To my late father, Remember when, Remember when we went skating on that lake and you told me that you were proud of me? I do. Remember when. Remember when you got angry when I danced around the living room “like a fruit cake”? Remember when you told me you hated it? I try to forget that. Remember when the last thing you said to me before you passed was,
“I love you.”
That is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
- - -
You see, there are many memories with you of which I hold dear. But there are also memories we shared that make me wonder how you really felt about me. To be honest, I’m afraid you don’t know me. Not afraid as in apologetic, but afraid as in fearful. I’m scared that if you were still alive you might reject me. I’m scared that if you were still alive you might not take the time to get to know me. I wanted to write you this letter to let you know that I am no longer in a state of hiding who I am: I am a queer & gay man. As I’m sure you understand, the last ten years have not been easy. In addition to your passing, I’ve struggled with coming to terms with my gender and sexual identities for quite some time. Especially in that small town we grew up in. For future reference: that town is not always a safe place for queer people like me to grow up. Have you ever heard of stigma? Stigma is a feeling of disgrace, similar to feelings of shame, which prevents queer individuals from exploring their identity.
You know, there’s a part of me that feels like you’re reading this. And watching me write this. I still feel a sense of loyalty to you because of all you did for me. You taught me how to do math. I owe that Grade Eight Math Award to you, you know. You let me be creative and you taught me how to draw. You’d probably be surprised at how much I’ve improved over the last ten years. You let me do a lot of things. You let me do a lot things but you rarely let me be myself. You taught me to hide the pieces of myself that made you uncomfortable — my femininities, my emotions. You rarely let me be myself. You didn’t teach me that the key to my happiness is through finding out who I am, to me. You didn’t support anything I wanted to do unless it was first approached through the lens of masculinity.
You wanted me to be like my brothers and I secretly knew it disappointed you that I wasn’t. I’m sure it especially disappointed you and embarrassed you that I was the only one of three sons to not play hockey. Or be interested in sports at all for that matter. I just want you to know that I internalized a lot of that disappointment. I got really hard on myself and that’s why I never wanted to do sports with you. That’s why I avoided those feelings of guilt that came along with letting you down. And I think that’s why I struggle with these feelings so much in adulthood.
Up until a few years ago, I thought I had it really hard compared to my friends. And in many ways I did. But that’s only because my reference group in our small town was white. Whiteness prevents us from noticing, dad. Noticing that people of colour, especially black folks, experience life very different than we do. Many of our systems only allow people to be one aspect of themselves — one identity — when they access services. People are forced to turn off certain parts of themselves, simply because our systems do not provide that level of holistic care. When I navigate these systems, I have a lot of characteristics that protect me. We call those privileges. Even though it probably sounds like I earned them, I didn’t. Right now I’m working on ways that I can be a helpful friend, or an ally, to those who are excluded and left out of the conversation just for being who they are.
I have many privileges in the queer community too. For some reason guys like me better because I am more masculine. I think we can both gather that this is because some people think it’s a compliment when they say I appear soooooo straight. To me that is not a compliment so much as a reminder of all the pain and shame I experienced trying to hide my femininities from you. My own internal homophobia was cultivated in my own household. You made me who I am. You built my armour that I currently carry — the armour of hypermasculinity that I carry with me always and put on when I’m in spaces where I know it will benefit me. Like with my brother’s friends. Like with my male clients who also subscribe to Masculinity™. I call it Masculinity™ because to me it is something many men have bought; they have bought into the brand of self-monitoring so as not to appear too gay or too feminine. Have you ever heard the phrase, “no homo”? The phrase that dudes say when they get too close to a guy? It says a lot about our society that people need to qualify showing emotion with a term like “bromance” and justify their affection for another human by also adding that they are totally straight, bro, and totally not gay! *No homo!*. Frankly I find that to be a little fucked up. Sorry for swearing, I know how you hated that.
Frankly, what I find to be a little messed up is the fact that men are socialized into believing that we need to prepare our sons for “manhood”. You were taught to prepare me for a war against my own femininity — by your family and society. In fact, you were preparing me for a war against myself. You conscripted me into a war against myself and you were training me to abide by the rules of Masculinity™. You were preparing me for the process whereby I would be required to protect advantages that I did not earn — my privileges in society that come along with being a white masculine guy. So I get it. What would it mean as a white masculine father to have a queer, feminine son? What did it mean for your own credibility with your bros? I think about the ways in which my own gender identity was shaped by your expectations of manhood and fueled by your misogyny and insecurities with femininity.
