‘With a huge grin, my mom said, ‘Your daughter is an honor student? Well, mine’s a lesbian!’ She was so proud.’: LGBTQ mom shares what Pride means to her

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of sexual assault and suicide that may be triggering to some.

“I was asked to write a story about myself… funny thing about writing I guess, I write a lot about the people, places, and things around me, or even parts of my body… but my experiences? Well, those are uncharted waters, and here I sit in uncharted territory. But alas, I guess we should start from the beginning.

woman in the sunshine
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

Why, why are you the way you are? Why do you do the things you do? I suppose your why is ingrained into you, whether you know it or not. Your why is the amalgam of a life lived, the experiences that have brought you here, and take you to where you will one day go. My why is an interesting one. You see, I feel as though I have lived three or four lives in my not quite 33 years of life.

My name is Shavonne Maxine Riordan, but you can simply call me Shay. My mother’s name was Wendy, and my father’s name is Rusty. They had me young, and now being a mother myself… I can tell you perhaps they were in a little over their heads, but they did their best. And really that is all you can ask for, isn’t it?

My parents separated when I was almost 3. They had a tumultuous relationship, like two eternal flames constantly butting their heads up against one another… eventually one had to get out before they overtook the other. As a child I can remember having a lot of good memories, I also remember a lot of chaos.

young girl and young boy outside
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

My mother was wild, she was a free spirit, a trailblazer. She believed in love, light, and the pursuit of happiness. She taught me our differences make us special, she didn’t believe in judgment… In fact, if my best friend and I said something that was not kind about another person, innocently or not, we were told why what we did was wrong, how it could hurt someone, and then sent to my room to reflect on what we had said.

My mother, as wonderful as she was, also had a sad side. She suffered from bipolar. This would one day take her away from me… but that’s a later story. Her illness consumed a lot of her life and it would, in turn, consume a lot of mine. At times, I felt as though the roles were reversed… I was in charge of making sure my mom took her medicine, the bills were paid, cooking meals when I was old enough. I remember being about 8 or 9 thinking this wasn’t fair, I was just a kid, and this responsibility shouldn’t have been placed upon my shoulders.

young girl in costume
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

My mom never had a lot of money, I remember at one point in our lives we lived in a women’s shelter. There is so much innocence during youth, when I was there it never occurred to me this was a bad thing, or a sad thing rather. Sure, I missed my bed, my stuffed animals, and my things. But there were all sorts of other children in the shelter, and I remember running around and playing with them in the common room of the shelter.

After that, we moved to a nicer building, where I would grow up. Still, there were struggles with money, food at times was scarce, but we made do. I remember being in kindergarten, and there was this girl in my class named Kayla Kiki. I was so taken with her, I remember (funnily enough) writing a story about her and rainbows. As I grew up, I would have many crushes on girls… but I didn’t know that’s what they were.

Around the time I was 8 years old, I started to gain weight. I recently learned, at the age of 4, I had been assaulted. I think the reason I started to put this weight on was to shield myself from the world. If people didn’t look at me, then I could be safe. I found my outlet in movies, and television. If I could watch these shows, then I didn’t have to think about all of the strife in my life, all of the things that made me different or ‘othered.’ I could escape into the world on the screen and mine would drift away.

Being heavier in school targeted me for a lot of bullying. Not to mention I had very curly hair my mom didn’t know how to control, so it was a giant strawberry blonde poof on my head (I used to think if I was a kid in the ’70s, the other kids would have envied my hair, and I was simply born into the wrong generation). I also had bottle cap glasses, let me tell you this combo was just too much for my other classmates to appreciate.

When I was 14, I met a girl named Sam, and she was different than so many other girls that I had known. She wore baggy pants and band t-shirts. She was into skateboarding, and she even sometimes snuck alcohol without her parents knowing it. Sam was obsessed with the lead singer Brody Dalle of this band called the Distillers. Avril Lavigne was also huge at that time, and oh my goodness were Sam and I smitten with her.

girls at birthday party
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

All of a sudden, I remember getting into alternative music, baggy clothing, piercings. It was like this whole new world was opening up, and I too was changing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different… I remember Paris Hilton had this show called ‘The Simple Life’ and her catchphrase on that show was, ‘That’s hot.’ She would call everything hot, even other girls… the first time I heard that, I was taken a bit back. I knew a lot about gay men, but the only gay women I knew of were Rosie O’Donnell, Melissa Etheridge, and Ellen DeGeneres. So, women loving women wasn’t really a thought that passed through my mind. Soon I started referring to my friends as hot. Never really batting an eye to what that meant or how I actually felt.

