When I was 12 years old, my schoolteacher suggested I enter a writing competition. It was sponsored by the local branch of the American Legion. The prize was a $25 gift certificate, for Woolworth’s, I think.
Academic achievement was a big deal in my family, especially for my father who doled out dimes for every ‘A’ we received on our report cards.
When any of us kids needed homework help on school nights – writing, reciting a poem, diagramming sentences, or even an art project – Dad walked us through the hard parts.
I decided to give the contest a try. In point of fact, what I really wanted to do was win, to be #1, to make my father proud.
But the theme, Why I Salute the American Flag, held no interest for me.
I didn’t know why I saluted the flag at school every morning. What did indivisible mean anyway? And what was a republic? My interests were art and P.E., not civics and history.
I ended up faking it. I also ended up winning.
The Legion chose my essay, my phony essay, out of all the others submitted by schoolchildren throughout our city. Unlike mine, many were undoubtedly heartfelt and sincere.
A few weeks later, I read my essay on stage to the Legion’s elderly war veterans. They stood up and applauded afterwards, some struggling to rise from their wheelchairs. I felt sick to my stomach. They were so appreciative and patriotic while I hadn’t meant a word I said.
I was a pretender. At the time I didn’t know my father was pretending, too, pretending to be someone who was straight.
Looking back, I have compassion for that little girl who was me, just as I have compassion for my father who was born gay into a non-gay world. In order for us to consider ourselves worthy, in order to succeed and win, we each felt compelled to present as someone other than our true selves.
I didn’t know at the time, though, except perhaps on an unconscious level, that I was doing exactly what my father was doing – seeking approval, even accolades, while believing the real me didn’t deserve them.
I never did redeem the gift certificate.
This occurred more than five decades ago. But in that moment on stage, as I fabricated a story about honoring the American flag in front of men who’d fought bloody wars under that same flag, I knew I never wanted to feel that way again.
For decades in my urban design professional practice, I wrote passionately and sincerely about how best to design communities to foster social cohesion.
Now I write to give voice to my father, the man whom for most of his nine decades of life had no voice. I write the words he wasn’t able to speak in public. I write to comfort his still-closeted brothers and sisters.
I also write in solidarity with their offspring, for those of us who have suffered the transgenerational effects of having a parent in the closet.
My father couldn’t do this. But I can. It’s easy now. I’m not hiding anything. I don’t feel like throwing up when I read my words. They come from my heart. I understand what I’m saying and I care about it.
I write for my father. I write for myself. I write for all who continue to live in the shadows.
That’s why I write now.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming soon to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.
Read all of our posts on the topic writing here.