The other day my sister shared with me that she missed being able to go my parents, who are now in their mid 80’s, for their counsel and advice. It surprised me, because, since leaving home for college, I’ve rarely gone to my parents for any kind of counsel or advice.
From a very young age I saw my father wrapped up in his own affairs. Unlike my grandmother or mother who wanted to enter my world to a certain degree and know what it was like, my father couldn’t do that. He worked long hours, came home tired, and wanted to find in his home a respite from his day, but got a house full of noise and activity, which mostly annoyed and angered him.
As a child I wanted my father’s approval, but he was quick to snap at me, so I tried to say out of his way as much as possible. This is not to say that he did not love me. He clearly loved me and showed it in various ways. But the men of his generation were not very affectionate or demonstrative with their emotions and he certainly did not know how to get inside the inner life of a child.
And then there was the gay boy to be. I think my father was deeply uncomfortable with his slightly feminine, overweight, un-athletic son. His relationship with me was very different me from the deeper relationships he appeared to have with my two brothers and one of my sisters. There was something clearly different that went on between us compared to my siblings. As adults we have been polite, warm and friendly. But there is a quiet coolness between us. It is not a deep and intimate relationship.
All through my teenage years I fought bitterly with my father. I remember him more than once threatening to send me to boarding school. I was a deeply conflicted and confused teenager. My sexuality was emerging but hidden. I was angry and lashed out regularly at my parents. I felt much older than my teenage years, and constantly pushed back against their restrictions. I could not wait to get out of the house for college. When I left for college, I never looked back.
My parents lived in a polite, upper middle class, highly social, white, educated world. For the most part their friends were comfortable or well to do. In college, as I begin to explore my emerging sexual drives and attractions to men, the gritty, highly sexual gay world of the mid 1970s seemed far away from the Ozzie and Harriet world I grew up in. The bars that I went to in Greenwich Village like the Ninth Circle, dancing shirtless at the Ice Palace on Fire Island, and visiting the baths of the lower East Side of New York City, were not the world my parents knew anything about.
In my father’s eyes, I felt growing up, that there was something wrong with me. I never measured up to be the son he wanted me to be. I felt that much of what I did seem to come out wrong with him. At other times he would be supportive and loving, but was always quick to get annoyed and lash out at me. Looking back, I think his behavior towards me reflected his own homophobia towards the gay boy to be that was peeking out in various ways.
Given my fathers upbringing, his 1950s conservatism, the hard driven business man his father raised him to be, and his athleticism in high school, he did not have any idea what to do with his gay to be son. He may not of thought that I was gay as young man, but whatever he saw or thought, I suspect, made him deeply uncomfortable.
In first or second grade my parents sent me to see a psychiatrist, under the guise that I was hitting and being mean to my sister. Years later in my late 20s I went back to this doctor to ask him why I had been brought to him. He said, “because your parents thought you had “homosexual tendencies”. Homosexual tendencies – what a horrible way to describe an individual. In its specific and ugly language is the destructive and hurtful way in which I was seen as a child and made to feel inferior.
I hated that psychiatrist. At one point, around the time I was in third grade, I refused to go to a session. My mother tried to force me, and in anger I kicked and broke a very large double pane picture window in the front of our house. My parents were furious and I remember trying to hide under the fireplace, which sat on a concrete slab about 9 inches off the ground, to avoid punishment, only to discover that I had grown too big and could no longer squeeze underneath. I was finally allowed to stop the sessions, but only, I believe because they were tired of the fighting. My parents did not know how to trust the the minds and thoughts of their children, and I do not believe, they ever considered I might have a valid objection to the doctor.
The women in my life growing up were my mother, my grandmother who was over at our house almost daily, and my aunt who lived with my grandmother. Of the three of them I was very close to my grandmother. I adored her. She always seemed interested in me. Even when she was critical of me I felt she loved me. I also felt that no matter what I did she still supported me.
In the late 1980s I was involved with a group that was protesting something outside a large office building in New York. I asked my grandmother, who by then was on her mid 70’s, to join me. She did not understand why we were protesting, but she came up to New York from Philadelphia, by herself, and stood in line with me as we held placards and circled the building. I loved that about my grandmother. One of the reasons I believe that I have had the self confidence I have is because of my grandmothers unflagging belief in me.
In the landscape of my childhood, I would put my mother somewhere in the middle between my father and my grandmother. My mother was always supportive, but she was also always busy. I was the oldest of five children. Besides trying to keep her head above water raising five children, she had a number of interests outside the house. She took cooking classes and studied art and botany. Later she became involved in fundraising for medical research. Although my mother has always been a strong supporter of mine, she did not have the unwavering, unflinching support that I got from my grandmother. Her view of children was a mix of genuine interest and worry on how we appeared to the outside world.
My mother, because she played the piano in night clubs in Miami, Florida before she met my father, came into contact with gay men. I think she knew early on that her son could or would be gay. Seen through her 1950s view of the world, it was not something you discussed. If it came up, it was something she would push to keep hidden. There was very strong messaging from all the women in my life that you never tell family business outside the family. Certainly my sexuality was not something she wanted known among her friends and family. My aunt told me when I came out to her in the early 1990’s that she and my grandmother had known for years. “Oh really dear”, she said, “ I was in the theater for many years and knew many homosexual men. Grandmother and I knew you were homosexual.”
What I have tried to describe in this narrative is some of the landscape of a boy who will be gay, long before it might be apparent to anyone. As I’ve come out as gay man in increasing with public ways, the way I look back and interpret my childhood has continued to change and evolve.
I continue to ask myself, what is next for me? I think an area that needs repair is with my father. I want him to understand the landscape of my childhood and what I felt as a child. I had such a low opinion of myself growing up that it took years to see myself differently. As a child I was made to feel bad and different at every turn, including with my father. While I do not blame him because he could not step outside of the mores of his generation, I do think if are ever to have a deep intimate relationship, we need to have an honest conversation about what occurred in my childhood.