Home / Motherhood / ‘Return the key’: the parents who reject their gay children

‘Return the key’: the parents who reject their gay children

Chris Jewell was in tears after a big, intense fight with his boyfriend of five years. So big, the police were called.

Highly distressed, he phoned someone with whom his relationship had become strained: his mum.

He rarely asked her for anything and was always well behaved; the first in his family to attend university. “My older brother was the wild child – in and out of prison, including for armed robbery,” he says. “So I never gave my parents more trouble than they needed. I always got good grades. I was the golden boy.”

Things had become distant when Chris, then 28, felt he couldn’t be himself around his parents. But on this occasion, he just really needed his mum, Yvonne.

On the phone, his voice shaking from the distress, he said: “Mum, I’m really upset. I just need to talk to you. I’ve just had a massive fight with Brendan …”

His mum interrupted, suggesting he simply get a new roommate.

“Mum,” Chris said. “Brendan’s not my roommate. He’s my partner.”

With that, she hung up.

“I was devastated,” he says. “I was already traumatised by what had just happened. I felt completely alone.”

The next day Yvonne requested her son meet her at a cafe. Rather than the hug, the reassurance he needed, she said words that burn into Chris to this day.

“You’ve chosen a very difficult life Chris,” she said. “You’ll be very lonely. You’ll have no friends. And your health is at risk.”

And with that, she requested he return to her the key to the family home.

Chris Jewell was in disbelief the day his mum requested he meet her at a cafe to return his key to the family home. Photograph: Gary Nunn

As he removed the key from its keyring and slid it across the table, in disbelief, Chris said: “One day, on your deathbed, your one regret will be you disowned the son who does all the right things, awaiting an armageddon that never came.”

That was in 2004. Yvonne took the key. And they barely spoke for 12 years.

‘I don’t have parents. That’s how I feel’

The armageddon refers to his mum’s strong Jehovah’s Witness beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexuality. It had been drilled into him from childhood – when he’d been banned from celebrating birthdays or Christmas, banned from having friends outside the faith and sent door to door in Toowoomba to preach biblical messages: men who lie with men shan’t inherit God’s kingdom. “I was lonely and depressed,” he says. “I prayed constantly to God to ease those crushing feelings. He didn’t.”

The hiatus ended with the 2017 Australian reality TV show Bride and Prejudice, in which a newly hopeful Chris revealed to his parents he had met the love of his life, Grant. On national TV, he asked if they would attend the wedding, which would happen in Grant’s native Florida. Australian marriage equality had not yet been achieved.

In possibly one of the most chilling pieces of Australian TV ever recorded, his parents refused to attend his wedding. When a calm Chris tries reasoning with them, asking if they’ll at least meet his fiancé Grant, his mum says: “No we really don’t want any part of that. And we’d like you to respect that.”

The camera pans in on Chris in the immediate aftermath of their disowning. Fighting back tears he eventually says: “I don’t have parents. That’s how I feel.”

The fallout was seismic. The clip of their refusal went viral. To this day, three years on, Chris, now 42, receives messages about it, 99% of which are supportive of him.

But his parents received different messages. “They had a listed number,” Chris says. “People found them and were leaving death threats.” He started reading comments below articles about the episode. “I remember one said about my mum, ‘this has to be one of the most hated parents in Australia.’”

Chris, sadly, isn’t alone in his story of parental rejection.

The facade of equality

At the time I interviewed him, a Brazilian mother who killed her teenage son for being gay is sentenced to 25 years in prison. Tatiana Ferreira Lozano Pereira hired two hitmen who beat, but refused to kill her son, so she stabbed him to death herself with a kitchen knife. She and her husband then took his body to a cane field and set it on fire. His remains were found a week later.

Even in countries with same-sex marriage, the facade of equality is exploded. At the end of last year, YouGov polling for British charity the Albert Kennedy Trust found that a quarter of adults would not be proud if their child came out. One in 10 would feel uncomfortable living at home with their child if they came out as LGBT.

Celebrity stories of heartbreaking parental rejection are also emerging.

In November, the American author and producer Robyn Crawford released a book confirming she had had a romantic relationship with Whitney Houston – but had to abandon it out of fear of the repercussions from Houston’s mother.

Asked by Oprah Winfrey if it would have bothered her if her daughter was gay, Cissy Houston said “Absolutely.” Shocked, Winfrey clarifies: you would not have liked that?

“Not at all” is Cissy’s retort, fired back barely before the question has concluded.

Actor Miriam Margolyes told the Australian Women’s Weekly of her own experiences in 2018: “For my deeply conventional parents to have a lesbian daughter would’ve been a nightmare … I told my mother and it totally upset her. She told my father and they were horrified and appalled.”

Actor Miriam Margolyes says she ‘agonised’ over the decision to tell her parents she was a lesbian. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

“I agonised over it because my natural way was to tell her everything. I regret that I told her because she was somebody who couldn’t receive that news … three days later, she had a stroke. I think that’s why she had the stroke and that coloured the whole of our lives until she died seven years later.”

Miriam cared for her mother until her death.

The filial ties, even under the circumstances of rejection, remain strong.

‘A big step forward’

Such was the case with Chris, whose mother Yvonne was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year.

They hadn’t spoken since 2017’s Bride and Prejudice. “I was still resentful,” Chris admits. “But I went to Queensland to see her.”

Once there, Yvonne invited him to take any family photos he wanted. “Those photos suddenly stop when I’m 18.”

His bedridden mother asked him for a hug, telling him she loved him. Chris refused. “I wasn’t ready,” he says. “Now I think that was a real arsehole move. The woman was dying. I probably could have done that. I feel bad about that.”

Yvonne died days later, 10 minutes before her son arrived on a second trip back to the family’s Sunshine Coast home from Sydney, where he now lives.

She found the community she craved. Just as I found mine.

Chris Jewell

Today, Chris is keen to convey the complexity of the woman dubbed Australia’s most hated parent.

Yvonne grew up in a single parent family and her mother had a series of partners. One of those partners abused Yvonne, then 15. “My grandmother sent her to a convent,” Chris says. “To protect her by getting her away from him.”

Some “wild child” teenage years followed, culminating in a pregnancy aged 17. “She even worked in Brisbane’s gay bar,” Chris says. “She found the Jehovah’s Witness Church because her life was out of control.”

“She found the community she craved. Just as I found mine.”

Since Yvonne’s death in August, something surprising has happened.

“Strangely it’s brought our family closer together,” Chris says. “Mum was such a matriarch – it was her way or the highway.”

“When she was sick, I was up there for two weeks, and me and dad sat there every night drinking and just talking. We’d never done that.”

Chris, who has remained stoic throughout the interview, has paused. As I look up, I see tears flowing down his face and he’s almost too choked to get the next words out.

Then he does.

“At her funeral, they listed her immediate family and they included my husband, Grant.”

“Then dad gave Grant a big hug,” he says, taking a deep breath, “and he said: ‘Grant, thanks for looking after my son.’”

“It was such a big step forward.”

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78