What’s the Truth Behind the Viral Post About a Gay Christian Teen?

No one, it seems, knows whether a heartwarming email about gay tolerance is true. Jesse Singal asks whether it matters.

On its face, the story is heartwarming and memorable: Dan Pearce, a well-known “daddy blogger,” posted an entry last November to his site Single Dad Laughing titled “I’m Christian, Unless You’re Gay.” It was his call for tolerance based on a conversation he said he had with his 27-year-old gay friend Jacob. The post exploded, yielding dazzling numbers.

Last Monday, Pearce published an email he said he received from someone calling herself “One proud mom.” Her teenage son, OPM wrote, had been given a homework assignment to write an essay in response to Pearce’s blog post.

OPM’s email, which Pearce posted under the title “A Teen’s Brave Response to ‘I’m Christian, Unless You’re Gay,’” told a powerful story of a closeted teenager coming out to his mother. It quickly went mega-viral, garnering more than 3,000 comments, nearly 200,000 Facebook likes, and millions of hits as of Thursday afternoon, according to Pearce.

The only problem is, no one knows whether the email is real.

In it, OPM told Pearce what happened with her son: “He came home and showed me your article and asked me what I thought about it,” she wrote. “I read just the title and became furious at his teacher and at you (even though I know you had nothing to do with her handing out the assignment). Anyway, I confiscated it from him and told him he wasn’t to do anything with it till I had a chance to read it first.”

This spawned a fight, OPM said, after which her son stormed off to a friend’s house, wrote his essay, and emailed it to her.

She pasted the essay into her message to Pearce. It began: “I am gay and only my one friend knows so far. My mom doesn’t know yet. My dad doesn’t know yet. You didn’t know it when you gave us this homework. I am only 15 years old and I have never felt so alone. My mom and dad always are being angry about gay people and talking about how they are bad and going to hell and they also always talk about how all the gays should be shipped off to their own private island or something so that the rest of us could live God’s commandments in peace.”

The young man then went on to write about the painful difficulty of being a gay teen in a conservative household, and about his thoughts of suicide. He finished with an inspiring expression of hope for acceptance and tolerance: “Tonight I am going to send this to my mom and see what she says I guess. I don’t know what will happen but I know that I deserve to be loved just like everybody else does I just hope she thinks so too.”

OPM read the essay, she wrote to Pearce, and had a sudden change of heart.

“I started crying and couldn’t stop for the longest time,” she wrote. “I don’t know why I was crying exactly, just so many emotions came over me. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. I finally stopped and went and read your article once more only this time I tried to read it through my son’s eyes and the whole thing was so different than it was a couple hours before. By the time I finished I felt as big as an ant and I realized just how much hatred I have in my heart toward others.”

And finally: “You see, Mr. Pearce, you are right. It’s not about what other people do. It’s about whether or not we are loving them. Nothing else matters at all. And it took all of this for that to finally sink in.”

The post rocketed around the Internet, primarily via social networking sites and writeups in places such as Salon, Towleroad (which called it a “must-read post”) and Queerty. Commenters raved.

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But while I am sympathetic to the plight of closeted gay teens, I have to admit that I didn’t share the Internet’s enthusiasm here.

My first instinct: bullshit. The whole thing just read too clean, too easy. Are we really to believe that a woman with deeply-held ultra-conservative Christian beliefs (she wanted the gays shipped off to their own private island!) found out her son was gay, read a single blog post by a tolerant author, and voila? It took her less time to see the light than it would’ve to watch a couple reruns of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Plus, the writing is rejected-Hollywood-script cheesy—“a change is starting to happen around here and it’s because one teenage boy finally had the courage to stand against what he felt was wrong.” And OPM often comes across more as a caricature of a religious conservative than as a real one. “I got madder and madder as I read it as I felt like it was a direct attack against our beliefs and our Christian religion and that it was promoting homosexuality, a practice that around here is a huge ‘sin,’” she wrote, before explaining that she gave her son “an earful about homosexuality and God.”

