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Fathers take on different roles through the course of our lives, but the course isn’t always clean and smooth. There are few examples of father/son relationships so commonly known to be troubled as those between a straight father and his gay son.
I admit, I fall into that stereotype—a gay man with an unsettled relationship with my father.
Growing up, my father was around—not physically absent like some experience— but I always felt an acute sense of rejection and abandonment. I have always felt opposed to him, because I sensed that he didn’t know what to do about me not being like the son I thought he wanted. Perhaps that was my own insecurity.
But a person’s behaviour tells stories.
When I was younger, my parents thought I displayed too much fear of other people. Not knowing exactly where this fear grew from, and having grown tired of chastising and lecturing me for it, they decided to send me to Karate classes. I think they hoped I would strengthen up, toughen up, and therefore not be so terrified anymore.
I have been told that I have an expressive face that shows exactly what I am feeling at any moment in time. I imagine during that time my face must have shown a constant grimace of silent terror that grew more pronounced when surrounded by other boys my age. My parents probably thought I was being bullied and thus needed to know how to defend myself.
They had no clue that my fear was also a reaction to them. And so, they sent me to learn how to kick and punch.
The sensei was a good man, passionate about the sport and with a friendly personality. The mentors, too, were kind but strict and willing to teach with patience. Still, I grew to hate Karate class and therefore Karate itself exactly because of its intended purpose in my life. As someone who lived for Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Lee movies—where martial art actors displayed their skills and defeated the bad guys with creativity and generations-old techniques—I lost that love during the time I was a martial arts student.
Those movies made me feel powerful. I would re-enact the choreography, running around the lawn pretending to fight off thieves in the night. I loved copying the stances and feeling tired after sparring with the wind for an hour. But somehow, every time I went to Karate class I felt weak and pathetic for attending the class because it remind me of why I was going.
One morning, when I was in a particularly bad mood, all my frustration about attending Karate classes finally spewed out. In a move completely out of character, I instigated an argument with my father. He commented—with fury—about how I was bad-tempered every time I had to go. With equal fury, he asked if I wanted him to cancel the lessons. I shouted back directly, “Yes!” Suddenly he quieted, almost like he shut down. He then said I would attend one final lesson. And then, no more.
We drove to the class in silence. After he dropped me off and was ready to drive off, I remember looking back at him.
My father had this defeated look on his face, like something had crashed inside him. I couldn’t help but feel like I was the reason.
That was the day I realized he didn’t know what he was doing and could never parent me properly. I felt like I was too far outside his scope of reality.
Not long after, I happened to overhear a conversation between my parents that confirmed those very feelings. As they talked, they considered the possibility that I was gay. I remember them going silent for a long while after this was said aloud. It was one of the most isolating experiences in my life. in my mind, with that silence, I had failed my father in his idea of a good son. I silently walked away and cried myself into an afternoon nap.
That silent pause—so lifeless—would become the space that separated my parents from my heart for many years.
Every son wants a strong, intelligent, concerned, kind and gracious father, a peace-inducing man who uses his strength, grace and concern to keep you safe and sheltered. A man who uses his expansive intelligence and wisdom to guide your development and teach you about everything in the universe you could ever want to know—how to walk, how to talk, how to dress, how to shave, how to talk to people, the names of stars, the meaning of random long words, how to land that job interview, how to ride a horse, how to manage money and time, how to be a good friend, husband and man.
Everything will be sorted out by this deity of a man who is great and untamed like wild fire but beautiful and graceful in his gentleness like the breeze on a grassland that gently bows and sways the long-ripe grass.
Many men, especially gay men, grow up feeling a disconnect from their fathers—a disconnect that feeds on the silence caused by one person too afraid to say anything and the other too ashamed.
But I was a boy, what did I know of what emotional contention my father was feeling? Did he feel weak because he saw himself as having failed to masculinize his son the way he saw fit? Failed as a father? I don’t know. All I know is that I felt alone and scared, with nobody to talk to or to feel legitimately comfortable around.
I was still too young to release the image of an idol father from my mind. So, I created him.
This father would know I was gay and wouldn’t have to ask. He would help me understand what being gay was all about. We would have long discussions on what kind of characteristics to look out for in a guy and what characteristics I would need to develop to attract the best possible person. He would teach me how to face my fears, dance with wolves, kick a ball, kiss the sun and feel the rain on my skin.
From this myth of a man, I would have learned many things. Most important of all—I would have learned the ability to trust.
When trust—that base element of all relationships—is missing from an intimate relationship like parent and child, it can fracture any connection that exists. The lack of trust can slowly rotten the relationship, damaging the self-esteem and personal identity of the child.
I built myself a god for a father because I couldn’t trust my own. Because I felt abandoned. The thing I notice now about this dream figure is how elemental he was—defined by the strong and harsh but sustaining things of the earth, like the ancient deities themselves.
For years, I longed to have this person of the elements rather than my own father. But the longing is falling away.
It started to happen one day when I looked at my father in the face, really looked at him. He was busy doing something that absorbed his attention—I forget what it was—and I happened to glance at him. It was unusual for me to look at him. I had developed a habit of dropping my head and keeping my eyes low.
In this rare moment, my eyes lifted beyond their normal scope and caught his face. I looked at him—in the way people look at children playing, with a kind of casual observance that still takes in all the detail. I noticed that I hadn’t seen his face in a long time. He looked different from when I used to boldly look up at him when I was much younger—before the fear and silence and distance—and would ask him to carry me around. He had aged. The lines and creases of time had started to bring themselves out.
Idols do not age, only human beings do.
Like many sons, I had imagined my father as some sort of timeless character—an entity that existed as a projection of the idea of ‘father’—somehow both incomprehensible to me and yet distinct in his presence. I never knew him as a person, an actual human being, and I had refused him a space in my heart like one refuses a religion they can’t live with anymore.
Humanizing him allowed me to break free from the idea that there was such a thing as an idol father, never mind a father who would save me from everything—save me from the years of depression—and build within me a man as strong as he was. There was only ever a person, and wishing for something else was all so futile.
Strangely enough, the moment I stopped hoping for a deity as a father all the problems my parents were trying to solve and the problems I imagined my elemental father would have solved, I started to solve on my own. By simply seeing him as human, it allowed me to begin filling the void that silence had built inside of me and stop longing for ‘the absent father.’
I suddenly became less afraid of other boys my age. I was suddenly able to speak with people easier. I started gaining confidence. I joined a gym to gain some mass and began to like it for health benefits like good sleep, not simply to build an ability to fight. I started liking martial art movies again. I started to learn a new language. I started to build for myself the strong man I wanted to be. I even have some martial art tutorial videos saved on my computer that I willingly sought out to learn from. They are awesome. I am even starting to imagine a world and a future where I am happy.
If I have any advice for parents of children, please don’t assume they are straight. Let them know it’s okay if they’re not. Never say that the reason for them doing something is for the purpose of ‘adjusting’ them. When they feel weak and vulnerable, never be disappointed with them. Teach them their own humanity. Teach them more appropriate ways of handling themselves in situations of intimidation, like when they are being bullied. Allow them to trust you and let yourself be trustworthy.
Most important, never be caught silent about your child.
It’s perhaps too soon to draw conclusions about what shape my relationship with my father will take. I haven’t come out to him. I still keep him at an emotional arm’s length, but I’m not so strict about it anymore. My fear of him rejecting me is dissipating. Whatever happens, my sense of self is no longer dependent on what I feel I didn’t get from him. Looking back, I don’t know what he could have done differently. But I no longer wish for him to have been someone else.
What has happened has happened. I am now slowly dealing with the outcomes of my youth.
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