Earlier this year hosting cable station TLC launched a new Reality TV show, ‘My Husbands Not Gay.’ Husbands are attracted to men but are working with their church to live a straight, heterosexual life with their family. There has been much controversy over what the show does to gay rights, how the church supports the family unit. For me, I’m mindful of the hiding, the shame, and ongoing charades. A child of a gay man I feel the need to speak to, rather for the children, share perspective.
Thirty-eight years of investigating, reconfiguring, working to decode my family, I was once guilty of growling in an 80’s teenage desperate voice, “My dad is not gay!” Knowing well in my heart that dad was more than likely gay, I continued to defend my hypervigilent position with a sharp lob to an accuser, “How would you know anyway?”
For several decades I have known my father was gay. Understood he and my mother had been so young, packed three children in so quickly. Their marriage was complicated, struggled as many do, but underneath it all Dad was attracted to men. For so long he hid his lifestyle to friends, to family. He didn’t speak openly about his true living situation — at least not to me until my mid twenties when his longtime partner Jim passed away.
It was the summer after I turned 13, however when Dad moved to Coraville, IA, with Jim in tow, things began to crystalize. I had my suspicions, investigated clues I’d picked up on. I knew Dads room, the one with a queen bed was a guest room, the room with a king bed was his and Jim’s to share. All but validated from Dad’s mouth to my ears, I didn’t dare admit it, not even to my siblings, nor they to me. Older by three and four years surly my brother and sister knew, in retrospect they must have been protecting me. In my adolescent solitude, I was terrified by what this meant. What people would say, think? I agonized over how my family and I would most certainly become outcasts. Looking back I wish we could have tackled this as a family, taken the strength in numbers route.
I ached with love for my dad, knew he loved me similarly but inevitably I began to distance myself and look at him differently. Visits to his home had previously turned washing cars, making jam and cookies into a version of a carnival ride. As result of my intuitive mapping, of his male coupling, I withdrew. I felt our relationship become painfully stagnant. The air in each room halting to an empty stillness I wanted to run from. Cooking in his kitchen I responded like a mono-tronic puppet avoiding eye contact as he cheerily directed me to decorate our 4th of July cake — designing a flag out of berries and whipped cream as he’d seen in a summer issue of Better Homes and Garden.
Much of what was going on in the background of my dad’s home and relationship with Jim was hard for me to understand but I felt its pulse. I felt deceived, betrayed, felt I was part of a make believe world or one covered up. I needed someone to sit me down, explain the complexity at hand.
My early teen fear grew to loathing. Much of what I thought to be true had in turn seemed a charade. By 16 I searched for distraction. Soon I landed head over heals into a serious relationship with an older boy, one who had a car, money, and could distance me from what rattled me most. Instead of discovering who I was, uncovering the mark I was meant to make on the world, I escaped into his arms, his families, if only temporarily.
Several months into the relationship the unavoidable surfaced. One night on a date with this very boyfriend everything changed. Halfway through a dinner of unauthentic Mexican food I began to open up about my dissatisfied relationship with my Dad. After listening a bit the boyfriend suddenly blurted in a squirrely uncomfortable voice, “You know your dad’s gay right?” Just like that, everything changed. A light was shone on my unacceptable family dynamic. A junior at the catholic high school, the same my parents attended some two decades earlier, I immediately thought of judgment and defensiveness I was sure to face. I pulsed in horror of what was to come.
In 1982, one thing was clear. I was not living the American dream. Therefore, I did my best to disappear.
I’ve often wondered if there was a time my mom wanted to turn the other cheek. Pretend she didn’t know. So complex a marital dynamic, I’m sure Mom wanted to believe her husband was not gay. A 1960’s society certainly didn’t support Dad’s taboo lifestyle and it must have been hell to stare down the barrel of that loaded situation. In reality it may have meant she had done something wrong, rather needed to do something right. As for Dad, he surely wasn’t standing up for justice, wasn’t waving pride flags, and wasn’t proudly or openly marching to the beat of his own drum. Outside of San Francisco gay life wasn’t on display, not in America’s Heartland, not in Davenport, Iowa where I grew up.
A couple years back I asked Mom why she never told us about Dad, why we hadn’t hashed out our family truth. Shockingly she shared, “I spoke to a psychologist who advised against telling you kids. He said it would be too much for you to handle.” Years to digest she added, “we’re a country founded on puritan values, it was simply too much. Still is for many.”
In his final stage of life Dad was more open and reflective. I asked a series of hard questions I had always wanted, but hadn’t out of respect for his privacy. In his revealing the truth state he shared, as a young man he always wanted a family. Turning 70 he revealed, “I wanted a picture of a family, like the one I grew up in, like I’d seen at church where I served as alter boy.” He wanted to be a husband, ‘to stay married forever,’ it just wasn’t meant to be. With little support he did the best he could to manage his dual life, show up for three small children after his family shredded into beautiful little pieces. In the midst of the fallout from our nuclear disaster he found a spark of hope in his partner Jim. His 70-year-old voice gently relived the scene, “it had all been so ugly, then I met Jim. He was the nicest person in the world.”
Much of my life had been so complicated but in that moment I understood, that love and truth can sooth the deepest wounds. Our lives were packed with public avoidance of core truths, and covering shame. Through trials and tribulations my dad found the need to stand taller, grow thicker skin to compensate for the negative portrayal of his sexual orientation. We all did. I wish I could have understood earlier, been coached through the idea of it all. It would have been easier, less painful, to dig my way out years later.