June is National LGBT Pride Month. Given the complexity of my family’s story, I’ve been asking myself what pride means to me.
First, some background.
My father (1918-2008) may have attended the first gay pride parade in San Francisco, which was really more of a march. That smaller version of today’s massive parades on Market Street would have passed right in front of the Montgomery Street office building in the Financial District where he worked at the time.
But if Dad did attend, he never told me about it. It took place in 1972. He didn’t come out to me until 1975, doing so only after I’d pressed him to admit he’d been unfaithful to my mother. (With women, I’d wrongly assumed.)
The annual pride parades of today attract LGBT people, their families, allies, elected officials, celebrities, and plenty of curious folks out for a colorful day. For me, the parades bring up a strange brew of questions and conflicting emotions.
Am I, a longtime human rights supporter and the straight daughter of a deceased, closeted gay father, a member of queer culture? Or am I merely a spectator?
Where does my own pride find its home?
I thought about this while attending a vigil in San Francisco’s Castro District on June 12, 2016, for the 49 people slain that day at the gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida.
Okay, I didn’t exactly attend the vigil.
Instead, I stood across Market Street from it and watched, listened, and cried with the “rightful” attendees who congregated on the other side of the street.
After all, I told myself, they were the ones who knew firsthand what it was like to be targets of hate crime, not me. How could I claim to know their pain, their fear, their anger?
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling of 2015, I also stood off to the side during a celebration at San Francisco’s City Hall that followed later that day.
I wonder if my closeted father felt similarly separate from the LGBT community during his lifetime. From my vantage point in our family, a family bearing a not-so-secret secret, I observed him taking on only small, individual acts of pride.
In the 1980s, for example, he displayed a Human Rights Campaign decal on the bumper of his VW beetle, though it took me a few years before I understood that HRC was devoted solely to the rights of LGBT people.
Dad boasted in the 1990s that his local librarian asked him to set up an LGBT section in the library. She’d grown weary of his weekly requests for new LGBT book purchases. It was a quiet, solitary act on my father’s part, though it may have been the first such library section on the San Francisco Peninsula.
He also made monetary contributions to LGBT causes and wrote letters to the editor. From our conversations over the years, I’d venture to guess that his letters were in protest of Anita Bryant’s national anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign of the late 1970s, President Reagan’s cruel indifference in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and the 1978 so-called Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.
Despite my father’s arrests in Pasadena and Hollywood in the late 1930s for being gay, the horror of which sent him into the closet for the rest of his life, I observed him throughout my lifetime moving with grace, purpose, and, yes, a sense of pride.
Even though he led a double life.
Even though my mother discovered he was gay in the 1950s, after the four of us kids were born. Once the initial shock wore off and thoughts of killing herself receded, she’d pleaded with him to stay, insisting she still loved him. He promised he would, which he did until the day she died in 2006, five months’ shy of what would have been their 65th wedding anniversary.
Within hours of his own death, Dad made a purposeful request of me, though I didn’t understand the meaning of it at the time. I’m still not sure I do. He wildly waved one arm as he pointed to a plastic clock on the wall of his hospital room, his attached intravenous line flopping around.
“What is it, Dad?”
“Turn it back,” he said.
I shot him a puzzled look.
“The large hand, Laurie,” he said. “Turn it back.”
“Uh, sure, Dad,” I said. Even I could hear the placating tone in my voice.
His face reddened and his powder blue eyes pierced mine.
“Turn it back,” he insisted, louder this time.
“Okay, Dad. I will. I promise.”
I meant it this time, too, although I had no idea what I was promising.
A few years later, I felt an urgency to write his story. To write our story. In the process, I found the place where I belonged. I found my side of the street. This became even clearer to me after the Orlando vigil where I’d yet again felt the interloper.
Did my father envision something like this when he pointed to the clock on his last day of life? I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to go on living. In any event, I’ve now turned the clock all the way back for him by telling his story.
In examining and chronicling the seeming contradictions and the finely-grained nuances in my family’s story, I’ve also discovered what was already there: a home for my pride.
My very own version of it. My story.
I originally published this post on The Gay Dad Project blog on June 21, 2016.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.