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Richard Alther Headshot

Gay Dad, Straight Daughter

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Julie was 7 or 8 when I was acknowledging my true orientation. At her age, what difference would it make? She had a dad who loved her, a mom who loved her, pets, friends. She was a lucky little kid.

But what would happen in half a dozen years, or sooner, when her hormones kicked in? Would she be doubly humiliated, coping with her own fireworks as well as a dad who's queer? Adolescence loomed large enough without the prospect of a father with gentlemen callers and a mother dating as well, or likely remarried.

My wife and I, soon to be amicably divorced, were fortunate enough to be living in a large, rambling country home. We decided that we could pursue our respective next chapters while staying under one roof. We could, and did, divide upstairs from downstairs, each a completely independent apartment. Julie could have the run of the place, but in two-week cycles with her either her mom or her dad sequentially the parent in charge of her, her meals, the kitty litter, the works. This gave each adult free time to focus even more on our professional careers, as well as "free range" in our personal lives.

You might think that we stayed together for the kid, as the saying goes. Well, yes, frankly, we did, but we did so for ourselves as well. We continued to love and respect each other, and we did not see the end of our married roles and sexual partnership as an outright dismissal of our longstanding and mutually supportive relationship.

Jane, Julie and I were a tight little family. That has never been truly interrupted. We kept the two-week alternating parent arrangement going all the way through Julie's high school graduation.

Were there glitches? Plenty.

For about two years, when Julie was 12 to 14, she asked (demanded, more likely; she certainly did have a voice in this deal) if Jane and I could avoid entertaining people we were seeing on the occasions of her girlfriend sleepovers. Fair enough. Not that Julie appeared to question, let alone challenge, the weirdness of what her parents were about. It was her less-evolved pals who could potentially be uncomfortable or make a fuss about us at their own homes.

This phase of Julie's didn't last long. Her attention was riveted by boys and the shenanigans of her peer group. As long as home and hearth were solid with Mom and Dad standing tall, what concern were the foibles of Jane's and my midlife romantic ventures to our teenage daughter? Besides, truth be told, I doubt that my hormones were a source of havoc for me to the extent that hers were for her, anyway.

I will confess to one brutal lapse of paternal judgment. I was "entertaining" a fellow before a roaring fire, snow happily hurling outdoors, no other lights on. Even though it was my "free range" time and Julie should have been sequestered in Jane's space, I suddenly heard Julie squawking at me, "Mom won't let me...!" My friend and I quickly made ourselves an igloo out of a conveniently nearby throw that I kept across the back of the sofa. Close call.

And so what if she saw her dad being amorous with a man? I doubt that she did, because the room was pitch-dark. She knew that I was dating guys: She had met several of them, and she seemed to take it in stride. Slowly, bit by bit, suitor by suitor, my homosexuality was normalized for her. This was years before Will & Grace and Ellen et al.; it was her home and her reality.

The spirit of the household was set by two affectionate, (outwardly) poised adults. From the get-go Jane said, "Richard, go for it." She had her suspicions, but years later, looking back, she claimed, "Good grief. We were in our 20s, early 30s. Those days, you'd alight at the ready on anything that stood still." So if it was OK with her mom, it was OK with Julie.

I had a pretty randy boyhood in the woods of suburban New Jersey, learning early on that playing "Doctor and Doctor" could pack more punch than playing "Doctor and Nurse." But how blessed I felt, as a dad within earshot of middle age, to have the unequivocal backing of my ex-wife and my young daughter to pursue the next logical, natural turn in my path.

Jane did remarry, and so have I, to Ray, my husband of 13 years now. All four of us have been present for the births of our two grandsons, at Julie's request. We share holidays, soccer tournaments, the whole bit, since Jane and I have maintained homes near Julie in addition to being principally domiciled in other states with our new spouses.

By the time Julie was 20 years old and in college, she'd often say to Jane or me, or to both of us together:

You know what I say to anybody who asks, "What was it like growing up with a gay father?" The answer's easy. I say, "I grew up in one of the few functional families I know of." So many kids were raised by battling parents, divorcing, or worse, not divorcing, staying together in a state of siege, emotionally. My friends envied me. How lucky I was with two parents as cool as you.

We always let Julie have the last word, since it was really two against one, after all. Moreover, so often Julie was wiser for her years than her parents were as the three of us lived with, learned about, and eventually celebrated life's complexities. It was all out in the open and anchored in love.