For nearly an hour Jonathan attempts to share with me the secret of his heart. He starts and then he stops. He sits a while and then he stands. He almost says it and then he closes his mouth to prevent the words from taking life. Finally he says to me, "I can write it down." And he does. As we sit together in his room, with his mother and brother in other parts of the house, my 16-year-old son passes me a note that reads, "I am gay."In my heart of hearts I know before reading it what is written in this most important of notes. One of the reasons I know is because I too am gay; however, I am not out with my sexuality. I am living in the closet of fear and shame. I have only seconds to respond to Jonathan, because I am certain it has to be agony for him the longer the silence hangs between us. In those seconds many thoughts and questions flash through my mind and heart: I must respond lovingly. I must assure him that he is loved. What about my own sexuality? Should I let him know that I really do understand?My first verbal response is to say, "I love you." My first physical reaction is to embrace him. It is then that he cries. No, he sobs! I have never before seen him cry as he does now. These are tears of relief and joy. These are years of tears!Jonathan was afraid to tell me, yet he had to tell me. He knew I was politically liberal; still he had anxiety about sharing his homosexuality with his minister father. Even though he was relatively sure that this revelation would not negatively affect our relationship, he was frightened. Now, as Jonathan hears and feels love, he experiences relief from the weight of his secret.During this extended time of crying and embracing, I know I have made the right decision. This is not the time to deal openly with my own sexuality. This is his time, and I must not intrude on it. This is his time to be, and to feel, loved unconditionally. I do believe that this is one of my finest moments as a parent. I am proud of him and I am proud of myself.Approximately three months later I came out. I would like to say that my son's coming out was a catalyst for my coming out. I would like to say that I came out with as much integrity as did he. I would like to say I set my fear aside and did the courageous thing as did Jonathan; but I cannot. The pride I felt in myself the night my son came out turned to shame the day I shared with him that I too am gay.My shame was not in being gay but rather in the circumstances surrounding the necessity of my telling Jonathan. Unlike my son, I lived a double life for years. I tried to be what I thought society and religion, at least as I understood them, wanted me to be. I do realize that my son and I come from two very different generations, that being an openly gay teen in the mid '60s and early '70s would not have had the same level of acceptance as in the late '90s. I would never have passed my father a note that read "I am gay"!I told my son about my homosexuality as a result of being caught cruising. I was caught by the police and arrested. I know this is risky behavior. It is not easy to write or read about. I also know it may not be a welcome topic, as GLBT folks desire to be regarded as normal, whatever that means, instead of being seen as sexual perverts. I never have understood myself to be a pervert--just a very confused and sexually repressed man, a man who attempted to live a life, a heterosexual life, that was not for him.I do not wish to go into the details of my arrest because that is not the focus of this writing. However, I do believe that risky behavior, such as cruising, which often does lead to the outing of closeted gay men, needs to be openly addressed without judgment.When I told my son about my homosexuality he was devastated. This is probably not what you would have expected. Perhaps you are thinking Jonathan was focused on the arrest, that it was the arrest that devastated him. No, it was this unexpected disclosure from his father and the fear of what it might mean for our family. Despite my suspicion that he was gay, he had not suspected me at all. I hid it very well. So in a matter of hours he learned my deepest secret and also came to an awareness that family life, at least as we had lived it, would change. Jonathan was afraid of losing the stability of a two-parent home. Only one of his friends had parents who, like his, were not divorced; he took pride in having parents who were still married. He was a teenager. He was concerned about himself. He was afraid of what all of these new developments might mean for him; and rightly so. I was not a teenager; I was 44, and I too was frightened about what my admission would mean for me. How would I survive financially? What would this mean professionally? Where would I live?
