The walls of the offices of the now-defunct Queensland Association of Healthy Communities are decorated with colourful flyers and rainbow posters but the building is strangely quiet. There is some activity in a room at the back of the building, where the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays are having their bi-monthly meeting. The women are warmly greeting each other, offering tea, biscuits and cakes generously, and a happy chatter fills the room. The group settles around a centre table and the national spokesperson, Shelley Argent, begins the meeting with a summary of recent events.
“On the topic of marriage equality, recently there has been a vote in Parliament that obviously didn’t pass, and I just want to let you all know that we plan to lie low for a few months and then once there is talk of another election, we will start to lobby new candidates on their position. I want you all to know that’s what’s happening; we’re not giving up the fight for equal rights for our gay sons and daughters.”
There’s a murmur of assent, and then Shelley encourages all to add their emails to the list on the table.
“Unfortunately, due to the closing down of QAHC, the expense of sending newsletters to all our members is one that we just simply cannot afford any more.”
It’s clear Campbell Newman’s recent funding changes are being keenly felt by the organisation, and it seems to be a sore topic for Shelley, whose frustration simmers just under the surface.
She then introduces the guest speaker, a young woman by the name of Lauren Palmer. Lauren and her two friends are easily the youngest in the group, and Shelley explains that while Lauren’s experience is the opposite of what the mothers in the group are used to discussing, there are many parts of her story that will be very familiar to everyone there.
Eloquent and humble, Lauren begins her story by thanking Shelley and the group for having her there to speak.
“When people ask me what my time growing up was like, I’m flooded with memories full of light and laughter and love,” she begins, before embarking on the tragic and touching story of a family struggling to support and reconnect with each other through a time of great trial.
Shortly after her parents returned from their 25th wedding anniversary in France, Lauren’s mother unexpectedly died due to a misdiagnosed pulmonary embolism. A blood clot from the long flight had moved to her heart, and the passing was very sudden.
“I will never forget the day that mum died and the absolute horror and heartache it brought to our family,” says Lauren. “One of the hardest things of all was watching Dad attempt to comprehend the loss of his partner, his other half, his point of reference … at times, his mourning could be so overwhelming it would terrify me.”
The Palmers soon brought a malpractice suit against the family doctor who made the misdiagnosis. In an attempt to have the suit dropped, the doctor blackmailed Lauren’s father, Ben, by threatening to release confidential information about his sexuality. Forced to act, Ben came out to his family.
“He was frantic and almost nonsensical as the words came tumbling out,” remembers Lauren. “The way that dad was feeling didn’t really cross my mind then, and probably wasn’t something I’d given much consideration to until recent years.
“I was so deep in my own grief that his being gay just felt like another insurmountable hurdle to overcome.”
The doctor sent copies of medical records to Ben’s business associates and friends, severely damaging his professional and public image. Worse, their family, once tight-knit, fractured under the additional strain of the change.
“I was feeling that our relationship had been splintered by mum’s death, and our grieving was on two completely different pages,” Lauren says. “If dad was gay, then it was just another part of him I couldn’t understand or access or sympathise with.”
“I felt immense anger at the situation, and I felt angry at dad. How could he come along and make things all the more complicated? I would sometimes wish he just hadn’t come out at all.”
Around the circle, there are murmurs of condolence as Lauren unravels the tragic tale. As she begins talking about how she felt and reacted to the situation, the mutters turn to sounds of understanding and empathy. The women share knowing glances with each other, acknowledgements of a time when they all felt the same pain, confusion and resentment.
“Most of all I felt embarrassed,” Lauren continues. “I was so worried about what people would say and think. I wanted to keep dad in the closet because I was worried about how I might be treated if people knew he was gay.”
Lauren goes on to tell how slowly she began her journey of healing and understanding.
“I realised that all the change I was so afraid of wasn’t because dad was gay; that his sexuality had no impact on our closeness and our relationship. Only my behaviours and attitudes towards it did.”
The smiles spread around the circle as the women share more meaningful looks, all recognising the process of acceptance and remembering their own time with it.
“All the anger I felt dissipated. How could I possibly be angry at someone for standing up and saying this is who I am, especially when it’s taken 53 years to get there,” Lauren says, her tone quiet but passionate. There are a few damp eyes, and it’s clear everyone has been very moved by her honesty.
“And last of all I learnt to replace my embarrassment with pride. It goes back to the notion of understanding that a person’s sexuality does not define them… I came to understand that when I talk about my dad with people, his being gay was one small part of the ways in which I can describe him. And if I couldn’t approach those conversations full of pride and acceptance, what chance did Dad or anyone else facing coming out have?”
There are a few new members in the group, and after Lauren finishes speaking the women go around the circle and introduce themselves. It’s clear they are all at different stages of the process of healing, but there is the one motivation they all have in common: love.
Every mother there shares fears, past or present, about the treatment of their gay sons and daughters, about the loneliness their teenagers feel, isolated from any gay communities due to laws that restrict homosexuality to adults. They feel frustrated, unsure of how to help, and vulnerable to the whims of teenage angst.
Most share stories of their loved ones coming out. One of the new members brings several people to tears recounting how her teenaged son was desperately trying to tell her but physically could not get the words out.
“I asked him if it would it be easier to write it down,” she says. “So he got a piece of paper, and wrote this little note on it, and folded it up. And he clutched it to his chest, and wouldn’t give it to me, so I reached out and took it from him. And in this tiny, tiny writing on the paper were the words ‘I’m gay’.”
The fear and emotional turmoil faced by both parents and children in each story is readily apparent, and the bravery of these young people is overwhelming. Every group member clearly shares similar memories and feelings, whether long past or freshly experienced. It is this mutual sharing and knowing acceptance that makes the group feel so safe and open.
The meeting starts to wrap up, the regulars jumping into cleaning and tidying roles with an ease of practice. The new members are smiling, having already received reassurances and advice from mothers who have been through it all before. There have been jokes, laughter, and the attempted explanation of the ‘Grindr’ smart phone app to the self-confessed granny of the group, who seems perplexed at the idea of meeting strangers through a phone for coffee – or “coffee” as a few wry mothers put it.
Lauren thanks the group for listening, and everyone thanks her profusely for speaking. Despite being the mirror reflection of what these mothers are undergoing, the emotions and reactions Lauren described are clearly a shared experience.
“It’s a big story to tell, and it’s so nice to be able to share it with people who are so open and understanding,” she says.
This is, if nothing else, the core tenet of the group. Openness, understanding and acceptance for all emotions and reactions as families learn to adjust to the changes occurring in their social dynamic. The honesty is empowering, the advice reassuring, and the friendship unwavering in this special group of people who are trying to change a society and its views using love and devotion.