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 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT