Forum — From the February 2018 issue

The Minds of Others

The art of persuasion in the age of Trump

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Sons and Lovers

By Garth Greenwell

A few months ago my mother visited me in Iowa, arriving from her home in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, just in time for a literary event I was hosting. And so I watched the collision of two worlds I have strenuously kept apart: the world of my childhood, which I fled when I was sixteen, and the world of my adult, professional life.

My mother did what Southern mothers do, especially when they’ve had wine with dinner. She talked to everyone she could, making sure they knew that she was my mother, that she had raised me through great travail, that there had been hard years, terribly hard, but that now — oh, she said to my half-bewildered, half-charmed friends, she was so proud. It was lovely and mortifying and, from the distance I tried to keep while it was happening, more than a little comical.

But she didn’t just make sure that everyone knew I was her son; she also wanted everyone to know her connection to Luis, my boyfriend, whom she declared (inaccurately, sweetly) her son-in-law. This was more fun for me to watch; it was also astonishing, proof of the long journey that my conservative, Christian mother has made in her feelings about gay people.

Always remember, I tell my students when they ask for advice about coming out, your parents’ first reaction won’t be their last. It was lifesaving luck that my mother didn’t reject me for being gay: she took me in when my father, who divorced her when I was five, kicked me out. But she did make clear, in countless ways, that she considered me a source of shame.

I’ve never forgotten the only time, before Luis, that I brought a boyfriend home. I was twenty, and we were in Louisville for my oldest sister’s wedding. At the reception, when I reached for this boyfriend’s hand, my mother was suddenly between us, snatching our hands in hers and forcing us apart. She had been watching us the entire evening, ready to intervene. I realize now that she must have been terrified. This is your sister’s day, she hissed at me, the implication being that any display of affection between my boyfriend and me would have ruined it.

Prejudice depends on a kind of categorical thinking — though thinking may be the wrong word — that resists argument. The knowledge that combats this kind of prejudice isn’t rational but experiential: it depends on the attention we pay not to the abstract but to the particular and individual.

I saw this repeatedly during the four years I taught high school in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I was the only openly gay person most of my students had ever met, and where homophobia often flared up in pranks or threats, some of them painful. I still remember the shock I felt when, at the end of my first year, I saw a Facebook post from a just-graduated senior I had never taught, which was full of rage at the presence of a gay teacher in his school. Smurt na pedalite, he wrote: “Death to all faggots.”

Early in my career as a teacher, I sometimes debated my students about the value of LGBT lives, conversations that were exhausting and almost never productive. It was more convincing, I realized, to demonstrate that value in the texts I chose and in the way I spoke about my own life. It’s difficult for ideas about a whole group of people to survive concrete, daily acquaintance with an actual human being. This may be especially true in a high school literature classroom, where ideas are exchanged and stories told, and where students are young enough not to have lost their aptitude for change.

I know that not all my students changed their minds about queer people; I also know that some of them did. One day at the end of the school year, a sophomore, P, stopped by my classroom. P was very smart and very surly; he made an immediate impression. He was short for his age, and maybe as compensation he spent his afternoons in the gym; he was built, I remember thinking, like a little macho tank. Students often visited their teachers after final exams to say goodbye and to thank us for the year. But it was clear P wanted to say more. In Bulgaria, he said, looking away from me, lots of us have stupid ideas about gay people. I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for that. Now I don’t believe those things anymore, he went on, and I wanted to thank you for that.

It’s easy to forgive a sixteen-year-old for having held a wrong belief; it’s harder to forgive an adult, and maybe especially hard to forgive a parent. But there was a corollary to the advice I gave my students about coming out: Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself from your parents’ first response. And then, as their response changes, try to be open to the possibility of forgiving them.

I struggle to follow this advice. I haven’t spoken with my father in more than a decade. My relationship with my mother, too, even though she always made clear to me that her love was more important than her shame, has sometimes been difficult. I’ve kept a great deal of my life from her, protecting it from the pain caused by moments like the one at my sister’s wedding, when she showed me that my relationships, and therefore my life, didn’t have the same value for her as the relationships and lives of my siblings.

That pain, like the prejudice that causes it, is resistant to rational or moral persuasion, and I don’t think I realized how much I was holding on to it until I felt the relief of its lifting. On the morning after the event that I hosted, my mother came to the house I’ve shared with Luis for the past two years. It was her first time visiting us there, and the sight of the home we’d made together, of the order Luis had brought to my habitual chaos, moved her to tears. After breakfast, as she was hugging Luis goodbye, I heard her thank him for loving her son.

Es estupenda, Luis said to me later that night: “Your mother is wonderful.” For decades I would have responded to this with ambivalence, with some deflection or qualification. Maybe I’ll feel the need for that again, but I didn’t feel it then. Yes, I said simply, wondering a little at the ease with which I said it: yes, she is.

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