This weekend my dad and I went to a baseball game together. That may not seem like a big deal to most people, and in most cases it probably isn’t. I can vividly remember going to Detroit Tigers baseball games numerous times with my dad as a kid and loving every minute of it. What made this a bigger deal than your average outing to the ballpark was that this time my dad and I were part of a mostly gay entourage celebrating the birthday of one of my friends. My dad knew this ahead of time and was still enthusiastic about going and had a great time getting to know some of the people that are important in my life here in Atlanta. For me, this was more than just a baseball game with my dad and a handful of friends; it was the most significant milestone I’ve passed in a decade-long journey toward acceptance within my family. And it was definitely a home run.
Coming out to my parents ten years ago was one of the most difficult things I’ve been through in my life. I was one of those kids who had a very close relationship with both of my parents, even through the challenging transitions from childhood to adolescence, then from teenager to young adult. We could always talk about nearly everything and they allowed me to spread my wings and make my way in the world. Many of my friends envied the closeness I had with my parents, that is until the day I sat them down to explain to them that I was gay, and had been dealing with that reality secretly since adolescence.
My mom’s reaction, although unexpected, is one I can now laugh about. As they were seated together on the living room sofa after I delivered the unsettling news, my mom looked at me and simply said, “No, you’re not. I know that you’re not. It’s not possible.” I was prepared for tears, rejection, anger or disgust, but I most certainly was not prepared for that. After spending quite some time trying to explain to her that I was, indeed, sure that I was gay (an exercise in futility), I left the house without much reaction from my father.
Nearly a month later, my car broke down just down the street from my parents’ house. My dad came to help me, and it was the first time I had seen him since that fateful conversation. Even though this was the same man who had taken me to New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and Janet Jackson concerts as a teen, the news of my sexual orientation had completely blindsided him (go figure?). What began as an awkward silence sitting in his car at the repair shop was broken by words that pierced me so deeply I will never forget them. Without looking at me, my dad said, “It’s like you died. The son we knew is dead, and now we have to start all over again getting to know this new person who has replaced him.”
Even now, ten years later, I can’t type those words without them taking me straight back to that moment in the car and feeling like someone has knocked the wind right out of me. Those words cut me so deeply to the core that the tears come quickly even though I’ve replayed them thousands of times since that day.
Through a long journey filled with dramatic ups and downs, fits and starts, and even more than one “coming out” conversation (apparently they forgot I was really gay about five years after I told them), my parents and I have arrived at a much better place together. Getting to this place only came about because we made a mutual commitment to each other. We committed, even amidst the heartbreak of that initial coming out moment, to try to understand each other and most importantly to love each other no matter what.
This has been no easy task, and the struggle can be attributed in great part to the way many within the evangelical church in America have used the issue of “homosexuality” to divide families. Through a series of lies about the nature of human sexuality and the roles of mothers and fathers, organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have pitted parents against children, wives against husbands and congregations against their own. When families have a gay son, their pastors and the authors of countless child-rearing books tell them that the fault lies with the father; that he hasn’t been involved, hasn’t been a strong disciplinarian, or hasn’t modeled true masculinity to his son. My father deserved none of these accusations and was, in fact, a stellar example of calm, consistent strength and integrity. But he was blamed nonetheless. And to his credit, he never countered those attacks with equally false blame against my mother for being overbearing or overindulgent and thereby creating a gay son (another popular lie promulgated by self-named "experts" on the subject). Why the evangelical church has intentionally caused families to turn on each other during these already painful moments I will never understand, but this happens over and over to fathers who might otherwise embrace their children regardless of sexual orientation.
Just a few months ago I was home for a vacation to the Midwest to celebrate my niece’s one-year birthday. I was having such a great time with my family that I extended my trip a few days just to have some down time with my parents. One night, the whole family was gathered at a bakery waiting to gather the leftovers for distribution at our church and we got to talking about food allergies and pregnancy (as my sister is pregnant with her second child). I have a life-and-death allergy to peanuts, and my mom casually commented that she used to crave peanut butter by the jar when she was pregnant for me. My dad pointed over toward me and said, “Yeah, and look, this one came out GAY!” The entire family burst into laughter. I was stunned, but this time in a good way. Had we really made it from tragedy to comedy in a mere TEN YEARS? This had to be a good sign…
I’ve known my whole life that my dad loves me. He often tells me how proud of me he is, and that means a lot. But this past weekend I flew him down to Atlanta for the weekend as a belated birthday and Father’s Day gift. He was so happy. We talked about my career, things going on in our family, and his worries about the wellbeing of everyone he has taken care of in his life. The most somber topic we discussed were his instructions to me in caring for my mother and the family when he is no longer here. We shared a steak at one of the best steakhouses in America, ate ice cream and took my puppy to the dog park.
And to kick it all off, we went to a baseball game with a bunch of gay guys. It may not seem like a big deal to most, but I’ll never forget that night for the rest of my life.