My Gay World: Father's Day
That’s My Daddy!!!
Words by Russell S. Suggs
Once again we come to that time of year when we look toward our father figures and consider their impact upon our lives. If we’re really lucky individuals, we might have the very special gift of having developed a deep and meaningful relationship with our biological fathers. This year specifically, I consider the impact my own father has had on my life.
As a child, my father was the disciplinarian and deeply committed to a “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy. My father was the son of an Evangelical Non-Denominational minister, a product of the tent revival, full-on KKK territory, South. This is not to say my father is a racist— he is not— but the context is important. Guns, gas stations, hot rod car wrecks, bottled soda, hell fire and brimstone were all a part of every day life. He was, and is, a man’s man, his life’s vocation devoted to the study, maintenance and repair of cars. He is no less committed to his faith, a stalwart Deacon of the Southern Baptist Church, and he exemplifies what it means to be a man in the Bible Belt.
At 15, Dad taught me how to drive in a primer-coated Volkswagen Beetle with the floor very nearly rusted out. The VW sat in our basement over the Fall of 1985 while my father rebuilt the engine, specifically for the purpose of teaching me how to drive a stick shift. He tried his damnedest to build a connection with me, his eldest son, through the instigation of this project. I feigned interest, holding the flashlight and handing him tools upon request, but was fully and completely bored out of my mind. My own interests were generally found deeply immersed in either the latest sci-fi fantasy tome or awaiting Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.
My relationship with my father at this age was like that of many young gay males. I worked very hard to “fit in” to the mold I was told I should. I knew I was loved, but I also knew I was gay before I truly knew what “being gay” meant. My father only once voiced his disapproval outwardly, but it struck me as surely as he had hit me with his fist.
“Why do you have to act like such a sissy?” he yelled across the church sanctuary. “If I’m a sissy you made me one!” I responded scornfully. It was the beginning of a long estrangement.
As I graduated high school and moved on to college my contact with my parents and individuals from my hometown dwindled, the anger inside me building in response to the constant barrage against homosexuality and an ever-present threat of looming fiery hell. Then at age 19, I met and fell in love with my first partner. His name was Scott and my parents loved him dearly, thinking him to be my roommate and close friend from college. At about two years into what would become a five-year relationship, we hit some stormy waters and broke up for a short time. In true southern queen fashion this breakup was full of tears, dramatic scenes and an historic breakdown at my 21st birthday party. That, however, is another story.
I went into a deep depression, concerned that the love of my life was slipping away and consumed with feelings of failure at having lost the only relationship I had known to date. It was during an infrequent call home that my father made the first gesture, an overt attempt to reinsert himself in my life.
“Son, what is wrong?” he asked. “Your Mother and I are worried about you. Is it drugs?” I laughed and said no. He drew a line in the sand and said he wasn’t getting off the phone until I told him what was the matter.
“Fine, you want to know?” I asked, now at the end of my rope. “I’ll tell you, but there are some things you’re going to have to know first.” After taking a deep breath I went on, filling the reverent silence my father afforded me on the other end of the line. “I’m gay, but that isn’t the problem. I’ve known I was gay since I was very small and it’s taken my entire life for me to be OK with that.” My delivery was a little too angry but my father indulged me. Little did I know how false these words were; I was anything but OK with it. “Scott is my partner, and I love him just like you love Mom, and we’ve broken up and my heart is breaking. I don’t know how I can go on.”
I waited for the response I knew would come. I exhaled deeply in anticipation of my relationship with my biological family coming to a close. I had always assumed I would one day grow up, tell my parents I was gay and never come back. But much to my surprise, my father responded, “Son, I don’t understand. I will never understand… but I love you.”
I was at once furious and relieved. How could he be saying this to me? The very idea was at odds with everything I had heard from his mouth since my own infancy. I would continue to live in this space of anger and disbelief for almost another decade. This was my Hell.
Nearly twenty years later I would play out a similar scene with my father after my grandmother’s funeral. I chose this time to reveal that I was HIV positive. It was no less difficult than my initial “coming out,” the shame and inner feelings of failure effectively mimicking my emotions of youth and putting me squarely in the same mental space.
Though others within the family would voice party line opinion, supporting a borderline “HIV is a judgment from God” philosophy, my father rose to the occasion in what I had come to know as his true fashion. Twenty years had gifted us with the relationship he had longed for while leaning over the backend of that rundown VW. The irony was that I’d been the broken piece of machinery, finally fixed and readied for the road. The mechanic and Deacon in him understood this and he listened calmly, with all the love he could muster in his eyes, as I recounted some of the personal horrors of the past 20 years.
“I’m so thankful you can tell me these things,” he said. “It makes me very sad that you had to go through them, but I can see that you’re OK and I believe you when you tell me that you are.” It was all the validation I ever needed. The veritable RSS… “My daddy thinks I’m fine.”
There are, without question, a few key individuals here in New York with whom I have
developed mentor/mentee relationships and without their influence and support I would not be the healthy, well-adjusted man I have grown to be. Certainly there is still work to do, but on this Father’s Day I am extremely thankful to all the men in my life who care enough to be father figures. Most especially, I am thankful for the love and support of my biological father. With his love and support, I can do no wrong.
I love you, Daddy.