When Jay Forte asked his daughter to write about how she felt when he came out, he wasn’t sure what she’d say. They ended up writing an article together.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Jay Forte and his daughter, Kristin Forte Allaben.
I came out when my kids were 5, 4, and 1. My now ex-wife and I worked solidly for nearly two years with a counselor to determine what to do with this news—how to live, what to say to ourselves and others, and how to move on. We eventually decided that trying to suppress my true identity would create greater hardship for the family and would continue my deep and dangerous depressions; we decided to separate and divorce.
I share this only to give context for this article—to share my eldest daughter’s first-hand perspective of a family that had to make significant changes based on the lives and identities of the parents. Sometimes it’s divorce—parents drift apart or choose not to be together. Our situation was different; I was gay and behind a strong but fake exterior, was lost in every part of my life, a life others enviously watched from the outside. My constant struggle to feel normal and part of life the way our families shared life should be continually kept me feeling like the outcast, the troubled, and the confused. I was no kind of dad. I was no kind of husband. This type of challenge doesn’t just go away—you have to own it, deal with it, and move it to a safe and sane place. I knew that job was mine to do.
But here was the challenge: though this was my issue, it quickly became my family’s issue. Not only will they now become kids of divorced parents and whatever difficulty or stigma that creates, but they will be kids of a gay parent (more challenge). As it was hard for me to own my identity, it would be more difficult for my three daughters to accept and process having a gay dad and find some way to be okay with this as part of who they were.
The greatest thing I learned (spoiler alert) is that any issue can be successfully dealt with in a caring, loving, and supportive way. We all have our issues—many are about identity. Our loud world tells us what is and isn’t supposed to happen—and if you deviate, you are made to feel weird and different. We can’t help but feel this. Though a family may still have a profound love for each other, experiencing being different or having parents who are different, is no easy route for kids—at any age. But it is still life. My question is then how can we support them and be true to ourselves?
So I now pass the pen to my daughter Kristin who, now in her late 20s, has the courage to share her view of not only a family going through separation and divorce, but how she dealt with the additional challenge of learning of and living with the fact that her father is gay. Here is Kristin’s story …
I was six when my Dad left. I’ll never forget the day I came home—it was right after Halloween. My sisters and I were dropped off to go trick-or-treating with my Aunt and Uncle. I thought it was just something fun and new. My mom said something about a meeting. I don’t remember if my Dad said anything to us.
When we got home the next day, I remember one of my sisters running upstairs yelling, “Dad” along the way to let him know we were home and we had so many stories to tell (we were 6, 5, and nearly 2, so of course we had stories to tell. Life is an adventure for any kid, especially on Halloween). But he wasn’t there. And neither was his bureau. One of my sisters asked where Dad was. My Mom sat down on her bed and cried.
Oddly enough, though my Mom is not a crier—I’m as independent as I am because she is my role model—that’s not when I knew he wasn’t coming back. My Dad had this statue of a soldier with a feather in his cap. It was a weird thing he always had on his bureau when we were growing up and for some reason, I loved it. That’s how I knew he had left us—I couldn’t find the soldier. I looked everywhere for it—all the bedrooms in the house, the little office off my parent’s room, even the bathroom. It wasn’t there.
I admit I didn’t really understand what happened. I honestly didn’t even think to ask. He was there when we left for our Halloween adventure; he wasn’t there when we got home. Mom was clearly upset, but when you’re 6, you say “What’s wrong, mom?” and she says, “Nothing, sweetie,” and you say, “OK” and go find something to play with.
I don’t think of my parents as divorcees, but that’s probably because they were cordial to each other for a long time. We saw Dad almost every weekend. The weekend pick-up/drop-off just became the norm. We’d go with him to his office and use the typewriter or some vacant desk while he got some work done. We went shopping at the mall, we went swimming in the summer, we had dance parties and learned how to make delicious dinners like teriyaki chicken and homemade tortellini soup. We were just three girls with their Dad, doing fun things every weekend.
It only became abnormal when my sisters and I started going to school. Sure, gay parents, single parents, remarried-for-the-third-time parents may seem rather commonplace today, but nearly 25 years ago, it sure wasn’t. I don’t know about my sisters—we honestly didn’t talk about it much—but I started to feel it. Different. Uncommon. Weird.
I wondered if I did something to make Dad go, and I got upset. I wondered if it was something my sisters did, or my Mom. And I got mad. Really mad. I’m sure I acted out in some way that I’d find funny and horrifying now—but to me at the age of 6, it made sense. You did something to make Dad go, what the heck? I will put an entire pack of sticky notes all over your room. So there.
