My Father’s Closet

Fifteen years later, that silence still rings in my ears. It is a silence which has changed my life forever, a silence broken only to a few close friends and family members, for fear of what people might think if they knew the truth. When Christians talk about having loved ones who are homosexuals, the conversation nearly always focuses on either what we can do to help that person adjust to their new life, or how we can bring them back into the Kingdom. But few have paid attention to those who are left behind.

After my parents’ separation, my sister and I began spending every other weekend with my father in the city. He shared a condo with a man who had also left his wife and children. The man’s two daughters seemed to have adjusted to the situation. It was as if everything was “normal.” But I felt anything but normal. It was as if I had fallen asleep and woken up in a bizarre alternate reality. At the end of the day, my father would not walk into the bedroom with my mom, like he had done only weeks before. Instead, he headed off to bed with a man I had met only days before.

Those weekends were a nightmare for my sister and me. Not only were we forced to leave our mother and friends, but we were placed in a culture we knew nothing about. It was not just a foreign culture; it was one which was anathema to the community in which we were raised. We had gone from the Garden of Eden to Sodom and Gomorrah. How could my father, who once reigned over our Eden, suddenly become a supporter of what we had seen as the enemy?

I was forced to deal with those weekends only for a short time, since a few months later, my mother, sister, and I moved 2,000 miles away from my dad. In many ways, this move made things easier for me. I was no longer forced to face the truth of my dad’s revelations. As much as I hated the fact that my family had not let me in on the secret of my father’s sexuality, I quickly discovered that I was able to find some security by keeping my dad’s identity hidden. As long as nobody else knew about my dad, I was safe from facing the truth head-on. I could live my life as if I was a member of the family on The Cosby Show — or at least some close dysfunctional relative.

Reality would set in again during the summer when I visited my dad. These were always times of ambivalence because, despite all the pain, I longed to be with my father. Like most sons, I had always wanted to be just like my dad. He was funny and people always seemed to love being around him. But I no longer really knew who my father was. The joy I felt at each joke he told and each person who gathered around him was now tempered by the reality that he was no longer the father I once had. He was no longer my protector from the world, but in fact had become the world. This betrayal was unfathomable to me.

Even in the midst of this betrayal, though, I loved to be held by my dad. I still desired the unique closeness of a father-son relationship. I treasured the times when it was just me and him sitting together on a couch watching a movie. It was wonderful cheering together at a Padres game that I knew he came to only because of my own love for baseball. As difficult as it was to trust or love my father, I hoped for a closer relationship with him.

It didn’t get any easier as I grew older. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I told someone about my father. My desire for security finally gave way to my need to be understood. And when I told my girlfriend about my dad, I was relieved to see that she didn’t run away from me and she didn’t accuse me of being gay. Thankfully, she did not treat me like I was strange — though I certainly felt I was.

It was even more difficult to tell my male friends about my dad. I was petrified that if I told them I would be accused of being “queer” — not the sort of reputation you want to have in high school. If I told them, would they look at me strangely when I gave them a pat on the back after a nice basketball shot?

I did not want to be ostracized simply because my dad was gay, and I wasn’t sure whether people, especially guys, would be able to separate my father’s identity from my own. Moreover, I was frequently reminded of the animosity many felt toward homosexuals. My junior year of college, a group of friends and I were watching an episode of ER in which a homosexual man was dying of AIDS. One of my friends — a future pastor — quipped, “I hate it when they show compassion toward them!” My heart sank. How could I tell my friends about my dad?

But the question soon became, how could I not tell them? If these were my best friends and my fellow brothers in Christ, how could I not help them see that homosexuality is more than leather-clad men in a bar?

One night I got the courage to read them a short paper I’d written about my father. It was one of the hardest things I’ve every done. I barely got through the first paragraph before I broke down. But by the time I was finished I saw the compassion in their eyes, and in the days that followed, I saw a change in their words and actions. My friend who had made the ER comment apologized. Others also asked for forgiveness for comments they had made in the past. My story had helped them to understand a different side of homosexuality.

