BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 14
SHARING FAMILY SECRETS

In the summer of 1964 I was just 22 and life lay before me.  But suddenly the life that I had known changed dramatically forever.  In May I had graduated from McMaster University with an Honours Degree in English and History.

  

Graduation Day at McMaster, with Dad and Mum and with fiancée Ann

In July I enrolled in my first Summer Session at Ontario Teacher’s College. That fall, I hesitatingly began my first job teaching High School English in Hamilton at just $6400 a year. Within a month I had broken my year long engagement to my fiancée Ann and began my first relationship with a man.

My “best-little-boy” image had been smashed at last. After just a few new adventures in Queen’s Park in Toronto, I had finally realized that what I really wanted was a man to who would love me in return. The fourth man I would meet in the part opposite my summer college residence was Frank.  In one mad month of meeting new friends in Toronto, I had finally come out just months before my 23rd birthday.

Life at home in Hamilton grew even more difficult. I had committed myself to begin my teaching there so I could help the family with the bills after living at home during my last years at McMaster. We had long foregone sharing our innermost thoughts that we had begun during the days we were involved with the Moral Re-Armament group. Now, I could not even tell them where I was going when I disappeared each weekend to be with Frank in Toronto. I found it painful to be with them in the same house and not be able to tell them what I was doing or whom I was seeing.

I finally took my own apartment in downtown Hamilton. They were hurt and angry. Both Mum and Dad had lived at home with their parents into their late thirties until they finally were married. Mother announced on her first much delayed visit to my small studio, “It’s unnatural to move out of your home until you are married! What will we tell our friends and family?”

After that first school year was over, I took another teaching job, this time in Toronto so I could be with Frank each night and escape more family questions. I knew they suspected what was happening, but even when the inevitable break with Frank came after eighteen months, I could say nothing. One Sunday after dinner, with the family around me, I collapsed on the living room couch and cried uncontrollably. I cried, not just for losing Frank, but for being unable to share my pain. In the midst of my own family, I was totally alone and isolated.

And so for ten years I could share very little about my life with the people I loved the most. Not even I could understand why I loved men instead of women. The guilt and shame was still difficult even for me. How could I expect them to bear it too?

  

Frank Bell, 1964-65                         Robin and Jay 1966-73

After Frank came Jay. An older man who gave me back pride in myself.  After a couple of years living together in Toronto, Jay had a chance to return to the University of Florida on a temporary library job.  He suggested that go with him and work on a Masters in media.  I could not see myself teaching English or going into school administration for the rest of my life.  I decided to go with Jay and see what new adventures were in store for me, beyond my high school English classes. Besides, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to teaching. That move to Florida was even harder to explain to the family, but by now they were used to my sudden and unpredictable moves.

After I earned my Masters of Education degree and a brief but heart-breaking affair with beautiful Buddy in Little Rock, I followed Jay to Phoenix when he took on a permanent position at the university library. Since there were no media jobs to be had, I fell into a Ph.D. program in Educational Technology at Arizona State. When I graduated two years later, I was a different person. And I had Jay to thank for it.

I had done something I never thought possible. I was now Robin Lawrason, Ph.D.. No one in my immediate family had even gone to College let alone graduate school. Despite my roaming around the continent and several more affairs of the heart, I had by now developed a better sense of pride in myself. As I took my first faculty position at the University of British Columbia, I faced a new life without my mentor, Jay, now totally on my own. Perhaps it was time they should know all there was to know about their son.

Mum and Dad had met Frank and Jay, but had never asked or seemed to want to know what the relationships meant. Not until I had met Jim, an Episcopal priest, did I feel comfortable enough about myself to think about sharing more of my life with them again.

[With Jim Lloyd in 1974]Jim had led me back to my faith, not through preaching, but through adversity and love. We had meet in Oregon and seen each other only three times before he moved east to take a new position. The only other person I knew in Philadelphia worked at Temple University. When I wrote to introduce my friend and ask what jobs in media might be available, I had a call from Jim. My Temple friend lived right next door to him. What a coincidence! But there was more. He was trying to hire a media person to head up a new College Lab and wanted me to send my credentials. Trusting instinct and fate, I was living in Philadelphia with a new job and lover within five months.

