Late Bloomer

When Pat Stone learned her daughter was a lesbian, she helped start a support group for parents of gay and lesbian children. Then, after 35 years of marriage, Stone realized she had her own journey to make.

Last summer, Pat Stone phoned her daughter, T.J., and told her she had something very important to talk about. Pat and her husband, Dan, were planning to visit T.J. in Virginia, and Pat wanted to make sure her daughter could carve out some time for them to be alone--no easy feat.

T.J. and her lesbian lover, Katherine, lived busy lives. A committed couple for seven years, T.J., a Ph.D. candidate in child development, and Katherine, a professor of women's studies at a local university, were raising Katherine's nine-year-old son from a previous marriage and a two-year-old son T.J. had conceived through artificial insemination. The sperm donor was the longtime lover of Katherine's gay brother.

From the outset, the Stones had greeted the news of their daughter's sexual orientation and her rather unconventional family arrangement with uncommon acceptance and support. Pat liked to joke that T.J. and Katherine were her "Geraldo family."

When the Stones learned their daughter was a lesbian, they were more upset that her lover's new job would be taking them to another state. Still, they threw T.J. and Katherine a "pre-commitment party"--an engagement party of sorts--on the deck of their Lake Highlands home. Guests brought the equivalent of wedding shower gifts, including "hers and hers" towels.

Ultimately, the Stones would not only accept their daughter's homosexuality, they would go on to help other parents cope by co-founding the Dallas chapter of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). Over time, the Stones became gay rights advocates, marching in Oak Lawn Gay Pride parades, giving talks at churches, and speaking out for equal rights for homosexuals at rallies around the state.

T.J. and her mother had always been close, but even more so after T.J. came out. So when Pat called her last summer, T.J. promised to make time for them to be alone. The bombshell Pat would drop on her "Geraldo family" could make the mother a colorful talk show guest in her own right.

"I've recently developed strong romantic feelings for another person," Pat told T.J. over a long lunch at a restaurant in town. "And the other person is a woman."

If T.J.'s awakening into homosexuality was relatively benign, with minimal impact on her family, her mother's revelation would send shock waves through the Stone family and P-FLAG, for which Pat had served as president for the last four years.

In the six months since that lunch with her daughter, Pat Stone has had to come to terms with a variety of unsettling issues. First and foremost, she had to determine if she was, in fact, a lesbian or, as some of her friends believed, simply suffering from a passing infatuation with a woman. In a sad, ironic twist, she faced censure from a few members of P-FLAG, who thought it best for the chapter if she stepped down as president. And hardest of all, Pat had to tell her husband and leave him.

A woman who had never lived on her own, who had never worked outside the home, Stone suddenly found herself, at age 54, in free fall.

"My own story--my coming out, my family arrangement--seems so uneventful compared to my mother's," T.J. Stone says.

A "for sale" sign sits in front of the Stones' cozy, antique-filled, five-bedroom house in Northeast Dallas--one of the lesser manifestations of the change that has convulsed the lives of Pat Stone and her family in the last half-year.

An attractive woman with an open face framed by russet curls, Pat Stone says there was nothing in her past life that warned her of the coming upheaval. Until last spring, she says, she never once considered she might be gay.

Coming of age in the '50s, Pat, the daughter of a police officer in conservative Wichita Falls, hadn't even heard of lesbianism until she was a young adult, much less identified with it. She grew up expecting to marry, and her only concern was finding a man who was kind and gentle, unlike the abusive men her mother and grandmother had married.

Pat found what she thought she was looking for in Dan Stone, a shy, compassionate boy with a love of the outdoors who was four years older than she.

They met at their Methodist church and were engaged when Pat was 16. They married two years later. (Dan Stone declined to be interviewed for this story.)

"Dan was a nice person, a friend, and a companion," Pat says. "He knew I wasn't affectionate, but we both assumed it was because I grew up in a family where we learned to repress our feelings. My one regret in life was always going to be that I never had special romantic feelings for anyone. It wasn't like the romance and passion died in our relationship. It just was never there to begin with--at least on my part."