Family secrets are not healthy, neither for those who keep them nor for those who are uninformed. Secrets can damage, if not destroy, family intimacy and relationships. Now that my secret is revealed, Jonathan and I are afforded the opportunity to deepen our relationship. One of the ways we have done this is through more honest and open communication.A few days after my coming out to him, Jonathan and I began a conversation that is still in process. Some of the best conversations are those that just happen during the course of life events. Jonathan and I do not spend all of our dialogue time dealing with our sexuality and all things gay, but it often comes up. This should not be a surprise, because our lives have been significantly impacted by these issues. As gay men we are part of a minority group. Then, as a gay father and gay son we are part of a minority group within a minority group. There are many issues in life that cannot be discussed in one sitting, that require not only dialogue but also individual thought and, most important, recess. I like the fact that we have been in joint discussion--I might even call it discovery--for several years. As we mature and develop as individuals we bring this maturity and development back to our conversation, our relationship. We share a mutual respect and appreciation that makes it possible to disagree with each other without threat of isolation or abandonment. It is my hope that we will continue this conversation for the rest of our lives.My wife had known about my homosexuality from the beginning of our 22-year marriage. We both lived in denial and hope. We denied the true impact of my sexuality and hoped I would be healed or changed. Twenty-two years is a long time to live in denial, so it took a lot of courage for us to decide our marriage was over. Two months after my arrest I moved out of our home and into my own apartment, an apartment that Jonathan helped me decide upon. It was in an old house that was converted into four units. I believe it reminded him, as it did me, of our old historic two-story home just blocks away.Others have written on the topic of older men regressing to adolescence upon coming out. Well, at least for me, it was true. I found a group of friends that I hung out with. We would go out to the clubs every weekend, staying out very late. I went through a series of boyfriends, some of them much younger than me. Even though I remained connected to Jonathan there were times I was not as aware and sensitive of his needs as I should have been. I think there were times he thought I had completely lost my mind. I also think there were times he thought we might even be lost to each other. How very scary this must have been for him. He had the courage to come out. His family accepted him for who he is. Everything was going so well, and then I dropped the bomb that shattered our house of cards.I remember one occasion that was quite painful for me but for which I am so very thankful. Jonathan had been home for the holidays. I was taking him to the airport to return to college in Boston. En route to the airport he was unusually quiet, and then it all came out. He burst into tears and accused me of caring more for my friends, especially my boyfriends, than I did for him. He was incorrect in thinking I cared more for them, but he was accurate in observing my adolescent behavior towards my friends and boyfriends. Of course, at the time I defended myself. This conversation continued to weigh on me and I made a personal vow to never again do anything to cause him to question how much I love him or how important our relationship is to me. I realize the parent-child relationship changes as we grow older and that neither of us can make significant life decisions based on what is best for the other; still, the question of love and importance should never be in doubt.The relationship that Jonathan and I share as father and son is in many ways very typical. He calls home when he needs money. I want to know where all the money is going. When he needs advice he asks. When he does not ask I still give advice. Then there are other ways that our relationship is not so typical. When he and I went to New York to investigate Hunter College for his junior and senior years we went to the off-Broadway musical Naked Boys Singing. It felt so good to be able to share this entertainment experience with him. We were just two gay men, both in late adolescence, sharing a night out together. Parenting Jonathan when he was a child was a very rewarding experience; however, I believe the relationship we are now developing is one that is going to be even more rewarding. After all, our adult-adult relationship will likely be longer than our adult-child relationship.I recently visited Jonathan in New York. He is in his last year at Hunter. We saw another off-Broadway play. We went to the Bronx Zoo and to the Cloisters. And each evening we ate at his favorite ethnic restaurants. We also went to several gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn. Neither of us are big drinkers, but just like many other gay men we enjoy being where the men and the boys are. Being in Stonewall was a moving experience for me. Jonathan did not really know its historical significance. I felt such pride in being able to share with him the beginnings of the modern gay liberation movement.About a year ago Jonathan asked me a disturbing question, a question that brought an ache to my heart. He asked if I ever regretted having him. He went on to say that he felt I stayed in my marriage because of him. He is right and wrong. I do believe I would have left the marriage sooner had it not been for him and his brother. But I have never regretted my decision to father either one of them. My oldest son, Matthew, is straight yet accepting and affirming. My wife and I adopted him when he was 11. When Matthew was 14, Jonathan was born. My wife and I conceived him through fertility treatments. Both of our sons were and are wanted. I never want my sons to carry any guilt for decisions I am responsible for making. The best gifts I received through my attempt at heterosexual life are my sons.On my last trip to visit Jonathan in New York I met his boyfriend. I find it so very natural to think and write about him having a boyfriend. I also believe it is now natural for him to know his dad also has a boyfriend. We have become comfortable with each other because we have become honest with each other. It was both difficult and comforting for me to walk away from Jonathan and his boyfriend on that last Sunday night in New York. Even though we didn't know when we would see each other again, I kept remembering something he had said to me during those few days together: "I really like being with you." What father, gay or straight, would not melt upon hearing their son or daughter say "I really like being with you"?Just a month after my visit with him, Jonathan telephoned to inform me he is coming home for a week between his summer and fall terms. He wanted to know if I would help him with his plane fare. I responded, "Where is all the money going?" Just another typical father-son relationship that is not always so typical.