Should I tell my children?
It is a question I’ve been asked by a number of gay men over the years who are closeted in straight marriages in repressive cultures and who don’t plan on leaving their wives.
The conversations go something like this: What if my children find out from someone else, or after I die? They will hate me for keeping it from them. What do you recommend?
I’m not in a position to advise them, but I can tell them my story.
The year was 1975. I’d pressured my father to admit he’d been unfaithful to my mother. I was 24 and had seen the tell-tale signs from as far back as I could remember. Little did I know that his admission would come with a twist, one that would keep me tangled in knots for decades. He was gay, he said.
That was the day I began rewriting my story.
Sure, Dad had recently hung a painting of a nearly nude man in his den. He was just avant-garde and respectful of women, I told myself, unlike the other fathers in the neighborhood who hung pinups of topless women over cluttered work benches in their garages.
No, my father wasn’t the kind to attend Little League games or watch football games on TV, instead opting to herd his four children to fine arts museums, musicals, and operas in San Francisco, and on tours of modern architecture throughout the Bay Area. My siblings and I just had a classy father, that was all.
Our fussy, carefully pruned landscaping was the result of his artful trims and love of contemporary shapes of swimming pools and planting beds, unlike the bland, conforming lawns the men on the block spent every weekend mowing. I felt fortunate to have an artistic father.
I didn’t recall these scenes in the moment Dad disclosed his sexual orientation to me. But I’ve spent many hours since then recalling ever finer details, ones that might have clued me in sooner. On that day, I’d expected a confession of sorts, but one that involved my dad cheating with other women–not with men–specifically with friends of my mother who flirted with him every chance they got.
I joined my father in his closet that day. I was now a daughter with a heavy burden who, in sharing a secret with one parent, now felt unfaithful to the other. But would I have preferred not knowing the truth until decades later? Would I have preferred not knowing at all?
No. And no.
Beginning at around age two, I was already a spy in my own house, tracking every movement my dad made. On early morning workdays, when the light under the kitchen door went out, I assumed he’d left us forever. I had this vague feeling that he didn’t belong to us.
As a young child, I believed the problem in my family was mine alone. I was too sensitive. I cried too easily. Night terrors kept me awake in the middle of the night. I bit my fingernails. Mom kept the lights on at night for me, not for my sisters or brother.
When my mother discovered revealing photos in 1957, Dad came home to find her lying in bed next to a pile of razor blades, ones that fortunately she didn’t use. I was six at the time and confused as to why I alone among my siblings was in such acute physical pain and crippling fear that year with no visible proof of anything out of the ordinary in our family.
Once I began dating, during the decade before my father came out to me, I utilized my spying acumen on my boyfriends, quickly squelching each successive romance.
To those who ask the question, yes, I would rather know why as a little girl I was so anxious and fearful of being abandoned, and why later I was predisposed to distrusting boys and men.
For any number of reasons, I would want to know sooner rather than later, even though my parents remained married. My mother died four months’ shy of their 64th wedding anniversary.
Knowing the truth about the big secret in my family put me on a path, though an arduous and ongoing one, towards a greater understanding of myself and increased self-acceptance.
I now know that the problem in my family wasn’t me.
The problem was America’s cruel culture of the 1940s (and beyond) that bullied, shamed, imprisoned, and ultimately closeted my father.
So, yes, I would rather know.
But if I were the child of a closeted dad in a culture where those known to be gay may be murdered for it, I can’t really say. I’d want my father to be alive.
This post first appeared in The Gay Dad Project blog on January 17, 2018.