So much has been written about the complex relationship between fathers and daughters that it seems ridiculous to try to do so myself, but when I was growing up, my father was always my hero. Being a child of divorce in Southern California in the 1970s was more common than not. (I remember my first friend whose parents were still married after decades.) Like most kids at the time, I lived with my mom and shuttled to my dad’s place on weekends.
My father is not an easy man to love: he’s demanding, exacting, quick-tempered, cautious, and sarcastic. I’m exactly the same way. Growing up, as much as I was annoyed by these traits, they ended up influencing me in ways that have helped me become the person I am today. For example, if my father asked what you wanted for dinner, the correct answer was never “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” Make a choice, he demanded. “I don’t know” meant you didn’t care (or weren't hungry). Today I demand the exact same thing; yes or no questions deserve yes or no answers. Don’t like something? Fix it! Act now or shut up. Few women were raised to be so demanding, and it’s helped me immensely.
On Sunday, we’d read the big Orange County Register newspaper together and later watch 60 Minutes, my first introductions to journalism. And though he’d shush me if it wasn’t commercial time, my father put up with my endless “why” questions later, which fueled my desire to take my eternal questioning into the field of journalism.
During the week, when my mother and I fought, I’d often lock myself in my closet, crying and wailing “I want my daddy” for hours.
And yet my father gave me the greatest gift anyone has ever given me: He let me go.
At 12, I went to visit his mother and sister in Idaho, and I fell in love with the place I will forever call home. Payette, Idaho, had only 4,000 occupants, and it was something like a more colorful Leave It to Beaver. We left our doors unlocked and would walk into our neighbors' houses without invitation (we actually knew our neighbors), and if the kids were getting in trouble, any mom in a 10-mile radius could and would school you. My family has long roots in the area, unlike in California, and they had respect from the (mostly) nice, honest, straightforward people. And for the first time in my life I felt truly safe. After being bullied to the point of assault in grade school and moving from town to town with my mother (who struggled with drug addiction and mental illness), moving into my grandmother's nice middle-class home in safe rural Idaho felt like a literal lifesaver.
When I asked my father if I could stay, to grow up in the same house, the same hometown he and his father had grown up in, he said yes, and dealt with the sting of rejection quietly. I would not be a happy, successful person I am today without that move, which required him to give up any ideas of us having a happily-ever-after living together. We would not have the kind of Courtship of Eddie's Father-type relationship we both wanted but were incapable of having.
It meant though that throughout high school and college, and my early relationships, my father missed seeing my development as a person. I didn’t announce that I was, well any of the labels I’ve used to define myself over the years (lesbian, bisexual, and queer — the latter still being my favorite), and when I brought home my first girlfriend I didn’t say she was my girlfriend. I didn’t then want to be rejected by him. But our relationship was clear.
And at least to my face, he was nonplussed but accepting. When I brought home the person who would become my wife, and then after transition, my husband, he was still stoic but open. His quiet acceptance, in the wake of me not really coming out but not hiding, was instrumental. I didn’t give him the language to use, so he came up with his own, dubbing my partner my “co-pilot.” After 16 years of marriage to the same woman, that person wrote him a coming-out letter thanking my dad for his support and telling him that “she” realized she was really a “he” and would be having gender confirmation surgery and going by his new name, Jacob. My dad sent congratulations.
I could say that didn’t matter, but it did. Acceptance matters, and my father’s acceptance will always have a great influence on me, even when I do (or say) things that he doesn’t approve of (which I think might be frequently since I have a big mouth and write about myself for a living).
Jacob’s transition meant the state of California would allow us to marry (we were a Prop. 8 couple whose same-sex marriage was thrown out by a vote), so we planned a big wedding, and unlike with any previous engagement, we invited our whole immediate family. My father, who has a social anxiety disorder that we just call “he hates being around people and crowds,” didn’t come to the wedding, but my stepmother and all my siblings did. As we were lining people up on the amphitheater steps, preparing our ushers and bridesmaids to walk down the aisle, my stepmother rushed over with her cellphone and handed it to me.
It was my dad, congratulating me, wishing both of us the best that very important day. I can’t remember the exact words, but I think he ended the call as he always did when I was growing up, with the simple sign-off “Daddy loves you.”
Love you too, Dad. Love you too.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is The Advocate's editor at large and the editor in chief of HIV Plus magazine.
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