As the years passed, Pat says, she began to increasingly lament the lack of sexual passion she felt toward Dan. Even on vacations to romantic destinations like Hawaii, she always felt there was something important missing between her and Dan. But her sadness over the lack of passion was never enough to spur her to leave the marriage. "I wasn't attracted to other men," says Pat. "And women weren't an option. It never crossed my mind."

As for Dan, Pat says he was never comfortable discussing his feelings. "I think he felt the rest of our life made up for the lack of passion and romance. He loved the family life and takes his commitments very seriously."

Pat silently accepted the emotional void as she and Dan built a solid marriage on respect, friendship, and the things they shared: liberal political leanings, a love of movies, close friends, and their family. They had two children around whom their entire lives revolved, first Tamara Jo--who began calling herself T.J. in the sixth grade--then, three years later, Brad. Dan started his own computer software company, while Pat chose to be a stay-at-home mom. When Pat was growing up, her mother had worked for the Social Security Administration, and Pat remembers missing having enough time with her.

Even though she cleaved to a traditional role, Pat wanted to make sure her choices did not stifle her daughter's growth. She became a charter subscriber to Ms. magazine and stayed abreast of the growing women's movement. She stressed to her daughter the importance of independence. "Perhaps it was the independence I was longing for," Pat says. "Who knows?"

For a fleeting instant, when she was wrestling with learning that T.J. was a lesbian, Pat wondered whether anything she did, particularly exposing T.J. to the women's movement, had somehow influenced her daughter's sexual orientation. The Stones had never suspected that T.J. was gay, though they often wondered why boys never flocked around their lithe, curly-haired, blue-eyed daughter. "She just never fit the stereotype we had of lesbians," says Pat. "She was very feminine. She took dance for 14 years and was a Girl Scout. We just thought she was just more mature than the other girls, more interested in her studies than in attracting boys."

When T.J. went to Southern Methodist University in the fall of 1982, and later graduate school at Texas Woman's University, she befriended a series of women with children. Pat just thought T.J. was searching for a sister. From time to time, T.J. would date a man, but the relationship never seemed to move beyond friendship.

In late 1989, when T.J. was in her mid-20s, Pat noticed a change in her daughter. There was a deepening contentment about her, a peacefulness that had not been there before. It had seemed to coincide with T.J.'s blossoming friendship with a woman named Katherine, a professor at TWU 10 years her senior. When Pat heard T.J. talk to Katherine over the phone, she heard an "excitement and exuberance" in her voice that was never there when she talked with boys.

Then one day, T.J. excitedly shared with her mother Katherine's great news: She had been offered a full professorship with tenure at a college in Virginia. Pat told T.J. to pass on her congratulations to Katherine, whom she had briefly met at a party. Stone didn't think much about it again, until T.J. came home for spring break several weeks later.

One afternoon, as mother and daughter sat in the cozy den of the Stones' home, Pat nonchalantly asked T.J. what she was going to do when Katherine left for Virginia.

The question was like a key unlocking a secret door. "Well, Mom, that's what I want to talk to you about," T.J. said. "Katherine and I are in love. We're a couple." T.J. told her mother that Katherine was her first lover and that she had only realized she was a lesbian a few months earlier.

Rather than being dismayed, Pat remembers almost being more surprised with her own calm at the announcement. "I had the perfect reaction," Pat says. "I told her I knew she was happy and that was what mattered. Then I told her she should invite Katherine and her son to Easter."

The Stones, however, didn't cope well with T.J.'s other revelation. Although Katherine was T.J.'s first lover, both women realized that they had found their life partners, and they were moving together to Virginia come summer.

"They were pretty pissed off I was leaving," T.J. says. "It was a much worse family rule that I was breaking. That's when they came back with questions. 'Are you sure you are gay? Maybe Katherine is just a mentor figure.' My mother asked if she had done anything to cause it, did she have Ms. magazine out on the table too early."

