“It’s certainly made me more comfortable about my own sexuality. It’s something that’s not strange or weird.” – Elizabeth Bartmess on having a bisexual mother.
Gordon Barnard’s passion for “Sunset Boulevard” didn’t necessarily trigger his homoerotic thoughts, but the film definitely cemented them.
During a Saturday matinee, Barnard’s eyes remained glued to William Holden, the actor who played Joe Gillis in the 1950 film, as he stepped out of a swimming pool.
“That did it,” recalls Barnard, now 70.
But his mother became suspicious after 15 trips to see the film. At the time his mom, like so many others, was blind to homosexuality. In the ’50s, homosexuality wasn’t recognized through a National Coming Out Day, which is now celebrated every Oct. 11.
“We’re going back to an era when you didn’t have any reference tools, everything was hidden and everybody lived a double life,” he says.
Growing up, Barnard adored attractive starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth; however, he lacked an emotional connection with any women. But he was never ashamed of his feelings. To this day, he can’t fathom why some youngsters resort to suicide because they aren’t part of the norm.
“I always enjoyed being different,” he says.
He just kept it quiet. Even while taking the bus to school as a teenager and flipping through one of few gay-themed books available, he’d turn the jacket inside out so he wouldn’t be recognized as “one of those.”
“It’s almost like the ostrich putting his head in the sand.”
Out in the open
It only took a few letters, which sat on top of Barnard’s dresser during the summer of 1958, for his mother to figure out he didn’t fancy women.
In the gay jargon-heavy notes from New York City, Barnard was referred to as Rita Hayworth – a nickname assigned to him by friends because he wore his hair in a wave across his forehead.
“I was a little bit laxadaisy in keeping these things under wraps,” says Barnard, a retired graphic designer in Roseville.
When his parents confronted Barnard, then 22, in the living room, he admitted his attraction to men. They gave him two options: get out or seek psychological help.
The same day, before his parents went for an afternoon drive, they told him to make a decision preceding their return. When they came home, he was gone.
“Things were never quite the same,” Barnard says, his voice meek. “I never felt the same kind of love with my parents ever again.”
Five decades later
For Brandon (who asked BTL to not use his last name) family life hasn’t been child’s play.
In fact, although Brandon’s family is liberal, homosexuality has been brushed under the rug. And when it’s been swept up, it’s involved derogative terms that have prevented him from coming out.
“With black culture, it’s not talked about very much in families,” says Brandon, 21. “It’s almost like being a Republican and being gay. It doesn’t add up.”
Local psychotherapist Joe Kort believes that while there are more resources available, including books, LGBT outlets and Internet Web sites, it’s not any easier to come out and people’s reactions today haven’t changed drastically.
At an Affirmations youth group where Kort lectured, the youngsters told him it was still difficult to tell their parents.
“Their reactions aren’t any better,” Kort says.
Kort, 43, attributes it to the parents’ ages.
Brandon didn’t intend for his father to find out his sexual orientation. But after Brandon’s aunt, who’s estranged from the family, surfed his MySpace page she noticed his profile identified him as bisexual.
Kort believes Brandon’s story to be a common tale nowadays because someone’s entire life is accessible with a few clicks of the mouse. “It’s so easy to look up screen names,” he says. “I get a lot of clients who have been discovered by their family or their spouses.”
Risking it all
Brandon’s aunt spread the news to his uncle. In turn, his uncle told Brandon’s dad. “(He) called my dad at work and told him everything,” Brandon remembers. “He did not have neither my or my dad’s best interest at heart.”
In fewer than 24 hours, Brandon received a call from his father, who questioned him about his sexuality. “I kind of spent a lifetime building myself up strength wise and all of the walls had broken down,” he says.
But, as poorly as the situation unraveled, Brandon realized his father didn’t have any qualms about his sexuality and neither did his stepmom. But his mom would.
Once, while driving, his mom’s brother pointed out a rainbow sticker on the back of a car. “He went on a tangent about fags making him sick,” Brandon says.
Brandon’s mother agreed with the comments and said, “In a couple of years all the men are gonna be women.”
“On the inside I was feeling like shit,” Brandon remembers.
Brandon, who lives with his mother in Westland, doesn’t plan on telling her until he graduates from college and he’s on his way to California.
“It would not fly well with her,” he says. “She wouldn’t even kill me, she would die.”
It’ll be a risk for Brandon, but he’ll take it, he says.
Kort says when someone is ready to come out they’re “willing to risk it all, risk rejection, lose your job, when you know that you can make it no matter what because your identity is more important than being loved.”
Like mother, like daughter
It would be hypocritical for Elizabeth Bartmess’ mother to shun her for being bisexual like Brandon worries his mom would. That’s because her mother, Natalie LeVassuer, is also bisexual.
“I guess it runs in the family,” laughs Bartmess, 27, of Ann Arbor.
When Bartmess was 12, her sex education instructor defined homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality. After the professor read the definition for the last term, Bartmess knew she was bisexual.
For years, there were clues that her mother might also be.
LeVasseur, 59, would flirt with both men and women and comment on attractive females, Bartmess recalls. “People can be pretty comfortable hinting at something but not say it directly,” Bartmess says.
Bartmess was raised in a Unitarian church, which didn’t preach an anti-homosexuality stigma. She says her church’s stance eased the thought of telling her mother. “We’re Unitarians and extremely liberal so I think it was clear that I have no bias against anybody’s sexual orientation whatever it may be,” LeVassuer says.
It also helped that her mother never referred to her future significant other as a boyfriend, but rather her partner.
“Maybe because she knew she was bisexual she was willing to acknowledge that as a possibility in me,” Bartmess says.
Bartmess questioned her mother during National Coming Out Day while she was still in college. LeVassuer admitted to her that she was bisexual. It wasn’t that she didn’t tell her daughter because she was ashamed, LeVassuer just didn’t feel the need to share her sex life with her children. But “I had no objection to her knowing,” she says.
LeVassuer never told her mom, who came from a Victorian Catholic background, or her father, who already had too much interest in her sex life.
“I didn’t think it was a piece of information that would make her (my mother) happy,” LeVassuer says.
Luckily, Bartmess had the comfort of having a mother who shared the same sexual orientation as her.
“It’s certainly made me more comfortable about my own sexuality,” Bartmess says. “It’s something that’s not strange or weird.”
“We’re going back to an era when you didn’t have any references tools, everything was hidden and everybody lived a double life.” – Gordon Barnard on homosexual life in the 1950s.