I had a few boyfriends here and there and thought some were attractive, but I never had deep feelings towards any of them. Brody Dalle though, I thought about her… kind of like I used to think about Ginger Spice when I was little. For hours on end… but the difference I think with Geri was I wanted to be just like her, with Brody I didn’t want to be her, sure I mean I liked her style… but there was something more.

The word bisexual started to become a common term among my friends and being gay in general gained in popularity that year. Older people were coming out of the closet and saying enough with hiding. It was like gay gay gay was everywhere I turned. And the next thing I knew, Sam comes up to me and tells me she’s bisexual. Well, I was flabbergasted, absolutely shocked… though why exactly I’m still not sure. I remember furrowing my brow and shaking my head… thinking, ‘If Sam was bisexual, what did that mean?’ She said she thought the same things about Avril and Brody I did. I remember that night staying up and Sam’s confession to me swirled in my brain over and over. Until all of a sudden, an Oprah ‘ah-Huh’ moment came to me. I liked girls too!

Over the next 2 years, I would slowly come out to my friends, had a few trysts with some other classmates, and even started online dating. I didn’t officially have my first girlfriend till I was 16. This was the beginning of online dating. MSN was still the biggest way to chat with your friends and meet new people. I met a girl who lived in Kamloops. I thought meeting her may never happen as the world seemed so big at that time, and B.C. was on the other side of the country. This girl and I would chat for hours, over the MSN, over the phone, and even send letters to one another. It was at this time my mother started to question who this girl was and what role she was playing in my life.

After this went on for quite some time this girl (let’s call her L) and I decided we had to meet. So, she hitched a ride with a trucker friend of hers to Mississauga. The only catch, she would travel for 4 days to only be able to see me for 18 hours… but that was better than nothing. Oh, and there was one more thing… my mom was in the psych ward. Over the course of my life, she would be in and out of there. I had to tell her who L was before she got home because I knew it would be too obvious if I didn’t.

My stepfather, Charlie, drove me to the hospital, and I anxiously remember following the bright orange line to where my mom’s room was. With each turn my palms got sweaty, I could hear my heart pounding in my chest, it was as if someone hooked my heart up to a giant speaker. I kept looking down, walking, following Charlie’s shoes until—sh*t, he stopped… sh*t, there she is… what does she look like? Okay good, she looks like she’s in a good mood, she’s happy to see me… sh*t, am I going to ruin her day? Sh*t… sh*t SH*T!

‘Hi mom,’ I said. ‘Hi, Bean.’ She replied. ‘How-how’s it going in here?’ I felt as if my face was about to melt off. My mom was having a good day in the hospital, they said that she would be able to go home any day now. I directed the conversation away from my surly impending doom over and over before the words just fell out of my mouth, like they were falling off of a cliff… there was no stopping them.

‘Mom, I’m gay and I have a girlfriend. Yes, that one I’m always on the phone with, and she’s coming here for 18 hours. She’s traveling for over 4 days to get here, and I think I love her and I –’

‘You’re what? Hahahahahha,’ she started howling, laughing, deep belly roll laughing. Was it the drugs? I dunno? ‘You’re a fruit loop? Hahahahah,’ she continued to laugh. I was in shock, should I be upset, or should I be happy? I couldn’t quite understand what my reaction should be. The rest of the conversation is a blur.

It took my mom a minute to accept the idea of me being gay. Surprisingly, my stepfather didn’t care at all. But once my mom did come around, she was very proud. So proud in fact she became a member of PFLAG (parents for Lesbians and Gays).

