This week, I began to think that the most significant lesson my parents taught me is how to reveal as little as possible of myself to the world. Then again, maybe they didn’t teach me, but merely bestowed that instinct to me in my DNA.
I don’t mean this in a harsh or bitter way, but rather as a statement of discovered fact — discovered, that is, in the cache of my father’s web browser during some tech support work. It is not exactly news to me that he prefers gay porn (there have been hints), but the knowledge was easier to process when it didn’t have actual images attached.
I don’t care about his sexual preferences. But the confirmation that he hides something so significant about himself from the world is still a bit startling. How much does my mother know/suspect? And for how long? How long has he lived a life that has been fundamentally dishonest — to himself, to her, to his children, to the world? How might his life, and ours, have been different — more authentic — if he had been willing to reveal himself? It might have been more complicated, but also more meaningful. Then again, maybe not.
His cousin, with whom he was close during childhood, came out as gay in the late 1970s, and it utterly destroyed his family. His wife divorced him instantly, and then she sank into depression and something bordering on insanity (which may have been lurking beneath the surface anyway). His daughter turned to sex (professionally) and hard drugs (recreationally). His son turned to religion — and not in a healthy way (though he has had, by far, the least troubled life of his family members). If my father ever considered coming out, his cousin’s cautionary tale may have been one reason why he did not.
I will not ask him such questions, or even let on that I know. If he were younger, perhaps that could lead to some sort of meaningful conversation between us. Perhaps it could lead to the peeling back of masks. Perhaps he would be relieved. But he is 80, impaired by stroke, becoming more fragile by the day, and I could not be that cruel to someone who is so near the end of his life.
And it would be cruel. It’s not a conversation I would desire under any circumstances. More than anything, I think it might humiliate him. It might be taken as a moment of, “Aha! I caught you! You’re a fake! You have been all along.” Or perhaps he is still in denial. He may not have even come out to himself. A person’s sexuality is deeply private, and should only be daylighted if that is their desire. I do not have the right to out him (even in private) any more than he would have to out me.
But this is its own cautionary tale. Perhaps this is a moment of waking for me. Maybe I need to break the chain, tell the truth about myself, and become someone better in the process. Maybe I need to daylight that significant portion of myself which I have aggressively hidden all my life.
Last night, my 11-year-old son asked me if I thought I’d be a different person if I had been born a girl. (Timely question.) “Of course,” I replied, and that led to a conversation about the differences between boys and girls, how the perceptions are sometimes wrong, and the presence of people in this world who wish they had been born differently. We worked briefly through the meanings of the letters in LGBT. While not specifically a pre-coming-out conversation, it may as well have been. Groundwork must be laid.
He revealed that one of his new teachers this quarter is gender fluid. It was a matter-of-fact disclosure, in the way that you might say that your teacher has red hair, or wears funny ties. I asked if his teacher, who prefers “they” as a pronoun, had been born a boy or a girl. “How should I know?” he answered, somewhat indignantly. It had truly never occurred to him to wonder about that. At 11, he’s farther along than I would have realized, and I am farther behind than I realized for even asking such a question.
His response is just another piece of evidence that the long arc of history bends toward inclusion and tolerance — despite what election results sometimes suggest. We pause, perhaps take a step backwards, and then resume the march toward inevitable love and peace, acceptance and understanding. Let’s hope this pause is a short one. But I digress.
My spouse has shown some signs of decreasing discomfort and increasing acceptance, but that, too, is not a straight path.
Within the past couple of years, she became aware that her father, who maintained an absolutely straight persona, and remained happily married to her mother, also regularly frequented gay bars. He died in the mid 1980s, ostensibly of a blood disease officially recorded as a virulent and fast-moving form of leukemia. Now she wonders if that was perhaps a euphemism for AIDS.
In a recent conversation about my gender issues, and in the context of whether our sons should ever know about me, I asked her if she wouldn’t rather have known his truth while he was alive. She said it was appropriate for him to take that identity to his grave, and that she was glad she did not know about it while he was alive.
She might be right. Absent the knowledge of their father’s sexuality, both she and her sister turned into healthy, happy, productive and successful adults. If he had come out, and the family fractured, the results might have been starkly different, as in the case of my father’s cousin. But, of course, those were very different times.
So, where does that leave me?
My own inauthenticity nags at me. Does hiding myself really benefit my family, or am I perpetuating a cycle of distance between fathers and sons? Could it be that overcoming the instinct to hide my true self represents the great challenge of my life? Or could that challenge be to maintain the ongoing containment of an identity that, if revealed, has the potential to damage lives that I care deeply about?