By Chuck Raasch, USA TODAY
For Sean Carlson, the little stories have added up the most.
moment that his mother, Barbara, said she had made "save the date"
cards for Sean's upcoming wedding to another gay man, Jamie McGonnigal.
The funny story of how Barbara and Jamie first met over a flat tire. The
subtle, then matter-of-fact way that Barbara Carlson, a devout
Catholic, let her son know she had moved past years of doubts and
disagreements and was voting for the gay marriage amendment in Maryland
Barbara, 60, had put literature on that amendment
in a place in her Hyattsvile, Md., home, so that Sean, 28, was sure to
see it. It was her invitation for another talk in a progression of often
stormy conversations over nearly seven years. Many had ended badly,
including one where Sean stormed out of his mother's house and vowed
never to return.
So a conversation about that vote in Maryland,
one of three gay marriage amendments that passed last fall, was not
something he was looking forward to.
"I was afraid of what the
yes-or-no answer would be, and recognizing that if it was a no, I was in
for a three- or four-hour" argument, says Sean, who could not vote on
the measure because he lives in the District of Columbia.
eventual conversation was perfunctory. Of course she would vote yes,
Barbara said. After all, her son was engaged to be married. Later, he
would choke up telling the story about the "cathartic moment" to friends
and work colleagues at the Family Equality Council, a non-profit that
supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parents, and their
Had the son underestimated the woman who had raised him as a single mother?
"Probably yes," Sean says now.
"I think he always underestimates me," Barbara replies.
fight over same-sex marriage has been going on for decades, and voters
in state after state turned it down. But in 2012, voters in Maryland,
Maine and Washington became the first to approve it at the ballot box.
After the passage of those three initiatives, same-sex couples can now
marry in nine states and the District of Columbia. Combined, these
states and the District comprise 15.8% of the U.S. population. A Supreme
Court decision on gay marriage is expected sometime this spring or
early summer, and if the high court lifts a ban on gay marriage in
California, more than a quarter of the population will live in states
where gay marriage is legal.
Millions of dollars have been spent
on ads defending traditional marriage or arguing for same-sex unions.
Constellations of interest groups still swirl on both sides of the
debate. But beneath it, a gradual shift in public opinion has been
taking place. In a December USA TODAY-Gallup Poll, the 53% who agreed
that same-sex couples should have the same marriage rights as
traditional couples was nearly twice the percentage who said so in 1996.
noticeable, 36% said they had changed their minds about the issue in
the course of their lives, with 35% of them saying they were more
tolerant, 18% more aware, and the rest scattered across varying
responses, including the 8% who said they had decided against gay
That 36% represents millions of stories like the Carlsons', of
families torn and sometimes brought back together. Of clashing
expectations and tenuous resolutions. Of lifetime estrangement.
Underneath the din of the public debate, these private conversations are
where the changes are taking place.
The more weddings of gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, the more these conversations
will ensue, says Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican
National Committee, who came out in 2010.
"I've been to seven
weddings for gay couples this year and met guests at each who had never
been to one before," says. Mehlmann, who is working on Project Right
Side, an initiative to build conservative support for same-sex marriage.
"And what they and I see at the wedding are love, commitment, a
willingness to put someone else before yourself. In short, family
values. And what they often say to me or others is 'No matter what I
thought about this issue before, this is a good thing for the couple,
their family and society.'"
'You are my son'
Sean Carlson told his mother he was gay during the 2005 Christmas break
while home from his studies at Duquesne University, "it took me awhile
to process it," she recalls. "At the time, I probably reacted the way
many parents would. I looked at him and said, 'Above all, you are my
son, and I love you as my son.'"
Sean remembers it less charitably.
don't want to contradict you, but maybe we see things differently on
that," he tells his mother. "I can remember some knock-down, drag-out
fights about the fact that I didn't feel that you did actually accept me
that way. I think there is a big difference between understanding what
the words are, and how that actually equates to my living experience."
Later, he says, "the kind of support I would expect to get, I don't think was always there."
Carlson had grown up a strong Catholic and raised her son that way. The
church's position on homosexuality is clear. The priest abuse scandal
had already made her question her faith, she says, and so when her son
came out, the questions it raised and the conflict that ensued sent her
adrift from the church for a short time.
She eventually came back, she says, through a "faith renewal."
What brought her back? "My belief in God," she says.
still believes in God, but no longer considers himself a Catholic. The
church of his childhood, he says, does not treat him as a "whole
Because of that and other issues, the mother-son relationship was strained.
