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My Personal Experience with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

A mother's unspoken rules demonstrate that there are qualifiers for acceptance.

Key points

  • It is impossible to eliminate that which is a "normal variant of human sexuality."
  • Conflict occurs when one's expectations conflict with reality.
  • Don't Ask, Don't Tell rules are an effort to eliminate diversity through erasure.
  • Since you cannot change reality, conflict caused by expectations that conflict with reality will only be resolved by changing those expectations.

People need not have been subjected to formal Don't Ask, Don't Tell policies to know their impact, because families often have similar such stated and unstated rules. My family certainly had them. Determining whether such rules were real, exaggerated, or completely imagined was a risk I was unwilling to take until I was 28 years old, emotionally prepared, and financially independent.

In our family, the concern was not based upon religious beliefs; rather, it stemmed from what other people would think and how they might react. The fact that my parents had close friends who were gay did not alleviate the fear of putting those rules to a test.

I have known my sexuality for as long as I can recall, even before reaching the age of puberty. However, until 1993, I lacked the courage to face my fear of the potential negative consequences of anyone learning or even speculating that I was gay. Around that time, my mom was trying to set me up with her friends' daughter, and would not take no for an answer. On one fateful day, when I arrived at my mom's house for dinner, she informed me that we would be calling her friends' daughter together that evening.

That was the first time that the assumed but unstated Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule pertaining to homosexuality in our family was tested. Although my mom did not ask, I told her.

I immediately learned that I had been correct about the existence of this unspoken rule. Surprisingly, my mom did not take issue with me having sex with other men, as long as it was on the down-low. In fact, her response was that I should marry a woman, have a family, and secretly fool around with men on the side. I rejected her proposal, and she showed me to the door. We were estranged for approximately five years.

To add insult to injury, when I contacted a gay couple with whom she was close friends, they refused to intervene and told me that my sexuality could not be the reason for our estrangement because of their relationship with her. Another gay friend of hers told me that I just must not be financially successful enough for her to look beyond my being gay.

This Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule which I broke exists in a great many families, which is why "LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in the United States."

The five-year estrangement with my mother ended when I reached out to her on one occasion, and she was receptive to re-establishing our relationship. Yet, she conditioned it upon a formally stated Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule. As such, my personal life was basically off limits. The prospect of code-switching by my changing the gender of the people I might be dating was not a viable option because she would know that I was code-switching.

I abided by her rules until I entered into a serious relationship with a man, and we decided to move in together. I realized that she was bound to find out when she called our place or came over, so I once again broke the rule. This time, though, I broke a very clearly-stated rule. She was horrified that I was moving in with another man because I was in my mid-thirties and people would know or suspect that we were not just roommates. Again, this rule existed out of her concern about what other people would think and how they might react.

We were estranged for approximately another three years before she was receptive to re-establishing a relationship, when I reached out to her on one occasion. I suspect that she was receptive at that time because she had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, something she kept from me and other family members for quite some time.

In any event, my condition for re-establishing our relationship was the elimination of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule and that my significant other was to be welcomed and included. She agreed and that worked for the rest of her life.

Nevertheless, she never accepted that I was gay. My relationship with my significant other ended three weeks before my mom died and we all knew she was dying. After my relationship ended, she told me that since I was single, I should start dating women again.

After she died, I discovered that none of her friends knew that I was gay. I learned that she praised me to them, told them how much they would love "her Mark," told them that I lived in a different city than I lived in because she preferred Pasadena to Glendale, and caused them to assume that I was straight.

My mom's Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule and how it was enforced was an effort on her part to exert that which is known as "tough love." If I only loved her enough to live my life in accordance with her rules, everything would have been just fine, right?

In my work as a mediator and conflict resolution consultant, I have come to realize that conflict occurs when one's expectations conflict with reality. My being homosexual and not the least bit bisexual or asexual is reality. The fact that I am a human being with the need to act in accordance with my "normal variant of human sexuality," rather than living my life celibate and alone is reality. "Tough love," judgment, shaming, and shunning from others, and legislation allowing for legalized discrimination against me or criminalizing who I am for my immutable sexuality which harms nobody will not change that reality.

Not violating my mom's Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule caused me more pain than violating it because the rule required that I live an inauthentic life due to other people's discomfort with me, and the punishment for violating those rules was incredibly painful. People cannot change reality; however, they can change their expectations, such that they align with reality.

According to social science researcher Brene’ Brown, Ph.D.,

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are….

Throughout the country and regardless of type of school, middle and high school students talk openly about the heartache of not feeling a sense of belonging at home.

The important thing to know about worthiness is that it doesn’t have prerequisites. Most of us, on the other hand, have a long list of worthiness prerequisites - qualifiers we’ve inherited, learned and unknowingly picked up along the way. Most of these prerequisites fall in the categories of accomplishments, acquisitions, and external acceptance.... Shame loves prerequisites.”

One might mistakenly believe that my estrangement from my mother occurred because of her non-acceptance of my being gay and acting on it. In reality, it stemmed from diversity of thought in terms of how I should live my life. She wanted me to live an inauthentic life because people cannot judge, shame, and shun someone for that which they do not know or even suspect. I have repeatedly found that unacceptable, especially when I am not harming anyone or anything.

Efforts to eliminate diversity, including diversity of thought, through erasure or otherwise is a way to try to "resolve" conflict. The problem is that it is and always will be ineffective because it denies reality and for the reasons stated by Dr. Brown.

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
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