Short documentary: Always My Son

This past weekend I attended a convening of LGBT editors and bloggers sponsored by the Haas Jr. Fund. This is the first of a number of posts inspired by information and connections from the convening.

This powerful short documentary, Always My Son, tells the story of how the Plata family moved from struggling with EJ’s sexuality to becoming a model of support. You may want to get some tissues before you start watching:

(Transcript after the jump.)

I got the chance to hear a little more of their story from Ed and Elizabeth Plata, who are just such incredibly strong, inspiring parents and now, as Elizabeth pointed out, active straight members of the LGBT community. Elizabeth stressed the importance of family support – parents need to be met where they’re at, and a jump to “acceptance” may be too much for them. But if parents support their child, talks with them about their LGBT identity and supports their gender expression, even if it makes the parents uncomfortable, acceptance will come through this process of, well, being a parent.

The Plata’s now run support groups both for LGBT youth and parents. Ed said about the youth group, “”We started this group out of fear; it’s become our passion.” Their group is ideal for parents who, like Ed, started out having a problem with their child’s identity. Ed said PFLAG is great for parents who are already accepting, “but we want the conflicted or rejecting parent.”

This video was produced by the Family Acceptance Project. They’ve done some incredible research that shows family support has a large measurable impact on suicide attempts, drug abuse, HIV and STI rates, and general physical and mental health and well-being. In fact, rejection by family is a much greater risk factor than bullying and acceptance by a family seems to be one of the best possible interventions.

The Family Acceptance Project is showing that acceptance of LGBT youth and family values aren’t at odds – in fact, they’re deeply linked. For example, they stress the importance of cultural, familial, and faith traditions. The current model of dealing with LGBT youth who experience family rejection is to treat the family as the enemy. Certainly, as with straight children, some abusive situations are completely untenable. But if a family can be moved to support their child rather than instantly treated as the problem the positive impact can be incredible.

The Family Acceptance Project is working to turn their research into materials, like this video, that can help families move to acceptance. They are especially focused on producing materials that will speak to families from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds – Caitlin Ryan, the program’s director, wants to produce eight different videos like Always My Son about a diverse group of families and LGBT children.

I believe so strongly in this work. I wish my parents could have heard from other folks struggling with their child’s identity instead of just being told they must accept me by one side and being told to reject me by the other. The program needs financial support to make this happen, though – if you believe in this work too please consider donating. And on that note, there is not currently a transcript available for Always My Son. If you’re able to help produce one please email me at jos AT feministing DOT com.

UPDATE: Big thanks to Ferny for the following transcript!

Transcript – Always My Son

EJ is the teenage son.
Ed is the father.
Elizabeth is the mother.

EJ: My dad, he’s Mexican. He’s 6’2, and he’s Marine and so, just being gay was not. I did not want to be gay and have my dad as my dad.

Ed: You know, where I grew up, you didn’t take garbage from somebody. If somebody was disrespectful to you, you would clobber them and make sure that it didn’t happen again. I was the captain of the baseball team, captain of the football team. I went to the Marine Corps. I was in the Marine Corps. My dad was a Marine and his brothers were Marines, so it was kind of a family thing that we did. So when I saw this weakness in my son, it was very bothersome to me. I would look at EJ and think “Oh my gosh, if he’s gay, what am I going to do?”

When he was born, I picked him up, I held him and I kind of walked away with him while Elizabeth was sitting there in pain and agony and just kind of ignored her. But I was so proud that my firstborn was a boy, first of all. That macho, macho Marine dad, I had to name him Edward, which was my name. He just was bright-eyed and ready to go right from the get go.

Elizabeth: I don’t remember how the Barbie started. But I just remember that he ended up with the Little Mermaid doll and he really enjoyed playing with it. And that was okay with me. It was a little harder for Ed because being the Marine and very macho, he had a hard time with it.

Ed: I’d take his little mermaid and I’d throw it in the trash. Of course I’d, in the meantime, I had gone down and bought three or four G.I. Joes and I’d have his GI Joes so that I would put him in the same place his mermaid was, hoping he would pick up the GI Joe. He didn’t like it.

