Talking Sense

‘Big hole in my heart’: How two siblings mended a rift after one came out

A person poses for a portrait
Anne Downs holds an old photo of her and her sibling Forest Clarke.
Rachel Mummey for MPR News

For Pride Month, MPR News is interviewing people about how the experience of coming out created a family rift — and how it was resolved. These conversations are part of our Talking Sense project, which helps Minnesotans have hard conversations, better.

Siblings Anne Downs and Forest Clarke grew up feeling like twins born two years apart. 

After their grandparents adopted them at an early age, Downs and Clarke clung even more tightly to each other. Clarke said when they were learning to speak, their big sister would often serve as translator for them.

“Somehow she knew what I meant,” Clarke said.

A person poses for a portrait
Forest Clarke at their house on on June 7 in Maple Grove, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

But a rift eventually grew between them. Downs found herself struggling to square her love of her brother with her religious and political views, which condemned homosexuality. 

“Forest would try to gently challenge me on some of those ideas and say, ‘You know, if you think some of those things, or if you’re saying some of those things, that’s about me,’” she recalled.

The once inseparable siblings stopped talking.

Clarke moved to the West Coast and spent time abroad to escape the painful family dynamic. 

“That was a big hole in my heart that I was constantly worried about,” Clarke said.

Downs struggled, too.

“Forest and I were like two halves of one whole,” she said. “This was the most painful separation I’ve ever experienced. I think it was worse than when our parents left.”

And then COVID-19 hit, creating an unexpected opening for their relationship. 

Downs, in Des Moines, Iowa, began texting her brother, checking in to make sure all was well in Minnesota. At the same time, Downs’ worldview expanded. She said it happened when her daughter was transitioning from years of homeschool to public school.

A person poses for a portrait
Anne Downs her house in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 5.
Rachel Mummey for MPR News

There, Downs’ daughter made a friend — a trans girl. Downs could no longer support her church’s anti-gay teachings.

“That doesn’t even feel Christian,” she said. “I don’t want my kids saying those hateful things to other kids.”

Downs eventually wrote Clarke a letter. In it, she said she wished she’d had the maturity and knowledge earlier in life to support her brother. 

“I can’t fix that. I can only say I’m sorry. And I love you,” Downs wrote. 

Living away from the Midwest and then settling into life in the Twin Cities, Clarke said the letter came at a good time. The intervening years had taught Clarke that perspective — even uncomfortable ones — can be helpful in rebuilding a relationship. Clarke observed how fellow progressive leftists could sometimes be intolerant.

“When I was living on the West Coast … it was just so pronouncedly progressive to the point where I know people felt scared to state other viewpoints if they are in certain spaces,” Clarke said.

Since Downs wrote Clarke that letter, they’ve spent time together in the Twin Cities. Their families have watched the siblings fall back into the same rhythms and jokes that defined their relationship as kids. 

“It was just that feeling when you can really relax, when you get around somebody that just knows you so well inside and out that you can just be who you are and it doesn't matter,” said Downs. “You don’t have to pretend anything.”

Having Downs back is like reuniting with a long-lost twin, said Clarke. 

“To be with this person who just knows the core of me and to have my partner see that really felt like starting to form the whole again instead of the half-life that I felt like I was living for such a long time,” said Clarke.

The two agree that others can learn from their reconciliation.

“My biggest piece of advice is don’t give up,” said Downs. “But also, people need to spend some time and do some introspection — really look to the inside at, ‘What am I doing that is contributing to the disharmony in our relationship or the disharmony in the conversation.’”

Clarke acknowledged that these conversations may not be feasible for some of their queer peers. But for Clarke, finding some point of commonality turned out to be key.

“Even if it’s buried,” Clarke said, “Even if it’s a little hard to hear, let’s build on that.”