The Bridge to Manhood

A gay man talks about disappointing-and loving-his father.

BY: Michael Bronski

In June of 1974, when I was 25, I had a major decision to make. Because the gay-liberation movement traces its beginning to the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, Gay Pride Day is often celebrated on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the riots on June 22, and so frequently falls on Father Day. Would I go to my parents' home in New Jersey to be with my father? Or would I spend it with my gay community in Boston, publicly celebrating our lives, relationships, and political struggle for equality? I chose to attend the gay pride march and rally, and since then I have always associated Father's Day less with Dad than with the annual celebrations we call "gay pride events."

The phone call home was one of those hideously awkward moments in parent-child relationships. My father's tone was dismissive--a "do what you want, I can't believe this is even a discussion" tone. I got defensive. I grumbled that I had helped organize the speakers and had to be there. But under this coded language, meaning was clear to both of us. He didn't want to think about my sexuality, which he rarely acknowledged; I didn't feel much loyalty to a family who never wanted to hear anything about any part of my life touching on the subject of homosexuality. Since I was a gay activist and journalist with a lover and a wide circle of friends, this covered a lot of ground.

It wasn't simply that I wasn't in New Jersey for Father's Day. My liberal parents would have been happy for me to stay in Boston to protest for fair housing rights. It was that I had a "chosen" family of friends, including my lover. I celebrated my community rather than my biological family, who were painfully still pretending that most of my life didn't exist.

This tension between Gay Pride and Father's Day isn't just a scheduling conflict. It is-for many gay men-a time to reflect upon the extraordinarily complicated position of being a gay man who has a heterosexual father. And if this is a time for gay men to think about their fathers, it is also a time when fathers think about their gay sons. Gay men in our culture have sometimes complicated, but often rich relationships with their fathers. All father-son relationships have fault lines. In gay men's paternal relationships, the cracks go deeper, and they are wildly unpredictable. The possibility, even probability, of rupture and earthquake here is tremendous.

It is precisely this exaggerated cumbersomeness, this emotionally fragile distance-between father and son, straight and gay, between generations, between dreams and reality-that make gay men and their fathers a prism for viewing all our challenges of parenthood and childhood, even on this day of celebrating them.

Heterosexuality, of course, is our norm. Parents presume their kids are heterosexual until informed otherwise. Fathers in particular tend to expect their sons to follow in their footsteps. Fathering, raising boys to grow up to be husbands and fathers, is for many men part of being a man. Fatherhood is a bridge that links one generation to the next. It is both comforting and reassuring. No one raises his son to be a drag queen. Learning that their sons are gay can be more than some fathers can accept, understand, or even imagine. They realize that their sons won't follow in their footsteps. If their sons raise children, it will be with another male. They won't fulfill the dreams their fathers had as they held their newborn sons, singing songs their own fathers may have sung. That idyllic vision, now shattered, is often replaced with nightmarish visions of "unnatural sex acts," swishing and cross-dressing. "Will and Grace" may be funny on television, but most parents don't want to see it morph into a real-life "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

I have been "out" for almost 40 years, and have heard thousands of coming out stories. The element common to almost all of them is the fear of "disappointing" their parents. But common to all of them too is a scene in which gay men tell their fathers-in a very real way-who they are.

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