Target: The truth
Now it is September 1997, two years since Mark began studying at home. Kathy wakes before dawn on a Saturday morning to find Mark standing in the living room, already dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt. Mark's sister, Kerry, is still sleeping and Terry is out of town on business.
Mark wants to go to breakfast; Kathy wants more sleep.
He waits. But after rehearsing all night -- taking three showers in a failed attempt to remain calm -- Mark knows it has to be today. If he doesn't tell her today, maybe he never will.
The night before, Kathy and Mark and Kerry watched In and Out, a movie with a happy ending about a high school teacher who tells his family he is gay.
Soon Kathy wakes up and gets dressed. At 6 a.m. she and Mark walk into the Kopper Kitchen, a diner on Central Avenue. Kathy eats, Mark doesn't, they leave. Kathy drives because Mark hasn't gotten around to getting his license. She points her deep teal Honda Accord toward home, but Mark says No, let's go to Target, as if going to Target were some sort of Saturday morning tradition. It's a little peculiar but she doesn't ask questions.
Along the way, he asks a question about his sister: What would you do if Kerry was gay? Would you still love her?
Of course, she tells him.
But she's thinking: Kerry's not gay. I know Kerry likes boys. What is this crazy kid talking about? The whole conversation seems goofy, and anyway Mark is always asking off-the-wall questions just to see how she'll answer.
At Target, they walk the aisles, and Kathy knows he wants to tell her something, but not for a second does she think that he wants to tell her that he is gay. The Honda is a few blocks from home when Mark feels the words in his throat, pushing up and then tumbling out:
Remember when I asked you if you would still love Kerry if she were gay?
Well, Mom, I am gay.
She didn't waste a second telling him: I will always love you for whatever you are.
Of course, it wasn't as easy as that.
A question for Mom
As Kathy drove the Honda around their neighborhood that morning, listening to her son talk, she said things that stung him, too, things every gay child is afraid his parents will say.
How do you know? she asked him first. And then, Do you want to see a counselor?
No, he said. Do you want to see one?
Maybe, she thought, she needed to. She didn't know anything about gay people. She had never met one, that she knew of. She knew about Ellen, but she was on television. That wasn't her son.
Still, her questions angered him. So later, he asked her his own question, and it both shamed her and helped her understand. Recalling it now, it even makes her smile.
Mom, he asked, how do you know you're heterosexual?
After the drive, she took him home, where he immediately fell asleep. His sister woke up and Kathy told her about Mark, and they drove to Barnes and Noble, where they bought "all the gay books we could find," Kathy says. Straight Parents, Gay Kids. Greek Homosexuality. This was a new subject, and she wanted to learn about it.
She told Terry when he got back from his trip -- Mark asked her to -- and she called the older kids on the phone. Julie, an older sister, burst into tears when she heard. She was frightened for him.
Kathy cried too, on and off for two weeks. She calls it her "mourning period," the time she needed to grieve for the traditional father her son will never be.
Then, on his 17th birthday, Mark convinced his parents to go to a meeting of a group called PFLAG. PFLAG stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays.
Kathy and Terry had questions: Why this child? Why not my others? We raised them all the same. The parents at PFLAG helped them find the answers, or accept that they didn't need to. PFLAG still helps them, still teaches them.
And they teach others. At the company where he works, Terry volunteered to be the liaison to top management for a group of gay and lesbian employees. He makes sure they have a voice.
"If I could help somebody else at work, it's like helping Mark," he says.
Now Mark had a voice, too. Finally, Kathy and Terry knew why he was so sad for so long. And he was smiling again, which prepared her for what came next:
Victor, a blue-eyed, curly-haired blond.
Mark's mother never dreamed of rejecting him when he told her he is gay. "I raised him. I brought him into this world. He is a part of me. How could I deny that?" Understanding him, though, would take some doing.
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
All my sons
Victor is a Lakewood High senior who grew up in Munich but now lives in St. Petersburg, with family friends. He and Mark met over the Internet when Victor still lived in Germany.
This is the friend Kathy drove Mark to meet that nervous day last fall. This is Mark's new life.
Now, in mid-January, Mark sits beside Victor at a corner table in Sacred Grounds, a coffeehouse in north Tampa that is a haven for, among others, gay and lesbian teens. This is where Kathy drove them after Mark met Victor at his apartment that day last fall.
Both drink cold Dr. Peppers instead of coffee. Under the table, Mark's hand curls around the sleeve of Victor's corduroy jacket. Victor, who knows all the regulars, waves at each one who walks in.
Mark, who is much quieter than Victor, defers to Victor's edgy one-liners about movies and music. The pair talk more, about music and writing and computers, when they are alone.
These days Victor is a fixture at Kathy and Terry's house. He spends the night some weekends, in the guest room. When he caught a bad flu around Thanksgiving, Kathy took care of him at the house. Mark's parents like Victor, they say.
"Victor seems proud of Mark," says Kathy. "Mark kind of calms Victor down. Victor is funny. He really is."
When Mark returns from classes at St. Petersburg Junior College, he and Victor usually retreat to Mark's bedroom, where they play Nintendo and hold hands and talk. The bedroom door stays open. Kathy's other children had to leave their doors open when they were dating, so Mark must follow the same rule.
He is one of her children, and she loves them all the same.