Love Stories
Sons and Lovers

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

One fall morning, she learned her youngest son is gay. But that's not all she learned. And that's not all he is.

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG -- It took them years to begin this 15-minute drive. Years, long teenage years, when Mark was too sad to get out of bed and too scared to define the pain. Not even to his mother, who would have driven him anywhere, done anything, to make it stop.

Victor, left, drops a small shell into Mark's hand as they walk along the beach at Treasure Island. Mark's mother, Kathy, has seen a change in Mark since Victor came into his life. "He's happy now. He's having fun. That's all I wanted for him."
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Now they're on their way, Mom at the wheel, delivering her youngest son to a future she never imagined.

When they reach the end of these wide streets, Mark will start in earnest the new life he announced for himself only one year ago. To his mother, this ride seems like a natural step, but still she is afraid. Always, she thinks, she will be afraid.

He is going to a friend's house, she tells herself. It will be good for him to get out.

Later, after she drives to pick him up, he is so excited. Mom, I really had a good time, he tells her.

I really like him. I think I might start dating him.

That's good, she said, and meant it.

At 51, she knew a gay man for the first time, and he was her son.

Nameless love

They asked us not to print their last name.

Kathy and her husband Terry are proud of Mark, of everything about him. But they know how the world can treat a young gay man, and they don't want it to find him too easily.

All parents worry, watching a child fall in love for the first time. It's called first love, after all, because it usually is not the last. In between, people get hurt.

But when your 17-year-old son has found his first love with another young man, and you've only begun to realize the hatred that can ignite in total strangers, it isn't worry that you carry around. It is fear, constant but fresh again, every day.

"My daughter can go to the mall and hold her boyfriend's hand and nobody bats an eyelash," Kathy says. "But if my son goes to the mall and holds his boyfriend's hand, he's putting his life in danger."

It makes Kathy angry, makes her blue-green eyes darken almost to indigo, to think people exist who would let Mark's sexuality overwhelm the rest of him, and hate him for it. It is incredible to her that people would stop there, before they got to his sense of humor and his piano playing and his love of history and his kindness. It's sad, she thinks, that they would never learn all he has taught her in the year and a half since he told her the truth about himself.

All his life, he has taught her things. Mostly he has taught her to see people and ideas from a different angle and to try to understand them anyway. She calls it compassion. It is the first thing Mark mentions when you ask him, How do you take after your mother?

The puzzle and the Web

Mark, slim with dark chocolate eyes, stylishly-cut hair and a thin goatee, is the last of Kathy and Terry's five children still living in their comfortable, light-filled home on Boca Ciega Bay. Some days, the fog off the bay creeps right up to their back patio. Out front, lime-green wild parrots nest in a palm tree.

The couple married 20 years ago, the second time for both, after meeting at the company where Terry is now a top executive. Kathy brought a son to the marriage, Terry a son and a daughter. Kathy quit the secretarial job she loved to stay home with the children. Then a daughter arrived, and 14 months later a son, Mark.

He attended St. John's Catholic Church School on St. Pete Beach through the eighth grade. He had broad interests, Kathy says, from animals to astronomy to history, and he always wanted to tell his mother what he had learned.

When Mark was a little boy, he was always the first to befriend whatever "different" kid entered his class, like the Cambodian boy whom the other students ignored, Kathy says. Another time, he told her he was the one who felt different.

Why? she asked.

Because the other kids aren't nice.

Then it's good to be different from them, she told him. She didn't know how different he was, or how hard that would be.

Mark says he was 10 years old when he knew he was different in a way he probably shouldn't talk about. When he was 14 he entered a selective magnet program called the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High. Three years later, Mark still doesn't like to talk about his first semester there, even with Kathy. But he has told her some things.

She knows when she drove him to school those mornings she often had to stop four or five times on the way so he could run into a convenience store bathroom, sickened with anxiety he explained then as "school pressure." She knows that when he got to school, older students harassed him for "acting gay." She knows he asked a lonely girl to the homecoming dance even though he wasn't interested in her, or in any other girl.

This much she could see for herself: He got so depressed, her even-tempered and considerate son, that he told her, I don't care if I live or die. But he couldn't tell her why.

She took him to a psychologist, who told her Mark was manipulating her. The doctor recommended anti-depressants and school. It still makes Kathy angry to think of it.

The psychologist, and a counselor who came later, never said anything like Maybe Mark is gay, and certainly never elicited the information from Mark. So Kathy pulled him out of Lakewood, started home-schooling him, and kept looking for the missing piece to the puzzle that was her son.

Stomach pains were followed by ear infections, ear infections by throat infections, and the only thing Kathy or Terry knew for sure was that there was always a bottle of antibiotics in the refrigerator.

She would have done anything to help him, but she didn't know what would.

"Nobody else is coming up with this either. I'm going where I should go. I'm being the good parent," she says.

Seeing the counselor, and being away from high school, helped Mark some. His sister was being home-schooled, too, and she and Mark were always close. Mark also found friends and support on the Internet, where a gay teen can be himself without anyone discovering who he is. His parents didn't know where he was going on the Web but they're grateful he went.

"I think it saved him," Kathy says.

But outside that virtual world, he couldn't be himself, and it showed.

"It wasn't how you'd want your child at that age to be," Kathy says. "He was nice. He wasn't happy."

Sons and Lovers: Part 2
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