It’s one thing if your father knows you’re gay but try telling him yourself and see what happens.
Growing up, it was not easy to connect with my Dad. He said to me once, “I don’t understand the way your mind works, John.” I wanted to say, “Right back atcha!” but I was too afraid to.
One particular Father’s Day, I was very angry at my father and I bristled at the cards in the store that said “Dad, You’re Number One!” I was so angry at him, I didn’t even want to buy him a card for Father’s Day. I imagined a card that said, “Dad, You’re Number Two!” Perhaps I could get him that card.
I remember when I was 21 and living with my parents in Brooklyn Heights, my father used to prevent me from going into Manhattan when the Gay Pride Parade was going on. “Don’t you know what’s going on in Manhattan today?!” he roared.
I did not know what was going on but from the rancor in his voice I guessed it was a battle between Godzilla and King Kong in Herald Square.
The next day, my father read about the Pride Parade in the New York Times and then he said to my mother, “Why do they have to march?…those unnaturals?”
That’s how he put it. “Unnaturals”. Gay people were not part of the natural order. Gay people were like plastic bags, disposable and certainly not part of God’s plan.
My mother told my father I was gay. I was 26 at the time. A picture of me — a pretty big picture — was splashed across a page in the New York Post because I was the lead role in Mark Christopher’s short film “Alkali, Iowa” .
The film was showing at art houses in Manhattan. Under my picture was the Post’s review and the heading said “Gay Shorts Don’t Hit Below The Belt”.
My mother gingerly held my father’s Post up to his face and said, “Look at today’s Post. Our son is gay.” To which my father replied, “I’m not gonna march in a parade or anything.”
Many of us are lucky if we get as tepid an approval as that one when we tell a parent we’re not the heterosexual they expected us to be.
So that should have been enough, my mother reporting back to me that although my father would probably not be marching behind Dykes with Bikes anytime soon…waving a little rainbow flag…he knew.
Probably best to not bring it up again.
I just didn’t have the foggiest idea how to do it. Or when to do it. Or where.
Nine years later I did it. I was visiting my parents in Florida. They were living in this huge waterfront condoplex where you could hear “Memories” by Barbra Streisand playing in the elevator while neighbors chatted about kidney stones.
Next to the Christmas tree in the lobby they put up a huge Menorah and my father got vexed about that. “For chrissakes, it’s the same size as the damn tree!”
I said, “Dad, why did you and Mom move into this place? It may as well be a Jewish retirement center. You guys aren’t Jewish. Right?”
My Dad got this look on his face that seemed to say, “I don’t even know what the hell I am since I retired.”
I told him that at 35 years of age, I was still trying to figure it out, who I was, what the hell my place was in the world. We were stuck in traffic.
The Florida sun, that giant ball of orange, was setting and then I told him I was gay. It came right out of me. It came out of me because we were already talking about stuff that was real.
He said he “always knew”.
Always knew? Even before Mom held the New York Post in front of your face?
Then he sighed, cleared his throat and said, “I don’t want you to get sick and I fear you’ll be alone the rest of your life.”
Those two fears of my father’s sat in the car like two kidney stones. My father and I stared at the cars in front of us, all stuck in the traffic, all trying desperately to move forward up 95.
But my feeling was that my father and I had moved forward, if not up 95, then in our relationship. For in that revelation of real concerns about my life and my health, my father showed me that he loved me and that my being gay didn’t amount to very much in the scheme of things, the way it didn’t really matter if the Menorah was the same size as the Christmas tree.
Then my father began, as the traffic crawled, to open up to me about his own life.
He told me that life with his father had been mostly hell. When my grandfather died, the nurse asked my father to confirm that my grandfather was dead by listening for a heartbeat.
My father listened for my grandfather’s pulse and when he realized there was none he felt a great sense of peace, rather than a great sense of loss.
Not too long after that traffic jam, I sent my father a book about being the parent of a gay child. I didn’t want him to think it was his fault that I was gay. A lot of parents think it’s their fault when they find out their son or daughter is gay.
I visited him about a week after he got the book, and I asked him what he thought.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m halfway through.”
When my father said those words, my mind got filled with Memories that darkened the corners of my mind. I remembered when he would prevent me from going into Manhattan the day of the Pride Parade.
I remembered how he read the New York Times and used the word “unnatural” to describe homosexuals.
My father had moved forward.
So had I. Coming out to my father on my own, and not relying on someone else to do it for me, loosened my own buried kidney stones of self-doubt and self-hate.
By knowing more who my father was, I knew more who I was. And though he’s never seen me lip-synch “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in full drag (I did that once for my boyfriend), he knows who I am.
It was his birthday last week. My local Duane Reade was all out of the birthday cards that said “Dad, You’re Number One”.
I told him instead.