O.C. Parents Come Out in Defense of Gay Students : Family: The Henigans, with help from their oldest son, are persuasive advocates in Fountain Valley furor.
The Henigans wince when called the perfect family, and who could blame them? It’s a lot of pressure to both embody and shatter the stereotype.
The four kids are attractive high-achievers, the parents involved and doting. Dad Mike is the Fountain Valley High School athletic director. Mom Adrienne is a homemaker who became a college career specialist at the high school as her chicks left the nest.
On a suburban cul-de-sac they raised their daughters and sons--the boys football stars who played college ball, the oldest at Harvard. It is easy to see why people view them like a 1950s television clan.
And the Henigans are kind of like the Cleavers--if Wally was gay.
When students at the school made national headlines recently by demanding the right to have a gay support group on campus, the Henigans stepped into the spotlight and became perhaps their most convincing advocates.
Long before the storm clouds formed, the couple quietly offered their support at the first meeting in October. But a month and a few news accounts later, the campus was hit with anti-gay flyers and pickets by students calling themselves the Future Good Boys of America. And the Henigans decided it was time, in the words of their gay son, “to have their own coming out.”
By earlier this month they had spoken to about 500 emotional people at school board meetings, urging tolerance and support for the Fountain Valley High School Student Alliance, and read a moving letter from their alumnus son, who typified machismo but secretly suffered as a gay teen-ager who could not be himself.
The story behind why the reserved family did this touches on universal emotions between parents and children. Usually we see the extremes--Oprah and Geraldo versions of what happens when Mom and Dad learn their child is gay, the cases of estrangement and shame and lonely holidays for the banished one.
They certainly exist, but the Henigans have offered to tell a less hysterical story of how they’ve coped with learning their son was gay, a story they hope is more ordinary than extraordinary.
Eldest son Patrick Henigan, at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, had been an all-league offensive lineman at football dynasty Fountain Valley High School; a student government leader with a 4.2 grade-point average whose classmates gave him the school’s top honor, male student of the year.
What nobody knew was that he was so deeply depressed about his sexuality that by his 1986 graduation, he repeatedly considered killing himself.
Four years after he went away to Harvard, played football and graduated with a history degree into a successful law job, Patrick broke the news of his homosexuality.
The result: The Henigan family cried, hugged and vowed to deal with it.
“I have admired Patrick his whole life, since he was in first or second grade and starred in his Christmas play,” father Mike says, voice breaking. “I’ve lived a somewhat one-dimensional life, but Patrick is very well-rounded, a loving and sensitive person who always remembers you. How could I suddenly not love him for one part of his life being different than mine?”
It was the summer of 1991 that the Henigans learned their son/brother/grandson was gay. And they were stunned.
Patrick had returned home from his New Jersey paralegal job to attend his high school reunion, and with him came a 12-page letter for his family and friends. He wanted them to read it, then they would talk. In it, he explained that he was gay and how he came to that realization. It was angrier then, a bit of a love-me-or-leave-me tone to it.
“Shocked? Oh, yeah,” Mike says. “He asked, ‘Did you have any inklings?’ and we had visited him earlier that summer, and earlier something didn’t sit right, but it was some passing thing, so I’d have to say no, we had no inkling.
“We did a lot of crying that first night. . . . With the HIV virus and I teach health--not that it’s a gay disease--the first thing that comes to mind (is), he’s going to die before me. Then you feel sorry for yourself: He’d make a wonderful father and we won’t get to see all those things. . . . I told Patrick that night, ‘You are just gonna have to give me a couple days to deal with this.’ That’s how I dealt with my father dying, big situations.
“A few days later,” Mike says, “I gave him a hug, and that was it.”
Says mother Adrienne: “The thing that bothered Mike and I the most that night as we were crying and talking to one another was . . . OK, maybe I’m not sure with this gay thing, but we know he will face discrimination from the outside world, but at least with his family, we wanted him to feel that this was a secure haven.”
Patrick says that he never feared his family would abandon him. He was afraid they would be uncomfortable with him and the family, as it was, would never be the same.
“I always knew I was lucky in the sense that from day one, they supported me and asked questions,” Patrick, 26, said in a phone interview. “But for them to be so public about it and support me is really neat. When I hear of (gay) friends literally kicked out of their families, and it’s never even spoken about--they live with lovers 10 or 15 years and their parents never meet them--it’s pretty much a lie, even if they told their families.
“Because it’s literally a double life, and that’s not a family if you can’t share what you do on a daily basis, and your relationships. I know people who are very, very out in the sense that they’re very politically active, and yet their parents don’t know. It just shocks me.
“Before I even had a relationship,” Patrick adds, “I told my parents. It was weird. I never had a relationship or joined a (gay) community activity or did the bar scene, I just went home. And it felt like night and day after that, after telling them.”
The Henigans had an advantage in their ability to cope. In 1978, Adrienne’s brother had told their family that he was gay, and she was the one relative who accepted him. The Henigans spent much time with the brother, a successful real estate lawyer who had lived for 15 years in Santa Fe, N.M., with his mate and is “a wonderful man,” Mike says.
“It’s still not the same as your son or your daughter, of course, but there were a lot of issues we’d already worked out,” Mike says. “We knew (homosexuality) wasn’t something that you could change or think through. We believe that’s the way you are, the way you were born.”
Little did they know that more than a decade later, they would be facing off with hundreds of emotional parents who felt otherwise.
