When I was 20 years old, I met my Dad in D.C. for a weekend of sightseeing and shopping. My real agenda, however, was more serious.
I had rehearsed the words I needed to say for weeks: “I think I might be gay.” I wasn’t ready to venture a more affirmative statement. I was starving for external validation of what I knew, deep in my heart, to be true.
For two long days I waited for the right moment. On the last night of our trip, when we were seated at our favorite Georgetown restaurant, my throat felt tight and constricted. Each time I opened my mouth to speak the dreaded words, I felt like an invisible force was pushing them back down.
Looking back, I realize that the resistance I was feeling was more than just my own fear of conflict. Part of that invisible force was my dad’s unconscious resistance, rooted in his own hidden sexual identity.
Three years later, it was my dad who came out first.
His coming out process started slowly, but the clues were pretty obvious. He suddenly knew a lot about Marky Mark and Calvin Klein underwear. He stopped listening to John Cougar Mellencamp and started buying techno music. When he called me from a payphone just to say, “I’m in the Castro,” I couldn’t take any more insults to my intelligence. I wrote him a letter about not keeping secrets. He flew to Austin for another awkward restaurant dinner. But at the end of this meal, someone actually came out.
In the meantime, ironically, I had gone even deeper into the closet. I indulged my rebellious streak by getting married at 23, which nearly killed my feminist parents, although they were remarkably good sports about it.
But like many closets, mine was embarrassingly transparent to anyone who cared to look closely. I was studying queer theory in a department where brilliant lesbian professors attracted scores of lesbian grad students. I think I hoped that one day one of my professors would size me up and pronounce me queer with a flourish of scholarly authority. I was still waiting for the validation of my identity to come from outside.
Once my dad came out, being an ally and supporter to him became the cover story that explained my passionate interest in queer politics and LGBT rights. I spoke at rallies about how much I loved my gay dad. I was more involved in his liberation than he was. Internally, I wrestled with whether my deep attraction to queer culture was indicative of something more personal.
When I finally did come out in my late twenties, I don’t think anyone in my life was surprised. By that time, my dad had become much more comfortable with his own gayness and he took my coming out in stride–although he did say “your mother is going to kill me.”
I sometimes feel like having a parent who came out in my young adulthood slowed down my own coming out process. But I wouldn’t trade it. How many queer kids get to experience the unique pleasure of hearing their dad try out his first words of gay slang? I’ll never forget how proud he was when he was finally able to quote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the appropriate moment.
In the end, I came out when I was ready. For me, that meant maturing to the point that I wasn’t waiting for some outside authority to affirm me and give me a gold star for being queer. If I could speak to that 20-year-old me, I’d tell her- “listen to yourself. The validation you need is inside you.”