The Mama Bear Story Project is a collection of portraits and autobiographical essays from members of Serendipitydodah for Moms – a private Facebook group for open minded Christian moms of LGBTQ kids.
“Get over yourself, mom,” he snapped at me, toward the end of his junior year of college. “Don’t be so judgmental about something you know nothing about.” And he was right, and it stung, because we don’t talk to each other like this. We’ve always been friends. Always.
Oh, Lord, I thought, as we ended the phone conversation abruptly. My son was 2,065 miles away in a distinctly gay-unfriendly small town in Wisconsin. Why can’t he just be “normal” gay? Now this? I had been terrified for him for most of that year. I watch the news and read the newspaper. I know the things that can happen.
“This” was his upcoming Annual College Drag Show. They had asked him to emcee, and perform. And he was excited to talk to me about it. Until he wasn’t. Until I made it “unsafe.”
So I called him back, and asked him to help me understand.
I started by watching Paris is Burning, a dated but informative documentary. Roger Ebert writes a great movie review describing it in detail. Look it up. I cried during a portion of it. I saw things I didn’t want to see. And now I couldn’t un-see them. I read books about young gay men. And I cried then, too. “Mom, you’re not happy unless you’re feeling guilty about something,” he once told me. Guilty as charged, your Honor.
I suppose my biggest fear was that he was a woman in a man’s body. Or some sort of weird sexual fetish with women’s clothing that I didn’t understand. Kill me now and let me go down as a martyr. I can’t do this. My carefully crafted family portrait might be showing signs of crumble. And I couldn’t talk to anyone. And then I did. But that’s another story for another time.
This would complicate anybody’s life, I suppose. And I was probably not thinking about him. I was thinking about me. Shame on me.
We watched season after season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race together off and on for two years, and I began to understand the world of drag. It is performance art. Music, makeup as artistic pallet, and fashion as a personal expression. And comedy and pathos and drama. All things that have been a part of his internal makeup from the beginning. I was even seeing a tiny bit of gender fluidity by this point that didn’t seem quite so scary. Even a bit progressive. I was changing, too.
Not a woman. Always a man. Just gay. I took a deep breath and jumped in. It’s just Marshall.
In January of 2015 I told him, “Maybe you should come home.” And on July 4, 2015, he did. He found a job teaching piano at a music academy in Portland, rented an apartment, and set about pursing his passion. Within a month he was performing at CC Slaughter’s, and I entered a gay bar for the first time. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Sex in the bathroom, I suppose. Den of iniquity.
Instead what I found…was just a bar.
As I watched the show, the lineup of various drag queens’ rotating numbers, I could feel Marshall cringing for his mother in the audience. And I think I did cringe a bit. This was certainly out of the comfort zone for this mild mannered church lady, former Chevy Suburban driving soccer-type mom, librarian-like court reporter, who writes a column about books.
I have been back to CC’s so many times that I’ve lost count. Particularly meaningful was the performance last year during Pride weekend, after the shootings in Orlando. “It could have been us,” they said. I had been coming monthly to CC’s for a year. And “us”…was me.
Marshall started his own solo show at Sante Bar, and is now the only live music performing drag queen in Portland. This former classical pianist now plays his electronic piano and sings. He is an entertainer, and has a loyal following. CC’s, Sante Bar. And now he has added Shotskis Woodfired Eats in Salem to his list of venues. He has performed there twice, and recently he announced they had given him his own show, billed to be a “family friendly” event.
And I am proud of my son.
My Facebook image has changed. I have morphed from church high school youth group leader, and the clean tidy image that goes along with that responsibility, to outspoken gay rights supporter. And I’m not apologetic. My life has changed, and for the better. More real. More honest. And in truth, I’ve seen my own Christian faith grow deeper as I’ve been forced to delve into issues that previously were irrelevant.
I used to say, “God says no,” and that was good enough for me. And I’m incredibly embarrassed. Until I started watching. And reading. And listening. In fact, when Marshall first came out to me, I asked him, “What if you’re wrong? What if you are going to burn in hell and I didn’t do everything I could to stop it?” (I was mildly melodramatic, fresh from reading the Left Behind book series and literally pictured Marshall “Left Behind.”) And it was lucky that we had the relationship that we did. Because he laughed. “Oh, mom. Always mom.” A woman once told me, in that knowing sort of way that one Christian says to another, “I think the bible’s pretty clear.” And I feared she was right.
She was wrong. The bible isn’t “pretty clear.” But that’s a can of worms not to be opened here, but for each of us to wrestle with on our own, about any number of things.
Marshall was kind of a rock star in his Salem days. He played piano competitively and consistently took home the First Place trophy. As a church organist from the age of 12, he has subbed in a good many of our churches. He excelled academically and was well liked by his teachers and fellow squeaky clean Christian youth of the day. Elected prom king, and I’m sure his date was pleased. He had the girls. The “right” kind of successes. And in truth his mother had the envy of other mothers. I hope I wasn’t awful. One of “those” moms. My family looked good from the outside. And I was pleased. But I had secrets, too.
Marshall had a secret, and it was tearing him up inside. And my heart aches for that boy who clandestinely cut that same skin I had so lovingly rubbed baby oil on. It happens. And I ache for all the boys. And girls, too. The ones with “the secret.”
“How’s Marshall doing?” I’m asked almost daily as I float through my life of Winco, Walgreens, and downtown Salem, Oregon. I have three sons, all rock stars in their own right, but because Marshall was “out front,” I suppose that’s the one that is most often remembered. Everybody loves a winner.
This double degree classically trained music conservatory graduate with a piano performance major recently performed Madonna’s “Vogue,” that he had arranged…himself. The crowd responded. They got up and danced. Tipped wildly. He showed off a coat that he sewed himself, and I was glad. I hated home ec. But my son is sewing his own clothes.
The same kid who soloed with the Oregon Symphony is having his own show at Shotski’s. In Salem. His hometown. Why are we surprised?
To the next person who hasn’t kept up with the times, and asks the question, “How’s Marshall doing?” See for yourself. He’s coming to Salem. It may look like a different package but the interior is the same.
It’s just Marshall.
Serendipitydodah for Moms is a private Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ kids. Our official motto is “We Are Better Together” and our nickname is “Mama Bears” The group is secret so that only members can find it or see what is posted in the group. It was started in June 2014 and presently has more than 2,000 members. For more info email firstname.lastname@example.org