Long without a tribe

There must be others like me. Where are they?

It took me more than three decades to even ask this question.

A few years after my dad came out to me, 1977

The journey began on Father’s Day, 1975, when I asked my dad if he’d ever been unfaithful to Mom. He’d always been a shameless flirter.

I was 24.

He stunned me by answering a different question, one I’d never have thought to ask. Yes, he was unfaithful. He was gay, too.

Instead of getting counseling, or looking for others in my situation, I’d join my father in his emotional closet for the next 36 years.

Of the 76 million children born during the post-WWII Baby Boom, I’m one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of children born to gay soldiers returning home from the war to their straight wives, nine-to-five jobs, and an average of 2.5 children.

Yet it didn’t occur to me that my family wasn’t alone in our dilemma, or that I might be a member of some tribe.

In the gay half of my father’s double life, which he led during his 64-year marriage to my mother, he found his tribe. Like him, many of the men lived in the shadows. Many were married to women. Most connections were one night stands. Some remained friends.

One man my father loved. He was the only one I met.

Mom discovered Dad’s sexuality in 1957. At the time, she was 33 and the mother of four children aged 3-8. I’m the secondborn.

The only person she ever told was her priest. He assured her it was a passing phase, and that she just needed to concentrate harder on her marriage.

“Didn’t you even attempt to talk to your girlfriends when you found out, Mom?”

I could hear the condescension in my voice.

“Oh, no, honey,” she said, sharply. “I’d have been too embarrassed.”

I wasn’t self-aware enough at the time to see that I might well have pointed my finger at myself. We’d both done the same thing. We’d both secreted Dad’s secret once we knew it, Mom for the rest of her life.

It was only while drafting my memoir in my early 60s that I began to ask the larger question.

Am I really all alone in this?

I started my search in 2011 at the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center located inside the San Francisco Library. I asked the assistant for directions.

“I’m looking for memoirs written by children of closeted gay parents. Can you point me to the shelf?”

He shot me a blank look.

“Why don’t you browse while I check my computer,” he said.

It seemed the prospects were bleak. He’d find only one, the graphic memoir Fun Home, now an award-winning musical. As a child, author Alison Bechdel long suspected her father was gay, though he never came out to her.

Two years later, I found Fairyland, though author Alysia Abbott’s father lived an openly gay life from the time she was two.

I attended a book reading at the GLBT Center in San Francisco. Victoria Loustalot read passages from her book, This is How You Say Goodbye. Her formerly closeted dad died of AIDS when she was only eleven.

I still haven’t found another book written by a Baby Boomer that closely mirrors my family.

After the book reading, though, I found Amie Shea, founder of The Gay Dad Project. She was my first tribe member. Though our stories aren’t identical, we’re both “half-gay,” as she says, the offspring of a gay father in a straight marriage.

Our small but growing tribe now numbers half a dozen. We meet a few times a year in my San Francisco home.

Soon after finding my tribe, 2011

We use air quotes and we giggle, at first nervously so, at references to “the roommate” or “the friend” or “the uncle,” those not-quite-truthful phrases we all heard growing up.

Our shared dialect and easy, open repartee comforts us all.

Our collective healing is furthered by engaging in public LGBT activism in ways our closeted parents could not.

We share a common dream, too.

We dream of the day when no child will grow up speaking our dialect, the dialect of the closet.


Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming soon to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.

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First published at The Gay Dad Project on December 19, 2016.

Comments

  1. I have a similar yet different story as a millennial. My parents divorced when I was young. When my father believed I was old enough, which was early teens, he revealed that he was gay having married simply to have a child. My mother most likely knew his sexuality, though I’m not sure, but she had children she wanted help raising so it was a marriage of convenience. After the divorce, rather than “uncles” he went on vacations many weekends which I later learned were to meet up with friends, couples, etc..revealing to me openly at one point that he had an active lifestyle I didn’t see. He died a few years ago from complications due to HIV weakening his immune system but he never actually told me he had HIV though I had found evidence of it years before. I regret that we sort of had a closeted barrier esq relationship as I was gay and he knew yet we didn’t talk about it much including the secret of his sickness. I’m sure your tribe is huge in 2017 with many members you have yet to meet.

    • Laura Hall says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Zane. I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve been through. And I’m sorry for your father for what he went through, even to the extent that he felt compelled to hide his illness due to the stigma. I can’t even imagine that internal struggle. One of the worst things about family secrets, as you well know, is that the survivors are left with so much unshared and unresolved. And you don’t have your father to help guide you through it. You are very dear to buoy me about the many tribe members I have yet to meet. Your strength and kindness come through very clearly. Wishing you all the best as you move forward.

  2. I am the same age as you, Laura. My father also came back from the war and married at the age of thirty-three. He was obsessively religious and took the bible literally and had annoted passages on the back flyleaf of the bible refering to homosexuality and whether it was a “sin.” He claimed that women were intellectually and morally inferior to men and could never be great artists or musicians which wrecked my self-esteem and ambition (as I wanted to be an artist and I was female!). I wanted to be a boy because dad liked boys more than girls. I felt that from a very early age.
    After he died I found romantic letters from men from before the war, which he had hidden from the only other person in the house at the time, my mother.
    He rejected (dis-owned!was the term he used) me completely when he found out I had boyfriends. For a long time I was not allowed in the house, from the age of nineteen.
    My only brother was gay but could never come to terms with it and died of alcoholism at fifty after wasting his life drinking. My father commented that it was ok to be homosexual as long as you never did anything about it!
    I sabotaged all my artistic endeavours and although I have children that I love I feel that my life was blighted by my father’s repressed sexuality.
    I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Laura Hall says:

      I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve suffered, Rosie, this unique inheritance that children of closeted parents so often bear. Though my father was kind, I’ve still found needed comfort in the presence of other “gay dad kids” like me. Is there a local chapter of PFLAG (pflag.org) or COLAGE (colage.org) in your area? You’d be in good company if there were. Sending hugs your way. You’re not alone. xo

  3. Clarice L Griffith says:

    Well done, Laura. I still find it hard to believe that children of LGBT community still hide in the woodwork, but I was in my 40s when I came out to my family. It takes courage for the children, like the parent, to find their own way past the shame that overshadows us. Once we realize, there is no shame life is so much better. Keep blazing the trail Laura! 🙂

  4. Excellent, Laura. I have followed all your blogs. This is particularly marvelous!

    Eleanor

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