Sidelining political correctness for just a bit; growing up, I was a pretty gay kid. I played with Barbies with my female cousins for a tad too long. My favorite Disney movie was “The Little Mermaid.” I was obsessed with “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” and the first, second and third artist I saw in concert was Janet Jackson. I was young. I was obviously gay. And I was being raised by a single, black father in the 90s.
Today we discuss homosexuality with far more candor than we did even 15 years ago. Scripted television has given us diverse portrayals of gay relationships, while blogs and social media outlets have made shared dialogue more accessible to diverse populations. Politics and policies are shifting, as Americans start engaging homosexuality in a manner that challenges our country’s long-held notions of morality and entitlement. But back in 1995, my father was a man with no CNN special or scholarly debate panel teaching him to raise a boy who might be gay.
Naturally, as I grew older, my sexual orientation became clearer to my father. If one were to casually benchmark budding masculinity by way of sports, girls and male-bonding, then I was woefully underdeveloped. I was never the kid who wanted to throw a football or bring home a girlfriend, and I didn’t have many male friends until college. I never thought any of those things made me less of a man, until my father told me so. When I was 11 years old, probably listening to an Aaliyah cassette while ignoring a Bulls game, my father sat me down to say, “I’ve only ever wanted a son, and if you decide that you’re gay don’t ever tell me. I’ll want nothing to do with you.”
I wanted to hate him, but I didn’t know how to do that because I knew that he loved me. Instead, I settled for being angry with him, and hating myself because I knew that I’d never be able to change myself. Being gay had never been a cognitive choice for me, and so the only “decision” I had in the matter was whether or not I would tell my father or any other person. In the instant that my father told me it was wrong for me to be gay, I felt like I would never be anything else. No other part of my being mattered, as my existence seemed to turn exclusively toward finding a way to hide what I had been told was an unforgivable flaw.
It took years for me to recognize that cycle, and begin to make peace with my sexuality. A large part of that journey has been about forgiving my father and working to see him as a person, not just as my parent. What does it mean for a man to recognize that his only son is gay; and how does he negotiate the space where expectation meets reality?
A number of arguments regarding sexuality and masculinity, especially those that discuss them within the sphere of the African-American family, cite a strong father figure as the necessary component to rearing a boy toward manhood. In America we’ve learned to praise single mothers for their vitality, but still consider them a settlement in the absence of a male presence. There are people who will argue that gay men weren’t properly conditioned as men by an older male in their youth, and that’s the reason for their sexuality. On a larger scale, so much of American culture is still rooted in dated gender expectations and nuclear family concepts that our fathers can’t help but find themselves consumed with the idea of raising “a man,” instead of the more thoughtful notion of raising an individual.
My father went to work every day. He attended every single parent/teacher conference, and was the first one at any extracurricular event I participated in – even as it became obvious that it would always be school plays, and never a football game. He knew that he was a good provider, and the best parent that he could be. But I imagine that noticing that his only son might be gay made him feel like he had failed at being a good man – because he had been told that a good man raises his son to be the same, and a good man is not a gay man. So I watched my father work to appreciate me, and separate the son he was raising from the son that he thought I should be. I’m sure that for so many fathers of gay men the struggle is quite the same: working against the confines of traditional masculinity.
We have to relieve that tension by continuing in thoughtful conversation, and ultimately working to at least reconsider what we’ve deemed socially conventional. We have to complicate what it means to be a man in America, so that our fathers don’t feel like failures when their sons say “I’m gay.” And more importantly, so that any boy in the world working to understand his sexuality will know that whatever comes of that journey, he is worthy of love, and the only thing he ever has to be is himself.