But soon, they began instead to worry whether T.J.'s sexual orientation could hurt her lifelong dream of running a daycare center, and about the well-being of her new family. Virginia, they learned, was a state where just being gay could be grounds for losing custody of a child.

Before long, Pat and Dan Stone began to worry about the bigotry and intolerance that confronted not just their daughter, but all homosexuals. Two activists were born.

On a recent Thursday night, more than 70 people gathered in the Midway Hills Christian Church in Northwest Dallas for the monthly P-FLAG meeting. Twenty were first-timers who had just learned that someone they knew and loved was a homosexual, or who had known for a while but were just now able to face it.

In small discussion groups, they hear the stories of other parents who had struggled with the fear and grief of learning that a child was gay--parents like Judith, a single mother who describes herself as a "poster child for P-FLAG."

"I'm an example of how far some of us can come and how quickly," Judith says. Several years ago, her daughter, home from college for the summer, attempted to gradually come out to her mother by lying and saying she was bisexual--thinking it would not be quite as shocking to her.

"I yelled at her and told her if she could choose to be with a man or a woman, why didn't she just choose what was easy--for me, for her, for society," Judith says. "Then she told me she was a lesbian. I kicked her out of the house and told her I didn't want anything more to do with her. That's the way I sent her off to start her senior year in college. We didn't talk for six months."

And for six months, Judith didn't tell a soul. On her commute to and from work, she would roll up her windows and scream at the top of her lungs, in anger and in pain. "Then I found this organization [P-FLAG] and the Cathedral of Hope [a gay and lesbian church in Dallas--the largest gay congregation in the country]. They saved my life and my family. Today I will not set foot someplace where my daughter is not accepted."

Judith pulls out a letter she recently received from her daughter, who lives in San Francisco: "Congratulations on your transition from being my mom to becoming my best friend...I'm proud of the person you've become. You are the mom all my friends wish they had."

Pat Stone first read about P-FLAG, a national federation of support groups first founded in Los Angeles in 1982, in an Ann Landers column shortly after T.J. had left for Virginia. Pat thought she could draw from her own experiences to help other parents of gays and lesbians. Other parents of gay children had the same thought, and somehow several of them found each other. In January 1992, at the first meeting held in the Metropolitan Community Church--later renamed Cathedral of Hope--five parents gathered. About nine months later, Pat would be elected president, a post she has held ever since.

Today the Dallas chapter, with more than 150 members, is one of the strongest in the country. In 1994, P-FLAG caused a bit of a ruckus when Pat and several other members addressed a group of Dallas school district nurses and counselors. Former school board member Dan Peavy, now known for his profane, racist, homophobic taped telephone comments, was one of several trustees who thought, after the fact, that P-FLAG's presentation was inappropriate, that it looked like the district was encouraging homosexuality. Not long after, P-FLAG joined with other gay organizations to push the city council and the school district to add homosexuality to their anti-discrimination policies.

If the greater society doesn't quite know how to take P-FLAG, the group's contributions have not gone unappreciated by the gay community. Each fall when P-FLAG members march in the gay pride parade down Cedar Springs Avenue, the group inevitably gets the most applause, and frequently people along the parade route will run up to the group's members and embrace them. "They tell us we're the parents all gay children deserve," says Pat.

Last fall, the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance voted to give awards to both Pat and Dan Stone for their contributions over the past five years. And this spring, the Cathedral of Hope will honor P-FLAG with one of its Hope awards.

"Pat didn't do it all by herself; there were a lot of people who helped make P-FLAG successful," says Ruth Lax, the chapter's board secretary, whose youngest son is gay. "But she was a wonderful spokesperson. She had a way of making people feel good."

As president, Pat has been the most visible leader of the group, speaking out at City Hall and at anti-violence rallies around the state, like the one in Tyler two years ago, in the wake of the brutal murder of a 23-year-old man who was targeted by his assailants because he was gay.

