I Would Rather Know

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Should I tell my children?

That is a question I have been asked by a number of gay men over the years who are closeted in straight marriages in repressive cultures and do not plan on leaving their wives.

The conversations go something like this: What if my children find out from someone else, or after I die? They will hate me for keeping it from them. What do you recommend?

My dad, Ralph Hall, in 1958

I am not in a position to advise them. I can only share my personal story.

The year was 1975. I pressured my father to admit he had been unfaithful to my mother. I was 24 and had seen the tell-tale signs from as far back as I could remember. Little did I know that his admission would come with a twist, one that would keep me tangled in knots for decades. He was gay, he said.

That was the day I began rewriting my story.

Sure, Dad had recently hung a painting of a nearly nude man in his den. He was just avant-garde and respectful of women, I told myself, unlike the other fathers in the neighborhood who hung pinups of topless women over cluttered work benches in their garages.

No, my father was not the kind to attend Little League games or watch football games on TV, instead opting to herd his four children to fine arts museums, musicals, and operas in San Francisco, and on tours of modern architecture throughout the Bay Area. My siblings and I just had a classy father, that was all.

Our fussy, carefully pruned landscaping was the result of his artful trims and love of contemporary shapes of swimming pools and planting beds, unlike the bland, conforming lawns the men on the block spent every weekend mowing. I felt fortunate to have an artistic father.

I did not recall these scenes in that moment Dad disclosed his sexual orientation to me. But I have spent many hours since then recalling ever finer details, ones that might have clued me in sooner. On that day, I had expected a confession of sorts, but one which involved my dad cheating with other women–not with men–specifically with friends of my mother who flirted with him every chance they got.

I joined my father in his closet that day. I was now a daughter with a heavy burden who, in sharing a secret with one parent, now felt unfaithful to the other. But would I have preferred not knowing the truth until decades later? Would I have preferred not knowing at all?

No. And no.

Beginning at around age two, I was already a spy in my own house, tracking every movement my dad made. On early morning workdays when the light under the kitchen door went out, I assumed he had left us forever. I had this vague feeling that he did not belong to us.

As a young child, I believed the problem in my family was mine alone. I was too sensitive. I cried too easily. Night terrors kept me awake in the middle of the night. I bit my fingernails. Mom kept the lights on at night for me, not for my sisters or brother.

When my mother discovered revealing photos in 1957, Dad came home to find her lying in bed next to a pile of razor blades, ones that fortunately she did not use.I was six at the time and confused as to why I alone among my siblings was in such acute physical pain and crippling fear that year with no visible proof of anything out of the ordinary in our family.

Once I began dating, during the decade before my father came out to me, I utilized my spying acumen on my boyfriends, quickly squelching each successive romance.

To those who ask the question, yes, I would rather know why as a little girl I was so anxious and fearful of being abandoned, and why later I was predisposed to distrusting boys and men.

For any number of reasons, I would want to know sooner rather than later, even though my parents remained married. My mother died four months’ shy of their 64th wedding anniversary.

Knowing the truth about the big secret in my family put me on a path, though an arduous and ongoing one, towards a greater understanding of myself and increased self-acceptance.

I now know that the problem in my family wasn’t me. The problem was America’s cruel culture of the 1940s (and beyond) that bullied, shamed, imprisoned, and ultimately closeted my father.

So, yes, I would rather know.

But if I were the child of a closeted dad in a culture where those known to be gay may be murdered for it, I can’t really say. I’d want my father to be alive.

Read more in Laura Hall’sMy Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming soon to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco. You can find Laura onInstagram,Facebook, andTwitter.

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  1. Lynn Teague says:

    “… in sharing a secret with one parent, [I] now felt unfaithful to the other”

    That is a very astute observation. One friend and I had a very stubbornly (ok, that was me) debated discussion about this fifteen years ago after my divorce from my children’s gay father. My friend is still adamant to this day that if the children are to know, then it definitely should come from the LGBT parent because it is their story to tell. However, when my ex made me promise I wouldn’t tell our children why we were divorcing and they found out later, they were angry with me. He had given them several untrue reasons about me in order to cover his tracks in his denial. They believed him and tracked everything I did for signs of what he claimed. Once they discovered the truth, they were angry at me that I had not defended myself by telling them the truth in the first place. But, this was when they were 13 and 11. Because of the closeness of our relationship and years of therapy, I knew it was safer for them to misplace and express that anger at me rather than him. From many conversations I’ve had with others, all too often it is a catch 22 for the cisgender parent too.

    • Laura Hall says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Lynn. What a painful situation for you and your children. It was difficult for my mother, too. Homophobia places a terrible burden not only on its intended targets but, as you and I both know, all too often on their families as well. I wish you and your family all the best. xo

  2. Hi Laurie, thanks for sharing your story. I too am married to a woman. I’ve 2 young kids as well. I’m also culturally stuck about coming out. It’s taboo where I’m from. I guess I could come out and tell them to not say it. But that’s also putting them in a closet so to speak. I guess it’s figuring this all out.

    • Laura Hall says:

      Thank you for sharing your family’s situation, Jim. What a challenge it is for those in cultures where homosexuality is especially taboo to determine what’s best for the children. No matter what happens, your children are fortunate to have a loving father who cares deeply about the effects on them. Wishing you and your family all the best on your journey. xo

  3. I consider myself lucky as the daughter of a gay man to have known since I was 5 years old; I am 49 now. I used to wish he had kept it a secret and stayed married to my mother, but after getting to know other adult children whose father’s did just that, I consider myself lucky. Many of those dads who lived in secret were physically available but not emotionally available to their families. They were often angry and aloof parents that ended up damaging their relationship with other family members and of course their children because they felt stifled. Secrets and lies can be far more damaging than the truth. So, yes, I too would rather know.

    • Laura Hall says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Gillian. You were so fortunate to have learned the truth about your father at such a young age. As you say, the entire family is often burdened by a closeted parent. And they don’t know why they’re so burdened, which is so aggravating. Although my father was loving and emotionally available to my three siblings and me while we were growing up, I knew something was amiss and it made me a fearful and anxious child. One day there will be no more closets and no more families having to carry the weight of this cultural burden. xo

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