Elizabeth: I just remember talking to Ed and saying you know every time the mermaid disappears, the Little Mermaid, I’m just going to buy another one, whether you like it or not. That’s just the way it is. If EJ likes the Little Mermaid, he likes the Little Mermaid. If he likes to play with it, that’s fine. It made him happy and so, if it made him happy, then it was okay with me.

EJ: I think I was conscious that he didn’t really like certain things that I would do. Like my friend Nina lived with us, and we would play and would call it sisters and we would wear like little dresses and play with Barbies and stuff like that.

Ed: It wasn’t like the typical boys that I’d grown up with, so there was a gap that started to occur there in our relationship.

EJ: I think I did a lot in order to deny it and push it away because I just wanted to be accepted by my parents.

I just hated school and didn’t want to be there. The guys would call you faggot or queer, gay or girl or whatever.

Ed: He would come and talk about this kid picking on him or that kid picking on him and I would then get angry at him. I would feel he was a pushover for kids. He was a target and he allowed them to do it.

Elizabeth: This started in about 7th or 8th grade. There was some Depression going on. He was very isolated. He didn’t have a lot of friends.

EJ: I did a lot of friend searching in 7th grade on. I would say that the people that are most accepting were the people who did drugs and drank because whenever you do drugs and drink, you love everybody. So, I felt that when I did that, I was accepted. That was good enough for me. Any sort of acceptance that I could get, any friends that I could make, doing whatever I did, I would do it. I knew they were bad news and then they met my parents, my parents definitely knew they were bad news and so they didn’t want me hanging out with them. So I would get mad at my parents for not letting me go out and it would just create this whole cycle of just, I’d be stuck in my room.

Elizabeth: We went to the medical doctor and he started getting medicine for Depression but we still had not really talked about the issue of him being gay. We never really addressed it.

EJ: I figured I couldn’t talk to my dad about it and I didn’t want to because I already knew what he thought about it.

Ed: When EJ came out to me, I really had already known about it. I really had. And yes, it was painful to have EJ tell me that only because I had always hoped that it wasn’t so. I had always hoped that it was a phase and that he’d grow out of it. And, it never happened.

About maybe a month and a half into high school, EJ asked one night if he could go to the homecoming football game and then following the football game was a homecoming dance. We thought, “Wow, that’s great”, EJ has got some friends, he’s going to go to this homecoming dance, he’ll have going to have a good time, good for him. Maybe things are going the way we thought they would or hoped they would. I called EJ just to check on him. When I spoke to him on the phone, he sounded like he was slurring a little bit.

Elizabeth: I knew something was wrong. I tell Edward get on the phone again, I’m afraid he’s not going to answer. We need to find him. I don’t know how we’re going to find him there.

Ed: I got there and he was completely slumped over, passed out. He had no shoes on and I was holding him with my arm and I was dragging him, he couldn’t walk. He said “Papa, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I want to be normal like everyone else. I just want to be normal.” I felt desperation for him.

Elizabeth: When he woke up, he told me the same thing. He says “Mama, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to fit in and I just want to be normal.” I just will never forget that, those words. I told him, you know what, you are normal.

Ed: Nobody knew what he was on, if he had overdosed on drugs or what he had done. It turned out that it was definitely alcohol poisoning. We were pretty disappointed in him that he had done that, but we also realized that we needed help.

Elizabeth: The information we found out was absolutely frightening. We went to just a couple of different websites and they talked about, at that time, that there was an estimated 7 million gay teens in the United States. That 50% of those teens that came out to their family would suffer physical, psychological or emotional abuse or become homeless, be thrown out of their home. I couldn’t imagine any of those for EJ. The statistics for HIV, STDs, Drugs, Alcohol, Attempted Suicide: it was crazy. That was where EJ was headed, it was obvious to us. If we didn’t do something, then we were going to lose him.

Ed: It was really Elizabeth’s idea. She said, we really should try to do something here and start something.

Elizabeth: I guess for me it was more emotional. For him, it was more emotional but what really hit home with him was when he saw those cold, hard facts, those statistics that this was going to happen to his son if he didn’t make a change, if he didn’t get more information, if we didn’t do something for ourselves and for him.