Several years ago, on Pat's 50th birthday, T.J. celebrated her mother's new-found role as activist with a collage of triangles inscribed with testimonies from her gay friends. "...Mutual acceptance has always been valued in our family, but the passionate activism you now lead is breathtaking," T.J. wrote. "Witnessing the growth in you, in myself, and in our relationship makes me very proud--and hopeful for our future generation."

Dan was not as out-front as his wife, but he was always by her side when she spoke publicly. He led a rap group at P-FLAG's monthly meetings and matched Pat in the depth of his commitment, which he articulated in a Christmas letter he sent out to family and friends in 1994.

"Our goal is help relieve the pain being experienced in many families and to reduce the injustices suffered by too many for such a long, long time. Maybe we can reduce the number of teenage suicides among gay teenagers. They live under such stress that's forced upon them by others who don't care. Our aim is to change things where we can. We have come a long way since T.J. lit the candle.

"Once again, I hear hateful messages from some of the current religious leaders. And it offends me. That's my wonderful daughter they're talking about. That's the many fine gay people I have accepted as part of my family that they are condemning. And the descriptions they use of gay people are so terribly inaccurate. Like dead fish, messages of hate still stink even when wrapped in pages from the bible.

"I love my daughter, and I admire her and have been enriched by her life experiences. I accept her without any reservation, and I want you to accept her and her family with the warmth that you have always extended to me. That's my Christmas wish."

T.J. worried about her mother. In recent years, Pat had confided in her daughter that she was unhappy in her marriage, though not enough to leave it. T.J. feared that as her mother got older she might succumb to depression. "I didn't see her as a tragic figure, but I got the feeling there was something in her that wasn't complete."

Pat had always battled with a severe weight problem--at times she ballooned up to more than 250 pounds. She never kept the weight off for long, and once, after she had lost a substantial amount of weight, she told T.J. that she still felt an emotional void. T.J. wondered if her mother was hiding from something, something too painful for her mother to explore.

Last winter, Pat was determined to lose the weight for good. She started taking a new kind of appetite suppressant prescribed by a doctor, and by spring she had shed 50 pounds. Looking back, Pat thinks the weight loss was the catalyst for all that was to come next.

"All those candy bars were a substitute for something," she says.
In the spring, Dan and Pat went to hear a local lesbian activist speak. The woman was close to Pat in age, and Pat found her beautiful, flamboyant, sensual, and vulnerable. The woman owned her own company and was active in local and national gay rights organizations.

Though the Stones both enjoyed the talk, Pat didn't think much about it until about two weeks later, when she found herself flooded with romantic feelings for the woman, feelings that were completely new and alien to her.

She confided these feelings to John Selig, a gay friend who himself had been married for 13 years. He cautioned her not to act rashly, to make sure it was not just an infatuation with a particular person. "I love both her and her husband, and I hate to see families thrown into turmoil," Selig says. "She was so confused, and I wanted to be careful not to convince her or lead her in a certain direction. I suggested she get into counseling."

Pat felt that in recognizing she was a lesbian, she had finally found "the missing piece of the puzzle to my life."

In an interview over the phone in Virginia, T.J. recalls her mother's coming out to her: "She told me she had this set of romantic feelings she had never experienced before. My first thought was that it was for another man. Then she told me, and I said, 'Wow, O.K.' By the end of the conversation, it seemed to make sense."

Over the following weeks and months, as Pat wrestled with a torrent of conflicting emotions, she shared her confusion with her daughter via E-mail.

"It's quite an amazing narrative of a woman coming out to her daughter," T.J. says.

"This school-girl crush she had was very youthful--" she stops herself, "That sounds ageist--very new. I asked her if she really wanted to explore this, was there an option to explore it within the relationship she already had. Was separating from my father an option? I wanted to be fair and sensitive."

