I have a vivid memory of a birthday when I was around eight years old. I had gotten a brownie camera that morning, a birthday gift from my parents. I was excitedly running around the house taking pictures. Suddenly dad was angry at me. I had done something wrong in the eyes of my father. I was never exactly sure what I had done. He got angry at me, threatening some kind of punishment. I remember being very hurt that my father was yelling at me on my special day. There was something about me that could bring out my fathers anger, even thought I knew he loved me.
That ‘something’ about me, which I now see more clearly so many years later, was the gay child within. Like the words of the song, Not My Father’s Son, from Kinky Boots, “I’m not my father’s son. I’m not the image of what he dreamed of.” My father saw in me a more effeminate child than he imagined his son to be. I was artistic and liked sewing with my grandmother, and hated team sports. There was a large part of who I was that was not the son that my father dreamed of. I suspect that the effeminate, un-sporty boy part of me could make him uncomfortable and irritable, even angry.
I remember being so hurt, after just being given the brownie camera, that my dad got angry, annoyed and yelled at me. I remember crying and feeling angry, wondering why he could not treat me special on my special day. The scene of that hurt is still vivid in my mind today. He was standing in the door frame that separated his home office from his bedroom and I was standing in his bedroom facing him. Did I knock on the door interrupting something important? I do not remember what triggered his anger, and it probably does not matter.
I believe that my father loved me. But as a man that grew up in the 1950s, he simply had no role models or tools to help guide him to understand who I was and how to support me. I was not a boy out of the ‘All American Sporty Boy’ catalogue. I did not fit his world view of what a boy should be. I could not talk sports with him, a common ground for men to bond. I was not interested in world events, like my sister was. My sister would sit for hours with my father as a young child discussing the world. Dad and I could never have those kind of conversations. I was not interested. I am sure that my difference, my effeminacy, my artistic nature made him deeply uncomfortable.
I recently asked my mother if she had always known that I was gay before I had first come out to her in the mid 1980’s. She paused, “Well no….,” before a short pause and reconsidering if it was a moment for truth, “actually, yes, I did know.” When I asked her if she ever discussed the topic with my father she was incredulous. “Your father? All he ever cared about was business and investing.” She felt that dad was unable to enter deeply into the emotional lives of other people. But I pushed on, if she thought that I was gay, hadn’t she spoken about the topic with my father? She had no memory of ever talking to him about it even though she thought that she probably had. I would expect a conversation that was so important between parents about a child would be remembered.
There are moments that scar us. That moment with my dad on my birthday was one of those moments. It was a moment that had me feel bad about myself. What was wrong with me that I could get my father so angry? I really did not understand, until recently, as I began to consider what he might have felt to himself as he looked at me. But like the lyric from, Not My Father’s Son, from Kinky Boots, “And the best part of me is what he wouldn’t see.” Dad could not see that who I was as a child was special and wonderful. He simply felt the discomfort of a son who did not fit his and society’s mold.
My mother was surprised to learn that even today, gay men still marry straight women, suppressing their attraction to men. I am not surprised. So many of us are raised to feel ashamed for who we are. Years before we ever understand that our attraction to men, we grow up feeling different, hiding who we really are, sure that there is something wrong with us compared to the sporty boys who seem to move so easily through the world.
My brownie camera birthday was a moment that sticks in my memory, but also was a moment that was repeated over and over again as I grew up. But this story of growing up with hidden shame is a common story of gay and bi men who do not seem to fit the norms of the larger society.