When he died, I went about like a ragged crow telling strangers, “My father died, my father died.” My indiscretion embarrassed me, but I could not help it. Without my father on his Delhi rooftop, why was I here? Without him there, why should I go back? Without that ache between us, what was I made of?”
– Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Someone recently challenged me in a training I was providing for a large group of people, “If a homosexual orientation is biologically determined, how can you say homophobia isn’t biologically determined?” This is the kind of thing you know is not going to go down well. The questioner doesn’t really want the answer. They are not interested in understanding. They want to prove instead that they can’t help their discrimination any more than I can help my same-sex attraction. I knew that my explanation of the frontal lobe and the hypothalamus wasn’t going to work: you can’t use reason to get someone out of a position that reason didn’t bring them to. They are entitled, privileged even, to their opinion – even if it is an uninformed opinion. Still, I tried.
A by-product of the episodic need to explain myself to others is a pretty good grasp of who I am. I am not my same-sex attractions or even my history of male partners. I am an old, white, raised-poor (currently middle-class), recently widowed, gay man. There are scores and scores of reasons and experiences that have contributed to my being good with all of those social identities that comprise my self-concept. One that comes to mind this week before Fathers’ Day is a set of experiences with my dad. They were not all pleasant, but they were formative.
In 8th grade, one of my favorite teachers died. I had worked hard in anticipation of impressing her starting in 6th grade. We were still reeling from her death – a permanent substitute had not even been found – when we returned to our classroom to be not-so-much-taught as monitored. One afternoon, we were goofing off with no teacher in the room when the principal came in having listened to us over the intercom. She wanted to know who the culprits were who had been tossing paper and talking loud. When we didn’t cooperate, she had us take all of the books from our desks and hold them while we knelt on the hard floor. Forty-five minutes later, the bell rang to end the school day. Everyone stayed kneeling except me. I stood up, put my books back in my desk, grabbed my coat and went home. I had newspapers to deliver.
The next day my dad had to take off work to bring me back to school, the consequence for my insubordination and cheekiness. Shortly after we went into the principal’s office and listened to her grievance, my father asked me to leave the room. From down the hall I could hear him yelling at her for being so ill equipped to be a principal or to manage a classroom of teens. Suddenly, the door swung open and he sailed past me muttering, “Don’t you ever make me come here again…ever!”
Almost three years later, I took a break in the middle of my junior year in a preparatory school for religious brothers. I was in training to be a Franciscan friar when I fell in love with another postulant and started having a big old romantic affair with him. We blew the whistle on ourselves and were sent to counseling and offered a cooling off period. My parents were working people and the thought of seeing a psychiatrist in 1965 was completely foreign to them. But we went for a series of interviews and a final session during which I was declared healthy but homosexual. My dad only wanted to know what that meant. He seemed worried, but not angry. He wanted to know if I would be happy.
Then, in 1976 I decided to change my last name. Roberta Flack was telling Jesus it would be alright if he’d change her name. The song would not stop in my brain. Some work-related trauma had been getting to me. I was preparing to be licensed as a school psychologist and heard name changes were harder after being licensed. My sisters, both of whom changed their names at marriage, tried to dissuade me. My mother opposed the move. My father, however, only said, “It is okay with me.” He reasoned that the name had already been changed many times, was hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. He added that I was not likely to be having children to whom I would be passing down his family name.
Finally, in the summer of 1983, a few weeks before he died, my father and I talked in his hospital room. He was told he had no chance of survival beyond a few months if he didn’t have another cardiac surgery. His chance of surviving the surgery was about 50%. He elected to skip the surgery, reasoning that it was too much worry, too much money, and too much pretense. I talked to him about his smoking and alcohol use. He was unapologetic about both.
My dad was not much of a teacher and he rarely lectured. But he was good with my discovering who I am. Even if he got things wrong at times, he kept at it. He kept at me.
God the father, land of our fathers, forefathers, Founding Fathers all refer to an origin or source, to what generated us, to an authority. We fall into the paternal line. Patronymic as identity. I have my father’s name, not my mother’s.
– Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays