For most of my life, I felt like I was a disappointment to my father. He never told me that I was, but it was obvious to me that I did not live up to the ideals he had in mind for his only son. I am not an athlete or a sports fan – my father has been both. He played football in high school and college, and then went on to coach the local high school football team when he and my mother moved to Ocean City, NJ, in the mid-'70s after they married. I was dressed up as a boxer for my first Halloween (just 10 days shy of my first birthday) and encouraged throughout my childhood to watch and play sports, despite my apathetic tolerance of the former and vocal disinterest in the latter. I played soccer, baseball and basketball until about 7th grade. I was terrible at all of them.
My father told me that if I got into sports, and really committed, I would be good. I was built for sports, he said, especially football. But that is where I drew the line. In addition to being pretty sure that I didn't have the coordination to play football, I knew for certain that I did not understand it. To this day, football looks like helmeted hieroglyphics to me.
I hated sports because I was bad at them, almost always, although in 6th grade I'd sometimes score a few points during basketball games, and it made me feel good not to be totally incompetent. I always wanted to be perfect, and had an acute sense of my limitations – there was no way I was going to be a star athlete, so I figured I should focus on being the star student I was. Academics were my playing field, the unguarded court of unlimited triumphs. Math test, swoosh. Spelling bee, swoosh. Gym class, swoosh…ish. There, I did my best and took whatever extra credit in the form of laps that I could so as not to break my streak of straight A's.
Academically was the only way that I could be perfect. I was not just athletically flawed, but socially as well. From second grade through senior year, barely a day went by when I wasn't called a faggot by a peer or 10, or bashed for opening my mouth and expressing myself. I couldn't quit interacting with the world, just as I couldn't quit sporting (which, unsurprisingly, was where the bashing was the worst), so I just dealt with them in a supremely Zen way, barely reacting to the bullying. I had friends, mostly girls, and I tirelessly searched for acceptance. My childhood was not ideal, but it wasn't unhappy, either.
As a result of my ridicule, I was ashamed of my uncoordinated, effeminate self, and infuriated that I couldn't do anything about it. Eventually, I had to forfeit the concept of perfection in order to keep existing. I coped, but it made me so weird inside. I turned a blind eye inward, refusing to acknowledge what was clearly there since I was very little. I regarded my sexuality with the same knowing/not knowing confusion as the tragic clones in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
I did my best to keep myself from myself. I had weird, mutant relationships with girls starting in puberty, including a long-distance thing from eighth to ninth grade with this one in Virginia that I initially met through the proto-Internet service Prodigy. Even my straight relationships were queer. I didn't so much as kiss a guy until I was 22, and then it took many more years to enter a relationship with one, mostly because I had to wrap up the relationship with a woman I had at the time of that first kiss.
Even my straight relationships were queer.
They say that coming out is a process. For me, it was an agonizing challenge. I did my best to avoid it. Eventually, I untangled from my girlfriend and landed a boyfriend that I moved in with six months later. Soon after, I brought him home and introduced him as my roommate. I felt like that was enough of a euphemism for people to get what was going on. However, it wasn't so strange that a platonic friend would accompany me home, since Ocean City is a beach town and I often invited friends back with me to bask in the offerings that the resort town afforded. My ex met my family and my four siblings (all younger, all girls) – only one of them, the fourth child, Kate, picked up on something.
"Kate said that she thinks [my ex] is gay," my oldest sister (by a minute, as she's part of a pair of twins) Becky told me soon after, when I was down for another weekend at the beach. We were driving home from getting pancakes in a neighboring town.
"Yeah, well, he is and so am I," I told her, hurtling the hesitation that walled in my personal life for so many years. "He's my boyfriend."
She handled it well, though for a few years after, when she'd get drunk she'd talk a lot about me being gay and how OK with it she was. It was to the point where she was clearly attempting to convince herself. I remember it like that John Roberts YouTube video, My Son Is Gay?: "Mybrotherisgay, mybrotherisgay, mybrotherisgay." We were raised Catholic, so there was no real Bible thumping growing up or any strict rules enforced beyond the Golden one, but Becky has always been especially religious.
My memory is hazy, but I believe that, after getting out of Becky's car, I walked into my mother's house, sat next to her at the kitchen table and told her what I had told my sister, except this time it was without prompting. "OK," she said, and that was that. I knew it wouldn't be a problem with her. She had asked me in high school if I had any "tendencies." I was simultaneously mortified and relieved, though it took me about 10 years to answer her honestly. She never held it against me.
All of my sisters have big mouths. If one of them knows something, they all do, and so one by one, they fell in line, learning about my big, obvious secret. It was easy. I was so lucky. Coming out to everyone was a snap. All that worrying for nothing. In all likelihood, I was just confirming with my family and friends what they already knew. Kate was the only one that I could discern any discomfort in, but she was in high school, so I understood why she'd have more trouble. High school is a weird time where people judge you for all kinds of things. After my ex and I had been down to my mother's several times, but before I had actually discussed anything with her, I heard Kate refer to my ex on the phone as my roommate. I thought we had dropped that euphemism a long time ago and told her when she got off the phone, "You know he's my boyfriend, right?" (I knew she knew because Becky and my youngest sister, Mollee, who's the most accepting person on the planet, had told me that they told her.) She said she did, looking like she had been caught in headlights. She never referred to him as anything but my boyfriend again.
This went on with increasing comfort for a few years. Through my relationship and everyone's support of it, I felt like I could embody myself like never before. Still, I was reluctant to tell my father. My relationship was never strained with him, exactly, but sometimes (in my teen years especially) it could be a little awkward. I momentarily forgot how to talk to him. I didn't know how he'd react; for that matter, I didn't really know what he thought about gay people. I'd never heard him say anything hateful, per se, but I also had heard him throw around the word "fag" a few times, in that way that people threw around the word "fag" in the '80s. Besides, my ex had accompanied me to Ocean City over a dozen times in the two years we had been dating. I figured that my dad knew and that this knowledge would exist implicitly for infinity. I didn't want to rock the boat that was gliding along so calmly.
I know that not being out to my dad bothered me, though. I had dreams born of the anxiety of nondisclosure. In one of them, he came out to me. It was such a relief that I obsessed about that dream for weeks, reliving it in my head for solace. My dad is gay? My dad is gay? My dad is gay.
(My dad isn't gay.)
I did very little else with the matter until I had no other choice. Around the middle of 2006, my sister Adrienne, Becky's twin, texted me to tell me that Dad asked her if I was gay and she told him that I was. He gleaned this information from my blog. The exuberantly gay sensibility of my coverage aside, all you needed to do to confirm any suspicions regarding my sexuality was scroll down a few screens and see the "GAY" BlogAds button in the right column. That is exactly what he did and he was shocked. Shocked!
"Did you know that your son is gay?" is what I'd later find out he asked my mother immediately by phone (they divorced in 1994 but still live in the same town and stay in touch). My mother, the captain that taught me everything I know (and frequently reject) about not rocking the boat, played dumb and told him that she didn't. He went through a telephone chain of my siblings until he reached Adrienne, who told him the truth. She told me he was upset – she didn't think it was because I'm gay, but because he was the last to know. I had broadcast my sexuality to the world (or, you know, the couple of thousand readers of my blog) without so much as giving the person who gave me life the heads up. I tend to be a run-till-tackled kind of guy, but the absurdity of that situation just goes to show how twisted logic can turn when it's shoved carelessly into a closet.
"Fuck," I texted back.
"Did you know that your son is gay?" is what I'd later find out he asked my mother immediately by phone.
I called my father. When he answered, I babbled something like, "Dad, I know you know that I'm gay, and I'm sorry that I didn't tell you, but I didn't want to jeopardize our relationship and I thought that you knew anyway and were just content to not say anything about it."
He told me he didn't know until a few hours before, when that button on my blog had popped out and redefined my life for him. He sounded sad. "You never had anything to worry about with me," he said. "I will always support you in what you choose to do."
I mumbled something about it not being a choice and then babbled a string of apologies for letting him be the last in our family to know. At that moment, I felt a little bit justified in the way I'd handled it – I extrapolated his comment to convince myself I was dealing with someone who thought that being gay was a choice. And if that was the case, this could have gone either way, so I was right to err on the side of caution.
Now I see things differently. For one thing, my father, whose religiousness rivals and surely inspired Becky's, has never again made any comment about homosexuality being a choice. I give him the benefit of the semantic doubt. It's not like it matters, though, because I can think of no greater acceptance than that from a person who does regard being gay as a choice and accepts it regardless. In this scenario, being gay is so OK and sinless that it doesn't have to be explained away as an affliction, something that has befallen the helpless. Acceptance is acceptance, but accounting for agency on top of sexuality is acceptance-plus.
Even when encouraging me to play the sports I didn't want to play, my dad always accepted my volition. He took active interest in my academics and the extracurricular activities of my choice. He took me to virtually any movie I wanted to see, including Dirty Dancing (though that took months of begging). He took me to plays and then attended my own. I mean, the guy went to see plays for me. Plays. That is saintly. Sometimes he'd get on me for being too soft, and that was frustrating because I felt like soft was what I just was. But now I know he was just trying to prepare me for the world, and I've taken his advisement to heart, hardening.
I sometimes resented my father for imposing his interests on me, not quite appreciating the balance he was pulling between his ideals and the respect for mine. I took him for granted so that I didn't even understand how accepting he was. Even now that I've given him every reason to disown me through my work, he remains engaged. He told me early this summer, before I really started writing about sex, that since I started working for Gawker, my writing had become "gayer, and more vulgar." He seemed amused. He gave me the opportunity to quote Truth or Dare: "Daaaaaad, I'm not getting racy. I've been racy." I appreciated that.
I've never been more happily proven wrong than by my father's complete acceptance of my life. Still, it seems weird that what virtual strangers knew about my sexuality since I was seven years old, my father did not. Maybe he turned that same blind eye that I did, a sign that he was as uncomfortable with me being gay as I was. I called him last night to fact-check this story and, now that it has been about six years since I've been out to him, circled back about my coming out.
"You always dated women," he told me, confirming that he was, in fact, shocked to discover that I was gay through my blog. We laughed about the chain of events, my mother's lying, my single sister's owning up to the truth.
"I don't know why you had any problem telling me," he said. "I'm the most open-minded person in the family."
It does seem silly in retrospect, given his ensuing embrace of my ex (with whom he was more personable than most of my sisters' love interests), passionate discussions about marriage equality and complete comfort with discussing my sexuality as it applies to whatever conversation we're having. I assured him last night that though I wasn't so sure how he'd take it, he's gone on to render my fears unnecessary.
"Good," he told me. I could tell he was proud.