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.
Was my father disappointed? Definitely. He never really asked about my relationships, and showed no interested in my gay political causes or my books about gay culture.In his view I had joined that mysterious "gay world." And in some ways he was right: in both concrete and metaphoric ways, I left my family. Instead of coming home for Father's Day, I hung out all day, marching and partying.
Was I disappointed? Yes, this was my life and (within reason) I would have liked my parents to be part of it. But in retrospect I was lucky. Sure, they worried I wasn't "normal" and sent me to a psychologist, but it ended there. Other gay men I know were committed to mental institutions and given electroshock therapy in the late 1950s and early 1960s because their parents guessed they were "gay." I have friends whose parents never spoke to them, or who fled into that mysterious "gay world" because life at home became physically abusive after their sexuality was evident.
These are terrible stories, and I'm glad to say that I hear almost nothing like them when I speak today to younger men. What I do hear still is that young men still fear their fathers will be disappointed. And that this is often the case- their fathers are disappointed.
Why does this disappointment persist? What is this bridge, and why is it so easily destroyed? On the surface it's obvious: "being a man" means being muscular, manly-what we in the mysterious gay world call "acting butch." Gay men can be all these things, however, and many are.
This disappointment is grounded to a large degree in sentimental ideas about manhood. Feminism has taught us there are many ways of being a man, of which acting like John Wayne, supporting a wife and children-even having heterosexual sex-are only a few. No one but the most traditional man thinks this makes sense anymore. Magazines, newspapers, not to mention "Sex and the City" all praise the idea of the metrosexual: the straight man who appears gay. Advertisements, television and mass media show men changing diapers, making breakfast for kids, and even posing sexily and coyly in their underwear.
In such a polymorphous environment, why should heterosexual fathers still be disappointed? Possibly because they feel they have failed their own fathers, that they have broken the bridge by having a gay son, and understand this as a failure of their own masculinity.
I would like to offer a different, happier version of this scenario.What can a gay son give his father on this day, besides, most importantly, his love? He can also give him the gift of a new model of manhood and manliness. Being a man can mean being loving, being moral, being emotionally present and supportive for everyone in his life. It can mean being not just a member of a family, but of a community that embraces a larger, broader vision of what the world can be and how all people-women, men, children, heterosexuals and homosexuals-can be treated with equality and fairness.
These gifts may only be useful and enjoyed if they are accepted by fathers. By accepting their gay sons, and by loving them, fathers can accept new ideas about what it means to be a man. They can continue to build those bridges between generations with love and understanding, and not worry about their own masculinity. Hey, they could even make their own trips to that "gay world" by attending a gay pride march with their son. If there is pain between a father and his gay son, only the two of them can stop it. What better time to do so than on these holidays?