Wednesday, Jan 08 2014 04:14 PM

Coming out, coming to grips

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    By Zuma Press

    As the breakout star of the trailblazing all-girl rock band The Go-Go’s, Belinda Carlisle came of age in the open, anything-goes Los Angeles music scene of the 1980s.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

On some level, Belinda Carlisle always knew her son was gay. As a child he begged not for action figures but Disney princess dresses and then, as a young teen, he threw an on-the-floor-kicking-and-screaming tantrum when his parents told him they'd have to postpone taking him to see "Brokeback Mountain," the acclaimed 2005 film chronicling the love affair of two cowboys.

But there's knowing and knowing, as the singer-actress would discover several years ago when her son was 14.

Related Info

Belinda Carlisle in Bakersfield

What: Performer Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer of The Go-Go's, and her son, James Duke Mason, will discuss their family's journey to acceptance after he came out as gay

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: First Congregational Church, 5 Real Road

Admission: Free

PFLAG in Bakersfield

PFLAG is an advocacy and education group that campaigns for equality while offering support to gay people and their families. The local chapter has about 30 to 40 dues-paying members, said Vice President Robert Petersen.

Annual dues are $25, or $40 for families.

As a gay man himself, Petersen has witnessed growth and acceptance over the years in Bakersfield, where he has lived most of his life. He counts several organizations in town that support gay people, particularly the young.

"Thirty years ago in the newspaper, they used to have a section where organizations would put in different hotlines and there were two for the gay and lesbian community. The first one I called was an evangelical pray-the-gay-out-of-you group. The second one was just a hotline where you could talk to someone. I just wanted to talk to other gay people, and there was none of that for the youth then. But those resources are out there now."

For more information on the local chapter, look for Bakersfield PFLAG on Facebook or call 632-2510.

PFLAG IN BAKERSFIELD

"We were driving along and he said, with his lips quivering, 'Mom, I have something to tell you,'" said Carlisle in a phone interview Tuesday.

"And I said, 'You have to tell me.' And he said, 'OK, I like boys.' I had to pull over to the side of the road."

Part of Carlisle's surprise was her own reaction to the news. As the breakout star of the trailblazing all-girl rock band The Go-Go's, she came of age in the open, anything-goes Los Angeles music scene of the 1980s: "Ninety percent of my friends are gay and lesbian, and I'm very gay friendly."

But all that races through a mother's mind when her child comes out, Carlisle said, are the unknowns.

"What kind of world would he face? It's hard enough to be a straight person, let alone a gay person."

The journey to acceptance in her own family is the subject of an informal conversation Carlisle and her son, James Duke Mason, will have Thursday before an audience at First Congregational Church of Bakersfield. The discussion is free to attend, and all are welcome.

Robert Petersen, vice president of the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- or PFLAG -- contacted Mason about coming to Bakersfield after seeing a video on YouTube of him and his mother discussing their feelings years after his revelation.

"I found him on Facebook and invited him and his mom to speak in 2011," said Petersen, 47. He said he'd love to and was sure his mom would love to, but he got busy and she went on tour with The Go-Go's and then solo, and this is the date she could finally commit to."

Carlisle, 55, who fronted one of the most popular all-female bands in rock history, is no stranger to firsts, and she will claim another in Bakersfield Thursday: She and her son have never spoken about the topic in front of an audience before.

"The reason (for the appearance) is that PFLAG is such a great organization. Bakersfield being outside of the L.A. area, there could be a lot of people there needing help," said Carlisle, whose parents live in Tehachapi.

"If my son and myself talking about it could help people, we have to do it."

PFLAG was instrumental in helping Carlisle's son, now 22, broach the subject of his sexuality with her.

"He was on the phone with (PFLAG), trying to figure out how to tell his parents, and they were supportive. I think they told him, 'Tell your mother instead of your father.'"

Good advice, as it turned out, for while Carlisle said her husband, too, is "gay friendly," the road to acceptance was a long one, fraught with denial and arguments.

In fact, she waited two months to tell him, disregarding her therapist's advice that she and her son -- the couple's only child -- should deliver the news together.

"I didn't like having a secret from him," said Carlisle of Morgan Mason, her husband of more than 25 years (and son of the late actor James Mason).

"I was carrying a big burden. For a lot of men, a son defines your masculinity. I didn't know how to tell him. That's a pretty heavy thing.

"He started laughing and said, 'You're kidding.' And then he thought maybe it was just a phase. It took him a good year to come to terms with it, to be honest."

After being forced into the position of go-between, Carlisle eventually told her husband and son they had to figure out their relationship themselves.

"I knew eventually it would settle down," Carlisle said, "and it did. My husband is very supportive and very cool."

Though Carlisle and her husband -- who split their time between homes in the States and France -- aren't activists, per se, their son is.

He and his mother talk a lot about how gay people are depicted in the media and whether celebrities have an obligation to come out.

"There still is a lot of homophobia and stereotypes," Carlisle said.

"When they show the gay parade on the news, they show the biggest freaks, and I love freaks, but that isn't a great representation of gay people.

"A lot of famous people coming out is helpful. My son thinks it's a famous gay person's responsibility to come out, but I'm of the old school. If people don't come out, they have their reasons."

Peterson anticipates that the lure of Carlisle's celebrity and her family's compelling story should pack the church hall Thursday. Friends from as far as San Francisco are expected, and he's heard that the executive director of the national organization is planning to fly in from Washington.

"A lot of people are concentrating on the numbers, and I don't want to do that," Petersen said. "It doesn't matter if five people show up. What matters is that the people who do need to be there are there, and hopefully she can bring that."

Carlisle looks forward to the freewheeling discussion and hopes she leaves the audience with the same message her son imparted to her on that revelatory car ride years ago:

"He started to cry and said, 'My sexuality doesn't define me,' and I said, 'You're right. It absolutely doesn't.'"

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