“Someone you know is gay. Maybe even someone you love. Think before you speak hate.” It's a good meme. I am sure it was a bumper sticker before, or possibly a flyer that was handed out. Like most things in the LGBTQI+ community, there is a lot of history to the really good slogans and statements. I didn't know anyone that was gay when I was a child. I didn't even know that it could be a thing. I was raised in a small town in Alaska, and I was homeschooled. I remember my older brother learning a hateful gay slur and calling me it one time. I was incredibly confused by it so I went to ask my step-mother what it meant. Her face went pale and she stammered out some sort of reply that made no sense to me. I was told to never say that word again. The look of horror on her face was so great that I told my siblings it had to be one of the worst curse words, and we probably should not say it. We never did.
When my family moved to Anchorage we were in regular attendance at Anchorage Baptist Temple. This was in the early 90's and Prevo really wasn't a fan of the homosexuals. There were a lot of sermons and propaganda in the church about the gay “agenda” and one documentary in particular that was watched was titled “Gay Rights, Special Rights.” My memories of this movie as an adult are gross, because there were parts that claimed that the “agenda” included legalized child abuse, violence, and more. I don't think any of that stuck with me back then. The images that stood out the most to me were of men kissing, holding hands, and marching happily during Pride celebrations in San Francisco and New York. It was the first time that I was ever able to witness men happily doing what I wished I could do with the boys in my neighborhood.
Throughout the years this has led to a complicated relationship with my father. I didn't really understand that for most people there is a process to coming out of the closet. I had no internet, no social media, and no community to turn to that would be able to answer the questions that I had. My mother was incredibly supportive of me during this time, and even though I did not live at her house, when she could show me movies or express positive feelings about her gay and transgender friends, she did so emphatically. There wasn't a lot that she had to choose from, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show will always have a special place in my heart thanks to her.
I am not alone when it comes to having a tumultuous relationship with my father because of my sexual orientation. Dr. Michael LaSala did a study titles Gay Men and Their Fathers: Hurt and Healing. In his story in Psychology Today he states that of the 65 families he interviewed, only 17 fathers agreed to participate. Of the sons he interviewed that reported negative experiences from their fathers such as taunting, none of the fathers consented to an interview. It would be easy to make each father the scapegoat, but looking back at society there is almost a system in place to create this hostility in father and son relationships. When homosexuality is thought of as less than masculine, or the lack of masculinity, a father who learns that his son is gay may believe that he has failed to pass on the traits of what it is to be masculine. He sees this as a failure on his part, and therefore distances himself from his child.
There is still debate about why people are gay. The common debate is of course nature versus nurture, and people are told that if they raise their children certain ways they will end up with a very severe case of homosexuality. There have been studies proving the link between older brothers meaning an increased chance of future sons being gay. That there is an alteration in the Y chromosome in utero that causes it. Freud had a theory that it is caused by an overbearing mother and a distant father, but this is the furthest thing from the truth for many that I know.
My best friend Shawn Lyons is unapologetically gay, in the absolute best of ways. We have the type of friendship where if we were not both gay, our families would think we were. He came out after graduating from high school, “for dramatic effect”, and looking back he wonders why it took so long. “I was very fearful of coming out. Years later, I looked back and realized that there was never a reason to. As I reflected, there was never a time that he made negative comments about homosexuals. Actually, he never made negative comments about gender, race, sexuality or anything else different than him.” Lyons told me. His father was the person who introduced him to classic gay films like Too Wong Foo, The Birdcage, and Philadelphia. Now his father, a retired APD Detective, is the Deacon of a Baptist Church in Arizona, and still fully accepts his son, and his new son-in-law. “When my husband and I went down to visit he introduces us as a married couple. He loves me, and he tells me that as often as he can. He also loves and fully accepts my husband.” Reflecting on their relationship he also said “I consider my father to be the person that most people on this planet should try to be. A happy man, who wants people to be happy and enjoy their lives. I also realize that there are times I take him and his love for granted.”
Another pair that handled a coming out very well are Sean Johnson and his son Brynn. “The most dramatic part of me coming out was how not dramatic it was. My family was accepting, loving, and supportive.” Brynn said, when speaking of his decision to be fully honest at age 11, in the 5th grade. His father spoke of creating a safe space for Brynn to come out, even before the conversation happened “I don't consider myself a very enlightened person, but even I knew that when people come out and have bad experiences, and I am not even talking about parents that send their kids to a “pray the gay away” situation, or something like that. When people even have mildly experiences, it seemed to manifest itself poorly. I wanted Brynn's experience to be really positive. It is who he is. We celebrate it.” This atmosphere at home, was also able to be found at school for the most part, and the younger Johnson said “Some people are terrible. Most people have supported me. It has been a pretty good experience.”
After his son came out of the closet Sean decided to become involved at Identity Inc. as a volunteer, and eventually became one of the founders of a group called Bridging the GAP (Guardians and Parents) that meets simply as a support resource for parents of kids that identify in the LGBTQI+ community. “One of the things, when you have a child that is part of the LGBTQ community, like Brynn, common questions that you may have, you don't have friends, or grandparents that you can even ask simple questions.” he said, speaking of issues like first relationships, and larger events such as the shooting at Pulse Orlando. The group is taking a break for the summer but will begin meeting again the third Thursday of every month at Identity.
For 45 years the group PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has been offering similar support to members of the LGBTQ individuals, their family members and other allies. They have over 400 chapters in nearly all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. There are over 200,000 members and supporters of this multi-generational organization.
I asked Dr. Tracey Wiese, who is a parent herself, about if she sees better reactions these days from parents when their children come out of the closet and she said “It depends on the family, and the parents willingness to be open, to learn new things, and mostly to reflect on their own behavior. Be honest with themselves about what needs to get better to help their child. I think there is more information available to parents now. There is more connectivity. Parents of kids with special needs can connect on Facebook. There has been a lot of visibility for parents of kids with other needs, but all parenting is about your ability to reflect on what you could be doing differently to support your kid.” I decided to follow up that question with just some advice about what parents should do if their child does decide to be honest, and share that part of their lives, her response was pretty simple, but what would always be helpful. “Validate and listen. Keep your poker face. Assure your kid that you will always be there for them, and you will always love them. Validate and love, that's it, for everything.”
No matter how complicated my relationship with my father has been over the years, and no matter how many years we go in between speaking, there is one thing that he has always done. He has always told me that he loved me. Over the past couple decades there have been other men in my life that have stepped in and been in that Dad role for a time. When the core of who I am as a person is allowed to be voted by others, and I have seen them publicly support candidates that would like nothing better than to say I do not deserve equal rights under the law, it is difficult for me to allow those people into my life. When it is someone that I share blood with, it cuts just a bit deeper.
There were really good times with my father growing up. Nobody can read a bedtime story like that man. He taught me to drive, he taught me baseball, he taught me a lot. Up until recently we hadn't spoken in years. After a stern admonishment from my Mom, I got him my email address and we began writing letters. One of the first things that he said to me is that he has been reading what I have been writing in Prism, which means he will read this. As many disagreements as we have had over the years, that means a lot to me. It feels like a first step. So, please allow me to take this opportunity to say for the first time in many years, Happy Fathers Day Dad.