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  • A story I’ve told many times over the past 10 years is the story of how I once sang a song which changed my life. I’ve told it and have sung the song on the final day of Elderhostels in Kentucky, Mississippi, France and Holland when we are all invited to entertain the group. I’ve told it when I have been invited to speak on television programs, well over a dozen times. Over the years I’ve told it as part of a program for groups as varied as Lions Club, High Schools, Colleges, Universities, a CONTACT Convention, Lutherans Concerned, a Catholic Church on Good Friday, a Theological Seminary, Sensitivity Training groups and even to a group of Black and Hispanic teens from a ghetto district.

    I’ll tell the story here for you, but you will have to pretend you hear me sing the song. I’ll give you the words.

    The story always starts with my family of origin. We were a conservative family, a large, middle-class Catholic family. We were an extended family group of grandfather, grandmother, Aunt Margaret, Mom and Dad, my 8 sisters and me.

    I went to Catholic schools through high school, and after a brief hiatus when I worked as a salesman with and for my Dad, I went to the religious order of the Christian Brothers. There I studied theology, as well as taking 2 years of college at Catholic University, Washington, DC, 2 years of college at La Salle University, Philadelphia, Pa, and 1 year of graduate work at University of Pennsylvania. While doing this, I did manage to spend 3 years teaching high school at West Catholic High School for Boys, Philadelphia. Subsequently, after a stint in a steel mill and one in the army, I was employed in the Claims Department of a large insurance company.

    At age 55, married, father of 7 and grandfather of 7, I moved to a new city and there my wife and I became involved with a help line sponsored by the Council of Churches. It had been started originally by a minister in Australia. He had been counseling a young man but was not available when the young man’s crisis apparently overcame him and he committed suicide. The minister decided there should always be someone available in the future and instituted a layman’s ministry to maintain 24 hour availability for troubled persons.

    To participate in this fine work, we took a 50 hour course in Active Listening. We learned to listen for feelings. The scope of our perception of human experience was updated and broadened. We were exposed to modern knowledge regarding the many problems we might hear on the phones, problems of death, loss, grief and healing, of loneliness and depression, of relationship problems and adolescent problems, of gerentology, of suicide, of various religious beliefs, of addictions, of problem pregnancies and of various human sexuality issues.

    When I had started psychology in college, in 1939, 1940, 1941, I learned of homosexuality in the course “Abnormal Psychology”. I also studied theology in the Catholic Church in those years. It too taught that homosexuality was “wrong – sinful”. It was always assumed that homosexuality was simply a chosen way of expressing genital sex. It was a voluntary choice. It was an un-natural aberration.

  • In the Active Listening course, I learned that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness by psychiatry, psychology, or the medical profession (largely due to the work of Evelyn Hooker) – that probably 1 in every 10 persons is homosexual – that the preferred terms now are “Gay Male” or “Lesbian” – that probably 7 % of females are lesbian and 13 % of males are gay – that most of them no longer find it necessary to portray stereotypes taken from heterosexuality, like having one play effeminate and one play butch, but can be themselves – and that their feelings for each other in a love affair are exactly the same as heterosexuals have in their love affairs. There are “Puppy Love” affairs, committed love affairs, and promiscuity, just as in heterosexuality. And, just as in heterosexuals, there are some persons with very high sex drives, some with very low sex drives, and many in between. In short, they are as human as the majority, in all their variety of feelings, sense of beauty, emotions and personality.

    Most important of all, I learned that no one really knew why someone turned out to be gay or lesbian. They come from all kinds of househoulds, families, nationalities, and professions; from good parents and poor parents, from rich and from poor. They have just one things in common. They all know their affectional inclination is toward their same sex, not towards the opposite sex. It is person of their same sex that “turn them on”!

    Ultimately, I did in fact handle phone calls from gay and lesbian persons, and I learned first hand that their feelings were indistinguishable from those of heterosexuals in relationships. I heard how it feels to a person who has fully participated in homophobic prejudices as a child to find at puberty that he/she is one of “them”. I heard many say that the first and most difficult “coming out” was “coming out” to themselves. I heard how suicidal they might be at such a time.