Ed: We started looking in the community for a place that would help us. I wanted to talk another dad like me. I wanted to find out what did he do, what do you do. I wanted to find out from an experienced dad that was going through the same thing as I was going through. At that time, around this time and I couldn’t find anybody.

Elizabeth: Then we started to look for a youth group. There was nothing anywhere. I told him “You know what? We are going to have to start a youth group.” And he said okay.

Ed: EJ had been raised all of his life in a Christian church and shortly after he came out, he came to me and said “Dad, am I going to go to hell?”

Elizabeth: When EJ said that, what did hit home with me was, well, we’ve been going to churches and no one has ever stood there and said “homosexuality is an abomination”, but the undertone, the undercurrent and the under-message was that. See, I had never really let that bother me, but I should have paid attention, because EJ was paying attention.

Ed: I thought to myself inside “Everything that I’ve been taught said it’s abomination, and yes, he’s going to hell.” But I also quickly thought, “My son is a beautiful kid. He’s compassionate, he’s warm, he cares for people, he’s respectful. He’s kind. How could, if we have such a loving God, how can God condemn my son to hell?”

Elizabeth: And that’s what was the beginning our search for a church and a place to start the youth group.

Ed: We went to fifteen different churches. We found this particular church that Elizabeth found on the internet that stated on there that it was “Open and Affirming.” I had no idea what that meant.

Elizabeth: We walked in and they accepted us with open arms like we were family.

Ed: Open and affirming means that the church is open to gay people or anyone.

Elizabeth: EJ felt comfortable there and we all did.

Ed: We started having meetings of friends together and we actually called our friends over, our close friends, and said “our son is gay.” Most of them already knew it. We talked about the fact that we wanted to do something, not just for EJ but for lots of kids that are out there. It started out as just gay teens at first. It actually ended up turning into LGBTQ, which is Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and the q is even, in our case, we use it for Questioning. So it was anybody.

Elizabeth: It’s just wonderful. We have meetings twice a month. They keep on showing up.

Ed: We’re helping fifty kids that come to our groups every second and fourth of the month for an hour and a half.

Elizabeth: We are supposed to be done at nine. At 10:30, I have to shoo the kids out. They don’t want to go home.

Ed: A month and a half or two after EJ had come out, my sixteen year old, Evan, was talking about having his girlfriend over and one of the kids said “EJ, when are you going to bring somebody over?” and EJ said, “I would never think of doing something like that. I would not want to disappoint dad.” I thought about that for a second and I thought, “How unfair”. How unfair for my son to feel like he couldn’t bring somebody that he’s attracted to over. I felt terrible.

EJ: When you are with someone, you’re proud of being with them and you want to show them to your parents and I remember thinking, like, never will I ever bring anybody home to meet my dad. Like, that’s just out of the question. But like for PJ, I think it’s worth it. He’s my first boyfriend. I’ve never had a boyfriend before. We’ve been together, like a year and a month now.

Ed: I said, “EJ, it may be a little awkward for me, son. I’ll deal with it, because I love you”. I think that was a turning point for my relationship with EJ.

Elizabeth: I am so proud of my husband and how far he’s come. I’m so proud of EJ. I’m proud of myself. My son Evan, our little children: we’re not the most perfect family, we fight, we argue, you know, kids throw tantrum, I scream and yell sometimes when I shouldn’t. But we’re just really happy.

EJ is giving Ed, his dad, a haircut in the kitchen.

Ed: My hair getting a lot grayer.

EJ: Yeah, you’re getting old.

Ed: You figure it’s 20% gray.

EJ: No

Ed: How much?

EJ: More like 30% gray.

Ed: Come on!

Ed: As I look back now, I’m not disappointed in my son at all. I’m proud of my son and who he is.

Elizabeth: I don’t have proof in any tangible way, but I know in my heart that we have made a difference in EJ’s life. That he’s not going to turn to drugs and alcohol, not that he won’t experiment, but he’s not going to become another statistic.

Ed: I believe with my heart that gay people don’t choose to be gay: they just are. No more than I choose to be brown-skinned. It is what it is.

Elizabeth: It all came from love and unselfish love because when you get out of your own self and look at what is EJ is going through, how is he being affected, this is your child, who is hurting and in pain, who is searching and trying to find himself, how can we not do anything? There was no choice.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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