Those first months after moving three thousand miles from Vancouver to Philadelphia to be with Jim were agonizing. By the time I arrived, he was not so sure he wanted to share his life with his first live-in lover. I had nothing but my new church home, the parish where Jim was curate, to fall back upon. The old Gothic stones, brilliant glass and smoky rituals spoke to me, not only of the beauty and love of God, but also of patience and endurance.

[With Uncle Gene in 1975]Patience won out, and within two months we were once again sure we were meant to be together.  On June 14, 1975,  Jim and I committed ourselves to an ongoing loving relationship at what then became a rather controversial Union Service before the High Altar at St. Clements,. We quoted the marriage vows recently made by Rhoda and Joe on a short-lived sit com, “Rhoda,” a spin off of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Within a year Rhoda and Joe divorced. Years later, we learned that the hunky actor who played Joe was gay.

Unknown to us, our ceremony had become nation wide gossip. We had originally planned to conduct the simple ceremony of Eucharist and the blessing of our rings in our home. But then, a few weeks before the scheduled event, Jim’s parents and grandparents arrived with three dogs by car from Oregon. Jim’s Dad then had a mild heart attack and needed to convalesce at the house.  We decided then to move the ceremony to the Church where Jim was the curate and where we worshipped faithfully.

Jim’s gay great uncle arrived from New York the day before “to give Jim away.” After quizzical looks from his parents, we left the house on that warm night in June, Jim and I dressed in white suits, Uncle Gene in a smart blazer and white slacks.

At St. Clements Church two-dozen of our closest friends sat with us in the choir stalls for the celebration of high mass, complete with bells and incense. At the time for the traditional passing of the peace, we went to the altar rail and the rector blessed the matching gold rings we had purchased. We said our vows to each other. I pledged, "I take you Jim to be my mate and partner in love, to trust, to share and to grow together, as long as we both shall love." And Jim pledged, "I take you Robin to be my mate and partner in love, to trust, to share and to grow together, as long as we both shall love." Nothing more was "pronounced" and we proceeded with the Eucharist.

[Union Service Day June 14, 1975]Later we learned that Jay had heard in a bar in Tampa about the “wedding” in Philadelphia. A couple of Jim’s old friends from Portland were visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to admire the famous murals that featured handsome young men as models. They overheard two priests whisper, "Did you hear about the gay wedding at St. Clements in Philadelphia?" We had no idea word has spread so far.

Our real problem, however, was more the uptight older gay crowd at St. Clements that trashed us for “desecrating the church” by throwing rose petals.

Actually, we had left the church clean and threw our lapel boutonnieres, yellow rose buds, from the staircase of the restaurant after our simple no host wedding dinner and a local restaurant.

Part of my renewed faith was accepting that I did not need to bear my man-made guilt any longer. Through this church of ancient and newfound understandings, I found again an acceptance of myself as a human being and as a Christian. My mysterious and once confusing sexual identity no longer stood between God and myself. I knew at last that God loved me as I was.

While I was at this time far from flinging the closet door open wide for the world, I felt it was time I shared something that was by now a meaningful part of my life with those whom I had loved the longest. Mum and Dad by then were in their late seventies. They loved me, I knew, and always had been proud of my success both in school and at work. After they were gone, I did not want to regret that they had never really known their son. Nor did I want to sell them short in their capacity to love and accept what may be difficult. I owed it to them after the early years of childhood sharing, to share this most central aspect of my adult life.

On my annual Christmas pilgrimage, my ritual trip home alone between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, I decided that I had to tell them that I was gay. We sat quietly in the living room, each of us hesitant and fearful of what was to come. The tension was not unlike some of our old quiet times so many years before.

[Mum and Dad about 1980]The words came slowly for me. I always dreaded that cold and clinical word "homosexual." Like the word "queer," dread words resurrected all my early fears and quilt. I mumbled the introductions about how it was time we talked, that I needed to talk about my life.

"I’m sure you have know or suspected all along, but I need to tell you directly. I am a homosexual."

