My father’s gay. As our nation stumbles steadily towards long-overdue legal equity for same-sex couples and their families, I’m grateful to know that doesn’t necessarily make me a rarity these days. My father’s gay. I’ve known since I was 16, when a confluence of events (his repeated “solo” trips to Key West, his membership at an all-male gym, the discovery of his Playgirl stash) forced my siblings and me to reevaluate our entire family dynamic. My father’s gay. In the 20 years since, I’ve shared those exact same words with my best friends, a few girlfriends, and a therapist who is, I’m quite certain, the closest thing I’ll ever have to an attentive paternal figure. It’s too bad I have to pay him.
I don’t normally lead with this information, but I’m not dishonest about it either. If you’re curious enough to wonder out loud how my parents have stayed married for 40 years, I’d tell you the truth: No, it’s not one of those marriage-takes-many-shapes “understandings” that’s keeping them together. That would at least be a step toward openness and acceptance. My father and mother are still married because he lies about his sexuality and she chooses to believe him. It wasn’t always this clear to me.
I’m the middle child of three. My brother and sister and I have analyzed our parents ad nauseam. We’ve had to. Over the telephone, over beers, on countless jogs, we’ve tried to make sense of our painfully confusing childhoods because we long to live genuinely. When it’s about my parents, my siblings and I speak to each other directly and hold back nothing. There is a palpable feeling of safety and trust that runs through and connects the three of us. There is also an immense sadness.
My father was abusive. That one’s a little more difficult to admit. I’m convinced that my dad knew who he was well before that long walk down the aisle in 1972 that led him into a legally binding relationship with a woman. He was trying to please his conservative parents. He was doing what he thought was right, and dare I say, normal. And although I’ve often been reluctant to call him a coward for folding under what must have been immense family pressure, I will not hesitate to stamp that word on him for the physical and emotional violence he subjected us to growing up. I’m convinced that my dad didn’t want kids before he impregnated his wife for the first time. Children know when they aren’t wanted. They might not be able to verbalize that void, but they feel it, and it shows. My grammar school teachers noticed. They could never figure out why I was always so distraught, and to be honest, at that age, neither could I.
My father wasn’t abusive because he’s gay. Of course not. My father was abusive because he had trapped himself in a life he hated, and he took his frustrations out on three defenseless kids. Coward.
When I was 16, my mother found several back issues of Playgirl in my father’s dresser drawer. He denied they were his and claimed he had come across the magazines on our apartment balcony. As you do. He was simply storing them until he had time to interrogate my brother and me about their origin. My father‘s a generally smart man. Unless he was so completely blinded by his own self-hatred, he had to have known that his teenage sons were rather obviously heterosexual. He only asked us about his stash because he told his wife he would. It was part of his cover story, and he was determined to see it through to the end. My brother and I offered up nothing more than genuine bewilderment.
I drew two sweeping conclusions from that incident, and they have since proven, time and again, to be sound: (1) My father may be intelligent, but he is also an extraordinarily bad pathological liar, and (2) He has no qualms whatsoever about using us, his children, to keep his secret. It explains a lot about his unending crusade to make his brood come off as squeaky-clean; why he had always gone ballistic when we brought home average grades or grew our hair too long or got into harmless sibling skirmishes in front of company — he used us as a shield. And whenever we threatened to poke a hole in that perfect facade, we never felt safe in our own home.
As young adults we grew stronger. For us, that didn’t mean going far from home for college. We stayed in New York City, close to my parents. We were determined to fix our family. Fifteen years ago, at the dining room table, my sister and I sat down with our mother and asked her if she thought her husband was gay. She thanked us for inquiring, told us she’d once before wondered about his sexuality, and assured us that it was nothing more than a temporary struggle that he would no doubt overcome. My sister and I shared a look as it landed on us hard — righting the ship was way beyond our capabilities.
We didn’t give up. We outed our father … to our father. I was 23 and working at my first publishing job when he called me at my desk to say he knew all about our conversation with Mom.
“Good. I’m glad you know. And I want to tell you something … all we want is for you to be yourself, Dad. We’ll be here for Mom if you need to take some time to figure things out. Just let our family be what it truly is, no matter how off-kilter that may look. It’s OK.”
He couldn’t do it. My mother accepted his weak admission of occasional “bisexual tendencies” and turned her head back toward the sand. The lies survived. And that was so strange to me. He knew we knew, but he had crafted too much deceit to stop. He was on automatic.
I moved away. Yes, my intimate circle knew the whole story and that helped, but we kept it from our extended family in an act of complicity that I’m still uneasy about. My parents, reverting to their roles, continued right on pretending. My father enabled my mother to be in denial while she enabled him to live a double life. When I’m exhausted, I sometimes think they’re perfect for each other. I moved away because it can’t be healthy to be in on such an all-encompassing masquerade starring your childhood tormentor.
Last fall I got a call from my sister. Had I noticed that Mom was acting belligerent and antisocial? Sure, I said, but her marriage is a sham. Who wouldn’t be angry? I don’t give my mother a pass — she failed to protect us and is willfully oblivious to so many wrongs — but I tend to see her side more often than not. My sister finds it easier to back my father now that he’s in his mid-60s, frailer, and noticeably miserable. With a lot of professional help and a hugely supportive partner, I’ve tried not to hold so tight to my parents’ lives. They are a mess, but they are adults, and the mess is their choice. I’ll see them once in a while, but I will not participate in any conversation that asks me to prop up their lie. This is what I tell myself. And I try to follow through. My success rate fluctuates. My sister has three daughters. It’s important to her that they know their grandparents in some capacity. My mother’s recent nastiness was threatening that bond, and so we took it upon ourselves to do what she can’t or won’t: We brought up my father’s sexuality one more time.
My mother played dumb (again), my father confided in me that he wished he weren’t gay (again), and my brother, wisely, stayed out of the whole deal. Ultimately, my sister and I encouraged them to see a couples counselor even though they were never much of a couple to begin with. I feel like I’m parenting my parents. They went to two sessions together before my mother decided she’d rather not face the truth.
My father still goes. Twice a week. Whether it helps or not, I have no idea; nothing has changed on the outside. The facade still stands. I think one of the saddest things about my dad is that he’s spent so much energy and effort hiding himself — he’s been so needlessly self-involved for so many years — that he’s failed on an epic level to ever get to know his children. And that failure keeps him blind to where he’s lucky. He asked me rather solemnly the other day (no doubt encouraged by his therapist) if I knew there was an emotional aspect to being gay. That broke my heart. Not only because we’ve been trying to embolden my father to come out for well over a decade, but also because he was so oblivious to my life, to the circles I socialize in, to the friends of all sorts that mean so much to me, to the person I am … he’s so oblivious to the life I’ve tried in vain to share with him that he needed to ask me a question whose answer would be glaringly obvious to anyone who knows me even mildly. His question broke my heart because it insinuated that my father doesn’t understand love, not for himself and not for us.
That’s when I knew that he might never do it. He was stuck in a dark room of his own construction, and I had to divorce myself from the notion that he’d someday be brave enough to use the light switch. I knew I had to let go and move on for good. I hope that distance gives me more steady days than angry ones; more days when I can wish my father the best and my mother strength as I continue building something of my own.
JUSTIN M. QUINN is a freelance writer living and working in Minnesota.