I remember one day she was walking down the street, and she saw a lady wearing a ‘my daughters an honor student’ pin. My mom walked straight up to her and said, ‘Your daughter is an honor student? Well, mine’s a lesbian!’ she said with a huge grin and strutted away.

mom and daughter
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

L and I would date on and off for 3 years, and at one point, I ended up moving to Kamloops with her. I think being there, was fate. I have always been in love with other people’s cultures. As you know my mom taught me to celebrate peoples’ differences. I had heard the word ‘Native’ before (now we would more respectfully refer to the people whose land we have settled upon as Indigenous), but I had never been to a reservation before. It was there I learned, from the Bands Elders, how we could be one with the earth. I saw with my own eyes how people looked at L like she was different when we weren’t on the reserve. I saw depression run rapid, but mostly I saw kindness and deep respect for all living things.

When I was 17, I was raped by an old classmate. I didn’t see that coming. I told him I was gay, I told him no. He had a girlfriend I worked with… it didn’t matter. I reported him. It turned out he was going to school to be a police officer… and I was the first he attacked. I reported him not because I thought it would help me… no, it didn’t help. In fact, if I’m honest, having to sit 12 feet away from someone as a fellow female tells you that you are crazy and made everything up. As that fellow female tries to ruin your name, your reputation, and the idea you have of yourself… no, that doesn’t help. I did for those other girls that were too scared to use their voices.

The trial would take over 2 years. I had a court-appointed lawyer, and he had money. At first, they said he was never even in my room. But when they found his skin and blood under my nails from me trying to scratch him to get off me and his DNA all over my room… well, they had to come up with a different story.

I didn’t take the assault well. In fact, I tried to take my life. L and I broke up during this time and I felt like my life had no meaning, I felt like there was too much pressure. I took a bunch of my moms’ pills and slit my wrists. It didn’t work. It wasn’t my time.

I went to that trial, the one where they told me I was crazy, that I wanted it, that I made everything up. My body trembled. My mom was like a ragging bull trying to take him down. He spun around in his chair laughing because he thought his money would save him. His father even laughed at me, but his mother knew my family, she knew me well… she couldn’t raise her eyes to look at mine. Deep down, I know she knew the truth.

I was asked to write an impact statement. I was 19 by this point. In my second trimester of university. I had graduated with honors. I was at a much better place in spite of all that had happened. I put it all into my story. I used his disgusting act to say I would no longer let him get the best of me. I won my case.

I thought that was the worst thing that would ever happen to me… it wasn’t. My mom passed away when I was 21. Her disease had taken over. My mom with all of her laughter, all of her joy. The women who taught me to love from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. She was gone, and I found her. Those pills that didn’t take me, well, they took her. She took too many. I can’t tell you if it was on purpose, I can’t tell you why. What I can tell you is mental illness is a silent war, and we as a people need to come together to end the stigma and get more help for those who need it.

My mother was a hero. Yes, she had dark times, yes, she had pain (who doesn’t?) but she was an amazing person whose light filled the hearts of everyone she crossed paths with. And my gosh, did she love me fiercely. I always say her love was like concentrated juice, just add water and it will last a lifetime.

Numb… I was numb for years after my mom passed. Until one day, I met Katie. Katie put the wind back in my sails. She made me believe in love again. She has worked with me with all of my issues. She has sat with me on sad days, she has celebrated wins with me. She has loved me when I simply cannot love myself. She brought the color back into my world.

lesbian couple on wedding day by a lake
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

I’m so glad to live in a world that accepts our love and our family. I am grateful for the rights that allow our family to be just like any other. When I think about pride. I think about how wonderful it is my fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community can walk with their heads held high in Canada. But there is still a long way to go. There are still black trans people being killed at an alarming rate. Pride means acceptance, inclusion, and diversity for all. And as I see the headlines, I know we are not free.

It is my vow to teach my baby boy to liberate underrepresented voices. Because we need to use our voices to help others always. We will never be free until everyone is equal.

woman and her son
Courtesy of Shay Riordan

When I think about my why, I think about this life Katie and I created. We have been together for over 8 years now, we have seen three continents, we fulfilled our childhood dreams of seeing the Spice Girls live in concert, we got married, and now have a beautiful baby boy named Zephyr Rain.

In this life I have been tried, I have been kicked, I have experienced so much loss, pain, struggle, and strife. But none of it, not one ounce of it defines me. Sure, it is a part of me, and at times it tries to take over me. But I am living proof you can be the change. If you love enough, if you see the value in you, or if you let someone else shine their light upon you, then you can overcome that sadness and live a better life. These are all my reasons why.”

Courtesy of Shay Riordan
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