He was sitting on an off-white loveseat with pink and turquoise brush strokes that looked like 1987 threw up on a couch. That was the year he bought it to furnish the carriage house he rented after he and my mother separated. It was a grey and drizzly Seattle day, the kind that reminded me how far we were from the last place where life felt normal: Shreveport, Louisiana. Behind the loveseat was a bay window which, if you leaned into it and craned your head to the right, offered a glimpse of the Space Needle. But my attention was on my father’s weighty glance. He spoke abruptly, as if what he had to say was both overdue and over-rehearsed.
“I need to talk to you about the fact that your father is gay,” he said.
I said nothing. I can still remember being struck by the strangeness of him telling me in the third person. It seemed both impossible and inevitable; a fact that, to my mind at the time, seemed like it should have negated my existence. And yet it was also a fear I’d been avoiding and sweeping under the rug ever since the happy “normal” life we once had fell apart without adequate explanation.
When I was 10, my parents walked me to the end of a dock on a lake by a cabin we used to go to, not far from the Texas border, to tell me they were getting separated.
“I just need some space,” my father had said. With no further elaboration.
I cried, begging them to reconsider. And he almost did, but my mother took his hand and insisted: “This is a decision that we have both made,” she said.
Before Seattle, he started his new life in New Orleans, surrounded by young, handsome male “friends” who were always careful with their pronouns around me; awkwardly tiptoeing with phrases like “his ex” instead of “ex-boyfriend.” I could tell that at least some of them were gay, and I wondered why he had gay friends. Then again, my parents were ex-hippies turned open-minded yuppies. The kind of people with gay friends, even in 1980’s Louisiana. And he was my father. Wasn’t I proof that he loved women? Denial became my religion in those years.
On the loveseat that day in Seattle, my father told me his former roommate, a Brazilian man named Rubem whom he met in D.C. at a viewing of the AIDS quilt, was actually his ex-boyfriend. I’d chosen to believe it was normal for “roommates” to share a queen-sized bed, even though a bigger part of me knew otherwise. The irreversibility of what my father was saying suddenly hit me in a wave, and I became that same child crying on the dock four years earlier. But this time, I knew what he really meant by “space.”
After our talk, my father and I walked up to Capitol Hill’s main drag for some lunch the clock said I needed but my stomach couldn’t fathom. As I walked beside him, the man I had always seen as an extension of myself and a vision of my future, suddenly seemed like a stranger. That was the moment I knew that I would never look at my father the same way again. And it would take me years to realize that getting to know him as he really was, would deepen our relationship and give me a clearer pair of eyes on the world.
I’d moved to Seattle six months earlier from Iowa, where I’d lived with my mother in a meditation community since we loaded up a U-Haul during sixth-grade Christmas break, and left Louisiana after six generations there. I had only visited my father in Seattle at the tail-ends of holidays, and his life seemed so exotic. But I still didn’t know he was gay.
The day after I arrived in Seattle, I started eighth grade at a Catholic School not far from his apartment. I’d chosen the school because it seemed like a place to reconnect with “normalcy” after my time with the meditators. But normalcy was never in the cards, and after my father came out to me, what few friends I had, I kept at a distance. No friendship was worth the risk of any kids from my class coming over to our apartment and seeing a pink triangle on one of my father’s political newsletters, or even just our nude statue of David magnet on the fridge.
And my fears were not unfounded. One Saturday morning I was playing in a soccer game, and mid-way through, I looked up into the stands and noticed my father had come to watch, along with a friend. I was horrified. How could he be so careless, I thought.
“Who’s that fag with your dad?” said a mid-fielder who was my closest friend at the school.
I shrugged, “Just some gay dude from his work,” I said. “My dad barely knows him.”
He gave me a suspicious look, then trotted off towards the action at the distant goal.
Friends were a liability, so I spent every evening and weekend with my father and his friends. I became the beneficiary of the fatherly advice of dozens of successful childless men; learning how to arrange flowers, how to develop a skincare regimen, how to cook gourmet food, and how to sharpen my cocktail conversation. And from what I learned when they thought I wasn’t listening: party drugs, STD’s, park hook-ups, and a lexicon of gay slang. They were my family, but I resented them for the fact that in public, I was always afraid of who might be watching us. I may have traveled as far away from the Deep South as the contiguous US would allow, but my fears acquired there hadn’t gone anywhere.
