This is the fourth of five letters we'll be sharing this week as part of our work with The Rainbow Letters, an initiative to generate healing and empathy around the topic of LGBTQ family through the art of letter-writing. Originally designed to increase visibility for children and adults with LGBTQ parents, The Rainbow Letters is now expanding its audience and calling for letters written by anyone who is or has family members who are LGBTQ. We look forward to sharing one letter with you each day this week!
Thank you for helping me understand and accept my gay dad.
My parents separated when I was in kindergarten and although my mother has had several guys showering her with attention since the split I never saw my dad date. He had a few good guy friends who would come over to hang out, sometimes well after my bed time, but I never saw any women come around. I knew my dad was fashionable, he could braid me and my sisters hair, put together our girly Halloween costumes and even do our makeup for different events. He would also do yard work, he served in the military, played recreational sports, designed my brothers spooky costumes and did the heavy lifting and took out the trash. In this world of forcing people into specific boxes, categories and labels I just never realized that he was gay.
When I was five and living in Florida my dad introduced me to a song called Supermodel by a person called RuPaul. I would get up on Saturdays, put on a colorful leotard that my grandmother had gotten me, and dance around the living room to this song, It’s Raining Men, Finally, I’m Too Sexy and other high tempo songs of the time. I would do my best impression of a famous model strutting my stuff on a runway and imagine what I would look like as an adult. I told my dad that RuPaul was beautiful and he explained to me that he was a man dressed as a woman. I thought to myself, I want to look exactly like her when I grow up.
Around this time I watched a special called Nick News featuring a famous basketball player named Magic Johnson. He came out with a bunch of kids and spoke about being diagnosed with a disease called AIDS. I remember being afraid for the children who had it and confused about what would happen to them all. A few years later my family began watching MTV’s The Real World San Francisco. I was particularly interested in one cast members (Pedro) story as he married his boyfriend in a small ceremony, struggled with HIV/AIDS and eventually died. My family never discussed Pedro’s life, marriage or illness but I felt that his life was important and I couldn't help but feel guilty wondering if the kids who spoke with Magic Johnson might die too.
A few years later while living in Turkey my dad let me watch a movie called To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. It was a movie about Drag Queens and their adventure of traveling across the country. In the opening pageant scene I saw a familiar face, a beautiful blonde woman in a red dress. I turned excitedly to my dad and said, “That’s Rupaul!” This quickly became one of my favorite movies and I would watch it several times a month admiring the outgoing, over-the-top personalities of the characters. They reminded me of my dad, a photographer in the Air Force who would occasionally go on tour and sing with a group called Tops in blue in sequined red blazers with shoulder pads. Sometimes I would watch this movie when my dad was away on tour and I would imagine that he was Mrs. Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes character.)
When I was 11 and moved to Massachusetts my dad introduced me and my siblings to a new friend, G. This man seemed very supportive of my dad and invited us to holiday parties and cookouts with his family and friends. It was nice to have someone be so eager to show us around this new city. That year living in Massachusetts was very tough for me. I felt anything but fabulous because the mood of this community was different and less carefree than I was use to. My dad didn’t host fashion shows and talent shows and he wasn’t able to be the personality who I had grown up knowing. I did not feel as if I belonged, became depressed and eventually made the decision to move across the country to live with my mother.
After the move when I would visit my dad I was pleased to find that he and G were now roommates. I felt guilty for leaving my dad to live with my mom but it was nice to know that he still had someone to look out for him. He and G seemed like a great pair of friends and it was great knowing that my dad had someone looking out for him, especially since he didn’t have a girlfriend in his life. As I grew older I began to focus less and less on my parents’ lives and more on my own, after all I was a preteen.
One year my dad came out to celebrate my 8th grade graduation in California. He and my mother had gotten into one of their trademark arguments that usually occurred when they were around each other too long. I tuned most of it out, as I usually did, but one statement that left my dad’s mouth froze the room, at least from my perspective. “Yes,” he exclaimed, “ I’m gay and I’m married to G, and whoever doesn’t like it doesn’t have to be part of my life anymore.” The next thing I knew my dad was storming out of the house and looked at me and said, “I’ll be in the car, are you coming or not?” Without much thought I jumped up, grabbed my bag, that I had already packed, and hopped into the back seat of the car.
