When my dad left us, his parting words to me we’re “one day, when you’re old enough, I’ll tell you the whole story”. Being the curious 12 year old that I was, I couldn’t just let that statement sit. Soon after I asked my mother about it and blurted out “is it that he’s gay?”
I’m not sure I knew what “gay” meant when I asked that question. Heck, I still wasn’t sure what “straight” meant at that age either. I was a shy, awkward 12 year old Catholic school kid in a class of 14 boys and 4 girls. We were all much more interested in playing football (for me playing had a loose definition) than understanding the intricacies of dating and romantic relationships. My only exposure to any sex education were poorly drawn overhead slides presented by Sister Margaret George during our 5th grade Family Life presentation. The only thing I knew about being gay was that it was a sin and that I didn’t want to have to add that to the list of things I would tell the priest during confession, like how I had tripped my sister and lied to my mom about it the same day.
So, I think I surprised both my mom and myself when I asked her if dad was gay. My mom had one hard rule and that it was she would never point blank lie to her children (like when I asked her if the presents I found hidden away meant there was no Santa Claus). But instead of responding outright, my mom asked me why I thought that. It wasn’t a deflection, but a legitimate question, and one that I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. Sadly it was likely do to my reliance on my dad matching up with some stereotypes (ironically ones that would actually apply to me as well, which is proof just how unreliable stereotypes can be).
It would be some time before my dad and I finally had THAT conversation. My sister and I visited him at his new home in Boston. In between playing tour guide to his new found home, he briefly said the words “I’m gay”, words we both had been prepared to hear, which made our reaction more matter of fact than anything else. He asked us if we had any questions, but since the moment I had figured out his “secret” I had already spent hours hidden in corners of the local library “researching” the subject (that’s what nerdy kids did before the Internet – I told you I was awkward). Of course I had other questions, but I just didn’t feel right or comfortable asking.
I would return to visit my dad during my freshman year of college. By this point, for my fellow identity theory nerds out there, my dad was in the midst of his identity pride stage. This visit would become a cultural immersion experience for me, and the final real step in my dad’s coming out process. I met his circle of friends (a group comprised of many former Catholic priests, which provided me with a surprising level of comfort). I also visited my first “gay bar”, which interestingly enough, was also the first time I ever had a drink in an actual bar (how many heterosexual men can claim that….or at least admit it in a blog post). In 18 plus years, it was the first time I had truly experienced my dad authentically. It was like I had just met a brand new person. I was proud of him.
While I will never claim to have an inkling of the struggle and pain my dad and others who come out have been through, being able to bear witness to my dad’s process has had a definitive impact on my own growth and development. First, it was the first time I ever critically questioned my religious beliefs. My dad tried to live the life the Church said he should live, and that just didn’t work. Even as a child, I couldn’t understand why God would want my dad to pretend to be someone he wasn’t and to not live authentically. Second, being a part of my dad’s coming out process made me a stronger ally. I have a vested interest, in a way, in being an advocate and providing a safe space. Finally, my dad’s journey serves as a constant challenge and reminder to try and live my own life authentically. I am thankful for being a passenger in my dad’s journey, and grateful for the person it made me into.