The only hardships of growing up with a gay dad came from society, not from my wonderfully queer home.
My parents were divorced when I was 6 or so. It was the mid 1970’s, and, really, I didn’t think much of it. My parents were both cool people, though even as a child I could have told you that their interest in each other seemed little more than an intellectual occupation peppered with angst and the occasional argument. Our home was not an unhappy one, as far as I can remember. Their divorce, in my childish estimation, meant that I got two homes, two celebrations of all holidays, no longer had to go through the machinations of playing one parent against the other, and would generally be less bored, what with ever-changing scenery and all.
Also, not lost on me was the fact that my mother’s overwhelming (and utterly unfounded) guilt about the matter meant that we got Wonder Bread now, and that rocked. In my hippie youth, I spent far more time longing for Wonder Bread and Twinkies than worrying about my parents’ divorce.
In the mid 1970’s there would be little or no questioning that children belong with their mothers. As a matter of justice, the adult version of me finds that offensive on more levels than I can list here. But the child version of me just missed my dad.
My dad was awesome. (He still is, actually.) A big strong guy who would flip us around on his shoulders, he was an architecture professor and architect who would happily spend hours making things with us. He was silly, and would sing and dance. He was gentle and smart and always seemed willing to answer the endless barrage of “but why” that came out of our mouths.
Every now and then I wondered why we saw him as infrequently as we did, but I was a kid, I didn’t question it much. Eventually we moved to another state, and we saw even less of him, and I was aware of how sad that made me. But then, our time together would be concentrated goodness and I would forget the distance in the present, and time unwrapped as it does.
I had a best friend too. I was glad my dad had a best friend.
I had fuzzy ideas about what it meant when my mom got re-married; that they slept in the same room, and they were more than friends, they “LIKE liked” each other in a way that was special and different. I was a kid. My ideas around both “permanence” and “sexuality” were not clear enough to assign action items to what made my mom’s marriage different from any other long-term adult relationships. It would never have occurred to me to wonder about dad and Jack, though I did know that they slept in the same room when we had sleepovers. Just like my friends and I did. Just like my mom and her husband did. Whatever.
Not only was sex not really on my radar at that age, even the faintest notions of it still grossed me out. Even now, as an adult, a parent, and a sex-educator, I can fully grok that the idea of your parents having sex is just gross, so, no, I didn’t wonder much about Jack, because, eeewww, why would I?
I just knew that I loved being with Jack. He was a bright, steady, loving and generous being in my life. He loved roller coasters and knew the words to every song that was ever playing everywhere we went. Good enough for me.
Sometime in the 80’s I began being aware of my own sexuality, and that of the people around me. The 80’s were a weird time to have your sexual awakenings (not that it’s ever easy.) Once you start being aware of your own, you can’t help but pick up curious signals from everyone around you. So maybe I wondered about my dad now and then, but not too much. I still didn’t really care. Gay didn’t matter to me much. My dad did. And Jack did. That was still my steady reality.
But people would ask me if my dad remarried, and I would just say “no” and hope they didn’t ask why. I mean, I didn’t know why, but I was starting to wonder, and I didn’t want people to think I was weird. Gay parents weren’t a thing that was talked about in the 80’s. I can’t think of a single example. So, while having divorced parents didn’t make me feel strange, I didn’t even know how to process a gay parent. So I didn’t.
Until I started being really aware of the gay jokes. And let’s be clear, in the 80’s they were even worse than they are now, because there was NO social protection against the ignorant bigotry.
So I did a lot of mental explorations on the unwritten maps of bigotry. Looked at the legends of pink shirts and gelled hair, nope, my dad didn’t do that. He was all tweed jackets and ties, a professor, not a hair dresser. But Jack? Oh, well, ya, Jack did dress the part.
I became genuinely afraid that my dad was gay. Because that was bad, according to everything I was hearing. And if he was bad, well then, what was I? What would people think of me?
I opted not to talk about it to anyone. Not even him. It was better to pretend this wasn’t happening. To just drift away from it, perhaps even grateful of the thousands of miles that separated us. I loved my dad, and Jack, but didn’t want them to make me bad in some way.
I was scared to lose my dad. But if being gay was as bad as everyone said….
Then came AIDS. I was 13 or so, and AIDS was a thing that gay people had, they were all going to die from it, and as far as I could tell, we were all going to get it just by being around gay people. Is that ACTUALLY what was being said? No, of course not. (Well, actually, it kind of was.) If you lived through it when it first washed upon our psyche like a red tide of biblical proportions, that’s what it felt like.
And it was 1,000 times worse if you knew or loved a gay person. Or thought you did.
That nagging fear I had about losing my dad because he was gay became a white-hot panic. On the upside, I realized that I loved him no matter what and would rather have a gay dad than a dead dad. On the downside, I was terrified. Constantly. It was as real to me as I imagine it must be to find out that a parent has cancer, and is also a wanted criminal.
But I still didn’t know. We went back for a week-long visit, and I started seeing evidence of his gayness everywhere. The photos. The number of his friends who were obviously gay guys. The fact that one of them—a hairdresser who had put burgundy cellophanes in my hair on our last visit—had AIDS and was dying, seemingly before our eyes. And then there was the GSBA directory by his phone.
I was devastated. I was sure he’d be the next to die. And I loved him. And Jack. And I was filled with guilt that I was actually angry at him for being gay. It seemed so unfair to me.
