Charles Stephens: Building bridges between black fathers and their gay sons

My father would never have attended a PFLAG meeting. Not in a million years. He was not an ally in the way we think about heterosexual allies. He was at best ambivalent. He did not understand my being gay, necessarily, but he did understand love, so he loved me in the way he knew how: through actions and gestures. This is how the men in my family love their sons.

When he first started getting sick, before he died, I would visit him in the hospital after work. Not as much as I should have—a fact he would remind me of often, but that’s another story. As I sat with him in his room at Piedmont Hospital, we had these talks. He would tell me how he his missed my mother; she passed away years earlier. He would comment on my weight: if I appeared too skinny or if I seemed to have put on a few pounds. He would even ask me if I was seeing anyone.

Once he asked me flat out if I had ever gone to Loretta’s, the iconic black gay club in Midtown. How he even knew about Loretta’s, I didn’t ask, but my father knew things, and knew people, so it wasn’t shocking. Old-school black men like my father who’d lived in Atlanta for years knew everything about the city, even things you wouldn’t expect. Like I said, I was more tickled than surprised that he asked me and was trying to connect. Here we were, two black men, separated not just by years but by generations, and he was trying to build a bridge.

We also talked about God. “You still read your Bible?” he would ask. By this point I had not even looked inside a Bible for years, but being the good son I wanted him to imagine I was, I would respond “yes.” I never had the heart to tell him I no longer believed.

My parents were pragmatic Southern working-class black people who had more affinity for the compassionate Jesus than the Old Testament God. In their recitations of people they despised: liars, thieves, cheats, drunks, racists, neglectful parents, and lazy people, gays never made the list. Maybe this was on purpose. Parents know their children. My parents certainly knew me.

Growing up, my father never called me any anti-gay slurs. Not once. Never called me a sissy. Never suggested I was some kind of abomination. Never called me any of those things. Of his four sons, I think I was the only one he actually told he loved. Don’t get me wrong; there were never clearly expressed affirmations about sexual diversity either. But most critically, my father never attacked me for being gay. Ever.

When I was 19 or so I was interviewed by the local news here in Atlanta. I was the spokesperson for Youth Pride’s Unity Above Hate march that year. I don’t remember my exact words, but I talked about homophobia and young people and growing up in Atlanta. Everyone in my family watched the news that evening, at least it seemed, because I would later learn that my father received a million and five calls about it.

I had not warned him about the interview, so he was probably ill-prepared to respond. He knew I was gay by this time—had known for a while—but being on television and talking about it was a different matter altogether.

To this day, I don’t know exactly what he said to my family members seeking explanation from him; only what he said to me. On our way to dinner a day or two after the broadcast, we sat in his car. As he turned the ignition, he asked in a solemn voice, “So you were on television?” I turned to him and responded, “yes,” curious to see how he would react.

“I’m proud of you,” he said. Then he put the car in drive and we went on to dinner. We never discussed it again.

Charles Stephens is the founder of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. Follow him on Twitter: @CharlesStephen2