How I Came To Terms With My Gay Father’s Suicide
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“Your dad is gay!” my friend spat out one day when we were in a fight. It was as if she were accusing me of something horrible. I was 9 at the time.
That night, I confronted my mother. “Heather said Dad is gay. He’s not, right?”
She paused — a long pause that confirmed my worst fear.
I felt betrayed. I remember wondering how my dad could have done this to me, and — more importantly — what was I going to tell my friends?
It was the ’70s and there weren’t cool TV characters with two gay dads like Rachel Barry on Glee. Even though I grew up in New York City surrounded by artists (my mother was an opera singer and my dad a concert pianist) and knew people who were gay, I had already absorbed the message that it was not ‘OK.’ At the time, homosexuality was still considered a disease and was classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There were exceptions, of course. I loved some of the gay men I’d met through my parents, but those men weren’t my father.
I worked hard to hide the truth from everyone, including myself. My dad made that difficult, though. After he divorced my mother and came out of the closet, he made a public display of his gayness, wearing ascots and capes and even announcing one night while wearing a purse, “This is the new me!”
Instead of accepting him, I got good at lying. One summer, my best friend and I went to the country house my dad owned with his lover. When we found The Joy Of Gay Sex on their bookshelf, I laughed and invented some story about the man he shared the house with (why they also shared a bedroom was a little more difficult to explain). I prayed she believed me.
People on the street began to stare. I felt their eyes on us. As my father high-kicked, urging me to join him, I longed to disappear.
When I was 11, my dad took me to see “A Chorus Line” on Broadway. As we left the theater, he attempted to form a two-person chorus line of our own. Fearing what was coming, I began to shrink away. In his booming off-key voice (despite being an accomplished concert pianist, he was tone deaf — though what he lacked in pitch he made up for in volume), he sang: “One, singular sensation, every little step she takes …”
People on the street began to stare. I felt their eyes on us. As my father high-kicked, urging me to join him, I longed to disappear. But all I could do was walk along next to him, slow and straight, rolling my eyes to demonstrate to anyone who might be watching that, I too, thought my dad was queer.
But the truth is, deep down a part of me loved it and secretly wanted to join his fun.
It was confusing. On the one hand it turned my stomach to see him kiss his lover. And yet, I loved it when walking down the street with these two strong men on either side of me, they would each take one of my hands and lift me high into the air!
Love and shame became intertwined. I came to feel that everything I loved must be “wrong.” When I first liked a boy I couldn’t even tell my closest friends. When I had my first kiss I didn’t tell a soul. I started having clandestine love affairs in the fourth grade.
It wasn’t just boys I kept secret — all I wanted was to sing on stage, but I couldn’t bring myself to sing in front of others or admit this dream to anyone. Only when I was alone in my room did I belt out my favorite show tunes.
Suddenly, I understood the struggles of a gay man, not as an embarrassed child, but as a friend and peer. I saw what my father endured and tried to overcome by coming out.
Then, my father killed himself. I was 13. Though he had been diagnosed with manic-depression, I believe that his struggle to find acceptance as a gay man contributed to his suffering, and ultimately, his suicide. At the time, I didn’t understand any of this — all I felt was abandoned and angry.
There were years of therapy, introspection and spiritual journeys where I struggled to understand my father and mourn the loss. Then, in my twenties, I met John who happened to be a gay pianist who also shared my dad’s birthday. We became best friends. Suddenly, I understood the struggles of a gay man, not as an embarrassed child, but as a friend and peer. I saw what my father endured and tried to overcome by coming out.
I started to sing in public more, with John accompanying me on piano.
Through my friendship with John, I realized that with time I would’ve come to accept and love my father with the maturity of an adult, but I didn’t get that chance. I regret the ways I withdrew after finding out the truth about him. I stopped wanting to spend time with him. I tried to get out of our visits. In the end, I’m the one who missed out. I lost time with my dad — time that I didn’t know I wouldn’t get back.
Times have changed, and so have I. Our President has publicly declared that he believes same-sex couples should be able to get married. We’re at a point where gay marriage support may finally eclipse opposition. It may be possible for my friends like John and all others to feel that their love can be open and legally recognized in all places—that it’s no longer a “disease.” I can’t help but think how life could have been different for my dad if this had happened in his lifetime.
On the other hand, you have the North Carolina voters who approved a constitutional amendment banning not only same-sex marriages, but civil unions for gay and lesbian couples as well. I think of the effects this will have on the lives of people who are gay and those who love them. When I look at pictures of me and my dad from before my parents divorced, before he left the house and before I found out he was gay, I see a little girl who loved her dad without qualification. No shame, no fear, no belief there was something wrong with him or something wrong with me for loving him. I wish I had always felt that way.
We still have a way to go, but today a girl can more easily accept her father’s choice to be true to himself. When I think of my father now, I don’t feel embarrassed. Instead, thanks to the way he lived his life, I’m inspired to express myself more honestly, and fearlessly, and this is why, in part, I’ve finally been able to write and perform.
Now, when I see my father in my mind’s eye, he and I are high-kicking down a New York City street. We are arm-in-arm, and this time, I don’t stay silent. Instead, I sing. I sing at the top of my lungs right along with him. I don’t care who’s watching.
Adelaide Mestre is an actress, singer, writer and solo show performer living in NYC. She has performed in numerous theatrical productions/films including Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and just finished a run of her musical memoir Top Drawer at the Triad Theatre, NYC. Upcoming dates of Top Drawer to be announced at: adelaidemestre.com. You can find more YourTango posts here: