Op-ed: My Dad and I Helped Each Other Come Out
Two years ago I moved my 80-year-old father closer to me so I could take care of him. We had been best friends from the day I was born. We are so much alike, we have the same ridiculous sense of humor, and we know what each other is thinking without saying a word. Caring for him deepened our friendship, and about six months in, some of the questions from my childhood started creeping back into my mind. My whole life, I felt like something was off. As a child, I knew my family was different, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. There were things that just didn’t quite add up. Things that didn’t make sense. I remember asking questions and not being satisfied with the answers I received. It hit me one night as I was driving home from his apartment. I turned the car around and went back. I opened the door and without hesitation asked, “Are you gay?”
As the words fell out of my mouth, a sense of peace came with it. A sigh of relief and a deep understanding. In the seconds before he responded, I felt as if all of my childhood questions were finally answered.
“Well … I wouldn’t say I’m straight.”
That night started a conversation that he had been waiting his whole life to have. Over the last year and a half my father has shared with me things he has never told anyone. Stories from the 1940s about the neighbor boys. Stories about married men in the factory where he worked for 34 years. Stories about the lovers my mom and dad shared. Stories about Bobby — these are my favorite stories. Bobby was one of the great loves of my dad’s life. He was a kind and gentle man. The unrequited love story that had a span of 10 years before my dad took a chance and kissed Bobby one night. One of the major question marks from my childhood was a fight my mom and dad had over me going with my dad to say goodbye to Bobby. My mom didn’t want me to go, but my dad insisted. There are very few times that my dad stood up to my mom; he usually let her have her way. Not this time. My dad scooped me up, and off we went to say goodbye to Bobby. Bobby was dying, it was the mid to late 1980s and my mom was afraid it was AIDS. I knew it was important, but now I really see the significance.
I asked more questions and my dad always answered honestly. I brought up my choppy memories from the past and he filled in the blanks. It is such a gift to begin to understand these things. My dad’s sister had a friend who was out and I asked if my dad had a relationship with him. I remembered as a little girl spending a lot of time with my aunt and her friend Al. I loved Al but my dad was always really short with him and acted like he didn’t like him. When I pressed my dad about it, he said he kept his distance from men who were out and who were flamboyant. He thought they would find him out and expose him. He didn’t want to be outed. It was safer to be with other “straight” men who were married and were on the down low. He explained how he would wrestle and see if they took his advances. If they didn’t, he would brush it off as wrestling. He was a big, strong man with huge muscles and used that macho persona if anyone became suspicious.
I questioned my dad about his love for my mother and the other female lovers in his life. He has been married to three women, and I wanted to know where they fit into all of this. He assured me that he had loved my mother and was attracted to her. He told me stories of his first wife, my half-sister’s mother, and how hot he was for her. He explained his attraction to women and that it never felt quite right for him to come out and say he was gay. “Gay” just didn’t seem to fit. In conversations since he has said, “gayish,” “slightly gay,” “Aren’t we all a little bit gay?” and most recently, “bisexual.”
Through the honesty and bravery of my father sharing these things with me, I started to question my own sexuality. When I started questioning a year ago, my male partner and I started by exploring polyamory. He has been so supportive and understanding about my journey. We have been together on and off for four years. Through the good and bad, he has been so kind and generous in his support of me figuring out my sexuality. We have an unbreakable bond and love for each other. The foundations of polyamory have helped in navigating the hiccups along the way. I am so thankful that he is in my life.
Years before meeting him, I had sexual experiences with women, but I had not ever considered having a relationship with a woman. As I was questioning my feelings, I started going on dates with women. I met interesting, kind ladies but felt no real connection. Then about four months ago, I started dating a woman I really care for, and even though we are no longer dating, I learned so much about myself and I am forever grateful to her. I started to picture my life with a woman. I was excited about this new possibility, and this woman and I wanted to shout from the rooftops. As I started telling friends, I noticed myself having trouble explaining what I was feeling. What does it mean if I’m not a lesbian but I’m in a lesbian relationship? I started saying some of the same things my dad had said. “I’m kinda gay.” “Gayish.” “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m straight.”
I had so many things swirling around in my head and heart. I felt a weird vibe from some lesbians, like I wasn’t gay enough. And then the vibe from some straight people that I wasn’t straight enough. I felt this pressure to label it and put my feelings in some type of pretty package with a bow on top. That’s not how sexuality works.
At first I was beating myself up for nearing 30 years old and just figuring out that I might not be straight. How did I not know? Everyone I told was not nearly as shocked as I was. Actually, I was the only one who was shocked. Everyone else acted like it was no big deal, like they had been waiting for me to figure it out. My dad told me he had known I was “a lezzie for 20 years! I knew when you were about 10 years old.” How could it be that I didn’t know?
Then one day I was talking about all of this I had a flash of a memory. I was about 4 years old, having a play date with a friend in a tent in my backyard. She told me she watched her mom and her boyfriend lying on top of each other naked and it looked like they were having fun. She told me it was a game. So we took our clothes off and she lay on top of me. My mom came to check on us, and when she saw what we were doing, she lost her mind. I had never seen her so upset. She was yelling and screaming and shoving our clothes back on. My friend told her about her mom and her boyfriend, and my mom got really quiet. She marched us over to my friend’s house in total silence, which was way scarier than the yelling.
When my friend’s mom came to the door, my mom lost it. I don’t remember all that she said, but I know she shamed us and blamed that other mother. It was my first memory of shame, and I spent my whole life trying to avoid that feeling. I believe that is why it never occurred to me to be anything other than straight. I didn’t know why the game in the tent was wrong, but I knew it was wrong. The shame of that day closed me off from questioning and opening my heart to the possibility of being bisexual. The conversations with my dad about being bisexual have helped to heal both of our hearts and to end the shame we have both experienced.
This past year, I have thought about writing this hundreds of times. My dad and I would talk about it and say, “Does anybody care?” “What are we even saying? Gayish? You can’t say that!”
The more we talked about it and the more I thought about it, I came to know it is important. Bisexuals don’t have it easy. People want you to choose. Pick a side. Or people will assume you are gay but just not ready to admit it yet. If you fall in love with a person of one gender, people will assume you have picked and that you are no longer bisexual. It doesn’t work like that. Part of why I wanted to write about this was to tell my truth and to tell my dad’s truth. To be transparent. To end shame. I also wanted to add two more faces to what it looks like to be bisexual. To give hope that it’s not too late. My dad, at 82, is being courageous. I want him to be free. I didn’t want this holding him back or the fear of being found out hanging over his head for one more day.
ROSALEE EICHSTEDT is a 30-year-old bisexual woman, stylist, and writer. This piece was originally published on her blog, The Grey Ghetto.