One of the hardest elements of sharing my family story is in the revealing of family secrets. Divulging secrets can be looked upon as breaking down or betraying family trust. In my heart I feel as if I am sharing what has been kept just below the surface for as long as I can remember.
To cope with our family situation was to keep a lid on Dad being gay. That didn’t mean we didn’t have feelings about it. It meant it was confusing, complicated at the very least. It meant that if we popped that lid off we would have to look at our raw feelings. We would have to truly define what it meant for us to have a Dad very different from the norm. I believe my mom made a pact with herself to keep it all inside as well. She didn’t share that Dad was gay or how she felt about it, she simply kept it tucked away. I believe she felt it was better that way, for all of us.
Revealing my feelings I have often felt it equates to a betrayal of my families ‘code of honor.’ To be vulnerable is to make my entire family vulnerable. At 13 I knew in my heart Dad was gay but didn’t blow his cover or mine. My siblings and I were probably feeling similar fears, daunting disgrace, but didn’t confide in one other. Was it because we knew once we spoke up there would be no turning back, our history would never be the same? Or did we feel if we spoke our truths out loud it would become more real? That others might hear us? Probably all of the above, but mostly it was easier to stay quiet, then and continued that way for most of our lives.
When Dad’s first partner Jim died we supported Dad the best way we knew how. No one asked how we kids felt, we mourned individually, quietly alone. When Dad became HIV positive my brother John and I finally spoke openly, briefly at dawn, on a Sunday morning in the early 90’s. A week later I called my mom. For the first time I gave her a glimpse into my window of pain and hurt as result of Dad’s gay life. I quickly realized it was hard for both of us, as our wounds were rung out, left gaping open. Two decades later the subject is still a sticky wicket, still challenging for me to navigate.
A couple years ago Mom questioned, why after so long was it still hard for me to talk about? Why was it hard to wrap my arms around Dad being gay? I think it had to do with the secrets.
When I was young, living with Mom, she had family meetings at our kitchen table. Her strategy was to provide a safe place for us to air problems, issues that were stuck inside. In recent times it was confusing to Mom why we hadn’t broached the subject at our family meetings so long ago? Why hadn’t we taken to opportunity to speak up? She felt she had provided a format for such topics to be resolved.
How could Mom have truly understood? Her father, a Hispanic man who had led a union was a man of the people, one greatly admired for all he had done. She looked up to him for what he represented, was proud of his hero status. After a long pause I tried to explain, “the table wasn’t big enough. Dad being gay was simply too big for our small kitchen table.”
Not until I married and had children did Dad open up more honestly, begin to share a story of how he stepped into his gay life. He shared how he had been lucky to have two long-term loving relationships in his life. Though this gave me comfort, helped fill in some mysterious blanks in my mind, I continued to hold back from revealing my inner most family secret to friends. I felt the weight of being guarded for an entire lifetime. The secrets began to take over, even became sacred.
But lo and behold my secrets, intertwined with my families must be revealed in order for me to heal. I must risk betrayal, hurt, possible loss of honor. Having kids, bringing them into the mix has been rewarding but also hard. A gay grandpa, re-living my life’s stepping-stones through their precious eyes sometimes brings up the painful journey I had while maneuvering my dad’s truth.
Sharing with Dad that I was writing my side of our story I was comforted when he said finally at 70 years of age, “Honey, you know I have nothing to hide.”