Originally published by The Washington Post on October 10, 2017
“I’m gay!” I shouted, as loud as I possibly could. “I! Am! Gay!”
It was April 8, 2009. I was 18, and I was pressed up against the front of the stage at a club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Lady Gaga was on stage, performing a base-thumping rendition of “Boys Boys Boys” while shirtless male dancers thrusted their way across stage.
It was the first time I’d ever said the words out loud. I said them to no one in particular, and in that crowded club, no one heard me but myself. I wouldn’t say those words out loud again for a long time. But in that moment, I began the slow, nonlinear process of coming out.
I have always had an enormous fear of disappointing my parents. And I believed telling them I was gay would disappoint them. I grew up in a home where I was well-loved and well-provided-for, but a home that also happened to be very Catholic and very Republican. The latter two made me afraid the former two may not be so readily available after coming out. So I bit my tongue, feigned crushes on pretty girls in school, and went on and on about how gorgeous I thought Idina Menzel was. (I almost outed myself with that one, especially because I wouldn’t stop talking about her cheekbones.)
Almost two years after the Lady Gaga concert, I was home for a bit before starting my sophomore year of college. Freshman year, I’d come out to everyone else in my life: my college friends, my cousins, some of my professors. Pretty much anyone who would listen, so long as their names weren’t Mom or Dad. This was my final hurdle: I had to tell my parents that, just as Lady Gaga sang, I, too, liked boys, boys, boys.
I wanted to tell my parents separately, so I started with my mom, which was easy. I waited until the last possible second to tell my dad. The morning I was to drive back to college, I sat with my dad on the patio as he smoked a cigarette and read the paper. I talked about nonsense well beyond the time I should have left to make the seven-hour trek back to Florida State. “C’mon, you’ve gotta go,” he said, standing up from the table. I put my hand on his shoulder, sat him down, and said a lot of words I don’t remember in quick succession. They ended with: “I just never want to disappoint you. I’m gay.”
Then I started crying.
“You are the thing I am most proud of in this entire world,” he said. “You could never disappoint me.” And then he added: “I want you to know that I love you. I may not get it, I mean I don’t get it, yet, but I want to, I want to learn. If you can be patient with me, I want to get there together.”
The second part of that statement may not be the enthusiastic “I love you no matter what” that kids hope for from their parents. But it was incredibly honest. It also left the door open for us to grow with each other.
How exactly did my dad get there? A healthy dose of sarcasm and a few cocktails have always helped us break the ice and speak frankly. Here are some of the more notable moments.
Several months later, while home for winter break, my dad and I were watching “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” a comedy about rival NASCAR drivers. We hadn’t really talked about what had occurred a few months earlier, which hurt me slightly. Before coming out, every call or short visit had begun with the question: “Any girls in your life?” I’d told my dad I liked boys, but he still didn’t ask if there were any of them in my life. He didn’t ask at all. As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen had an extended make-out session. My dad looked at me and said: “Hey, if this whole college thing doesn’t work out, at least you know you’d have a career as a NASCAR racer.” We both cried laughing. It wasn’t the same as asking if I was seeing anyone, but it was a start.
My senior year of college, I found myself on stage in front of 9,000 people as part of Homecoming Court. Kathy Griffin was doing a stand-up routine as part of the festivities. Backstage, people pushed me over to her, aware of my infatuation with the comedian. I took a blurry picture with her, and she kindly laughed at the bizarre things I said. Later on stage she said: “You know, for a school with a Seminole for a mascot, you’re pretty progressive. I was just attacked by that screaming gay on homecoming court back stage.” Laughter ensued, and then “THAT’S MY SON!” was proudly shouted from somewhere to the left of the stage. It brought tears to my eyes that my dad was excitedly letting the entire civic center know the “screaming gay” was his son.
It was not always laughter and proud endorsements, though, especially when it came to moments when I’ve been very publicly gay. When I published an online essay in which I identified as queer, my dad said over the phone: “You can’t call yourself that — it’s derogatory and no one will hire you.” The hour-long conversation that ensued covered identity politics, language evolution and reclaiming language as a form of empowerment for marginalized communities. Exasperated I finally said, “Hey, do you still want to learn or not?” He said that he did. So I sent him articles that explained why queer people were reclaiming the word. I’m still not sure he’ll ever love that I call myself queer, but at least he understands it.
Six years after I came out, my dad and I were sitting in the same spot we’d been on the patio when we had another first: “So, mom tells me you’ve got a boyfriend,” he said. “How’s that going?” My relationship was on its way down hill, so I wasn’t thrilled to talk about it. But I was happy to have a long overdue rite of passage in which a kid asks their parent for relationship advice. My dad seemed excited to impart his wisdom to me, as my younger siblings (11 and 13 at the time) were still too young for dating advice. I sat with rapt attention as he told me how to “play the game” and cautioned me about wearing my heart on my sleeve. (As a Virgo, that’s basically impossible for me.) That relationship didn’t work out. But there’s a part of that heartbreak that I’ll always appreciate, because it gave me this moment with my dad.
My parents haven’t always understood me as a queer person, but because we have a mutual understanding to listen and learn from each other, we have continued to make strides. My dad’s request for patience and his promise to learn has gotten us through some difficult conversations. We have talked through what it might look like for me to raise children with another man, and we’ve talked about some of the dangers of being visibly queer in America.
It has not always been perfect, and we have not always kept our tempers in check. But it has always been honest, and he has always wanted to understand where I’m coming from. There may never be a perfect response to coming out. But “I love you and I want to learn” is an excellent place to start.