My dad came out of the closet in the early ’70’s. He was just over 30 years old. It was a gradual process and not one in which he just flung open the door and shouted, “Ta-da! I’m gay!” His coming out was one that happened in stages, beginning with Mom who was appalled, confused and devastated, then to his parents who were shocked into a denial that lasted until they died, and finally, nearly a decade later, to my younger sister. He never came out to me. Instead, I observed a number of signs with my adolescent eyes that led me to ask my mom one day, on the phone while she was at work, “Is Dad queer?” The answer led to a maelstrom of feelings that took me a very long time to sort out.
Over the years I was the one willing to tell anyone I shared my story with that my father is gay. There was something about dropping that bit of information that gave me a thrill, made my life more interesting, more exotic. I don’t remember any distasteful responses; most people replied with, “Wow, really?’ and the conversation would lead to sharing anecdotes that satisfied their curiosity and my need to openly express myself. When I mentioned that my sister is also gay my story got even more interesting.
Dad was pretty openly gay from the time he came out, especially during his years living in San Francisco in the 1980’s. I would meet him for brunch on a Sunday morning in the Castro, feeling a bit out of place in the sea of mustached men drinking Bloody Mary’s and dishing about the night before. By the time Dad and I were back in Chicago many years later, he had mellowed, yet was still not secretive about his lifestyle. When he met Benny he was sure to let everyone at Aunt Claire’s wake know that they were life partners, even after dating only a few weeks. A declaration that made my mother cringe.
The closet door remained wide open for Dad and me, while my mother and sister have tended to step in and quietly close it behind them around certain groups: Mom with her friends and Dina with her colleagues. Neither care to advertise that Dad was gay and certainly my sister’s tendency towards privacy keeps her closet door ajar, at best. This is their choice, of course, and I understand their desire to not call attention to what they feel may bring discomfort, or in Di’s case, judgment that could cost her business. Yet, when it comes to my work, authenticity is at the heart of the words I share with the world, and being accepted for who you are is the most important thing. That includes accepting them without judgment, too.
At a time when the LGBT community has the most support, and the most fear of losing the freedom and rights that have been hard-won after many decades of secrecy, I feel an obligation to stand as an ally and give voice to the families who struggle with being accepted. As I write about my father and seek to understand my sister, I come to love them more deeply. My journey as a family member hardly compares to the struggles they endured while in the dark, cramped space they could choose to emerge from or not, a choice heavy with unknown consequences.
Which leaves me with a bit of a conundrum when writing about my family, a dilemma I’ve resolved by choosing a pen name that doesn’t connect me to them, thereby offering me the freedom to speak truthfully, and by not sharing most of my work with Mom and Dina. I’ve come to not take their disinterest personally anymore, accepting their wishes instead of resenting them. This has been my biggest hurdle and the most freeing, for while I have a right to my story, they have a right to their silence.
Read more on our March writing topic:The Closet.