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

I never grew up with my father as he and my mom divorced when I was 6 months old. But I knew he was gay by the time I was 7 or 8. So this is my story of growing up with a gay father.

Growing up with a gay father, particularly one who was afraid to come out, presented challenges in our ability to get emotionally close. Additionally, as he was focused on exploring his newfound sexuality, it left little time for him to actually focus on parenting.

But we did eventually get close, well into my adulthood.

So in this article, I explore exactly what my relationship was like with my dad. I look at the challenges we faced, what impact, if any, his sexuality had on his ability to parent, and how we eventually became closer.

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 my dad 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

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 1960s, 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.

gay father Middle Class Dad The Market Antiques and Home Furnishings at Willow Creek

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 1960s

I didn’t really see my Dad very much in my early years.

By my earliest recollections, he would come to see me 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’ve detailed my life with my step-father as well in a post about Growing Up with an Alcoholic Father as that relationship was also a mixture of pain and love.

I always suspected that coming to terms with my Dad’s 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 1960s would have been a formidable challenge even without children.

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

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 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 Past Hurts, 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

gay father Middle Class Dad JT Campbell Jr in the early 1970's

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’d known my Dad is gay for some time, but we’d never discussed it.

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 letdown, 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).

gay father Middle Class Dad JT Campbell Jr and Tom Duke on their wedding day

Are you a gay father struggling to come out?

It’s funny but in writing this post originally, I never expected it to be as well-received as it has been.

It was my #1 post for several months and still gets a lot of views each and every month. I’ve also had a number of conversations with people who contacted me after reading it.

One of those people is Dr. Loren A. Olsen, MD. In Loren’s case, he didn’t come to terms with being gay until the age of 40 and was married with children at the time.

He’s written an excellent book on his journey that would be well worth reading; especially if you are struggling to come to terms with your sexuality and/or feel trapped.

That book is called Finally Out; Letting Go of Living Straight; check it out on Amazon.

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 first realized my Dad was gay when I was around 7 or 8, 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 judgments about his sexuality helped me my entire life.

It’s helped me be 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 regard 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

gay father Middle Class Dad Campbell Family and grandfathers JT Campbell Jr and Tom Duke

I’m proud of the fact that I and their mother have raised our daughters to not question or judge my Dad or Tom 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 will never get to know him.

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

gay father Middle Class Dad Astrid and Jolie Campbell with their Grandfathers Tom Duke and George Watson

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. I joined my Dad and Tom in trying to rebuild their home furnishings business after the bankruptcy a couple of years earlier.

gay father Middle Class Dad JT Campbell Jr and Jeff Campbell in Paris in 2002

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.

Final thoughts

In this post, I told the very personal story of my father’s journey coming out of the closet after being married and having a child. I always knew he was gay and never had that “my Dad is gay” aha moment of realizing I had a gay father.

But then our relationship was far from conventional (but not due to his sexuality).

Together we learned how to be a father and son in a day and age where being a gay father was most certainly frowned upon. I love him and miss him every day since he passed in 2014.

If you are a gay father or the child of a gay father (or mother), and your relationship isn’t all that it could be, don’t wait until it’s too late to fix it.

Thanks for being here.

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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