When my dad came out to me, it wasn't his being gay that was a shock. It was the fact that I'd spent two decades of my life thinking he was straight. I mean, what was I supposed to think? He was my dad, married to my mom for 25 years. After he revealed the truth (to my mother first, then to me two years later), I went into panic mode: How close could I really be to my dad when he was keeping a secret that huge from us? Did I really know him -- could I, when he was putting so much effort into hiding who he was?
There had been signs all along, of course -- I realize that now. I see that a lot of the tension I felt as a kid had to do with the secret my dad kept, which my mom unconsciously guarded. In the early 90s, and my dad was obsessed with Madonna and Euro-pop. He stayed in shape running Marathons and flaunted his lean body in a Speedo at our beach house in Sag Harbor. When I got to be a teenager, my peers started to notice. I remember that my childhood BFF thought there was something different and distant about my dad. My eighth grade boyfriend pointed out that my dad wore an earring (which does not mean you are gay, but to a teen boy well-tuned into to stereotypes about men, it was undeniable proof). "So?!" I said. I guess I, like my mom, was guarding the secret, too.
My dad was living a split identity: He was a husband and father in a better Brooklyn neighborhood than the one in which he'd grown up, and he was an eligible gay man, frequenting night clubs like The Slide, Webster Hall and Twilo, as I'd later come to find out.
While sexuality doesn't make up our entire identity, it does vastly define us. For me, a byproduct of growing up with a closeted gay dad was that men became puzzles to me. What was going on in there? Did I know anything about how they worked? I started to look at all of them as mysteries to be solved, which meant that I often dated withholding men, men who came tangled up in their own issues. The more issues they had, the more withholding they were, the more ferociously I would chase them, like a child determined to solve a riddle.
My first love was a skateboarder who played Casper in the 1995 movie Kids. The relationship was fraught with angst, as the more he pulled away, the more needy I became. He was troubled, and I wanted desperately to fix him. I couldn't. Then there was the married man with whom I had an affair -- granted, he was in an open marriage -- an arrangement I neither understood nor was completely comfortable with. Yet I stayed because I found the situation intriguing. After him, I dated a string of men who were always missing something, and I could never figure out what that something was. Sometimes they'd disappear for weeks on end, and then reappear like their desertion was the most normal thing in the world. Usually, these men were incredibly intense, and the time I'd spend with them would leave me enraptured with the attention they paid me. But, they would often have a "flickering conscience" -- sometimes being kind and moral, other times being cruel and opportunistic. I was always wondering, is this guy for real? And who is he?
Unfortunately, my dad's coming out didn't instantly make all men less mysterious me. However, understanding this part of him -- his sexuality, no longer obscured -- helped me get to know the man my father is.
Coming out allowed him to be open with me about the rest of his life. He's a beekeeper, a chef, an uncle; he's helped thousands of kids throughout his 40 of work in the New York City Department of Education. Many of the things he appreciates -- curiosity, a good bottle of Chianti, mystery novels, gardening -- I value, too. How couldn't I? I'm his daughter. Like any other daughter, my identity was shaped by my dad's -- first as a little girl, then as a teen, and then finally as an adult.
I'm realizing that I want to be seen and known for who I am -- a writer, godmother, sister, friend, plant lover, cheese enthusiast, activist, fashionista, and Latin scholar. I'm also someone who doesn't want to have to figure out who the person is I'm giving myself to intimately. I'm a gift, like all women are, and it's nice for a man to show some interest in unwrapping me for a change.
I may not know everything about men these days, but accepting my dad for who he is, has become a relief: I no longer have the burden of figuring out the mystery. Next month he'll wed his longtime partner at their summer home in upstate New York. The bees will be there, and so will I.