What Daddy Can’t Fix
The prospect of coming out to his parents scared him to death. But they were fine with it. Anyway, that’s what it seemed like at first.
Even before Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, coming out to one’s family needed to be properly orchestrated. You hoped for an outpouring of love and understanding, but you had heard the horror stories and needed to brace yourself for shock, anger, denial, and outright rejection. In the 1980s, when I summoned the courage to come out as gay to my deeply conservative parents in Mississippi, I expected to shake their world. But they didn’t seem surprised at all.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit offended.
I had spent two decades shielding them from the truth about my sexuality: I kept secret the relentless bullying and my suicide attempt. I told homophobic jokes and laughed at theirs. I never disclosed the real reason I fled to Minnesota—the fear I wouldn’t survive if the wrong person figured out who I was. Instead, I wove an intricate web of lies, concealing clandestine meet-ups and constantly juggling gender pronouns. I even snatched the phone from overnight boyfriends to answer early morning calls without arousing suspicion. Let’s not forget all those girlfriends I concocted, each with an elaborate backstory I had to remember. It was a hell of a lot of work! Avoiding telling the people I loved the core truth about myself became a defining feature of my life.
As I entered my late twenties, my parents stopped asking if I had a “special girl.” I assumed they were sparing me from recounting yet another tragic breakup story. It never occurred to me that perhaps they had already suspected the truth.
Conversely, when it came to my struggles with alcohol, I was taken aback by their shared horror when I finally revealed that I was seeking treatment for chemical dependency.
“No!” they both exclaimed simultaneously, their voices echoing through separate phone extensions. “You can’t be an alcoholic!” my mother vehemently declared.
Then Dad started in with his non-questions. “You don’t have a problem, do you? It’s not interfering with your job, is it?”
“Gay? Sure, why not! They jumped on that bandwagon with both feet.”
If I admitted I had an alcohol problem, it meant acknowledging my mother as an alcoholic, and her father, most of her brothers, as well as my father’s family. Ancestors dating back to our first juniper-berry-squeezing progenitor would be outed as alcoholics. So, no, I wasn’t an alcoholic. It just wasn’t acceptable.
“Where’d you ever get an idea like that?” my mother asked.
“For starters, that DWI in Mississippi and the DUI in North Carolina a year later. Oh yeah, and the Christmas Eve I passed out behind the wheel and totaled your beloved Lincoln. And speaking of passing out, remember when I dropped off to sleep in Dad’s recliner with a lit cigarette and set the living room on fire? Remember those third-degree burns on my backside? Oh, and that memorable occasion when Dad had to bail me out of jail for public drunkenness?”
Mom declared all that to be in the past. “You’ve changed,” she said.
“I’ve only changed states. You just can’t smell the bourbon from here.”
“But didn’t you study something like that in college?” Dad asked.
He was referring to my master’s degree in substance abuse counseling, which was also a degree in irony. “Yes,” I replied, “but I don’t remember it. I was in a blackout when I graduated.”
But that’s not 100 percent true. I did remember one thing: that the drunk is supposed to be the one in denial. But here I was, staging an intervention with my parents, trying to get them to admit I was powerless over alcohol.
But they would have none of it. Even after over three decades of sobriety, they remained unconvinced.
But gay? Sure, why not! They jumped on that bandwagon with both feet.
Then again, I had done my prework. By 1983, when I came out, there were resources to guide individuals through the process. Coming out had become something of a trend within the gay community—a ritual of sorts. I carefully scripted the coming-out speech, just like the experts prescribed. It would educate them while absolving them of guilt and assuring them that my chances were good for a productive life in society without a wife and child. I would declare that I was okay with who I was, that I was gay and proud!
But then I strayed from the recommendations. I didn’t deliver the speech in person. Instead, I wrote it all down in a letter and dropped it in the mail before hopping on a plane to Key West for a week without phone service. My family couldn’t have a rational conversation about what to have for supper. No way would I serve up my sexual orientation as the main course.
