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Of Fathers and Father Figures: Supporting or Undermining Gay Men's Health

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Gay men's relationships with our fathers are often fraught, to say the least. But without a father's -- or father figure's -- loving support and kicks-in-the-butt as needed, research suggests that the odds already stacked against us in enjoying good mental health and staying HIV-negative grow even steeper.

John A. Schneider, M.D., M.P.H.
, is an assistant epidemiology professor at the University of Chicago. His clinical work, with largely young African-American gay men at the Grand Boulevard Clinic on Chicago's South Side, is yielding intriguing findings about the life-saving role of fathers and other men -- including "gay dads," older gay friends and mentors -- in supporting a young man's healthy choices to avoid HIV or to stick with his medical treatment if he's positive.

"The more men who were involved [in a young man's life]," Dr. Schneider told me, "straight or gay, and in particular male kin -- fathers, brothers, male cousins -- the more protective." He said that some of the young guys bring their father in with them. "There is something powerful about that," said Schneider.

Father-son relationships certainly stir up powerful forces, even storms, inside us. "Fathers have always been, in life and literature, a mystery we believe we must decipher before we can understand ourselves," writes Andrew Holleran in his foreword to The Man I Might Become, a 2002 collection of essays by gay men writing about their fathers.

Father-son relationships have been much on my mind lately -- a few months ahead of Father's Day -- because two of my friends' elderly fathers have died within the last few weeks, and March 13 will mark the 25th anniversary of my own father's death at age 52.

Like so many gay men, I had a difficult relationship with my dad. He was a handsome, funny, music-loving and endearingly vain man ("Your old man looks pretty good, doesn't he," he'd say, primping to go out) in his twenties and thirties -- when I was a boy. But Dad became increasingly prone to heavy drinking and arguments that would escalate to physical violence and maximum drama, sometimes involving the police.

The Korean War-era Marine with a 10th grade education didn't know what to make of a son who liked to cook, garden and read books. "You'll make someone a good wife some day," he said. I laugh about it today. But I wonder whether, despite therapy and Al-Anon programs, my perpetual singleness and propensity for masculine but wounded men, may owe more to other aspects of our difficult relationship -- his threats of taking me to a psychiatrist to find out what was "wrong," the put-downs like "You'll never amount to anything." Such things yank the rug out from a boy's self-esteem and, worst of all, can make him feel unloveable.

Most fathers, including mine, seem at least to want to love their son -- even if their enslavement to the supposed masculine ideal cripples their ability to show it. My dad was proud to get me a job in the mill he worked in during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Every night we drove together to work the third shift, until I bought my first car that summer. He was proud when he came to my college graduation.

About two months before Dad died from throat cancer, when the doctors said his disease was terminal, I visited him in the trailer where he had lived since he and my mother divorced after 25 years of tumultuous marriage. I believe we both knew it would be the last time we'd see each other in this life, as indeed it was. I sat on the edge of the open sleep sofa where he lay. The little machine he was hooked up to whirred regularly, infusing him with morphine to blunt the pain of the cancer.

By then, 1989, at age 30, I told him that I had already lost several of my friends to AIDS. "But I've never lost my father," I said, dissolving in tears. I told him I knew it had been hard for him when I came out to him two years earlier, but I wanted him to know that I had become the man he raised me to be. My father held me in his arms as I wept. "Be brave," he told me. Then he said that although he and my mother had made a lot of mistakes, "We did three things right--you kids."

I've cried many times over this quarter-century, wishing Dad were here to talk to, share music, and be proud of me. Since moving back to my hometown in 2007, I sometimes visit his grave, by myself, and talk to him.

It was only after his death that I learned from relatives who knew him as a boy that Dad was mostly raised by his grandmothers while his own father was off in the Pacific during World War II. His mother apparently didn't much care for children. I've only recently and retrospectively connected the dots between his deteriorating job prospects as the years passed and the increased drinking, rage and pain he vented on the rest of us.

Sons seem to grow up wanting either to be like their dad -- or determined not to be. I grew up not wanting to be like my father. And yet today, at age 55 -- three years older than he was when he died -- I am proud to be my father's son. I am pleased when people who knew him say I look like him. My first name was his father's -- and my mother's father's -- first name. His own first name -- Manuel, named for his paternal grandfather -- is part of my own name, and I like it because it reminds me of who I am and the people I come from.

I wish I could have understood these things while my dad was still alive. I wish I'd had a father's love to help protect me from the pain, sorrow and craving for love that led me to behave in ways that led to my 2005 HIV diagnosis.

But I'm grateful that I have been able to understand, forgive, and be grateful to my "main man" for the good things he passed on to me in spite of his own fears and limitations. This healing process has helped to make me a strong, resilient man.