About two years ago my mother staged a posthumous "outing" of her first husband, my father. I was an audience of one. What occasioned this revelation escapes my memory. I believe there was little connection to anything in our telephone conversation, and so the news was rather jarring. Let me be clear that I was never upset by the notion that my father was potentially a big queen. Even if I saw that quality as a failing, which I don't, it would fall so far down his list of poor qualities as to seem insignificant.
What does upset me is that he was an equal opportunity cheater - she caught him with both men and women (not at the same time, so far as I know, but it WAS the 70s). Let's just say that he was, well, experimental. About everything, really. My father wanted to try it, what ever it was, at least once. And that was genuinely a part of his rakish charm.
That and his perpetual boyishness, puer eternis. Successful and commanding as he once was, he was also endowed with a playful, impish quality. Impossibly funny, jaunty, dashing even. Despite all the sadness I've written of, I really remember him nearly always wearing that cocky grin on his face. My dad was just plain fun, and despite his choice of profession, I believe he lived to break rules. It was his revelry.
Except that he inherited a crushing historical and cultural weight, and yoked himself to it. Sad to think of him living inauthentically, but it was a different time, though not quite different enough. I've wondered if he had remained in the city of his birth, Los Angeles, if he might eventually have discovered some acceptance. As it was, the family moved to Mormonville Central, while he was still in grade school. Given his generation and his "upbringing" (a curious word given the way many of us are raised), he probably could not have gracefully escaped the mandate of shame in our culture. My brother thinks he was doomed to play that out. He wrote this to me recently (it's so good to have him back in my life, he's funny):
" If Dad had lived, I really doubt he would have come to grips with his
sexuality. As with numerous examples from his generation (Roy Cohn, etc.),
once you have incorporated repression into your everyday life, you build
everything else around it and it becomes impossible to extricate,
especially if your peer group still thinks that being gay is evil or
bad. Look at Ken Mehlman. In fact, Dad was worried that I was gay.
He was always saying things like "B____, you should be more interested in
women." Another time he refused to take me to see Scarecrow, about a
deep friendship between Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, because "it'll just
make you like men more." So he was also deeply ashamed of his
attraction to men, and I doubt that would have changed. However, he
could have become a bigwig in the Republican party, it's chock full of
closeted gays. "
We really have got sexuality all bound up, haven't we? When I try to resolve this question in my head, "was he really gay, my father?" Gay gay? Or simply bisexual? My mother claims he was passionate with her. Did he really need two full beards - two wives and children from each one? Why leave the first family for my mother (I grant you she had her charms), if what he really wanted were men? I have no answer for this question, and I doubt that even he could answer it, were he alive. And that's what I object to so strenuously, a world that requires people to live against their very beingness. We constrain sexual expression to the point that one can't so much as explore safely to discover what the true nature really is. The unexamined life is not worth living, and as it turned out, for my father it wasn't even possible to continue. I'm sure it's what ultimately killed him.
Do you think there is a God who creates such a torment in a man, such that it destroys him, and then punishes him for it on the other side of his demise? I don't believe that, and I will never bow before such a God. I've been bent down, I have knelt, I've been forced to the ground by the circumstances of my life more times than I can recount or even recall. Times when I thought I might expire just from the sheer pain of it. I will accept trials and tests and the strength that is built, but you will never get me to believe that God hates a grown human being who reaches for another in a moment of loneliness, or desire, or just plain love. And it does exist outside of hetero relationships. I have seen it.
My father was quite a fellow, in many ways. He came from a very large and quite poor family in Salt Lake City, but he was unreasonably bright and equally ambitious. At least three people have told me he was the smartest man they ever met, or maybe they didn't get around too much. After a short time at the U. of Utah, he enlisted in the Korean war, but was stationed in Germany for having flat feet or something. He studied at the University of Heidelberg, and owing to a famously photographic memory, he learned German in a heartbeat. Then off to Harvard for law school, where he graduated magna cum laude, while he and his first wife raised their three children. Once transplanted to Portland, Oregon, he co-founded his own flourishing corporate securities practice and was making money hand over fist by his early thirties. I'm told that back then, he was one of the most prominent attorneys in the Pacific Northwest. This is something I care little about, the wealth he accrued, then lost. I will admit to an occasional pang over a woebegone inheritance, but my father was unhappy, and all his land and capital didn't change that fact while he had it.
Sometime in 1965, and smack in the middle of his career, he took off to Mississippi with a group of Oregon attorneys. They were among the first in the country to volunteer through the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (which was established in conjunction with Kennedy's Civil Rights Act of 1964). This was a dangerous time. This was the Mississippi that had taken Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman just a year before. People died for helping Black People. It has always struck me ironically that my father, outspoken against practices of homosexuality to the extent that he tried to separate me as a child from a beloved aunt, would risk his neck for the color line. If he were still alive, and if I had known about all this before he died, I would have told him so.
Writing that last line I realized something intrinsic to our relationship. What I wrote is absolutely true, I argued with him quite a bit, and I was free to do so. My father encouraged me to know my mind by allowing me to exercise it. We had long telephone conversations when I was small that were about ideas. I know he found me funny, and often he would say with an amused laugh, "You're too logical." That, of course, is highly debatable, but notable in that to the rest of my family I was always "too sensitive." In the good and private hemisphere of a world I shared with my father, he indulged me. I was free to be as I wanted, say what I wanted, even if he couldn't in his own adult life. I am eternally grateful to him for that. As much as my father is mysterious to me, there is little doubt I am more like him than I am my mother. I really loved him, all the way along the rough road he drove us down.
It is a real pity I never learned of his time in the South until later. Without any knowledge of it, I naturally gravitated towards a course of study in high school and college that linked directly into his work. I wish I knew what he experienced there. For me, his pro bono civil rights work is the greatest mark of his life. About seven years ago, he and the other attorneys were honored by the ACLU. I accepted a posthumous award on his behalf; Myrlie Evers gave the keynote address. It gave me so much that night to know that he had done at least one great thing.
Anyway, the night my mother dropped the G-bomb, after I got off the phone and tried to process it all, I was suddenly struck with an idea for a movie. "Gay Ghost Dad," haunting his family. Rearranging furniture in the middle of the night, because the placement of the divan was just all wrong! The stereo mysteriously plays an old Bette Midler LP. The distant cackle of Paul Lynde echoes down the long hallway. Last season's clothing mysteriously disappears from wardrobes and laundry hampers, like stray socks, never to be found again. It's never too late to come out of the closet, and now the household's in an uproar.
But that's just like me, spreading love and acceptance, and busting up stereotypes when and where I can.