Before completing high school, I came out of the closet to one member of my family. Just one. Close friends knew I was gay, and I had known for some time. It would have been nice to share that with my entire family, to let them all know who I really was. You can believe I would have, had I not been terrified of being tossed out on my ass.
I could have chosen one of my brothers, who not only were of the same generation but could have appreciated the sexual oppression of our household. They seemed more like strangers I happened to live with than comrades, though, so it didn’t happen that way.
I also could have chosen Mom. The love she felt was obvious, if not outwardly shown, and how can a mother not accept her children for who they are? Right? But Catholic undertones and her generally sheltered existence scared me too much. What if love vanished and she started spouting churchy mumbo jumbo about me going to hell?
Life as a closeted gay teenager was a nightmare. On a good day, my vibe was like a dead Duracel. Whether or not they had been aware of my tortured state, my parents must have at least recognized I was capable of some very heavy-duty mood swings.
One morning that fall, Dad gave me a ride to school. Fighting another blue funk and in no mood to act the part of the perfect son, I sat looking out the window in silence as we drove the gray highway to the gray school for another gray day of my gray life.
Something made Dad reach out.
“Dale, if you ever want to talk about something, you know I’m always here, Bud.” No, Dad, I never had the foggiest damn idea you might be there for me. Want to know why? Because you never once, until this moment, bothered to say so.
That was such a crock, what he said. How dare he act like my friend when he didn’t even know who I was?
Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me before to open up that much to my parents — “that much” meaning about that subject. Nothing gave me cause to hope they might understand, or that they cared enough to try, or that they were capable. They were straight. They voted Republican. They were churchgoing, small-town bumpkins raised on dairy farms. Telling them I was gay would surely blow sky high what little security I had.
Still, I grudgingly acknowledged, Dad was opening the door. So I took the opportunity to bound right through it.
“Actually, Dad, there is something I want to talk about,” I said, with more sarcastic aggression than I’d ever dared to show my parents. “How about tonight, when I get home?” I challenged. Was he really there for me, or just hoping I’d snap out of it if he tossed me a bone?
He accepted our appointment with a smile, as if he were looking forward to me letting him into my world. This surprised the hell out of me. Where had his newfound willingness to talk about feelings come from? Who had body-snatched my dad and left this guy who seemed to give a damn?
Those questions soon evaporated as terror set in. What had I done? Without thinking it through, I had committed to dropping the fag bomb.
I had mere hours to plot strategy. The clock was ticking away the countdown to detonation.
It was late when I finally came home after school and work. I crept in quietly, hoping they would both be asleep and I could put the whole thing off, forget any of it ever happened. Dad, however, was parked in his La-Z-Boy, feet up and watching TV, waiting for me.
Tick, tick, tick . . .
After stalling long enough to eat a plate of dinner they had left wrapped in cellophane in the fridge, I knew the time had come.
I sat down on the couch in the darkened living room. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. Wondering how many more minutes of safety I had, I took deep breaths and reminded myself that it had to be done. Sometime in my life I had to stand up for myself, and for the truth.
Dad seemed to know that something big was about to happen. “So, what’s on your mind?” he asked, a little too enthusiastically.
I sat there in my mental stammer, mouth dry, adrenaline in a frenzy. After a few false starts, he assured me that no matter what it was, it was okay.
A few more false starts.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Uh, not the kind of trouble you’re thinking of.
“No, Dad, I’m not in any trouble.”
Who was I kidding? I was a 17-year-old homosexual manic depressive, going to Bass-Ackward High in Hicksville, USA, and I was about to tell my father, Mr. Republican of the Catholic Republicans on Old-Fashioned Avenue, that I daydream about getting it on with men.
After a few more eternal minutes of stopping and starting while Dad kept his eyes on the TV — a gesture meant to decrease the pressure — it came out. I came out.
That was it. Two little words that stand without rival as the hardest I have ever said to anyone. There was no turning back. Ground zero.
After a moment to collect our respective wits, we spoke again, covering the usual ground covered when a parent hears those words.
At first, there was tension. He wanted to know what made me say such a thing. He wanted answers. Essentially, he wanted to be brought up to speed on who I was.
One question I remember distinctly was how I knew I was gay. My news was outside the realm of his comprehension. Until that moment, he had no understanding of what it is to be homosexual, and no reason to acquire that understanding. In fact, he had absolutely no desire whatsoever to understand anything about it. I struggled for words that a nongay person might understand. Knowing he was raised in 1950s rural Minnesota, how could I expect my middle-aged, pickup-driving, meat-’n’-potatoes father to unaffectedly accept my news, let alone offer support? It wasn’t realistic.
The best I could come up with was to ask him, “How do you know you aren’t gay?”
The immediate and indisputable look on his face was his own answer. It was the answer: You just know.
After gay Q and A with Dad, I was able to breathe. Dad was having an aneurysm, but I felt liberated. For me, there was instant consolation in knowing that no matter what, the truth was on the table.
The night I came out to my father, two things changed forever.
The first was my willingness to have him be an active part of my life. Gone were the days of lying about my social life for fear it would give me away. Republican or not, he was in.
The second thing that changed was Dad’s perception of me, his youngest son. Until that moment, my existence had been little more than an illusion presented in hope of his approval.
Dad took decisive action. Once out of his own mental stammer he let me know he was not going to flip out, or beat me up, or lecture me, or disown me. In those crucial first minutes he let me know the one and only thing I needed to know.
He let me know I still had a dad.
Despite every reason in his world to turn away from me, he let himself be guided by his single reason not to: his love for his child.
The next day, and again about three weeks later, he reinforced that sentiment. I could not hear it enough.
Finally, Dad knew the real me, which, it turns out, is what we both wanted all along.