Gay men from my era went through a more difficult time in the ’80s and ’90s; we faced homophobia, discrimination in our jobs, and buried many of our friends and lovers due to the AIDS crisis. Those of us that survived that horrible time toughened up and focused our attention on our careers and explored the boundaries of our sex lives. Many of us came from families that didn’t accept us for who we were, and we had to fight to exist in the everyday world.
It was early 1984 when I came out to my family. I couldn’t live a double life any longer. What I experienced as I took each of them out to dinner, was an unnerving silence. I recall the coming out stories shared by my friends, and they always seemed much than mine. Most of their families had shunned them and refused to have any connection with them. It was a sad time, and that obvious disapproval still affects some of us to this day.
My experience was different. It was the uncomfortable quietness that permeated each conversation every time I brought up the subject, especially from my father, who expressed no bitterness or hostility but seemed to turn to a different topic on a drop of a dime. In essence, I felt each experience was chipping away a piece of who I was every time it happened. This was something I had to endure for many years after.
My father was never there emotionally for me; it was always my mother that kept the bonds together in my family after their divorce. Even after she remarried, she made sure that my father and my grandmother were always invited for dinner every Sunday to make me feel like I still had a tie to both of them.
My father was a selfish man in some ways. It’s something that became more apparent years later after I came out. I remember a time in my life when I had financial difficulties and called up my dad to ask to borrow money from him, with interest. His answer was, “Rob, life throws you these punches and you’ve just got to roll with them.” It wasn’t like I had ever gotten into trouble with the law or had created any turmoil growing up in the household. I was a model son and had worked ever since my early teens.
After that phone conversation, once again I felt rejected and it was many years before I decided to let him into my life again. For many years, I pushed through my feelings of isolation, rejection, and resentment of my father’s treatment of me. One day I decided to make another attempt to reconnect with him, hoping we could start fresh and let the past stay in the past. I visited him and his second wife in North Carolina and had what was a seemingly great time until I brought up the topic of what I did for a living. I showed him newspapers of the various LGBTQ publications that I had worked for over the years (as of 2018 it’s been almost 25 years in this industry). My father’s response was to shift the subject once again. It happened so fast it made my head spin. All the years came crashing back down. The silence returned.
I realized I was beating my head against the wall in trying to seek out my father’s approval and acceptance an acceptance that never came. He died in 2013. I learned to live with this pain of not being able to let my dad know who I was and finally moved on with my life. The irony was, I had been working for so long as an activist and graphic designer in gay media but never got to experience a close connection with my father. That was forever out of my reach.
I eventually made peace with this. Or so I thought. That was until my husband experienced the same thing and I was then able to witness it when during a trip to see his family in Hawaii. Being the observer instead of the one being shunned was hard for me to observe as it dredged up all those old feelings. It was around the same time that my husband and I decided to spend less time focusing on our families of the past and start focusing on the family that we had built together. It made us much closer than ever before.
To move forward, we had to learn to leave the pain of our childhood behind, so that we could blossom into our true selves without the mental shackles of whom our families wanted us to be.