Along with the letter, I included a book coaching them on how to respond to their gay son with love and understanding and what stages they should expect to pass through on the way to eventual acceptance. I hoped they could get through the first few steps of the grieving process without me—at least past denial, bargaining, and anger—by reading the letter and the book. Then I would show up in time for loving acceptance.
Tanned and refreshed, I unlocked the door to my condo and heard my home phone ringing in that parental manner, shrill and insistent. I counted the seconds between the rings. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Yep, I thought, the storm was about to hit.
As I picked up the phone, I found myself caught between the dueling extensions. “We received your letter,“ my mom exclaimed, effusive with emotion. “And we want you to know we love you unconditionally.”
“I assumed he meant that though he loved me, he hated it real bad that I had to go to hell for being irredeemably evil.”
Well, at least she had read the dust jacket. But then she ad-libbed, exclaiming, “Anyway, I knew something was wrong when you suddenly got quiet when you were nine.”
“I got quiet?”
“And you’ve been that way ever since,” she insisted. “We asked what was wrong, but you put up walls against us. We figured you would tell us when you got ready. I bet anything that this was it. Is that what you got quiet about?”
“I don’t remember getting quiet,” I lied.
“Sure, you do! You used to be so happy-go-lucky and outgoing. Then all of a sudden, you got real shy and standoffish. Wouldn’t talk to us. Dropped all your friends and stayed in your room a lot. You seemed down, honey, and you’ve carried a weight ever since. I’m sure that was it,” she insisted. “Well, I just want you to know that we noticed.”
Of course, she was right. That was about the age my classmates began tormenting me about how different I was from other boys—but that time held too much shame to revisit. Long ago, I had traded that awkward kid for the rehearsed competence of an emotionally detached professional. It concealed the wounds nicely.
I shifted my attention to my father, who hadn’t spoken after his gruff hello. “Dad,” I approached cautiously, “how do you feel about it?”
“They don’t know at work, do they?”
Of course, to get his bearings, my businessman father would have to find his emotional North Star—work.
“No,” I replied. “Anyway, it’s none of their business. But how do you feel? About the letter?”
There was the longest of pauses, interrupted only by the flick of his lighter and the deep exhale of his Salem. I waited anxiously to hear what Mom had likely coached him to say.
“I wish you weren’t…that,” he finally admitted. “But you’re my son. I hate it for you, but I love you anyway.”
I tried to emotionally sever the “I love you” from the “anyway” without bruising the skin. But it couldn’t be done, I admit. It hurt.
Mom sensed the hurt and swooped in. “Now, honey, what your daddy means is he loves you unconditionally, too, just like me. We’re not homo-phobic or anything.”
Wow, I thought, she really had read the book!
“Don’t you worry; your daddy’ll come around. Just give him time,” Mom reassured. “You know, we’ve come a long way about a lot of things.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Take the Jews and the coloreds. We don’t think that way anymore.”
Dad had nothing else to say. In fact, over the next few years, those were the last words that would pass between us about my being gay.
I hate it for you, but I love you anyway.
Those words rang clear in my memory, a bitter blend of conditionality and vagueness. I assumed he meant that though he loved me, he hated it real bad that I had to go to hell for being irredeemably evil.
After I came out, the word “gay” was suddenly everywhere you looked. AIDS reared its ugly head. Stories of gay-bashing were commonplace. Rabid talk of putting us into concentration camps and mandatory testing filled the airwaves. Every other made-for-TV movie revolved around a dying gay man and his estranged family, who were really sorry now that he was dead.
Gay was everywhere except between my father and me. Mom often mentioned how she knew I was a “special” child, and now she knew why. She told me to be safe. She phoned me every time Oprah had a gay man on her show to tell me he looked as normal as anybody else and that the audience was warm and accepting. “They were real Christian to him,” she said.
Yet, with my father and me, we pretended nothing had been said and that nothing had changed. We maintained our conversations through the filter of work, communicating as men do.
I didn’t push it. I wasn’t ready for my father to acknowledge me as a gay man. In my mind, being gay meant I was somehow less of a man. To me, the term “gay man” was still an oxymoron.