My father and a few of his close friends tried to indulge a little of the heteronormativity I was grasping for. My father brought Playboys home to me from the advertising agency where he worked. My idea of masculinity had been formed in the 1980’s around a certain vision of Ralph Lauren yuppie-dom from my fathers closeted years, and I became strangely obsessed with recreating it in 1990’s Seattle. I was living in the coolest neighborhood in the country at the peak of the grunge music scene, but my father and his friends kindly indulged my transparent posturing. With their design help, I decorated my room with an English pine dresser topped with antique books between brass duck head bookends, and English fox hunting prints on the wall. My bed was covered in hunter green, burgundy, and navy flannel.
Interior decorating to prove my “straightness” was an irony over my 8th grade head.
In high school, my classmates discovered that my dad was in the Witness Protection Program.
I went to a small, liberal high school that my father could only just afford. It was paradise after parochial school and had openly gay teachers. But the boys still threw around gay slurs. And when my math teacher stood up at an all-campus assembly and announced, in tears, that he’d gotten a prank call about AIDS, I was relieved that no one there knew about my father.
But without that detail, my story didn’t add up. I was a fifteen-year-old with a thick Southern accent who had lived in three states in three years And I was certainly the only kid in that school that lived with his single father in an urban apartment. We lived like roommates; shared all the chores around the house and cooking duties. He would ask me about the girls I liked at school, and occasionally tell me if he’d met a man with boyfriend potential. We were finding our groove, but I didn’t want to answer questions about my life for fear of what they’d lead to. So I told my classmates that I was in the Witness Protection Program.
One night at a parent-teacher meeting, a mother of a boy in my class cornered my father and whispered to him: “I know your secret, and I promise not to tell anyone.”
She eyed him confidingly, and he looked at her in defiance.
“I don’t care who you tell,’” he said.
“Aren’t you afraid someone will hurt you… or your son?” She said.
He took a step back. Even at a time when skinheads were coming over from Idaho to bomb Seattle gay bars, this seemed beyond the pale for a potluck.
“What secret are you talking about?” he asked.
“The Witness Protection Program,” she whispered.
He fought the urge to laugh, then looked over both shoulders: “Better not put yourself in danger,” he said, as he walked away to refill his wine and left her petrified.
He was 41, handsome, single, masculine in mixed company, and oozing Southern charm. The single moms at my high school had it out for him, and often dispatched their daughters to get me to play matchmaker with them. “Is your dad single?” They would ask. And I would shift on my feet and mumble something about him having a girlfriend.
At home, I had a front-seat view of 90’s gay culture in America. I remember when a dozen of my father’s friends came over one night in 1993 and crowded around our living room TV to watch the first televised gay kiss, on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City. I was upstairs in my room doing algebra homework, and looking out from my fourth-floor window, it seemed like the show was playing on every TV on Capitol Hill that night. At the moment the kiss happened, I could hear the cheers coming from everywhere. And I felt a swell in my own heart, too, even if I didn’t know exactly what it meant.
The first person I told about my dad was my high school girlfriend, sophomore year. I was as nervous about telling her as I imagine my father was that day on the loveseat. But she’d already pieced it together and thought it was cool. She lived in Seattle’s fanciest gated neighborhood, and I lived where everyone our age wanted to hang out. I lived a dual life between playing the Southern Gentleman with her parents at their home on the golf course, and introducing her and her friends to my world of constant parties where 20-something Microsoft millionaires rolled on ecstasy in my living room and the occasional drag queen might stop by for a nightcap.
My guy friends loved my father, too, but I didn’t address the pink elephant in the room until right before high school graduation. One of them responded by saying he had hooked up with a guy once, and the other inexplicably told me our other friends’ parents were getting a divorce. I guess they both felt they owed me a secret.
I delivered the speech for our class at graduation. Out in the audience were both of my parents, both of my grandmothers, and an entire row of handsome, gym-fit men who all had a hand in my transition from the boy crying on the loveseat to the young man speaking at the podium. I had seen a lot of wild nights because of them, but I had also seen their courage.
