Every January, I make a photo calendar with all my favorite family photos from the previous year. (I used to give them as gifts, until I realized that no one really likes to look at us quite as much as we like to look at ourselves.)
Anyway, I was going through my files, and I came across these sweet pics of Dad helping me network my new printer. I thought folks might like to see a stylish senior who bucks the stereotypes about aging and technical agility.
My mom is in Mexico for a few weeks, so I think it’s safe to share this story.
Two years ago, Mom’s dad died. My grandpa was an artist and entrepreneur, a small-time inventor who owned a custom picture framing shop. Over 65 years of marriage, he and Grandma amassed a large archive of slides and photographs that documented everything from their courtship to Grandpa’s business ventures and countless family camping trips.
My sister and I both flew to Phoenix for Grandpa’s funeral, but Kristen got there first. She spent an entire day immersed in the family archive, helping Mom select pictures for a coffin-side photo collage. Ever the social scientist, Kristen wasted no time in sorting through the evidence and identifying her own salient data. By the time I arrived, she had the slide projector set up in Grandma’s living room.
“There’s this picture you have to see,” she said, when we had a moment in private. “It’s Mom and Dad right after their honeymoon. They actually look kind of hip. It’s weird. I need to have it.”
Unfortunately, our mother had already sniffed out my sister’s fascination. She sighed when Kristen switched out the lights. Over the lumbering hum of the ancient projector, Mom performed a multimedia symphony of teeth-sucking and eye-rolling. She actually groaned when the post-honeymoon picture clicked into view. “Oh puhleeez.”
The more we delighted, the more she protested. “Mom, you look so beautiful…I love that dress… You guys were so cute… I wish my hair could look like that.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said. “Just stop.”
The problem was as clear as the Arizona sunlight. In the photo, my father is sprawled in a mid-century lawn chair in my grandparents’ backyard. His hair is slightly long, and he’s wearing Wayfarer-style glasses with black frames. Although my grandparents were teetotalers, Alex seems to be holding a scotch and soda. His lanky legs are crossed at the knee, and he’s wearing a pair of extremely loud plaid pants.
In other words, he looks like he should be having cocktails with Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. He looks like a great big gay.
The next day, after Grandpa’s funeral, we were too sad and tired to bother with the slides. Mom said her husband was going to digitize them all, so it seemed pretty certain that we’d be able to get a copy of The Photo, the one we really wanted.
A few weeks later, Kristen casually asked about the slides. Mom said she would send them. Instead, she emailed a copy of the glamour shot that she uses for her Facebook profile.
Beautiful, but not quite what we were looking for.
An outsider might find it difficult to sympathize with our singular passion for a snapshot. But when you grow up with a closeted parent, there’s a big part of your family history that’s missing. It’s not simply because people are guarding family secrets; the largest holes in the fabric of memory are worn by the unconscious effort of resisting what is already known.
As adults, my sister and I can spend hours analyzing a remembered word or gesture, trying to figure out where we came from and how it shaped us. It’s personal, sometimes it’s sad or frustrating or harrowing. But it’s also pleasurable. The truth is, we like being sleuths in the archive, putting the pieces together in different combinations, trying to see what stories we can tell.
For my parents, the photo elicits different feelings. In these black and white snapshots, they are literally exposed. What should I have known? What did I show? Who knew? Did I seem like a fool? A joke?
Last Christmas, Kristen raised the question of The Photo with our father. Since my dad came out in 1994, I have seen him wear some truly outrageous ensembles. My favorite was the time he showed up at a (Mormon) family reunion in shiny black pants with a chain mail belt. However, as Kristen began to describe the missing picture, he grimaced. It was as if somehow he already knew.
“Am I wearing funny pants in that picture?”
Yes, funnypants, we love you. And, for the record, my mom is at a language school in Mexico this month, and I know she’s rocking those irregular verbs, because she’s super smart.
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.”