I grew up in a close-knit and loving family of four in Minnesota. As a child, I was always close to my mom but didn’t really know my father well. Dad was a gentle man and a hard worker who provided well for his family but he worked incredibly long hours. Neither my brother nor I saw much of Dad except on Sundays that were largely spent at church where Mom was the organist/choir director and Dad handled business operations and finances.
In 1971, just two years after Stonewall, I decided to come out to my folks. I did not look forward to telling them. As a university student in Canada with my parents in Minnesota, it would have been easy not to let them know about my gay life in Winnipeg. But knowing the tightness of our family, it would have been futile to even try to lead a double life. I had no choice but to tell them.
I decided to share the news by letter rather than in person or by phone. I justified this method in that they would then have time to process the news before responding. I assumed that Mom would handle the news better than my Dad. After all, she was a musician, was more politically liberal than Dad, and as mentioned earlier, we were closer. I didn’t know how he’d take the news but I was sure that he would have a more difficult time accepting it.
About a week after sending the letters, Mom called me. She was quite upset and cried through the call. She said she loved me. Dad then got on the phone. I held my breath. He simply said that he didn’t know much about homosexuality and suggested we discuss things in person when I next returned home.
Arriving at home a month later I was still very anxious about Dad. Given his subdued personality, I hoped he would at least be calm and measured. I had not anticipated his response. With somewhat misty eyes he said, “I don’t know anything about homosexuality, Kirk. I’ll have to learn more about it. I do know that I want you to be happy in life. I don’t want you to be hurt. Most of all I love you. You being gay does not change the fact that you’re my son and I will always be there for you.”
Two-Stepping at the Timberline
In the early 1990s my favorite haunt in Seattle was a popular LGBT country-western dance club. One evening during one of my dad’s visits to Seattle, I invited him to join me at the Timberline for beers, assuming that he would probably pass. I was a little surprised that it took no arm-twisting to get him to come along. Perhaps it was his penchant for people-watching that compelled him to join me.
The dancehall was packed with several hundred gay men and lesbians, mostly in western gear and jeans. Dad sat on the sidelines of the dance floor and watched me two-step and line dance with other guys. Occasionally I’d sit out a dance and joined him. As he was seldom one to openly express his emotions, it was not clear to me how he felt about the entire scene.
At one point in the evening, a guy in his late 60s (about Dad’s age) came and plunked himself down next to Dad, hitting on him in subtle ways. When the guy went to buy another beer, I mentioned to Dad what was probably happening.
“Do you want me to say something to him about this?” I asked.
“You know, Kirk,” Dad responded staring at me with a bit of parental scorn, “I’m quite old enough to take care of myself. Of course, I’m not sexually interested in the guy but I must admit it is flattering. I think I can handle the situation without your help, thank you.”
In 1994 I seroconverted. Given several opportunistic infections, dramatic weight loss, an extremely low CD4 count, and a high viral load, I faced the very real prospect of dying in my mid-40s. Informing my parents about this bad news was more daunting than coming out to them in 1972. Rather than feeling the hope and excitement of the about my future in the 1970s, this was very different. I was quite despondent and filled with dread, both about my own life and about sharing the news with them.
I was ashamed. I felt that had let my parents down somehow. Shortly after telling each of them the news by phone, Dad flew to Seattle to visit me. Similar to twenty years previously, Dad told me that he did not know much about HIV/AIDS but that he was going to learn about it and would do whatever he could to help me through this difficult time. There was no hint of any judgment.
“We’re going to get you through this!” he said assuredly. “I love you and will be here for you no matter what.”
In 2007 Dad visited me in San Francisco where I was then living. We decided to play tourists and ride the Powell & Hyde Cable Car. Sitting on the outside bench, Dad was on my left, a woman in her late 20s was on my right, and her late-twenties boyfriend sat on her right. Throughout the journey, the woman and Dad chatted over me. She oozed with praise for him, calling him adorable, sweet, intelligent, and handsome. He seemed to enjoy her attention. Her boyfriend said nothing the entire trip. Similarly, I could not get a word in edgewise. Though nice enough she seemed over the top in her saccharine flirtation with Dad.
“You are so lucky to have such a wonderful, good-looking father!” she turned to me and declared.
“Thank you,” I said, adding, “you know your boyfriend is also adorable. In fact, he is really hot!”
At first her boyfriend was taken aback but then responded with a mischievous grin.
“Thanks! I was feeling left out of the conversation. You’re pretty good looking yourself. Maybe you and I should go off for a beer and leave these two lovebirds alone!”
Everyone laughed as the cable car ambled along.
Often, Dad happily recalled the Timberline and cable car experiences. Looking back at our relationship over the years, we both had come so far. I also realize that Dad’s love for me had been unconditional and nonjudgmental from the start.