Vassar College is no place to fear homophobia. During my four years there, the Homo-Hop—an annual blowout party that was put on by the LGBT alliance — was the event of the year. But I still didn’t volunteer anything about my father. I appreciated the fact that I could tell anyone, but I only told the gay friends I made, who thought of me as an honorary member of the tribe, as my father’s friends had.
Something changed one night during my semester abroad in Amsterdam. I was out at the Paradiso nightclub, trying to chat up a Dutch girl.
“I don’t like Americans,” she said.
“I’m not a typical American,” I said. But she just scoffed.
“My dad’s gay,” I blurted out, defensively, without thinking.
She stared at me for a moment in silence. Realizing I was serious, she shifted closer to me on the wooden bench and asked me for a smoke. She wanted to hear everything about my life. I’d gone from a pariah to the most interesting guy in the room with those three magical words: “My dad’s gay.” That one phrase told her about my politics, my religion, my concept of masculinity, and my life experience.
The idea that my secret could be my superpower was a revelation. I never saw her again after that conversation, but for years afterwards, the women I met usually knew my father’s sexuality before they knew my name. But my vocal comfort with his sexuality was selfishly motivated. It was opportunism, not Pride. At least not yet.
All those years I spent in my head were good early training for a writer. And my father, a writer himself, held the profession in the highest esteem. Thanks to him, I had no shortage of fodder. There were times that would’ve made Tennessee Williams blush. Like the boyfriend from the University of Washington that my father met in a personal ad, and who people mistook for my brother. And the time my closeted Godfather back in Louisiana –– a regionally-famous car dealership owner –– shipped us several hundred gay porn VHS tapes to throw away for him, and I decided to drag the boxes to the sidewalk and sell them to passersby. The circuit parties I tagged along for in New Orleans, and all the nights when our living room became the after-hours club.
But what I remember most is the camaraderie. My father’s friends had moved from all over the country to the place where they could proudly be themselves and build a chosen family. And at the time, for reasons of my own, I needed that, too. When I was 14, I thought my dad’s sexuality was my cross to bear. But over the years, it has become a source of great pride. I am proud that the life he lived helped to pave the way for those who would follow.
A high school classmate of mine recently told me that her 11-year-old daughter, Dorothy Grey, who’s in the sixth grade at our old school, just came out to her friends. She said she got tired of fielding questions about which boys she had crushes on like it was a given, or that something was wrong if she didn’t. So she spoke up. When I asked her what advice she’d give to other young people in her position, her response was simple: “Just be honest about who you are, and if any of your friends are weird about it, go be with the ones who support you.”
Needless to say, I didn’t have her courage when I was her age. But hearing her story reminded me of the simple truths that lie at the heart of Pride, and how important it is that I pass those on to my children.
When I moved to Seattle, my father was just getting by. For the first six months, we lived in a basement apartment with windows onto an alley. Back in Louisiana, we’d lived in a big two-story house filled with fine antiques. But in Seattle, our two rooms were filled with office furniture left over from when his ad agency went belly up. Our favorite pastimes were walking around the neighborhood in search of “For Rent” signs, and scanning labels in the grocery store for local companies he could hustle for freelance copywriting work. We lived on chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli that we cooked in our tiny kitchenette.
Many years later, after his fortunes had changed, we were trading stories from those days one night after a few bourbons.
“I can still make damn good mashed potatoes,” I said.
They were always my job. And to this day, I still use the same little hand mixer and worn-out garlic press that I used in that tiny apartment, instead of the fancy one from our wedding registry.
My father got quiet for a moment. “I’ve flown on the Concorde, been on safari in Africa, and eaten dinner in the Eiffel Tower,” he said, as his eyes watered slightly. “But those were some of the best years of my life.”.
I smiled and nodded back. It was true for me, too.
My wife and I took our daughter to her first Pride parade when she was six months old, and she ended up on the evening news waving her rainbow flag. She has a book on her shelf about a boy bunny marrying another boy bunny, and at four, she knows her fair share of Abba lyrics. My father passed away before he met his grandchildren, but I still see him every day in their mischievous smiles and the red tinge in their hair. And as for his pride, they can get that from me.
Stinson Carter is a journalist, editor, author, screenwriter, and playwright. He is a contributor for WSJ Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Wired, and Playboy, among others. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and two children.