There was more about my life and current status with Jim. I told them of my early fears and guilt and my current acceptance of who I am. After years of battling the “sin” I no longer felt evil and knew that God loved me.

Despite all the rehearsing I had done about what to say and what to expect, I was not ready for Mum's first question.

"Does this mean you fool around with little boys?"

I should have been annoyed, but I was amused at her complete misreading of my relationships with the men that she had already met. And I had to put to rest this dread fear that my mother must have been harbouring secretly for many years.

"Mother, you have met most of my friends, Frank and Jay and Jim. You should know by now that I have always been interested in older men, or men my own age."

I thought it time for lesson one in understanding gays and quickly added, unaware of the import of my defensive and somewhat off hand comment. "Look at all the statistics, they show that straight people are much more likely abuse kids than gay people."

She looked at first a little relieved, but then became more thoughtful. My clever statistics had scored a direct hit. It was now Mother's turn to share her own closely guarded secret. One that I never had reason to suspect.

"I guess you're right. Many years ago, when I was a young girl, my father, your grandfather, tried something with me.”

I was stunned.

Her startling revelation about her early life was a bombshell. How could that funny tight-lipped old man, my grandfather, have ever done that? He did not seem such a monster. To me he was a failed sad man, somewhat hen-pecked, but so often he had a joke to tell his grandchildren. I did remember once at Queenston, when he was visiting, mother was furious with him when she discovered some sexy girlie magazine in his things. But child abuse! In my own solid Christian family?

"Yes," mother continued, "and you know after that, while I always loved him, I was never able to be in the same room with him alone without being afraid of him. I was always afraid that he would try it again."

Dad seemed to enjoy our renewed sharing. It was time for his news. "You know, your mother must have thought many times that I was a homosexual. I never seem to be able to express strong feelings for her, or for anyone for that matter. I have always wished that I could feel passionately about someone, anyone, it wouldn’t matter if it was a man or a woman."

It was several years later that I realized Dad had confessed this right in front of Mother. He had learned too well from his own stern mother, my Grandma Lawrason, a cold angry woman who among his four brothers, kept him tied to her the longest, even after he finally married. My impression of her was of a woman who seldom showed genuine feeling. She complained of her pains and our neglect and spread quilt among all those around her. I recall no clear image of a Grandmother's love and acceptance here. Her own harsh Scots Presbyterian background seemed to have given her little room for learning a mother’s warmth or comfort.

Each of us has been shaped indelibly by our own upbringing, by forces we did not fully understand. What we had shared together about our lives that time was the most meaningful sharing we had ever done. I myself had realized the guilt, shame and ultimate hypocrisy of a rigid puritanical ethic had never brought any real happiness, spiritual or sexual, either to our parents or to us.

Finally, it was clear to me why, despite the love I knew was there in our home, both Mother and Dad were often uncomfortable with both sex and expressions of love. Their MRA principles of sex only for procreation had always seemed a severe and uncaring standard to me. Yet no wonder it was so traumatic, especially for Mother, to enjoy that intimate expression of love between two equal partners. Also, how difficult it must have been for them to understand the “unnatural” object of my love and affection.

Although they may not have understood fully who I was, I no longer needed to hide the truth of who I was. And I had not sold them short. They still accepted me and loved me. They had met Jim and seen our home together and all that we shared and worked for together as a committed couple. Our relationship had outlasted my older brother David's first and second marriages. While many of our friends still fear sharing the truth with their aged parents, I have never regretted it for a moment. If we cannot help those that love us to understand in some small measure, how can we expect those who hate us to change their years of disgust and fear?

Through that sharing with Mum and Dad, my old home beneath the Heights was finally restored to me! My reoccurring dream of the falling moon and headlong race back to the old house on the hill in Queenston ended.

Those old familiar walls are merely a pleasant memory. I was once again welcomed into my real home, their warm and unconditional love. We had begun to take down the walls that we had constructed between us. Together we had stopped the moon in its fatal plunge.

Now my own remained firmly planted in the heavens far above wherever I venture and above those with whom I choose to share this story.

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Beneath the Heights

Robin's Writing

Robin's Home Page

Jim and Robin's Home Page