Lenoir woman’s research focuses on the parents of gay children

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 04:07 PM

Heather Custer started with a handful of questions.

When mothers learn their children are gay, and if they accept that immediately or eventually, what path do they travel toward acceptance?

What can they share with other mothers who have just learned their children are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

And what is the difference, exactly, between the mother who doesn’t accept her child’s sexuality and the mother who does?

Custer, who lives in Lenoir and previously taught in several of Caldwell County’s public schools, set out to answer those questions in a paper she titled, “Did you really mean happy and healthy are all that matter? A mother’s willingness to write multiple narratives for her LGBT child.” The paper, which she presented Jan. 16 to the Lenoir chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), was part of her studies at Appalachian State as she works toward a master’s degree in English.

Much of Custer’s research focused on narrative – on the clash between the narratives parents create for their children even before they’re born, and the stories those children write for themselves. A mother who is willing to revise that mental, anticipatory narrative is more likely to respond positively to the revelation that her child identifies as gay, Custer said.

As she spoke to the PFLAG group, Custer talked about all the milestones parents expect from the day they learn they’re pregnant – from the first day of kindergarten to marriage, grandchildren and “great, big family gatherings.”

“It’s All-American and apple pie and the story that most parents adopt from the broader culture for a child in utero,” Custer said. “Precisely because it precedes the child’s own story, it is incredibly powerful. This parental narrative, this cultural narrative, is powerfully encompassing. And it is also oppressively normative and exclusionary. Just how many possibilities does it leave unconsidered?”

To arrive at her answers, Custer worked with four Caldwell County mothers, all of whom have children who identify as LGBT and who consider themselves accepting of those children. She had each write out the narrative of her process of acceptance. It was an idea she had for some time, since she read the scribbled-down stories of a colleague at Hudson Middle School, a parent who had been chronicling her experience of raising a gay son.

The four mothers with whom Custer worked wrote about the conversations they had after their children came out. They wrote about the expectations they’d had for their children prior to those conversations, and all the ways those expectations have changed. They wrote about dark times – about discrimination their children faced and about their own fears and grief.  

They wrote about their joys – from deepened relationships to the celebration of a son’s marriage to his longtime partner.

For many mothers, Custer said, the things they struggled with most became the focus of their eventual activism. One mother – Custer gave her the name “Linda” in her paper – was anxious about the way her son would be treated. Later in her process of acceptance, “Linda” wrote a letter to the editor of the News-Topic, urging better treatment of LGBT children and asking readers to realize that words can hurt.

“A mother feels her child’s scars, regardless of the child’s age, just as deeply as the child does,” she wrote. “Mothers can help heal the physical boo-boos, but they can’t make the emotional scars go away.”

As each of these Caldwell mothers traveled toward acceptance, Custer said, they gradually learned to replace the narrative they’d established for their children with a new one – the stories their children had chosen to write.

“Rather than trying to change their children, these mothers changed themselves,” Custer said. “They took on a new identity, and that is the mother of an LGBT child.”