Growing Up With a Gay Father – Confessions from a Straight Son

Gay Father - Me with my Dad in the mid-1960's - Middle Class Dad blog
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Full disclosure. This post is very unusual compared to my normal posts. For one, it’s very personal; just my thoughts, observations and memories of my life growing up with a gay father. For another, it doesn’t fall neatly into one of my main blogging categories.  I hope you enjoy.

I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know my Dad was gay

From my earliest memories of my Dad around age 5, I think I always knew he was gay. Thus I never had that aha moment of realizing “I have a gay father”!

But my childhood was far from conventional.

My Mom and Dad were married over a decade before I came along. They went through a number of miscarriages and were all but ready to give up when I was born in 1964.

But somehow despite all they’d been through (or perhaps because of it), they divorced shortly after I was born.  To hear both of them tell it, my Dad being gay wasn’t a factor in the split.

My Mom and I then moved from my hometown of Mineral Wells, TX to Dallas.

By the time I was 2 or so, my Mom had remarried. Then we moved to Philadelphia; a long way from my Dad.  For the next several years, I would only see my Dad a handful of times a year.

How my Dad came to terms with being gay

Gay Father - My Dad and Mom while still married in Mexico - Middle Class Dad blog

I don’t think anyone knew yet that my Dad was gay.  And in fact, it wasn’t he that left my Mom, but the other way around. Growing up I always thought that he probably felt obligated to marry and have a male heir.

After all, he was the son of a Baptist Preacher and there would not have been much tolerance in the 1940’s or 50’s for him to come out as gay.

I don’t honestly know if that sense of obligation drove him to marry. Then possibly once I was born and the pressure was off, that perhaps somehow my Mom realized something was “wrong” in the marriage and that drove her to leave him.

In talking to both of them over the years, they both claim they had no idea my Dad was gay. 

In retrospect the fact that he was a cheerleader, his best friend was a male hairdresser (who was openly gay) that my Uncle Buddy nicknamed him “Percy” (which my Dad hated) and that my Dad went on to open a home furnishings store might have been a clue.

But I digress.

Realizing his sexuality and being a gay father in the late 1960’s, especially with me a long way away, must have been really transformative for my Dad.

He lived in and around the Oak Lawn area of Dallas (long a predominantly gay or at least gay friendly neighborhood).  Compared to the small town where he grew up and the very conservative Bible belt community his family was part of, Dallas must have been very eye opening.

Gay Father Dallas Gay Pride March 1972 - Middle Class Dad blog

He was meeting lots of openly gay people & going to clubs where it was OK to be openly gay. I imagine it wasn’t until this time, in his 30’s, that he ever began to realize who he really was.

As I mentioned he went on to open a home furnishings store called The Market – Antiques and Home Furnishings in 1968.  The store ultimately grew to 11 stores across Texas before filing for bankruptcy shortly after 9/11.

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To say that The Market was one of the great loves of my Dad’s life would be a vast understatement.  The business soon encompassed everything that was important to him and anything not directly tied to the business was secondary.  For most of my life that was the category I fell into.

Being a gay father in the 1960’s

I didn’t really see my Dad very much in my early years.  By my earliest recollections he would come to see my a few days out of the year.  By then I had grown accustomed to calling my step-father “Dad” and so I called my own father by his first name of JT.

I always suspected that coming to terms with his sexuality was probably easier not having to parent me on a day to day basis. I could be totally off base on that as it was one of the rare things we never discussed.

At any rate, no doubt coming out in the late 1960’s would have been a formidable challenge even without children.

My Dad has a story he was fond of telling over the years.  I suspect he told it because it probably brought up a lot of pain and strong emotions.  We were eating at a restaurant when I was very young and the waitress asked me if this was my father.

According to my Dad (I don’t actually remember the story), I said “No. This is JT. He’s the man who takes care of me”.

By the time I was almost 11, my Mom and step-father divorced and we moved to Austin.  You would think that closer proximity would have increased the frequency with which I saw my Dad, but in reality it didn’t. As before, I still only saw my Dad a few times a year.

