Jean O’Hara, 80, of Charleston, W.Va., has been coming to the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival since 2001 to share the experience with her son, Hunter.
Jean O'Hara never knew a homosexual until 1979. Oh, there were those drag queens she saw years before at the My Oh My club on Bourbon Street, and that orthodontist in her hometown who wore makeup to plays and concerts. But she never really knew themnevere.
Jean was well past middle age when she made her first gay friend:
Hunter O'Hara was 22 years old, living with his mother in a small Charleston, W.Va., apartment. She had left her alcoholic husband. The place was so small that Hunter couldn't hide the "literature" appealing to his sexuality. Jean found it.
"And I didn't like it," she said last weekend, tough as any mother has a right to be.
Then the 80-year-old retired nurse smiled: "But I got used to it."
Jean and Hunter recalled her outing of him as they sat outside the Tampa Theatre, where the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival continues through Sunday.
This is the fourth consecutive year that Jean has traveled from West Virginia to join Hunter at the festival. One of her favorite movies during that time has been Charles Busch's comedy Die, Mommie, Die, although Jean's Appalachian accent makes it "momma." She also has favored dramas Big Eden and Paragraph 175. On this Saturday, she and Hunter attended a discussion of gay horror films, then watched one or two. They didn't get home until the wee hours.
It has been that way since Jean's first festival visit, in 2001.
"Momma's the type of person that if she were at a presidential inauguration or cutting the ribbon for a dog house, she would be the thing," Hunter said. "Seeing her here was no different. She didn't show any surprise or shock or whatever. I just remember being so excited when we got here and she liked it as much as she did."
Although Jean claimed that nothing shocks her, Hunter said he has squirmed in his seat a few times while they watched a provocative scene.
"Maybe a little bit," he said. "I know she's not going to change her attitude, but I wonder what she thinks about this or that. But that's very rare. The festival is so very much about life. It happens to be through a gay lens, but it's real-life issues."
A lot of gays, bisexuals and transgender people can't discuss those issues with their parents and don't receive that kind of support for their personal lives. Then again, a lot of parents aren't like Jean.
You have to see Jean and Hunter together to fully appreciate what they mean to each other. It's mostly in their eyes but also in their cadence, finishing each other's sentences or ending them with casual brush-offs that only closeness can interpret as nothing casual and certainly not a brush-off.
For example, this exchange about Jean's reaction when she learned Hunter was gay:
"I kind of had suspicions, but I really didn't know nothing," Jean said. "Then I knew for sure. I think I told him he was going to hell. Something like that, wasn't it?"
Hunter answered with mock impatience: "No, you didn't tell me that. You told me you were p--- off, then you went in your bedroom and didn't come out for about a day. Then you were a little tight-lipped for a few days. But no, you never quoted any of that Bible c-- to me."
The grin on Jean's face suggested that's how she remembered it all along.
"But there were signs, if I'd been up on what I need to know," Jean said. "He didn't like to play with dump trucks and all that stuff; he'd rather play with dolls. He had a G.I. Joe. That's one he really liked."
Rolling his eyes, Hunter replied: "Yes, Momma, I really liked that G.I. Joe." Another grin from Jean closed the matter. For now.
Watching Jean and Hunter interact so warmly and humorously, I was reminded of the stereotype that gay men love their mothers more than anything. (Heterosexuals should be ashamed for not claiming that one first.) Hunter, a University of Tampa professor for seven years, said there may be something to that notion.
"There's a possibility of a type of bond that exists between a mother and her gay son that is unspoken but is there from the beginning," he said.
"I really don't know why, and I know it's not true for everyone. But I know it's true for a majority of the people I know who are gay. There's certainly closeness and a commitment. It's hard to explain the origins of it, hard to understand why."
In many cases, parents place social pressure above such instincts, sometimes rejecting their children entirely. Jean has met a few at the film festival, people who marvel at her acceptance and support of Hunter.
"They can't believe it, after all the trouble they've had with their parents," Jean said. "I just tell them that maybe sooner or later they're going to have to accept you. It might take 10 years, maybe not that long."
Hunter said: "Mom gives them another parent's perspective, so they know there are other ways of responding to having children who don't fit the mold.
"There's a certain level of grief that parents (of gay children) go through because they have their vision for their child's life. It's settled in their heads; then they find out that's not what in fact is going to happen. There won't be a wife. There could be children but not in the way you thought."
Facing the unexpected isn't new for Jean. She thought her marriage would be blissful until her husband became an angry drunk. She thought she could handle her drinking until the Betty Ford clinic and other detox centers convinced her otherwise in 1992. Hunter's homosexuality was revealed about the time her other child, Mary Ann, married an African-American, which Jean blurted out with look-at-me glee.
In only a few minutes, Jean revealed personal experience with four combustible family issues. Many parents never face any of them. Fewer survive them all.
But divorce gave Jean peace. Rehabilitation gave her a chance to keep her children and enroll in nursing school at age 54. The interracial marriage, now over, resulted in a 6-year-old great-granddaughter whose Halloween costume is the main reason she's returning to Charleston in two weeks. Hunter's homosexuality gave her a reason to visit Tampa one more time each year, for a reunion through gay cinema.
"I think that's amazing," said festival programmer Keven Renken when informed of the O'Haras' situation. "He's really fortunate that she comes and sees this stuff with him. I've heard of family members coming, but that many years in a row? That's cool.
"She probably realizes that quality time is quality time, regardless. And at 80 years old, she probably realizes the value of quality time. If it's here in this beautiful theater seeing this stuff, more power to her."