By the end of the summer, Pat had gotten up the nerve to tell the woman, who was familiar with Pat through her work with P-FLAG, how she felt. The woman was caught completely off guard. She told Pat that she was flattered, but that she was in a relationship with a woman and they were planning to move in together.

"She was a real class act," Pat says. "She said she would be there for me, and we've talked on the phone almost every week since then."

Still, Pat felt more adrift than ever. "It's like finding that special someone and losing them at the same time," she wrote in some notes to herself at the time. And she worried that being a lesbian would threaten her position among the straight parents in P-FLAG and that she would be a disappointment to the gay community, who valued strong support in the straight community. Finally, she hated the thought of having to tell her husband, knowing it would devastate him.

T.J. could hear what she describes as a growing depression in her mother's voice and encouraged her to seek counseling, which she finally did. "The therapist really challenged me," says Pat. "I had to figure out if I really was a lesbian. She helped me see that denial could take different forms. I began to see that this orientation had always been there; I just had not noticed. I think I buried it under all the weight."

By the end of October, now almost 100 pounds thinner, she mustered the courage to tell Dan. The Stones had planned to go to the movies that night, but Pat told Dan they needed to talk. Sitting in their den, Pat told him about her attraction to the woman, how it finally explained her lack of response to his affections all these years.

"He was making it too easy," Pat says. "He was sitting there taking notes. What made me realize he was dealing with it logically and not emotionally was when he looked up from his pad and asked if we were still going to go to the movies. As time went on that night, it started to sink in. He started to move his things out of the bedroom into another bedroom in the house.

"'I never thought I would be doing this,'" Dan told me. "I told him he deserved better. He said there would never be anyone else. We were both wiped out. It was a terrible time."

Pat filed for divorce the next day. Her son, Brad, who works with his father and declined to be interviewed for this story, took the news hard. He could not understand why, if his mother was truly gay, it took this long for her to find out. And he resented that she didn't seem sad to be ending the marriage and selling the family home. "I tried to tell him that for so much of my life with his father, it was like I wasn't really here. I wasn't myself."

Pat's own mother refused to believe her daughter when she heard the news, but has since accepted it and has tried to be supportive, Pat says. Dan told his mother-in-law. "I don't know if she is a lesbian or not, but she believes she is, and there is nothing I can do about it."

The P-FLAG elections were coming up in mid-November. Months earlier, Pat had been nominated to serve another year as president and as the only person who answers the helpline. She felt she had to inform the members what was going on in her life. She drafted a letter she planned to send out and called an emergency board meeting to explain it.

The board members, many of whom were the Stones' closest friends, were stunned and saddened by the breakup of their marriage and by the fact that Dan had decided to take a hiatus from the group because working with Pat was too painful for him.

The board approved Pat's letter, a study in honesty and openness, which is, after all what P-FLAG preaches.

"There is a new development since I made the decision long ago to run another year for these offices," Pat's letter read. "I want you to be aware of this new information before voting.

"I recently developed feelings for another woman. No relationship occurred between us. I am married, and she is in a relationship. However, with therapy and much soul searching, I now see that this orientation was always there; I just did not see it before. I now identify myself as lesbian.

"I regret that this positive experience for me has led to much turmoil for my family...Of course, none of them have a problem with the lesbian issue; however, they mourn the end of a marriage of 35 years.

"My question to you is: does my being lesbian affect your feelings about my being president of P-FLAG/Dallas and answering the helpline?...I will not wear my orientation on my sleeve. My concern is fighting for equal rights for our kids and to help families accept their gay or lesbian loved one..."

Several days after the letter was sent out, it was ironically two lesbian P-FLAG members who came to Pat's house to voice their opposition. They told her they thought it was in the best interest of the chapter for Pat to remove herself from the ballot. They were afraid the news of her coming out as a lesbian would be seized by the religious right to further promulgate the fallacy that homosexuality was contagious and that the P-FLAG had some secret gay recruitment agenda. A heterosexual member contacted Pat with similar concerns.