We never discussed what gay was or what it meant for our family. I didn’t have the courage to ask. So many things about my father finally made sense. My ride down the California coast was filled with conflicted feelings. On one hand I was proud of my dad, I imagined him being as fabulous as RuPaul. On the other hand I imagined Pedro from Real World and his small wedding ceremony in white shirts and matching grey pants. I thought about the fact that my dad had gotten married and that my sister was in the wedding and I had no clue about it. I didn’t mind that my dad was gay, but the fact that he had a wedding without me really hurt my feelings. Then another scary thought popped into my head; if my dad is gay, does that mean he has HIV/AIDS? In the back seat of our rental car on the long trip from northern California to Southern California I put my head on the car door and I silently cried. My dad never spoke again about the conflict or his big reveal. When I would go and visit him at his home G was just a part of the family. I was invited to look at the picture book filled with wedding photos but there was never a clarity check to see if I was following everything, it was just my new reality. My father was officially gay.
From that point on I had a secret. It was a secret that I would only share with my closest friends as a sort of test to see if they were really my friends or not. I would tell them my father was gay and wait for their reaction. I don’t know what type of reaction I was expecting, but I knew if they reacted wrong then they could no longer be my friend. Luckily they didn’t care about the sexual orientation of my gay dad any more than they cared about the sexual orientation of someone’s straight mom. Our parents’ lives were out of bounds and something we just didn’t need to talk about and that was that.
Throughout college my friends would jokingly call me a gay man, which was funny because I am a cisgender female, meaning I identify with the sex I was assigned at birth. When I would ask what they meant they would say it was something about my personality, which could be over the top when I was in a goofy mood. I eventually began telling them that I acted that way because I was in fact raised by a gay man. Although I no longer used my dad’s sexuality as a gauge to figure out who could be my friend it still served as a buffer to figure out who I could date. There have been times when I would be on a date with a handsome guy and somehow the topic of gay men would come up. Usually the guy would utter some homophobic term while describing another gay person he knew and that would be the end of that. Most times I would just stop contacting the guy, but sometimes I would use it as a teachable moment and explain that my dad is gay and that there is nothing wrong with a man loving man. During the times that I would talk about my dad the guy would usually do some major back pedaling and try to explain that not ALL gay men were bad, but at that point I had already seen the true colors of that person and in my mind the relationship would not work.
My junior year of college I got an internship working with COLAGE, a national non profit organization that works with children with LGBTQ parents on empowering themselves. This gave me a different perspective on my dad because I never realized there were other children with LGBTQ parents in the world. I worked with people who were adopted by their parents, or born in vitro by donor insemination, people with transgendered parents, people both with lesbian moms and gay dads (called bothies) and many more. Being introduced to this community really opened my eyes and allowed me to explore my true feelings about my dad. Since my dad came out to me I felt that I had to be his cheerleader and speak positively about him at all times. I didn’t want to speak poorly of him because that would give others ammo to speak negatively about the parenting skills of LGBTQ people. Finding that there were so many other people in the world with LGBTQ parents definitely lightened the load I felt I had on my shoulders and it felt great to tell someone else, “my dad sucks sometimes” without feeling like I’d ruined some couple’s chances of adopting.
Outside of the safe haven of others with LGBTQ parents it can still be rough. I had an uncle on my mom’s side ask me how I felt knowing that my father was going to hell for his sins and another tell me that I’m really not okay with my father’s sexuality. When hanging out with cousins whom I haven’t seen in awhile they ask how it feels now knowing that my father is gay. When talking to other LGBTQ people I’m often told how lucky I am to have a gay father because my life must’ve been so cool, as if my life was carefully plotted by the comedic writers on a popular show about a gay couple. This is very far from my reality and while my father is quite a character he’s a complex person with real strengths and shortcomings like we all have.
As an adult I am very proud of my father. He was gay, a Master Sergeant in the US Airforce, a vocalist in the Air Force Band, a single father, a member of the PTA, and a man with so much attitude and matching passion for everything he did. Most of all he was never afraid of being himself. I remember going to a bar with him as an adult in Boston and being nervous. I wasn't sure what to talk about then I spotted a poster on the door with bright pink letters and a familiar face on it. The poster read “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and I smiled. Here you were again, almost as a fairy drag mother looking over my journey with my gay dad. I asked him if he’d watched the show and he of course had. He broke down all the girls to me and how he would've killed it if he were on the show.
My relationship with my father has never been perfect, it never will be. I don’t think anyone can have a perfect relationship with their parents, but I admire the fact that he has remained true to himself over the years. You, him, and the contestants on the show, have shown me that at the end of the day you have to do what makes you happy. Now in my late 20’s I’m trying to figure out exactly what makes me happy and on this journey there's one quote in particular that I keep in my head and my heart, “If you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else.” And so I thank you RuPaul, for being the perfect role model in and out of drag for me to compare my dad to. You have truly given me a sense of normalcy when thinking of the complexities of my father. You better work!