From Anger to Ally: Growing Up with a Gay Dad
In writing my memoir, Ashes to Ink, I explore the tenuous bonds of fathers and daughters, the expectations we hold of our parents, and shine a light on the challenges of living true to who we are, especially when we have children. Becoming a mother forced me to reconcile my own beliefs about how much parenthood takes from who we are and gives it to our children, and the right we have to remain true to ourselves. Coming face to face with myself on the page has been an extraordinary, healing journey.
At a time when the LGBTQ+ community has the most support, there is tremendous fear of losing the freedom and rights that have been hard-won after many decades of secrecy. I feel an obligation to stand as an ally and give voice to the families who struggle with being accepted. My journey as a family member hardly compares to the struggles they endured while in the dark, cramped space they could choose to emerge from or not, a choice heavy with unknown consequences.
When I was barely fourteen years old, I asked my father if he had a girlfriend. We were driving in the car, and it was several months after his divorce from my mom. He said, “No, a girlfriend doesn’t fit into my lifestyle.” What lifestyle? I thought, then he shot me the look that said, don’t ask more questions. When I got into the house after he dropped me off, I called my mother to ask the burning question I didn’t even know how to pose: Is my dad queer?
It was 1974 when the only place I had heard that word was on TV when Archie Bunker made fun of homosexual men. Including my father among them, when my concerns were confirmed, threw me into a tailspin. Sworn to secrecy, the truth became something shameful I carried inside me like a small, scared animal. At times it lay still and quiet, something I hardly knew was there. At other times it thrashed and gnawed at my insides, demanding it be fed and released, threatening to chew a hole through my soul. Sometimes it just ran around in circles until it fell in a heap, exhausted.
Learning my father was gay became a wound that festered with every thought of the lies he told us. Realizing that our family was built upon a shaky foundation that crumbled with the truth shattered my adoration of the man who had been my hero. I didn’t want to know that my father slept with men. I didn’t want to know about his sex life at all. But there it was, right in the middle of the word — homosexual.
How much information does an adolescent really want about their parents’ sexuality? None, I assure you.
From that time on, buying a Father’s Day card for my dad was always challenging. Rows upon rows of greetings depicting fishing poles, cars, and remote controls pointed at football games didn’t represent my dad at all. Neither did flowery messages about being The Best Dad Ever resonate with my relationship with him. Each year I would stand for a long time, my anxiety rising, as I tried to connect with a message that I could stand to send. Where were the cards that said, “Thanks for teaching me how to research a project, clean an oven or shop for home decor”? My default became something with a tie and a simple message.
In 1982 I moved to San Francisco where the gay community was so open compared to the Chicago suburbs I came from. Dad also moved there, a couple of years later, and we often met for brunch on a Sunday morning in the Castro District. Feeling a bit out of place in the sea of mustached men drinking Bloody Marys and dishing about the night before, I saw my father in a whole new light. It was difficult seeing him date men, yet I inched closer to accepting him as who he was: a gay man who would always be my dad.
Over the years, there was something about dropping that bit of information that gave me a thrill, perhaps it made my life more intriguing, more exotic. I don’t remember any distasteful responses; most people replied with, “Wow, really?’ and the conversation would lead to sharing anecdotes that satisfied their curiosity and my need to share. When I mentioned that my sister is also gay my story got even more interesting.
Dad met his long-time partner, Benny, later in life. He was sure to let everyone at my aunt’s wake know that they were life partners, even after dating only a few weeks; a declaration that made my mother cringe. For while the closet door remained wide open for Dad and me, my mother tended to step in and quietly close the door behind her around certain groups — especially with her friends and older family members. I understand her desire to not call attention to what brings discomfort. Yet, at what cost to her daughter sharing her truth? How silent must we remain to protect another’s comfort zone?
With Dad’s death came even greater freedom, and a sparkling clarity about the family I come from. For decades we alternated between rejecting each other and longing for one another until I learned that his selfishness, and not his sexuality, was at the heart of our troubles. As I got older, I let go of my resentment over my mother’s friendship with Dad, seeing that her forgiveness came from knowing her best friend left her to be himself and that their love for one another could continue.
In the final years of my father’s life, he and I had made peace. Our family story is one that is shared by many and discussed by few. By adding my voice to the growing chorus of members of LGBTQ families, I seek to validate this unique situation and the deep need for acceptance in every family.
My conundrum over writing about us was resolved by choosing a name that doesn’t connect them to me, thereby offering the freedom to speak truthfully while accepting their wishes instead of resenting them. This has been most freeing, for while I have a right to my story, they have a right to their silence. Ironically, as I wrote about the ways in which I felt most hurt by my family, I came to understand and love them all more deeply.
The last card I bought my dad for Father’s Day illustrates a photograph of a small girl’s hand in that of a man’s. A tight shot of the loose grip he has on her is in sepia tones. The sentiment is about how much her father means to her, how she appreciates their conversations and that she respects his opinion. It was just the right card and one I was excited to buy.
Dad died before I could give it to him.
Tears sting my eyes as I think of all the years I lost being mad at him for being who he was. Sure, he was selfish to the point of narcissism much of his life, yet he truly loved me and wanted me to be happy. The card remains in a drawer, it’s lovely image a chance to relive a moment when I deeply recognized my father’s goodness. I decided to sign it, and I pull it out every Father’s Day to remind me of that little girl who held her Daddy’s hand, and how lucky I am that little girl was me.