Updated: Oct 17, 2021
My dad was a gay man in the 80’s and 90’s and died from AIDS complications in 1998. I was 16 years old. I begin with this not for shock, but because my life has been shaped by this fact. The journey to get here is more shocking. People may think having a gay father prepared me for having a gay son. As if by osmosis, just being around gays means you get it, right? Well, here’s the thing… my father left. He abandoned us and “chose” to leave myself and my two older brothers to live as a gay man. When he died in 1998 it was deserved because that’s what happened to gays. My father left before I could memorize his face, eyes, and smile. He left myself, a small infant, and my two older brothers with a mother, and later stepfather, who would spend the next 18 years convincing us our father was a terrible person and that being gay was a sin. And for a long time, I believed them.
I grew up in the Catholic church. My mom remarried just five months after I was born. My stepfather adopted my two older brothers and I; we took his last name and every memory of my father was erased. There were moments I would ask questions, but quickly learned my queries were unwelcome. I went to church while watching the adults in my life struggle with addiction, mental health, and poverty. My mother and stepfather had two more children, took in another, and that made six. I learned to live in the shadows, to become a wallflower.
Going to church helped because the people were nice, and it made me forget about home. My faith, at one point, felt like all I had. Young adult Catholics are confirmed into the faith by choosing a sponsor and attending classes. It was here my mind began to change. I tried to talk about my father during class. He had been in my thoughts lately, the same place where I would often search for the slightest memory of his face, eyes, and smile. The class leader told me my father was a sinful man. At the age of 19, I was told he was probably in hell. This was the first time I asked myself, what if my father was a good person AND being gay is not wrong?
I suppose one can accept their father is burning in hell because they were gay, but I just couldn’t. I stopped going to church. I’ve never been back. And while I respect all faiths and their participants, I don’t think religion is for me. All the “what-ifs” swirled in my mind for years following my exit from the church. I spent several years in college earning a Bachelor of Arts, moving to Bellingham, WA, and marrying my partner in 2006. In 2008 we had our first child. He was a healthy baby boy and I’ve never felt love like this ever before, except of course for the two more times we had healthy boys in 2009 and 2013. Here I sit raising three boys who are different in many ways. I would do anything for them. How could anyone leave their children?
Over the years I have searched the internet and even reached out to my father’s sister and my father’s former partner to understand. I’ve never been sure of the knowledge I was trying to gain, but the lack of objective never deterred me. I entered the Master of Social Work program at the University of Washington in 2017. I’ve been working in the social work field since 2006. I’ve become a social worker in everything I do. I’ve seen LGBTQ+ youth enter the foster care system at alarming rates. Local resources for homeless youth are disproportionality utilized by LGBTQ+ youth. Through all my studies and experience – slowly but surely – I’ve learned how worthy and deserving all LGBTQ+ people are. This last year, my father’s former partner said something profound when he shared, “Your father thought about you and your brothers often, but it was painful, sometimes too painful.” What if my father was a good person?
My father was an activist, and a quick internet search will reveal his death was not in vain. Go ahead, google “Steve Michael.” He wasn’t there when I was growing up, but he was there for so many through his advocacy. I think now, how hard it must have been to be a gay man in the 80’s and 90’s. AIDS was a pandemic, and there was no place for gay men in “family.” Maybe he left because he knew the outcome. Gay men weren’t parents. What if being gay isn’t wrong?
My beautiful, first-born child came out as gay almost a year ago. He is now 11 and I spend every day we’re together telling and showing him being gay is right. It’s right for him. I think of my own father who spent so much of his life hiding who he was. The pain he felt must have been overwhelming at times. Today, I’m happy to know he spent some of his time here on earth living his true self. I wish he were here today to help guide me through this maze. I tell all my children stories about their grandfather, and while stories will have to suffice, I wish he could be here in person to model and mentor us all.
I never got the chance to memorize my father’s face, eyes, and smile, but every time I look at my son, I see him. In my perfect child, I see my father. When I look into his eyes, I see hope, aspirations, and tenacity. When he smiles, I know he’s happy and being true to himself. His face emanates all the love his warrior grandfather fought for. This is a face I can memorize. These are the eyes I explore every day, and the smile that gives me hope.
Thank you to all the warriors out there who fought to give children like mine a chance.