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Kathleen Norris: My mother’s wisdom taught me to understand gay love

Views Kathleen Norris / February 8, 2024 Print this:
Photo courtesy of Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

I was a precocious child and also a brat. When I found on my parents’ bookshelf Dr. Spock’s best-selling book about how to raise children, I read it to see if they were doing it right. My reading often led me to unfamiliar words, and my mother, when I said I didn’t know what a word meant, usually sent me to the dictionary.

One day, when I was seven years old, I ran across a word that confused me, and the dictionary definition didn’t help. The word was “homosexual.” All I knew about sex was that it sounded yucky, an act that parents were said to engage in to make babies. I had trouble imagining my parents doing such a thing, although my existence and that of my brother and sisters was evidence that they had. I wasn’t sure how sex applied to me, but from what I knew about kissing, I was sure that if a boy ever kissed me it would be unspeakably awful. 

When I approached my mother to ask about the word, she replied in her characteristically simple and helpful way. She told me that the word “heterosexual” applied to men and women like my dad and herself. “We’re a man and a woman and we love each other,” she said, “and homosexuals are men who love men, and women who love women.” Thus, in the mid-1950s, in the conservative atmosphere of white, middle class America, I was graced by a version of the “love is love” mantra that emerged in the culture many years later.

In the conservative atmosphere of white, middle class America, I was graced by a version of the “love is love” mantra that emerged in the culture many years later.

Love made sense to me, but I still wasn’t sure about the sex bit. Whatever descriptions of sex acts I had found made it sound complicated, a lot of bother for no good reason that I could ascertain—at least when I was seven. My mother explained that some people didn’t approve of homosexuals, which did not make sense to me, not then, and not now some 70 years later.

My mother went on to tell me that I knew some homosexuals, friends of my parents they had met as music majors at Northwestern University in the 1930s. So that unfamiliar word quickly became people I was familiar with and liked. I count my mother’s words as one of the great blessings of my life.    

My parents were raised in the Christian faith. My dad was the son and grandson of Methodist pastors; my maternal grandmother was a devout Presbyterian. Her husband, a medical doctor, mostly left religion up to his wife. And somehow, out of that background, my parents came to epitomize the kind of Christian humanism that doesn’t try to constrain with labels and fears the generous wisdom of Saint Irenaeus, who insisted that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

When I was in high school, I became friends with a 20-something musician in my father’s U.S. Navy band. I didn’t have many friends my own age who shared my love of classical music, and we enjoyed attending concerts together. My dad knew he was gay, and the other band members knew, but they cared more that he was a good musician. But my friend was miserable in the Navy and one day, in desperation, he stole a shirt at the Navy Exchange so he’d be caught, sent to the brig and discharged. I knew he had to leave, but was heartbroken.

My parents came to epitomize the kind of Christian humanism that doesn’t try to constrain with labels and fears.

When I discovered that my friend would be spending Thanksgiving in the Pearl Harbor brig, I asked my dad if he could sign him out for the afternoon so he could have dinner with our family. He said he’d try, but doubted that he could. Fortunately, my father’s commanding officer was a friend—we rode a bus each weekday from Navy housing to a private school in Honolulu—and I asked her to work on her dad as well. The U.S. Navy against two determined teenaged girls? Guess who won. 

My dad found out that my friend would have to report to Hickam Air Force base for his flight out of Hawaii, and my mom drove me there. I sat holding hands with him and was astonished when he pointed to an acronym on his discharge papers that indicated that he was being released from the Navy because he was homosexual.

The other military men around us, many not much older than myself, seemed bemused to see a girl paying so much attention to a guy who was evidently gay. I shot a few of them dirty looks. Seeing my friend off took up most of the morning, and when I returned to school with a paper from my mom excusing my absence, I felt as if I’d been blessed with the best parents in the world.  

I feel blessed now to be a member of an Episcopal parish that over the years has been well served by gay clergy, both men and women. One Sunday, at a time in our service when people ask for prayers or celebrate births, marriages and the like, two elderly couples came forward. One was a man and woman observing their 60th wedding anniversary. The other couple, two men, had been together for 60 years but until recently had not been able to marry.

Children can be taught to hate others for being who they are, but they can also be taught to love.

The congregation applauded and cheered, and for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would not want to celebrate with both of these couples. I believe my mother’s wisdom has a lot to do with that. Children can be taught to hate others for being who they are, but they can also be taught to love.

I have to laugh, though, when I think of one parishioner who was present that day, applauding along with everyone else. A longtime member of the parish, he was then in his 80s, and took pride in his ramrod straight posture. Many of his opinions were similarly rigid. He was a conservative Episcopalian who deeply resented the 1979 revision of The Book of Common Prayer that replaced the 1928 version he grew up with. I suspected he’d just as soon have us return to the 1662 version.

But having his parish served by a gay priest, or having gay bishops in the Episcopal church, was of no concern to him. He knew that while language matters, people matter more. And love is love. 

Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris is a poet and essayist. A Benedictine oblate since 1986, she is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers "The Cloister Walk" and "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography."

All articles by Kathleen Norris

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4 Comments
  1. If only the message about love that came from her Mom could be the message every child could hear!!! How different our world would be!

    Reply
  2. I’m Roman Catholic and an age contemporary but our parents were very similar in their approach- including being sent for the dictionary, encyclopedia and Book of Knowledge. All were welcome in our home and I was taught to stand up for anyone being bullied.

    Reply
  3. It was a few years ago and my daughter had asked me to come for a visit. She took me to a winery for lunch to celebrate the recent Mother’s Day. As we visited, she said she had something to tell me. Her older daughter was transitioning. I would have a grandson rather than a granddaughter. Immediately I took my phone and texted my grandson to tell him how much I loved him. Why would I not! True love is forever.

    Reply
  4. Beautiful article. Should be included as mandatory reading in the prepartum classes.

    Reply
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