I would still visit him in the summers some, but on most occasions he would have one of his employees watch me.  I became very fond of these people of as they were who I spent the majority of time with. Typically I would only see my Dad at dinner.



Slowly we began to grow closer

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30’s, with my step-father long deceased, that I forced myself to start calling my father “Dad”.  It felt unnatural at first because our relationship felt forced.  We never had the traditional father-son roles, and so trying to forge that out of almost nothing took time.

As an adult, I clearly remember the 2nd time my Dad ever spent a large chunk of time in a house I lived in. I was about 35 years old.

Eventually we did settle into a very comfortable and close relationship. I came to accept our relationship would never be the traditional father-son relationship. But just because it wasn’t that, didn’t mean it couldn’t be great.

I had to come to terms with how things were. Letting go and accepting that things are as they are instead of how we think or wish they could be is a powerful thing to attain.  If you struggle, to Let Go of the Past, as I did, I strongly recommend you take a moment and check out my post on that.

My Dad never actually came out as gay to me or to most people

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It’s funny, but my Dad never really ever “came out” to me or anyone else.  I recall fairly vividly the afternoon of my high school graduation.  He had driven down for the graduation and drove me down to the edge of Town Lake in Austin (what they now call Lady Bird Lake).  He said he had “something important to tell me”.

Naturally I assumed he was going to come out to me.

I was wrong. Instead, he wanted to admit to me that he had smoked pot!  Imagine my disappointment!  I had been building up this great intimate conversation between father and son which I just knew would bring us closer.  Instead I got something that half my friends (but not me) were already doing. A let down, and really no big deal.

I’m guessing he was totally misjudging the obvious disappointment on my face.

Later, his husband Tom and I would joke about the fact that he never really came out. My Dad, of course, was insistent that no one would obviously know he was gay (which also made Tom and I laugh).

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How growing up with a gay father affected me

The one benefit to always knowing I had a gay father is that there was never I time I recall thinking it was wrong.  I always knew he was gay, and I have no recollection of him being with my Mom.  Almost all his friends were gay as were most of his employees (those 2 groups pretty much being the same people).

I recall finding a collection of drag outfits under the guest bed one time. And for as long as I remember, my Dad had male roommates, despite not needing it financially.  So I never questioned my Dad’s sexuality or judged it as I never knew otherwise.

The fact that I never ever had judgements about his sexuality helped me my entire life in terms of being more open minded about a variety of issues; to each their own.  It’s not my place to judge.

That being said, I was probably spared a lot of bullying at school since no one there knew I had a gay father. I feel quite sure I got lucky in this regards and that many kids with a gay father were picked on for their parent’s sexuality.

How knowing their grandfathers are gay affects my kids

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I’m proud of the fact that my wife and I have raised our daughters to not question or judge my Dad being gay.

They don’t see him as my “gay father”; just my father. The same is true for my Dad’s husband Tom who the girls call Opa-T (opa being the Dutch word for grandfather).  Our girls simply accept them for who they are, just as they do all their other family members who happen to not be gay.

There’s no distinction, nor should there be.

My Dad sadly passed away in 2014 after a bout with a brain tumor, so sadly my 3rd daughter (coming later this year at the time this was written) will never get to know him.

She will thankfully get to know his husband Tom and his new husband George.

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I wish I had more time with my Dad. 

As I type this, at age 52, I think about the fact that I didn’t really begin to have an in-depth relationship with my Dad until I was in my 30’s.

By the time I was in my early 40’s I broke away from working for my long-term employer Whole Foods Market, and joined my Dad and Tom in trying to rebuild their home furnishings business after the bankruptcy a couple of years earlier.

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While we never did quite get the new business model to work and I did eventually return to Whole Foods, that experience brought us closer. We saw each other daily and talked daily.

Sure much of it was work related, but as I said earlier, his company WAS his life and anything important to him was eventually made part of it.

So for a time we connected. I felt like I mattered. Eventually I came to realize that I had always mattered. My Dad just had trouble expressing his feelings and letting people know they were important to him.

I miss him and think about him every day.

Miss you and love you, Dad!