But that anger wasn’t just directed to my sisters or my Mom—there was some reserved for my Dad, too, along with deep feelings of confusion and hurt.
But who could I talk to about that? How do you even put those emotions into coherent thoughts when you’re such a kid? As I mentioned, my sisters and I rarely talked about the situation. That’s what it became—a situation. Something you tiptoed around because you didn’t want anyone to be more upset or angrier. You didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And you certainly didn’t want to take sides. Though my parents have started to talk to us as we’ve grown into three strong and independent women, I think there’s a big part of each of us that still feels like we’re on guard—afraid to say or do something that would imply we’ve taken someone’s side.
Looking back, I’m not saying this was the best way to introduce divorce, but I’m also not saying it was the worst. How do you tell young kids that Dad moved into a new house? That we’ll be seeing him on weekends and alternating holidays?
That’s a challenge in and of itself. But here’s a curveball—how do you tell those same young kids that Dad moved into a new house because he’s gay? That Mom and Dad aren’t together anymore because Dad is gay? How can you expect them to understand that it doesn’t mean Dad doesn’t love Mom, or us, but he needed to do this? That this was the right move for him? For everyone?
The answer: you don’t.
My parents chose to wait, until we were a little older. I think they did this because they hoped we would be able to understand it had nothing to do with us.
Ironically, I don’t remember how old I was. Apparently a bit older because I have an incredibly vivid memory of this night. My next younger sister and I were in the car, it was raining. He was bringing us home. Dad starting the conversation by saying, “Girls, I need to tell you something. I need to tell you why Mom and I aren’t together anymore.” I had a feeling he was going to say he was gay. I had an intense desire to tell him to stop talking to protect my sisters. Gay is very different. Gay is hard to explain. Gay is weird and bad.
But I couldn’t find my voice.
Dad told us. He cried. My sister cried. I cried. I cried because I had a feeling and he confirmed it. I cried for my Mom who never saw it coming and now she wasn’t married anymore. I cried for my Dad because this was hard for him on a number of levels. I cried for my sisters who I felt I needed to protect now—more so than before. And I would, fiercely.
Those feelings of being different, weird, unusual came back full force. These feelings were compounded when you added in the extended family on both sides—from aunts and uncles, to cousins and even grandparents. We knew everyone knew, and we saw how their behavior changed around us. This just added to our confusion. Each side handled the situation in their own way, and not to say that either side was wrong, just that the responses were different. And as young as we were, we noticed that difference, and that increased the impact—the awkwardness, the confusion, the questions.
I had a big secret now that I could never tell because no one would understand. People would look at my Dad weird. They’d look at my Mom differently. They’d treat my sisters poorly.
It wasn’t until late in my college years that I became OK telling people my Dad is gay. Honestly, one of my bridesmaids had no clue until I told her a few months before my wedding. That conversation was harder than I thought it was going to be. Not because my Dad is gay, but because she was furious I didn’t trust her with that information sooner.
That’s when I realized I kept this secret close to my heart because I was so worried about what other people thought—not necessarily what they thought about me, but what they’d think about my family. And I needed to protect all of them.
Years have gone by since that rainy car ride home. By now, my sisters affectionately refer to me as “the Warden,” a badge I’ve learned to wear with honor. My parents don’t talk much anymore—they’re civil when they need to be. I guess that’s to be expected. My sisters and I know we were pretty lucky to have divorced parents who still cared for each other and got along for as long as they did.
The honest truth? It’s not an easy discussion to have. It’s not an easy thing for any side to cope with. It’s, quite frankly, hard to understand. Dad fought his own battles with family and friends when he came out. Mom fought her own battles when the divorce was final. They are fantastic parents. They love my sisters and I deeply and I truly love them. They always looked out for us; they still do. But I wonder if some of that protection made this harder to deal with.
At the age of 29, I still don’t know if the way my parents told me about the divorce, about my Dad being gay, was the right way. I don’t know if telling us sooner would have been better—that being as young as we were, and hearing the truth immediately, would have lessened the burden. Would have erased the “situation.” Or if it would have magnified it.
But encouraging us to talk about it with them, with family members, with friends, even with a neutral third party, may have alleviated some of the hurt, confusion and burden I carried around. I can’t speak for my sisters because we never wanted it to seem like we were taking sides, but talking this out sooner may have made the entire situation a non-issue. And you know what? It’s OK to feel confused, to ask questions, and more importantly, to cry.