It was to the point where all of my words and behaviours were to be vetted before leaving my body. I’ll never forget in the 9th grade when you told me, condescendingly, “Think about what you say before you say it. Think before you act.” I knew what that was in reference to. I knew that you were teaching me the subtle art of self-surveillance. I monitored my vocal tone and speech rate from there forward so as not to s o u n d g a y. When you’re an uncritical and eager-to-please young one, that’s not a hard task to accomplish. Queer folks are adaptable and resilient and rad as hell for the shapeshifting and rule breaking we’ve perfected since childhood. In all of this, dad, I’m writing to you today to thank you. The reason I’m thanking you is because I truly believe you thought you were helping me. And I recognize that. You were monitoring my behaviour before society did. You were telling me how to think, talk, act, and behave before our intolerant community told me… or even worse, showed me through violence. I’m sure your response to this is that I should be grateful, then, that you protected me. I’m afraid to inform you, and this time apologetically, that safety is only an illusion that you created to protect yourself from feeling those hard feelings. You weren’t protecting me. You weren’t providing safety for me.
This is the first time you’re hearing this, and I know you’re probably shocked because I often did not show it, but I struggled with the whole masculinity thing. In a town where violence, homophobia, and hypermasculinity are met with the excuse “this is how we are and this is how we behave,” I’m sure you can understand how difficult it was for me to understand who I am. What’s more is that I have many, many privileges such as the colour of my skin, my Masculinity™, my abilities, and my class that protect me against these injustices. In this sense, you did not build my armour, our adoption of the broader oppressive systems within society did. We bought that white supremacy at a high cost yet paid absolutely nothing for it. It was also these structures that taught me how to exist in my body as a white male, just as society teaches racialized individuals how to exist in theirs. I wanted to explain how you and I, as cisgender men, have been taught to believe that being a man is the best thing we can be in this world. I want to challenge that and suggest that the best thing we can be is instead are people who are tolerant, open-minded, critical of ourselves, and aware. This is what my manhood looks like. This is the manhood that I want to teach my son.
When you passed away, I truly felt that I had no hope at finding a role model and a teacher. As each year passes without you here, I am reminded of the memories we shared and am reminded of all the amazing role models I have encountered throughout my journey. A lot of them have talked about how forgiveness and reconciliation can be a liberating process but I am also aware that it must come when we are ready. You see, I used to think that I’ve always been ready and that my resilience has been my biggest source of strength amidst these hardships. To tell you the truth, I’m ready to forgive but I don’t think I will ever be able to forget. It’s nothing personal — because I do love you. You always stood up for your beliefs and in this moment I am standing up for mine. We call that activism and resistance. I wanted to leave you with a paraphrased message that I added to your casket moments before it was lowered into the ground. Ten years ago, I came out to you. You were the first person I told:
“Hey dad, it’s me. I can’t believe that you’re gone. I love and miss you so much. I wanted to apologize for letting you down. I’m sorry that I cannot be the son you want me to be. I’m sorry that I’m not as good at hockey as my brothers are. But, I will let you know that I was really proud of myself when I learned how to skate on the lake that day. Thank you for your encouragement and the strength you have given me. I don’t think I could live with myself if I never got the chance to tell you, this, but I’m gay. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I am finally starting to come to terms with it. I just want you to know that it really hurt me when you used to call me a fruit cake and a queer for dancing around the living room. Just so you know, I boldly and unapologetically identify as a queer man. I guess maybe I got my fortitude from you. I wanted to share that piece of me in this letter partially because it’s been on my mind for a while, but also because I know I will not see your reaction. I’m coming out to you now because I know that I might be afraid to do it if you were alive. Not afraid as in sorry, but afraid as in scared. Writing this to you now is a way to get it out there, while still feeling protected until I can tell everyone else. So thanks for letting me get that out there. Remember when the last thing you said to me was “I love you.”? I hold onto that because it lets me know that you finally accepted me as your son. At this point, I am willing to accept that as the truth. That is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Dad, I’ve learned a lot from you and the way you’ve lived your life. I hope you will learn a lot from me and the way that I boldly choose to live mine. It is with mixed emotions that I say goodbye.”
With love and fortitude, Your son.