Edmonton

'He came out in his own time': Alberta mother urges acceptance as GSA debate intensifies

Ruby Swanson felt a wave of fear and betrayal when her son told her, ‘I’m gay." Those two words would put Swanson and her family on a decade-long journey, from fear to acceptance and finally, advocacy and pride.

'It was a long process that he drove. He came out when the time was right for him'

Ruby Swanson chronicled her experiences with her son's coming out story in a book, A Family Outing. (Ruby Swanson/Facebook)

Ruby Swanson felt a wave of fear and betrayal when her son said: "I'm gay." 

Carl was 16 when he revealed his sexual orientation to his mother for the first time. He stood in the doorway of her office, sadly made his confession, and begged Swanson to keep his secret.

Those two words would put Swanson and her family on a decade-long journey, from fear to acceptance and finally, advocacy and pride.

Swanson, who chronicled her experiences in a book titled A Family Outing, hopes the frank retelling of her family's story will encourage acceptance as the political debate over gay-straight alliances, and the rights of LGBTQ students, intensifies.

'Secrecy destroys people's souls'

The fear that LGBTQ children face in coming out can be crippling, Swanson said.

Keeping Carl's secret took a toll on Swanson and her husband Leonard, but she now understands that her son was terrified he would be ostracized by his own friends and family.

"To honour one child's request we were lying to our other child," Swanson said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.  

"I felt my soul was being destroyed and I didn't know why being gay was something that had to be protected, withheld. Fundamentally, why was this such an issue?

"But it is an issue because you risk losing everyone who is close to you, and you don't know."

When Swanson found out Carl was gay that afternoon in December of 2002, her husband had already known for months.

He had come out to his father the previous summer.

His younger brother would be the last to know. Carl didn't share his secret with Paul for another seven months.

Though it was difficult to keep Carl's secret, Swanson said children should be allowed to come out in their own time.

"I felt really, really betrayed and my husband felt really isolated because he knew something really important that he couldn't share, because he had to honour our son's request," Swanson recalled. "It took a year for Carl to come out to the three of us.

"It was a long process that he drove. He came out when the time was right for him."

Swanson was blindsided by the news. She never suspected that her son was gay, and finding out was traumatic.

After the initial shock wore off, she became increasingly worried about the kind of discrimination her son would face. 

When Carl said he wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at his school, she was certain her son would be terrorized by bullies.

"He told me he wanted to start a gay-straight alliance and I said, 'Over my dead body'

"High school, when I was there, could be a very mean place for a kid that was not like everybody else, so I was very concerned about his safety and very opposed to it.

"But as it turned out I was wrong and he was right, which came as a huge relief."

'It's for the kids'

In the years that followed, Swanson and her husband became vocal advocates for LGBTQ rights. They remain active members of PFLAG, where they support local LGBTQ youth and help other families find acceptance.

The ongoing debate over the GSA legislation has been overblown, according to Swanson

Providing confidentiality for the students who join the clubs isn't about trampling on parental rights, she said, but protecting vulnerable kids.

"My understanding of the education system is that it's for the kids, it's not actually about the parents," said Swanson.

"In schools, teachers know a whole a lot about children that they don't share with the parents. I don't think you're going to find many teachers who would actually out kids, ever."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.