Pat was crushed. It was T.J.'s suggestion that she offer a compromise of bringing in another heterosexual member as co-president. Pat warmed to the idea and called another emergency board meeting to run the idea by them. After five years as president, she had planned to step down next year anyway. At that time, she had hoped to turn the reins over to Dave Gleason. The father of a gay son, Gleason became active in the chapter after he learned his son was HIV positive. He gladly accepted Pat's proposal, as did the board.

Pat came to her own conclusion to quit her job on the helpline. She had received a call from a gay man from a small West Texas town, who was terrified of telling his family about who he really was. At the end of the conversation, he thanked Pat profusely for her time and told her that it was the most support he had ever received from a straight person. It made her feel uncomfortable. She was also concerned that her orientation might make parents trying to come to terms with gay children uneasy.

At the annual meeting, in a 48 to 2 vote, Pat Stone was elected co-president of P-FLAG.

The months since Pat filed for divorce have been awkward for the Stones, particularly because they both chose to stay in the house until the divorce was final and their financial affairs settled. They have tried to stay out of each other's way, being careful to eat breakfast and dinner at different times and retiring to separate rooms at night. Their brown toy poodle, Sandy--as confused as everyone else--spends half the night on Dan's bed, the other half on Pat's.

When they bump into each other in the house, they greet each other with awkward silences or dry discussions of splitting the finances. "It is just too painful for Dan to talk about anything else right now," says Pat. "It kills me to see him so sad."

Pat has tried not to act too cheerful around the house when Dan is there. But with her newfound sexual identity, not to mention her new body--recently improved by a tummy tuck, breast lift, and face lift--Pat is excited about her emergence--as if from a chrysalis--from her former ill-fitting existence.

Pat is not leaving her husband for someone else--a fact that actually made it harder on Dan. In fact, she has yet to have a sexual experience with a woman. "I am leaving because of my principles, because of the honesty of the situation," she says. "In P-FLAG, we talk about sexual orientation not being just about sex, but about who you are and who you are most comfortable being with."

But Pat knows there will be rough times ahead. The Stones' divorce was final on January 17, and soon Pat will be on her own for the first time in her life. She has begun looking for a place to live and for a job, preferably in the nonprofit sector. But she has never held a paying job, and she wonders if she will find work. She is also not looking forward to handling her own finances, a job which Dan always took care of. And she is worried about being lonely, about not finding the passion and romance that eluded her in her marriage to a man.

She has already felt the sting of societal disapproval. Though most family members and friends have been supportive, one relative sent Pat a pamphlet entitled "What Does God Say About GAYS and LESBIANS?" which included the following passage, underlined by the relative: "We do not "hate" gays, but we strongly DETEST the goals and life style of homo-sexuals [sic] and lesbians; deeply DETEST their attempts to infect the minds of our children and grandchildren with Satan's perversions."

Even some members of the gay community think Pat may be making the wrong decision. "To change your whole life based on some feelings you haven't had the chance to try out, it's nuts, especially at her age and situation in life," says a lesbian who has known Pat for years through her active membership in P-FLAG. "Where is she going to meet people? I think she is being a little Polyanna-ish. I think she might be more isolated than she realizes. It's not like she's becoming part of a large, cohesive club. And it's not like a bunch of politically active lesbians have offered her support."

T.J. also has concerns--about both of her parents. "Whatever was going on in that marriage, it was something my dad counted on. It was very much how he defined himself," says T.J. "This has thrown him off balance. But I have confidence he can figure out the next chapter of his life, too.

"With my mom, I am concerned about the backlash that can happen to anyone as open and honest as she is. It appears she's made a lot of changes fast, but there was a substantial incubation time. She spent a lot of time thinking there was something unexplored inside of her. For the most part, I think she is pretty courageous. She is making the kind of changes you want people to make--a leap to what makes her feel more congruent with who she is. She got to the point that what she was doing didn't fit anymore. She made changes pretty boldly. She considered not [changing], but I think she realized the price of not doing it would get to be too high.

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