And I was surprised that I felt like that. I always assumed I was so open, and accepting, and when it came down to it, I could not understand for the life of me, why I was having such a hard time with this.
It was awkward between us for several days. I was also in the process of divorcing his father during this time and had been looking at apartments. I found one with two small bedrooms, one of which had a big closet. Justin was discussing the possibility of sharing the room with his sister, when he said, "I could always live in the closet... no... wait.... I just got out of the closet... I don't want to go back in." It was just so funny that we both burst out laughing, and suddenly all the awkwardness was gone. We were all right again.
It's been about six weeks since I found out that Justin was gay. I see him for who he really is, for the first time, and I can tell you, he's amazing. He is strong, clear-eyed and focused. Being gay is an indelible part of who he is, but that is not the only defining thing about him. He continues to see Alvin. I've met Alvin and have tried hard to work through that first impression of his sullen glance. I try to see Alvin like Justin sees him, and I hope that Alvin sees me the way that Justin sees me.
I'm proud of my son. What he's lived through his whole life has not been easy. I'm glad that I know. I'm glad that he doesn't have to live in the shadows. He can be who he is. And he's happy.
(p/s: I hope to have a mom like Justin's. But, alas, it's just a silly thought, I think my hope would have to remain just that – a hope to cherish.)