It is this side of the story that I feel compelled to tell. Children of homosexuals have a unique vantage point on the complexities of the issue. Homosexuals are often able to surround themselves with like-minded individuals in the thriving gay culture. Spouses, parents, or siblings of homosexuals do not usually immerse themselves in a homosexual environment once their loved ones “come out.” Children, however, are in a sense forced to live a lifestyle they have not chosen. My father has never made me go with him to gay sections of town, but as a child you are emotionally dependent on your parents and do not often feel the right to tell your parent,” I don’t want to go to this particular place or meet that particular person.”

When I visit my dad I begin to truly understand what it’s like to live as a homosexual. My dad does not take me barhopping to gay taverns at night, but I am basically surrounded by homosexuals. It’s a strange feeling to be standing on a street corner watching a gay rights parade while your dad laughs hysterically at the “Dykes on Bikes” — something that, only a few years earlier, you would have been punished for viewing.

This transition has made me leery of putting trust in anyone. As a child, I had placed uncompromising trust in my parents. But since that trust was violated, I’ve found it difficult to put that much faith in anyone’s word, or in their character. Even when all is going well, I constantly guard myself against being too happy, aware that at any second my life could be dismantled again.

Perhaps most saddening to me, and for many other children of homosexuals, is the difficulty I have in trusting the motives of older men. Family experts repeatedly point out that children of divorced parents need to have someone fill in as a father figure. But whenever an older man pays attention to me, as a father would to his son, I am plagued with the fear that he might be gay. It isn’t the most rational fear — I know that not all gay men are on the prowl for other men — but it grips me nonetheless.

I am even more troubled when someone says to my dad, “You have a son?” Each time I hear this question I am flooded with insecurities. Is my dad ashamed of me? Why don’t these people know that my dad has two children? Since he isn’t proud of his heterosexual marriage, wouldn’t he also be embarrassed by me? If my sister and I are the only connection he has with his past, are we a thorn in his side every time he sees us? Nobody wants to be reminded of a past they’re ashamed of. Why should I think my dad would be any different? And when homosexuals come out of the closet, why shouldn’t they wish that their skeletons would stay inside? It’s not easy being a skeleton.

Likewise, it would be easy for me to be ashamed of my dad. But I, and others in my situation, have something more than shame to bring to the conversation between homosexuals and the church. By spending time with my father and his friends, I know firsthand what it means to be surrounded by people who don’t share many of my basic desires, tastes, passions, and struggles. It is at least a taste of the sort of isolation homosexuals must feel living in a heterosexual world.

Similarly, I probably have a greater appreciation of the fear homosexuals must have of telling their parents that they are gay. I know how fearful I am of telling my father what I believe about his lifestyle. What if he refuses to have anything to do with me because of what I believe? I have already missed out on a lot of my dad’s life as it is, and I am not eager to strain a relationship that has had many bumps and bruises. I can only imagine the despair homosexuals must feel in revealing themselves to their parents.

But in spite of all I’ve learned, there is much that I still don’t — and may not ever — understand about homosexuality. Homosexuality runs deep; it is not something that can be chalked up as merely a surface desire or a simple, conscious choice. It seems to me that we need to spend less time worrying about the origins of homosexuality and more time caring for homosexuals.

I would be lying, though, to say that I now have such compassion for homosexuals that I am completely comfortable in their world. It is hard for me to sit in the same room with my father as he cuddles with another man; hard to drive around with him as he comments on what a good-looking guy we just passed; hard to walk together through a gay section of town, knowing that people on the street might think that we’re lovers. But I put myself in these situations because I love my father, and because I want to know him, even the parts of him that I disagree with, the parts that have hurt me deeply.

I’ve been in these places, as have many other children of homosexuals, but I have been there alone — in part because I was ashamed, and in part because I didn’t see that the church was particularly interested in going there with me. Even as I make my story known, part of me wonders whether there will be some who will look at me strangely, checking my mannerisms for signs of “gayness.” Still, I believe that the children of homosexuals have much to offer. It is much easier to hate, or misunderstand, someone you have no connection to than someone you see as your friend’s parent.

Ever since the day I learned the truth about my dad, I have taken Romans 8:28 to heart: “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” For me, I think part of this good comes in telling my story. Other than my sister, I have met only one person who I know is in the same situation as I am. That meeting was historic to me, and it brought a sense of understanding that I had not felt before. I hope that the church can become a community where more of these meetings can take place and where Christians will join me, and those in similar situations, in our difficult and often complex call to love.

Lovense Max