Coming out hadn’t changed me much at all. I still lived alone in a middle-class, straight neighborhood, had a corporate job where I tested my worth against other men, and dressed the part of a conservative capitalist. I limited my friendships to heterosexual colleagues. People knew me by what I did for a living. I was my business card.
I was still a straight guy who just happened to engage in same-sex weekend encounters. I kept the two neatly compartmentalized. It took a couple of years of sobriety to learn that having lovers of the same sex does not automatically make you a gay man. Nor does coming out.
I learned that the real initiation comes when you finally let one of those men get close enough to break your heart. That’s when the facade shatters, and the transformation occurs. It happened to me when my first boyfriend dumped me.
A few days after the breakup, my dad called my office and must have sensed the pain in my voice. “What’s the matter?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “Is work going okay?”
This was my invitation to slip into that familiar flat tone of masculine complaint and moan about my job and boss, to connect with my father over our shared busyness, mention my recent pay raise, or detail a work problem that had me up all night. In the end, I would assure him that my job and I were on good terms with each other. In our world, the unspoken motto was, “If your job is okay, then you’re okay.”
I knew when we were done, he would say something upbeat, like, “Well, don’t let it get you down, son. No sense in fretting over it.” Once, he told me, “If you find a job you only hate 95 percent of, you got a damn good job.”
His advice about work was always cold comfort. I would leave the conversation feeling unseen.
However, for the first time since coming out, I decided not to cloak my feelings in that convenient, masculine distraction, a hard day at the office. Regardless of his response, I couldn’t feel any worse. So I resolved to find out if he could handle an actual answer to his nonquestion.
I closed the door to my office, summoning the courage to speak my truth. “I broke up with my boyfriend. I’ve never been in love before, and it really hurts,” I confessed.
Silence enveloped the phone line. Finally, my father responded, “I hate it for you.”
There it was again! That peculiar, enigmatic reply. It marked the second time he had used those exact words. My father was a man of precision and logic. When he assembled something, there were never any leftover pieces. Those words carried significance.
“What do you mean, you hate it for me?” I pressed, determined to unravel his meaning.
Over the receiver, I heard the familiar crumpling sound from a pack of cigarettes, followed by the flick of his lighter. At that moment, a wordless pause ensued, but through it, I could perceive the reluctant gears of my father’s emotional machinery, rarely set in motion, finally whirring to life.
“The world can be a hard place,” he began cautiously. “But I know being…gay, and all, will make your life harder than it ought to be. You know. AIDS. Finding somebody to love. And there’s people out here who want to hurt you. I hear it every day. Even the goddamned preacher can’t leave it alone.” I could hear the tears in my dad’s voice now. “Johnny, I don’t want you to be hurt. This is the first thing I don’t know how to fix for you.”
My immediate thought was to tell him I didn’t need fixing. I was gay and proud. But I would be lying. I was broken, and he knew it. He always knew.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s how I feel, too, Daddy.” I hadn’t called him Daddy in twenty years, and now he wasn’t the only one pushing back on his tears.
My being a gay man was now real for my father, and for the first time, it felt true for me. I was supposed to act gay and proud, but I realized that being an out gay man involved some grieving. I would have to give up the charade, acting as if I was bound for a traditional life with a wife and kids, a house in the suburbs, where I could find safety by fitting snugly into a conventional lifestyle. That I could, by passing, find salvation in the conformity of a straight life; all I would have to give up was me, a person I had not yet found the courage to discover.
The illusions I had constructed crumbled. If I could be honest with my father, I could be honest with myself. I didn’t know what my future as a gay man looked like, and that scared the hell out of me. There was no script. It was up to me to craft my own story, rooted in authenticity, not the fabrication that shielded me from the world.
That day, my father gave me a precious gift—his unqualified compassion. And in return, I was able to extend that same compassion to the gay child I had long buried in shame. This was his journey, and only I could fix it for him.
Jonathan Odell is the author of three novels, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks Club (Maiden Lane Press 2015), The View From Delphi (Macadam Cage 2004) , and The Healing (Random House 2012). His essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in The New York Times, Commonweal, Publishers Weekly, and others. He lives in Minneapolis with his husband.