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Photo credits (that aren’t mine or which require attribution):
[Gay Pride Parade Rally in Dallas] – This photograph is part of the collection entitled: LGBT Collections and one other and was provided by UNT Libraries Special Collections to Digital Library

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6 thoughts on “Growing Up With a Gay Father – Confessions from a Straight Son

  1. I lived the other side of this equation, the gay dad.

    My biggest regret is wishing I’d had more time with my kids. I came out at forty

    In learning to understand your dad, a life course perspective that considers the interplay of his social context, his place and time in history, and the lives with which he was interlinked may be helpful. This will create a richer picture of the impact of these things on him. He was raised during a period when invisibility reigned and when same-sex relationships were stigmatized and criminalized. These created a great sense of shame that made accepting our being gay very difficult.

    In the 1940s-50s, Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin sternly warned that communists were corrupting peoples’ minds and homosexuals (the term used at the time) were corrupting peoples’ bodies. McCarthy was intent on purging the government of communists and homosexuals who were also considered subversives. For many older LGBTQ who lived during the McCarthy era, the option to be out and proud was not a possibility.

    Very few places other than bars welcomed openly gay men and lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s. These establishments catered to the most marginalized people, and police raided these bars regularly. Advocacy for gay rights began building in the early 1960s, and came to a head on June 28, 1969, when police lost control of a bar raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City beginning what is now known as the start of gay liberation. The goals of the LGBTQ activists were to decriminalize homosexual acts, demand equal treatment and equal rights under the law, and to disseminate accurate and unbiased information about sexuality.

    Coming out can be a painful process, particularly to those we love and fear we will hurt the most. What is most important about your story is that he knew that you accepted him and his husband. Nothing else really matters.

    1. Hi Loren

      Thank you for such a poignant and heart-felt comment! You know when I was working on my post, I kept thinking “who wants to read about my personal experience” or “why would anyone care about my relationship with my Dad”.

      But after getting so many great comments like yours (mostly on Facebook thus far) it’s clear that I’m not alone and that there are many who have walked the same path as me, either as Father or son (or daughter or mother for that matter).

      I hope your kids understand your struggle and your bravery and just how difficult it can be for someone to just be who they are.

      Thanks again for being here!

      Jeff

  2. Thank you for your post. I came out later in life also, and I’m now separated from my kids by a drive of several hours. My biggest fear is that they won’t understand how much I love them – and miss them. It is so good to hear that you understand the struggles your dad went through. It’s tough to be a dad. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    1. Hi Bret

      Thanks for sharing your comments. One advantage we have now is technology to help connect you to your kids. Certainly if there’s a way for you to be near them that is best, but regular Skype or FaceTime calls or phone calls will go a long way.

      Mostly with my own Dad I just wish he had told me he loved me more often and made me feel like a priority when I did get to be around him. We made up for that later but it would have meant a lot to me when I was a kid.

      I hope you find peace amidst the struggle. Thanks again for commenting and being here! I appreciate it very much.

      Jeff

  3. I’m reading this article almost four months after the original posting, but this poignant piece touched me and I just had to comment. I am 46-year old gay man. My relationship with my dad, who was a typical man’s man, was…uneasy. Later in my adult years we settled into a comfortable truce. I never actually came out to him though. My dad passed away five years ago. My single biggest regret is that I didn’t give him the opportunity to know the true me.

    Being a single man whose lifelong dream was to be a father, I finally was able to adopt two boys. I am completely open with them. Sometimes more than what they would like (what straight boy wants to hear his father say: “Ooh, he’s hot”), but it has always been of the utmost importance to me that there be no secrets between us. My sons are young adults already and I miss my dad so much. I wanted him to experience and be part of the relationship I have with my sons.

    1. Hi Jonathan

      Thanks for sharing such a touching and heartfelt comment!

      I can certainly empathize with missing your Dad and wishing for the opportunity for him to truly get to know you. I’m lucky to have had my years with my Dad, but I do feel some of those feelings about my Step-Dad who passed away when I was in high school.

      I’m glad you’re being open with your sons too; I think that’s so important! I try to be completely honest (in an age appropriate way) with my daughters and I feel like that will bring us closer and closer throughout our lives together.

      Thanks again for sharing!!

      Jeff

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