12/04/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Tongues Untied: Our Fathers -- Invisible Men?

Wade: Recently, while speaking to some friends about my upbringing, one asked, "Why do you not talk about your relationship with your father more?" It was an observant and valid question. It caused me to pause and think about my relationship with both my biological father and my stepfather. It encouraged me to consider why the stories that narrate my connection to these two men are often forgotten and rarely highlighted when I discuss my adolescence and current journey through life. So I ask, why are fathers always the last ones we tend to love?

Darnell: Like you, I tend to talk more about my mother when discussing my life experiences. When I have talked about my father publicly, it's been centered on the negative memories that I have of him: notably, the abuse -- of my mother and of drugs -- I witnessed. My father and I shared a few positive encounters, however. Still, the reality is -- and it's unfortunate -- I don't have a lot of loving things to say about him. But now that I think about it, I can recall the aversion that I had to the "fathers" in my life. I was always scared that I would need to respond to their questions about my "differences." I never really felt comfortable around other males. I never wanted to be alone with them, because I was scared that they would begin interrogating me about girlfriends and sports and other supposedly male-oriented things. My mother was different, however. She just let me be, which may have something to do with why my relationship to her is more pronounced.

Wade: You often talk with me about your stepfather, as well. Why don't you mention him when musing about your life in your writings?

Darnell: Great question. My mother has played such a central part in shaping the person that I am. She filled the gap between my biological father's absence and my stepfather's appearance in my life. Those were pivotal years for me. Interestingly, I didn't talk about anything personal with my mother until my late 20s. It makes sense, then, that I never allowed my stepfather in. A lot of the personal things that shaped me were not things I discussed with him.

Wade: That is interesting. Perhaps it's less about the ways our father figures show up in our lives and more about how men, young or old, show affection and vulnerability that renders our fathers invisible. I truly don't know, but you've got me really trying to investigate my own feelings about both of my fathers. To your earlier point, I never had a fear of being alone with the men in my life. I enjoy the banter that can take place amongst men (i.e., playing the dozens, trash or sports talk, relationship discussions focused on women -- which I knew nothing about). I remember wanting to have serious life discussions with the father figures in my life, but I never truly had the self-esteem or their permission to discuss anything of substance until I was much older and on my own. Our conversations were always very surface and revolved around the typical spades/domino-playing banter, which created a dynamic where I was never serious with my fathers. As I got older I tested those limits with some success, and we did have great conversations. But the thought that I could not be vulnerable with another male kept our relationships from ever becoming as substantial as I desired.

Darnell: My stepfather has always been a support system for me. He constantly affirms me. Now that I think about it, he knew about my sexual orientation even before I told my mother that I had a boyfriend. I can remember a moment when my stepfather walked into the house only to discover my first boyfriend laying on my lap. He didn't berate me or ask me if I was "gay." He simply asked me to join him downstairs in the basement, where he told me that I could talk to him about anything. I will never forget that day. He modeled what it means to be a supportive father.

Wade: Did you talk to him about your boyfriend at that moment?

Darnell: I didn't say anything. I was still in shock after he walked in. In fact, I have never had the conversation with him about my sexuality. In many ways, he has made it so that I haven't had to. I am not sure why I've never discussed my sexuality with him. It just never crossed my mind. He has since met my partners at gatherings, but, like I said, we never really had the type of relationship where I talked about my personal matters. And, to be honest, a part of me still battles with the expectations that I presume most of the men in my family have of me. However, many of the men have proven over and over again that they love me regardless. How did your fathers respond when you "invited them into" your personal life?

Wade: Well, my biological father and I were very close before my parents divorced. I was a "typical boy" who loved to play sports, play with bugs, play in the dirt and what have you, so he and I bonded over that. We managed to humor each other often. We would make fun of my religious family members and my strict mother, but after my parents divorced we didn't talk much, because he had a substance abuse problem and my mother remarried. My stepfather was very different. He always felt the need to demonstrate to me and everyone else that he was the provider. He wanted to be the "breadwinner" and prove to me that he, not I, was the "real man" in my mother's life. I was a "momma's boy" and enjoyed that title while she was unmarried. So we had a very surface relationship, though I understood that he was trying to model the type of man he thought I should be. I had other ideas.

Darnell: And your attraction to men -- how did they respond to that?

Wade: I never had the opportunity to share that information with my stepfather before he passed. I know in my heart, however, that he wouldn't have cared, because all he ever wanted for me was to be self-sufficient and not depend on anyone for my survival. I trust and believe he's proud of the person (and I didn't say "man" intentionally) I've become. My biological father and I don't see eye to eye, because he's very religious now and believes I am not living a God-pleasing life and would prefer that I lived as a heterosexual male. He believes that for multiple reasons; primarily, he believes I can pass as straight. I loathe that idea. But to his credit he has visited and met my partner, though, after the visit, he sent us engraved bibles with a video attached.

Honestly, I feel that both father figures in my life taught me so much about what to do, but also shitloads more about what not to do. I love them regardless of what they may or may not think of me. They informed my understandings of masculinity, manhood and such, but I will not be boxed in by their beliefs. The fact that I formed opinions and values that are perhaps opposite of theirs is a testament to them.

Darnell: Indeed, we are our father's children even if we may resist acknowledging them sometimes. Whether they are present or absent in our lives, they are part of us, and we are part of them.