It was more than my 13 year-old brain could process. I didn’t know how to reconcile a lifetime of this loving and caring and nurturing man with what I was being told about gay people by my friends and the media.
Looking back from my adult eyes, it is so clear that the pain of this period in my life had absolutely nothing to do with my dad being gay. It had everything to do with society’s shunning of homosexuality. I was being told that this man who has always been an example of how to be a man and a parent, who I knew was one of the best people I’d ever known, was somehow bad. And that by being around him bad things would happen to me as well. And that I was bad, something people would need and want to avoid. I felt ruined. Not by anything real, but by the dark void of fear and shame that others surrounded me with, however unintentionally. Gay was bad. My dad was gay. My dad was bad. He made me. I must be bad.
That chasm was more than I could process and my heart sank into it.
When I returned home, now a sophomore in high school, I was perpetually distracted. Images of dad and Jack and all the years of fun we’d had together were in my brain when I was supposed to be thinking about school. Images of friends dying of AIDS, and my dad dying of AIDS, of me getting AIDS from him, and giving it to other people, and people knowing that I did, and….
Until finally the uncertainty was more than I could take. I went to the office of the headmaster at the snotty private school that I attended, in tears. I told him that I had to call my dad. He asked why, and I said, “I think he might be gay, and dying.”
Hyperbole much? The headmaster smiled at me and took my hand, and gently said, “let’s call him.”
We called my dad. I asked, quite directly, “so, dad, you never remarried, and Jack, and, are you gay?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t you tell me” “I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know if it mattered. We were always happy.”
And it all melted away. All of it. It’s not that my dad was gay, it’s that I got to keep Jack, which seemed like quite a score. It didn’t matter what other people thought, we were happy. In what now seems like an ironic awareness, it was the utter stability, continuity and emotional support of their relationship that made their being gay seem like so much less of an issue. It’s not that everything was changing, it’s that nothing was. The fact, once known, changed absolutely nothing.
I asked him if he had AIDS. Nope. And he was very clear that he had no intention of getting it. And that it wasn’t that easy to get.
Which then led me on a research tangent, to the following conclusions:
1. My dad is awesome.
2. I love my dad.
3. My dad loves me.
4. Jack is awesome.
5. I love Jack.
6. Jack loves me.
7. I better learn all I can about safe sex.
8. Your parents having sex is gross, no matter how they do it, so why would I even bother thinking about that. Yup, still yucky.
That, right there, was the full extent of my coming to terms with my dad’s homosexuality. I was a sophomore in high school. In some ways, it played perfectly into my ingrained need to be iconoclastic. I had this thing that no one else I knew had. A gay dad. It was also a great vetting tool and defense mechanism: If you can’t hang with my gay dad, I don’t need you in my life.
Years later, I look back at the gift of having a gay dad as a decided privilege and advantage in my life.
Most of the parenting lessons I got from my dad have not one damned thing to do with his sexuality. He taught me patience, he taught me how to accept people for who they are, he taught me to be kind, he taught me to do what is right even when it’s hard, he taught me that relationships matter more than things. He taught me so many things that it would be dumb to try and list them.
But his being gay taught me a lot too.
First and foremost, while I will fight tirelessly for people’s right to love who and how they want to, the details of it are none of my business and I really don’t want to think about it. I am who I am because I was raised by a gay man and spent years internalizing shame and fear, and I know what that feels like. It became my life’s mission to try and create a world in which no one feels that, ever. How many of us are lucky enough to have our life’s calling handed to us like that?
But I also learned that “family” is thing that we make, and we choose. And we choose it with love. (When my infant daughter was sick in the hospital, and Jack drove 3 hours to get there, arriving after visiting hours were over, and I yelled at the nurse, “that man is my baby’s grandmother and you need to let him in,” I think she learned a little something about family too.)
It comes as no surprise, looking back, that I am married to a man who was raised by a lesbian. And that before we met, he made a family of his own with a lesbian couple.
You want a modern family? I’ll show you a modern family. And as much as I love the total queerness of our family, the thing I love even more is that all the divorces that made our family this way didn’t divide us, they just made us bigger. When we have a family dinner, my ex-husband is there, my mother, his father….. There are a lot of us.
I hear the talk, still. Divorce is bad for kids. Gay parents are bad for kids. And I want to yell and scream. NO!!!!!!
My parent’s divorce didn’t harm me. It taught me that we have a right to be in happy and fulfilling relationships. That relationships can change and evolve without being mean and bitter and hurtful. My dad being gay didn’t harm me. It showed me that our ability to love knows no boundaries, and that family is what we choose.
Jack was still in the family portrait taken at my wedding this summer. As was my mom and her husband. My husband’s father was there, along with his mother and her longtime girlfriend. The daughters we share with their two mothers. We were all there.
Because we are a family. We might be the most Normal Rockwell family I know. Gay parents and all.
Our daughters are all growing up with many friends who have gay parents. In our circle of friends, we have many gay couples who are having babies, and there is no difference between the gifts and giggles we share with them, just like any other family. In their world, there is nothing remarkable about gay people raising kids. Which is awesome.
There’s also nothing remarkable to them about a black man being president.
I can only wonder how wonderful that must be for them. All those years of pain I had growing up aren’t even possible in their world.
I am so hopeful for our future.
* “Jack” is not his real name.