Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A gay son and his dad give thanks

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
updated 9:27 AM EST, Thu November 22, 2012
Paul Begala says one family's struggle to help their son accept his sexuality is a story of love, support that resonates at Thanksgiving.
Paul Begala says one family's struggle to help their son accept his sexuality is a story of love, support that resonates at Thanksgiving.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala says his friends have a terrific son, Joe; strong, intelligent, sensitive and also gay
  • This was no problem to his smart, loving parents; but at 13, Joe tried to kill himself, he says
  • He says the dad wrote a book about helping Joe through difficulties as he came out
  • Begala: It offers a good reminder at Thanksgiving, as families share love and acceptance

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- Every parent loves his or her child; it's the prime directive of the species. Twenty years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our first baby, Hillary Clinton told me that having a child is like taking your heart out of your body and letting it walk around.

For some parents, however, their beloved child takes their heart on a long, wild ride that careers from joyous and generous to dark and dangerous. So it was with John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon. Joseph, their third child, was a precocious reader, a super-sensitive old soul, fiercely defiant when he believed the teacher was too autocratic, hyper-quick on the trigger. Or, as his father put it, a squirrelly kid.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

He's also gay. Fabulously gay. From early childhood he preferred feather boas to football; pink shoes to playing soccer. No problem; his parents are enlightened, intelligent, educated, urbane and progressive. Their community in suburban New Jersey was welcoming and inclusive. Their rabbi is gay.

iReport: Who's at your Thanksgiving table?

And yet shortly after he came out of the closet at age 13, Joe attempted suicide.

In his new book, "Oddly Normal," Joseph's dad takes his readers through his family's years-long high-wire act: counselors and psychiatrists who tried to medicate their son; teachers who ranged from saintly to Nurse Ratched-like; thoughtful, caring professionals who struggled with a kid who didn't quite fit in the "normal" category, but whose peccadilloes and challenges also didn't fit within any of the prefab boxes. Joseph does not have Asperger's syndrome; he is not austic; he's not ADD or ADHD. He's just squirrelly.

And gay.

My take: 5 ways to raise thankful children

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A national reporter for the New York Times, Schwartz mixes his family's personal journey with solid reporting on controversies like whether we are over-medicating our children, whether gay teens really are more prone to suicide, nature versus nurture and more. He writes like the pro he is, but this is not some dispassionate account of the social science of the suburbs. This is open-soul surgery without anesthetic.

I have known and liked Schwartz and Mixon since college. They are smart and strong and loving. They need all of those attributes as they butt heads with educrats, shrinks and teachers as they fight for their bright, witty handful of a boy. Somehow -- maybe it's the journalistic training -- Schwartz is not harshly judgmental, even to Mr. Fourth Grade, a teacher who, he says, was especially harmful to Joseph.

Gay teen fights for Eagle Scout rank
Bullied gay teen uses stun gun at school
Dan Savage offends teens with Bible bash

The only time his sense of fairness and perspective abandons him is when he turns his truth-beam on himself: Why didn't he act on the warning signs that were obvious in hindsight? Because, of course, they were not obvious then, camouflaged by routine and shrouded in fog. Every parent feels that way. Few can express it as fearlessly as Schwartz.

"Oddly Normal" has a happy ending. Joseph himself provides a coda that will bring tears to your eyes. Schwartz's memoir is brave and beautiful, surprising and inspiring, a testament to parents' endless determination to help their children, and the bottomless capacity for love. It is by no means a How-To guide for raising a gay kid. It should be taken to heart by every parent.

Living: Navigating family and dinner table etiquette landmines

As Schwartz writes, "You don't have to be gay to understand that your own child might feel isolated, different. Alone on the planet. It's our job to love our little Martians whatever it is that makes them different."

As families gather for Thanksgiving, secrets and regrets are invariably on the menu. But so is love and acceptance -- especially in the best families, like the Schwartzes. Sure Uncle Walter will bloviate about his golf game, Aunt Claire will make catty comments about your weight, the cousins from California will be over-served. But I for one will thank God for family: the folks who fight for you when you're vulnerable, forgive you when you're wrong, and always, always love you -- even if you're a little squirrelly.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT