Ade meant to tell his father the truth before he fell ill. His dad never recovered and now Ade finds he sacrificed his authenticity for the promise of a temporary connection. Here are his thoughts and feelings.
I never got to tell my father that I was gay. It does not sound that much of a big deal when I say this out loud, or even as I write it out now. However, when I allow myself to delve deeper, I reconnect with what lies at the heart of that statement —“I never got to wholeheartedly show up in my relationship with my father”.
The closest I came to having a conversation with him about my sexuality happened a few months before his death. My father, who was hardly ever ill, had suddenly come down with a mysterious illness and had been admitted to hospital in Lagos (Nigeria). I lived in London, so all I could do was rely on periodic updates on his condition from my mother and other family members.
Late one evening, I was on the phone with a family friend talking about my father. Our conversation soon moved onto the subject of marriage. I was 26 and had gradually started to come to terms with being gay, after many years of praying and hoping that it was just a phase. She gently informed me that I was not getting any younger and that I needed to settle down with a —“nice woman” soon. I had never had a conversation with this family friend about being gay, but I knew that she knew; particularly as she had never known me to have a girlfriend. I told her that marriage was not for me, and that I going to tell my father about the true me – I did not use the word ‘gay’; that felt too uncomfortable and scary. I searched for words and descriptors that indicated I was not like other boys.
Without missing a beat, she responded with —“you cannot do that, it will kill him”. I did not challenge the statement, her opinion sounded very rational and made sense. —“Why rock the boat?” I thought, —“I’ll tell him some other time, when he gets better”.
Sadly, my father did not get better and a few months after that conversation he passed away. My secret and shame remained in tact.
In the months after his death, the one thing I found myself replaying and regretting was that I never got to share my truth with my father. I had been preoccupied with trying to be the son that I felt he would like me to be – career focused and successful – that by the time he passed away on 27th January 1995, I was completely out of touch with the person I authentically was.
With the passing of my father, I vowed not to repeat that same scenario with my mother. The first conversation I had with her about my sexuality happened about a year after my father died. It was heated, raw and painful. She quoted verses from the bible, through her tears, telling me that what I was doing was a sin. She told me that being gay was not part of our culture and was something —“white people did”. At some point during the intense conversation she shouted —“Thank God your father is dead!”. Those words crushed my heart, as I once again felt this deep sadness and regret that he had never gotten to know the ‘real me’ – or had he?
My sexuality had always been the elephant in the room when it came to my parents. I had been so caught up in hiding and pretending not to be gay that I never paid much attention to what clues I was leaving behind. It turns out that my father had simply never asked me about it, and I had never told.
The first happened shortly after I relocated from Nigeria to London in 1989. I was 21 and feeling so liberated to have left home. London was going to be that place where I could finally be myself; that turned out not to be the true, I simply brought the closet of shame with me and remained firmly in it. My mother had come to visit and one afternoon during a heated telling-off from her, she looked me dead in the eye and said —‘so I hear that you are now following men around’.
I froze. Even though I’d never been with a man at that point, I knew I was gay; but how did she know? I pretended not to know what she was talking about and asked what she meant. She told me that when my father had visited me in London the year before, my uncle who I had been living with, had told him that I did not have a girlfriend and that there was —‘this boy’ who had been calling me regularly. Nothing had happened with the boy in question – I had been to0 scared to let anything other that late night conversations happen.
In that moment, I felt such anger and disappointment towards my father. We had spent weeks together that summer, in the same apartment, and he never had a conversation with me about this ‘boy who had been calling me regularly’. Instead, he had travelled back to Nigeria and reported the situation to my mother.
I came to learn from my mother that my uncle had invited my father to speak to me about what might be going on with —‘the boy’ and somehow that conversation did not happen. I had numerous conversations with my father during his summer vacation that year. I had spent my teens craving for connection with him, but he was always distant. After awhile I gave up chasing him and settled for a relationship where we only talked about how my education was going. Learning that my father had held back from talking to me about the boy undid the connection we had built that summer and I simply went back into my cage of silence
The second realization that my father did know came a few days after my mother shouted — “Thank God your father is dead”. I was curious to know whether she or my father had suspected that I was gay before I left home, and asked the question. In addition to her recounting the incident about ‘the boy’, she said that after I had left Nigeria for London, my father had been clearing my books from one of my bookcases to make room for some extra storage. During that process, he had come across a gay themed novel.
He waived it at my mother, saying —‘you need to speak to your son’. My mother never did ask me about the book, until that coming out moment – almost 10 years later. And my father had never asked or indicated that he knew about the book.
My final conversation with my father happened a month before he had fallen ill. He had taken to calling me weekly and I remember always being so guarded during those calls. I’d ask him a lot of questions, and deflect any he asked me. In my mind I kept hearing —“if he knows who I am, he will stop calling”. I had gotten used to his calls that I felt I’d rather have an inauthentic connection, than no connection. There was so much I wanted to say during that final call, not just about being gay. I wanted to let him know I was struggling at Law School, but that voice kept saying —“you can’t let him down, otherwise he will stop calling”. And so, I simply bit my tongue and saved those conversations for another day.
It is now 20 years since my father passed away. I always find myself remembering and longing for him on the anniversary of his death and on Father’s day. I find myself reimagining what could have happened, if only I had had the courage to show up and allow him to see me.
Although I never did get to wholeheartedly show up in my relationship with my father, he continues to be instrumental in my ongoing journey of coming out as a gay man. I came to learn, through his death, that I could not wait for life to be safe and perfect before going out to pursue my dreams and live the fullest expression of my life.