Last night, I watched the “Coming Out” episode of the PBS series, “We’ll Meet Again.” In it, two elderly gay men recalled that single individual who made all the difference in their lives.
My father had such a person in his grandmother, Frances Hall, whom he called Fanny.
During the high summer temps in the small Central Valley oilfield town where he and his family lived, Fanny stayed out at the coast in her mobile home in Pismo Beach.
Dad, 17 at the time, had reached the point in his young life where he wondered if there was anyone else in the world like him.
Desperate, he said, and near suicidal, he drove out to the beach to confide in his grandmother, someone he told me was the kindest person he ever knew.
“I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.”
It was out there at the beach, in 1935, where he came out to Fanny, the first time he said the words out loud.
“I couldn’t believe it, Laurie,” he told me. “She didn’t think I was a freak at all. She said that God loves all his children.”
That statement carries a mixed message, suggesting to some who’ve heard it that God also loves the “sinners.” But it turned my father’s life around. He moved from his conservative, homophobic hometown south to the more open-minded culture of Los Angeles. He started classes at Pasadena College where he hoped to get a teacher’s credential to teach English. He fell in love with a man, a student of music there.
Unfortunately, his life didn’t go the way the men in “Coming Out” did. They stayed out and married their long-time partners when the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage constitutional in 2008.
After two arrests in 1940 for being gay, my father took a different route. Fearing for his life or a lifetime in jail, he went back into the closet. He left his boyfriend, dropped out of college, joined the Army, married my mother, and had four children. He died in 2008 at the age of 90, two years after my mother’s death, the year of their 64th wedding anniversary.
Despite the life my father did live, he often spoke to me of his gratitude for Fanny. If not for her, he may not have had any life at all.
This has me thinking about my own life.
Undoubtedly, the most important person in my life was my father. While he was alive, he let me know both in words and deeds, as well as in his facial expressions, that I was the perfect “me.” This was never clearer than when I was four or five and asked him a very big question.
“Have I always been me, Daddy?”
“Well…,” he said, taking a deep breath and then walking me through a mental exercise. In the process, I could see that I’d always existed, even before I was born.
What a gift that was, to have an adult speak to me that way, almost as a peer, especially at such a young age. My father took my questions seriously, both then and until the day he died. This honoring of the essence of myself rooted me on my life’s path, one on which I’ve endlessly asked questions, any question at all.
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.