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When Fiona Shaw and her husband separated, each began a relationship with a same-sex partner. Here, she and her two daughters recall how they adapted to their new family life
FIONA: The break-up of my marriage and my coming out seven years ago happened when my children were just into secondary school.
None of this came out of the blue – but for my children this was the first time their parents had spoken about anything they might have sensed or guessed.
They had to take on explicitly these two different, but connected, things at the same moment.
At the time, I knew the hardest thing for my daughters was their parents splitting up rather than both having same-sex partners.
It was a terrible time for everyone. But there was another dimension to what I was telling them that most children whose parents split up don’t have to deal with.
I was aware that when I struggled to step out of a closet, I might be building one for them. How would they deal with this at school? What would they, could they say to their friends?
Would they be ridiculed, stigmatised, whispered about? In the ruthless, take-no-hostages corridors of their secondary schools, this thing would be far harder than their parents’ break-up.
Of course I knew other separated couples who had to tell their children they would no longer be living together. But none of them had to say: “Well, my child, the thing is, I’m straight.”
I was keen to be honest with mine about the person I was close to. So I was explicit about my partner Karen being important to me from the start. But I didn’t want to make their lives unnecessarily harder and for a time Karen and I were discreet about our relationship.
I also spoke to their schools because I was concerned they would get bullied.
One person I did think about during that time was my beloved uncle, who had died, too young, in 2004, and who was the inspiration for a character in my latest novel.
After the birth of his daughter, he lived as a gay man for the rest of his life.
He was a passionate and devoted father, and when I was growing up, I used to wonder how he and she had navigated this territory.
Now that I’ve lived through my own experience of the closet, I can see how complicated it can be.
JESSE, 19: Oddly, we were never directly told that our parents were moving into gay relationships. We were told they were breaking up, but never explicitly that they were gay. We both certainly knew; I’m not sure how, but there was no question. Looking back, I can remember telling a slightly non-plussed friend that I thought mom was in love with her friend and dad was in love with his.
This was about a week before they told us they were splitting up. I was about 12.
I was passive throughout the break-up. For a while I thought I’d feel it later in life, maybe when Eliza was less upset over it.
I think it’s hard for families to hold too much fraught emotion at one time – people tend to balance each other out.
Not living with both parents was hard, all the usual divorce drama, but mom being gay didn’t upset me – her sexuality was never an issue for me.
But I was a little nervous of making my parents’ situation public knowledge at first. I told a couple of my closest friends, but I didn’t mention it to most of them for months.
I’m not sure if I was waiting for the right time or if I was scared of how they might react. Eventually, I ended up doing it on the spur of the moment: I had a group of friends around for pizza, and mom’s partner was in the kitchen, making us the pizza but keeping out of our way.
When I realised what she was doing, I saw how ridiculous it was that I hadn’t told them. I was fine with mom’s sexuality, so my friends would have to be.
I grabbed Karen’s hand and introduced her to my friends. It was quite funny, there was a pause, and then they all started introducing themselves quickly.
Now I try to let people know as soon as possible, to avoid embarrassment for them later, and to see if they’re okay with it. Nearly everyone is, and the few who aren’t are not worth knowing.
I took the news of mom coming out hard. I think it suddenly brought me face to face with her identity, not as a parent but as a person.
The idea of my parents having a sexual identity outside of the assumed familial form felt humiliating for me, at the age of 14, and I found my own humiliation hard to understand or bear. I think part of me was ashamed and terrified I might be homophobic.
It took time to realise that wasn’t it. I was terrified of having a family that didn’t fit in any category.
I didn’t know how to place any of us as a unit, or understand how I might fit into the new situation.
Many of my experiences were similar to any child whose parents separate, but I think it was easier for me to focus on the stigma I saw attached to being “different”.
I became painfully closeted about my family – something mom probably found hard when she was just coming out of the closet.
It took a long time for me to talk to my friends about my parents’ homosexuality. When I did, I found that people were overwhelmingly supportive, and were interested rather than judgmental.
We have built up new rituals – with my parents’ separate partners but also all together. We often spend time as a group of six. I often feel we have a lot to celebrate: we have built a sort of family; it took lots of work and years of chaos. – Independent
* Fiona Shaw’s latest novel is A Stone’s Throw (Serpent’s Tail)