    So, when my 3rd oldest boy, at age 25, depressive, and possibly suicidal, in a mental ward in an Air Force hospital, told us he was gay, I knew at last I would be able to know the person I had never been privileged to know before. I would understand why he had so many beautiful and talented friends who were female, but obviously did not get involved in relationships with them as my other sons did. I could now stop pointing out to him the girl who would make a great “girl friend”.

    Even so, his mother, who had learned all the same things I had, still spent her first 24 hours worrying, “Where did I go wrong?” This, in spite of the fact that it turns out she had suspected he might be gay – a thought that never had crossed my mind. But this is a mother’s way – she’s responsible for …..

    So that was that, we accepted Ken and were glad we could finally come to know the “real” Ken.

    But Ken was a kid with a guitar. He and his sister sang all through their years at University of Pittsburgh, in its congregation run by the Oratorian Fathers and in Coffee Houses on and off the campus. Now in Philadelphia, after he was discharged from the hospital, he provided the entertainment from time to time at the Gay Community Centet in Philadelphia. We went over to hear him sing one night.

    It felt a little odd for us, a middle-aged couple, to enter the premises of a gay, lesbian, young people’s group especially since Ken was not yet there when we arrived. The young man at the door asked if we wanted to see someone in particular. He was puzzled by our appearance, I am sure. When we told him we were Ken Bridgeman’s parents and had come to hear him sing, he took our money and had someone show us to a table. Various young people came over to make us feel welcomed until Ken arrived. When he did, he asked if I would like to harmonize with him on the last number of his rack – “If We Only Have Love”, by Jacques Brel. Of course, I was delighted.

  • Until I was up there with my arm around my gay son singing that beautiful song, I never dreamed what the dynamis of the situation would be. As I looked out at the audience, I saw in their eyes their thoughts. “My God, he has his arm around his gay son and sings that if we only have love, everything will be alright!”

    I had a difficult time to keep back the tears. I had to sing through the tight constriction of my throat. We sang:

    “If we only have love, then tomorrow will dawn,

    And the days of our years, will rise on that morn.

    If we only have love, to embrace without fears

    We will kiss with our eyes, we will sleep without tears.

    If we only have love, with our arms opened wide

    Then the young and the old will stand at our side.

    If we only have love, love that’s falling like rain,

    Then the parched desert earth will grow green again.

    If we only have love for the hymn that we shout

    For the song that we sing, then we’ll have a way out.

    If we only have love, we can reach those in pain

    We can heal all our wounds, we can use our own names.

    If we only have love, we can melt all the guns,

    And give the new world to our daughters and sons.

    If we only have love, then Jerusalem stands

    And then death has on shadows – there are no foreign lands.

    If we only have love, we will never bow down,

    We’ll be tall as the pines, neither heroes nor clowns.

    If we only have love, then we’ll only be men,

    And we’ll drink from the Grail to be whole once again.

    Then with nothing at all, but the little we are,

    We’ll conquered all time, all space, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

    After I sat down, they started coming over to speak to us. Before we could leave to go home, almost every young person in that room had come over to tell us the story of his/her non-relationship with parents. Either they could never tell parents and so they left home and lived out of town, or they told parents who threw them out, or they told parents who said, “Well, so that is what you chose to do, we’ll just never talk about it.” Their parents ignore who they really are.

    As we left, I said to Rosemary, “It is a damned shame. Those are a fine bunch of young people. They are orphans and their parents are alive. We should do something!”

    It took about a year, but we became involved. Since 1982, I have maintained a special phone line in my home, at my expense, to talk with parents of gays. Of course a lot of gays and lesbians call too. Where else can they go to talk with an accepting, understanding parent? (Especially in South Jersey?) I send out literature and personal letters in response to calls. I appear anywhere I am invited to speak on the subject, Television, Radio, colleges, schools, groups, whatever and where ever.

    My life is filled with people from all walks of life. Many of them become able to accept their child or children with love and understanding. Many of the gay and lesbian persons, age 16 to 60, who have talked with me, show me love and affection, sometimes finding me a surrogate parent, other times finding me the bridge that might help them to come together with understanding with their parents.

    And I am many times too busy with all of this, but it is good. It is of great comfort to me that several persons I had close contact with at the time of their grief and shock about children’s homosexuality are asserting themselves now and are carrying on the work I have started in South Jersey as I grow older and less able to keep up the pace of this work. They do it in different ways than I did, and that too is good. The work in South Jersey is progressing at last.

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