The son’s story doesn’t ring true either: “So I got madder and madder and madder [note the similar phrasing to OPM’s email] and then I snuck out and came to my friends house to write this essay because its time to stop letting people’s hate stop me from being happy. I mean should I really have to hate my life and want to die because other people are so hating?”

Obviously, it’s possible this is all real. But I’m not the only one who is wondering about its authenticity.

I called Pearce and asked him to put me in touch with OPM and her son (on the blog, the son is represented by a stock photo of a blue-eyed, shaggy-haired teen). Pearce told me that would be impossible: The note was sent anonymously to his blog’s contact page, and he said his contact-form software doesn’t capture IP addresses.

Okay, but did he think it was real?

“I can’t speak to the veracity of what she wrote,” he said. “You know, it seemed legit to me when I posted it.”

But since then, he said, some people have pointed out to him that “the voice of the mom and the son kind of seem the same,” and he has begun to have a “little nagging doubt that maybe I got duped.

“I just have no way to verify, and it is frustrating to me that it was some anonymous person. But I get a lot of anonymous emails so I didn’t really think twice about it when I got it.”

Still, Pearce said, he’s not sure it matters whether or not it was true. “I’ve been thinking about that for the past couple days, you know. And I think the message doesn’t matter if it’s true.” (Paging Mike Daisey!)

“Obviously I don’t want to post anything on my blog that isn’t true, and I wouldn’t have posted anything had I had any suspicion that it’s false,” Pearce said. “The message is true regardless.”

Pearce said he frequently gets emails that seem made-up from people hoping to get published on his blog all the time, but that he believed this one.

“I liked this one because it kind of showed a progression in her attitude that she was very honest about, the way she was feeling before beforehand, and her bigotry and her hatred. She was honest about her anger and how she was driving it into her son, which to me meant that she actually got it.”

I asked my friend Jim (not his real name) what he thought of the post. He shared my skepticism.

“It just seemed too easy,” he said. Jim should know. He engaged in a decade-plus battle of attrition, starting at age 15 or so, to get his mother to accept that he was gay. She simply didn’t want to believe it. She once insisted that he had to be straight because when he was a boy, he had gotten in trouble for chasing girls around the playground and trying to kiss their hair.

It was only last year that Jim’s mom finally began to accept that he was gay, and that’s partly why he doubted OPM’s account.

“Everything just lined up too perfectly. And it just seemed to fall so neatly into this expected story of redemption,” he said. “If it’s true, that’s awesome. But this would be the type of story you would make up were you trying to make up a story. It’s almost like a Lifetime movie.”

I finally asked Pearce point-blank if he made up the post; he laughed and denied it. And over the phone, at least, he did sound thoughtful and open to these difficult questions. But whatever the email’s origins, it’s telling that so successful a blog post would have such a compelling wish-fulfillment component.

We all want people to be convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of our positions. Those of us who support gay rights want intolerant parents to have an epiphany like OPM claimed to have, to let go of their prejudices and love their sons and daughters without condition. Things don’t generally work like that. But still we cling to these sorts of stories when we hear them, and enthusiastically pass them onto our friends without thinking about whether they’ve literally happened.

Maybe it’s harmless in this case. Maybe OPM’s story should be seen more as a parable, a composite of other such stories, than as one person’s actual experience. And maybe a closeted gay teen somewhere saw this story and now has a potent psychological weapon in the brutal fights he or she faces daily.

But what happens when we lose our ability (and perhaps our desire) to distinguish between true stories and stories that feel true?

In the course of reporting last week on the many conflicting stories swirling around the Trayvon Martin shooting, I received an email from Princeton psychologist Danny Oppenheimer, who wrote, “When it comes to deciding what we believe is true, whether or not it’s actually true isn’t nearly as important as whether we want to believe it.”

And when it comes to “One Proud Mom” and her courageous son, the temptation to believe is pretty overpowering.