As it tends to on a close-knit campus, news swiftly reached the Henigans last fall that gay students and their friends were forming a support group. A month into their meetings, the 30 or so gay and straight members called the group the Fountain Valley High School Student Alliance, the first of its kind in Orange County.
Looking back, the Henigans say, they were still effectively in the closet about Patrick’s homosexuality. They’d told friends and family whose acceptance they were sure of--Patrick’s two sisters and brother have fiercely supported him--but they never felt the need to tell the world their son was gay.
And surely the students never thought to ask either of the Henigans for help.
“I don’t think they would have ever picked Mike,” Adrienne noted with amusement, “just because of stereotypes. Just like we stereotype a gay person, we stereotype macho types too. Like just a gay person can be sensitive, but supposedly macho types can’t be sensitive.”
But on their own, Mike and Adrienne quietly lent their moral support to individual gay students.
“We felt we weren’t able to help Patrick,” Adrienne says, “but if we could help one other kid who’s going through some lonely journey, we should. Even if it was one kid, we wanted them to know that they weren’t hated.”
Within days, the placid veneer at this campus of 2,500 students began cracking. A few youths calling themselves the Future Good Boys of America stuffed flyers into lockers urging students to ban the gay and lesbian support group and decry homosexuality as “deviant” and “queer.”
Senior Joe Khalil says he and some friends printed the flyers but insisted they were not gay-bashers. “It’s not prejudice,” he explained, “we just don’t want them around us.” He and his friends were worried their high school would be viewed as “a gay school.”
It was in this electric atmosphere that the Henigans went public, removing any lingering pretense faculty and community boosters may have held about their “straight” son.
With two weeks before Christmas, about 200 highly emotional parents, students and churchgoers crammed into the Huntington Beach Union High School District board chamber to debate whether the gay support group should be allowed to meet on campus. The Henigans read a gripping letter from Patrick, recalling his desperate feeling of aloneness and wish to end it by hurling himself onto the San Diego Freeway. The Henigans urged that the support group be allowed to meet on campus.
The board met again Jan. 11 and this time, 300 people spilled out into anterooms. Half of the crowd favored the alliance, citing an equal access law that allows any student group to meet on school grounds. Half of the crowd argued that educators would be accepting homosexuality by allowing a gay student group meeting. The alliance won.
“A lot of us don’t necessarily understand homosexuality, but I think it’s valuable to know that gay people are normal people,” says Mike, who was initially reluctant to share his family’s story because the student group deserved the attention.
“I think it’s good for people to know that Patrick is from a ‘good family,’ a supportive family, so what difference does it make. . . . We’re lucky, and it is not over yet. A lot of people are very, very upset that, as a teacher and a coach at Fountain Valley, that I’ve stood up for this group.”
Senior Robert Dodge, a member of the track team and former football player, and now a member of the Future Good Boys of America, is one of them.
Dodge vehemently opposes the gay students meeting on school property. After the school board ruled that the alliance could do just that, Dodge says his friend vowed to start the Beer Club “and I’m thinking of starting the Heterosexual Student Alliance. It is to make a point.”
Since then, Dodge says there has been no interest in the Heterosexual Alliance, so he is now starting the Bestiality Club, hoping to alarm parents into challenging the school board that defended its decision because the equal access law says all groups or none.
Dodge thinks the Henigans should not have spoken out as district employees.
“Personally, he’s a nice guy,” Dodge says of Mike Henigan. “I can understand him wanting to support his son and all but . . . he should be speaking as a father and not as an employee of the school.”
They were perhaps understandably well-chosen words about Mike the morning after the Future Good Boys’ stinging defeat at the volatile school board meeting. It was so tense and crowded that police had to monitor people leaving so that others could take their place.
Halfway through, Dodge says, he left the auditorium for a television interview and an officer refused to let him back in. It was Henigan who explained the unfairness of keeping Dodge out when he’d claimed his seat two hours before the meeting began. When the officer still refused Dodge, Henigan and others took it up with a supervisor, and Dodge was eventually allowed back in.
As parents of a gay son, Mike and Adrienne still have their adjustments cut out for them, of course, their awkward moments, their unanswered questions. When Patrick broke the news, he had not yet had a homosexual relationship.
“Patrick is living with a friend now,” Mike explains. “I said, ‘Now, do we call him your boyfriend? Or . . . what do we call him?’ He’s in a relationship with a young man. They came to visit us, spent two weeks with us, went to Las Vegas. So it’s real.
“Probably for me as a man . . . I have a hard time with heterosexual young boys or girls being openly affectionate in public. . . . So for me, seeing men holding hands with men, that’s a stage I’ll still have to go through--that still bothers me. But Adrienne’s brother, and Patrick and his friend, they haven’t been openly that way, so we haven’t had to deal with that.”
Still, Patrick says, his dad shows “in so many small ways” that he has accepted a gay son. Recently he mentioned that, perhaps next year, Patrick will have a boyfriend in the Henigan family portrait. His father also kidded him that he would tell people it was a nephew.
It has been easier to adjust, the Henigans admit candidly, because their son does not look or behave differently, that he is not feminine in appearance, that he does not suddenly seem like a stranger. That he is definitely “the same Patrick we’ve always known,” says his proud mother.
“After all the crying, worrying, fretting,” says Mike, “you see that your picture of what your son’s going to grow up and be is gone. You have to adjust it. Then after awhile, you realize you don’t have to adjust to it that much.
“We are not the perfect family . . . but we let our children be who they are.”