It was "not necessarily disbelief," when her son told her she was gay, Barbara says.
she says she looked upon homosexuality the same way many in her
generation had. "It had always been, 'don't ask, don't tell,'" she says.
"'Don't ask, don't tell' is not just a military thing."
not good enough for Sean. "Once I had turned that corner" in coming out
as a gay man, he says, "I refused to abide by that, not even at home.
There is no 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in our house, and I think
that caused some strife over the years."
His mother, he still
believes, was not as supportive as she would have been had he had been
heterosexual./ Yet they stayed tethered, sometimes more closely than
others, through the storms that ensued.
"I think in hindsight I
could have expressed more empathy for the process and how difficult it
is for people to change their minds," Sean says. "I know that. But it is
different when it is your mom, and not a total stranger."
Over the years, moments became milestones. Sean and Jamie both took
delight last Christmas when they learned Barbara sent a homemade card to
Jamie's mom in suburban Boston. Barbara, an IT professional, had
started making the cards to feed her creative drive.
was another surprise," Jamie says, in a moment when Barbara has stepped
away. "I don think she even realizes she is doing these things that make
Both men also took notice when Barbara's "save the date" wedding card was adorned with a rainbow made of hearts.
"Maybe you hadn't even realized when you made it of rainbow hearts, you made a pretty gay thing," Sean says.
"That hadn't even dawned on me when I made that card," Barbara Carlson says.
Children grow up on stories. For Macky Alston, a married gay man and director of Love Free or Die,
a film about Eugene Robinson, the first gay Episcopal bishop, many of
those stories came in church. His father was a Presbyterian minister.
Alston describes his coming out as an "exorcism" from some of what he heard there.
was the place where I learned, directly or indirectly, that I was
abominable and that the way I love in any form, but certainly
romantically, was abominable, not only in my community, but in front of
God," he says.
But that is not his narrative today. When Alston
was married at age 36, his father was one of the presiding ministers at
the wedding. There were rough periods in the beginning, but Alston says
he and his father are close and active in their faith. Now, at 47,
Alston delights in telling stories about family reunions in rural
Georgia, where he and husband Nick bring their children - the parents
are white and the children are of color - and they are accepted "as a
family, just as we are."
"We have a long way to go," he says, and
marriage is not the only battleground. But "I do not doubt that 2012 is a
tipping point in the struggle for equality for LGBT people."
A 'huge milestone'
For Sean Carlson and Jamie McGonnigal, 2012 was a year of tiny tipping points.
you after the election and just how happy you were (the Maryland
marriage initiative) passed was really cathartic," Sean tells his
mother. Jamie, who works for the liberal non-profit New Organizing
Group, says he introduced Sean to a roomful of people recently with the
story about how surprised, and proud, he was of his mother.
36, has acknowledged being gay to his mother and friends since age 19.
His mother supported him from the beginning. He thinks his upbringing in
the Unitarian Church, and its early embrace of gay ministers, helped
smooth his path. Jamie came out later to his father, and he says they
are less close.
Jamie ticks off the three stages of relationships
that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people often get after they
come out: Tolerance, acceptance, embrace.
Sean and Barbara
independently say that she is somewhere between acceptance and embrace.
But Sean expects an embrace soon, and he says he and Jamie agree that
Barbara's willingness to talk openly about her journey was another "huge
milestone" for all of them.
They arrived at this moment mutually.
"Time, space and some soul-searching," Barbara says. "I think we both needed to focus on seeing the other's perspective."
will go to the wedding, in Provincetown, Mass., in May. Jamie and Sean
don't have a date yet, but they are getting married there because
Jamie's mother can't travel and because its gay community makes it the
one place, Jamie says, where they don't ever feel like "the others."
After that, Sean and Jamie want to adopt children. Being married is an important part of those plans.
are trying to build something together that is greater than both of
us," Sean says. "Having a family is part of that, but also building a
stronger community of friends and family around us is important, too."
As to the prospect of being a grandmother, Barbara says, "I pretty much am a roll-with-the-punches kind of person."
the day they got engaged, one of the happiest of Sean's and Jamie's
lives came in May, when they heard Barack Obama had changed his
position. A president who as a candidate had said he believed marriage
was between a man and woman announced he no longer opposed gay marriage.
made millions of people around the world say, 'It is OK to change your
mind on this,'" Jamie says. "A lot of people just needed that
permission, in a lot of ways, to say, 'I am OK with this.'"
Including Barbara Carlson.
"Life is a journey," she says. "Every day puts forth new challenges. I think I have gone over some hurdles. Yes, I have."