Two Very Different Closets: My Life As The Gay Daughter Of A U.S. Spy

"He took an oath of secrecy at 26 but I on the other hand was born into it."
10/08/2017 11:36 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2017
Leslie Absher

Growing up, I knew Dad was different. He was always watchful, looking over his shoulder, even when he walked down wide, empty streets. He seldom invited neighbors over for backyard barbecues. If someone said “Hi” in the morning, he gave a quick wave, but if they came over to talk, he cut things short.

While I knew he was different, I didn’t know how. But it made me want to figure him out, find out what made him tick. So one day, when I was about twelve, I asked, “Dad, where do you work?”

I stood before him in my tough skin jeans, a messy pony tail trailing my back, waiting for a response.

He swept his white hair across his forehead and said, “I’m in the Army.”

That tight feeling in the middle of my chest, the one that told me something isn’t quite right, relaxed. I’d never seen him in a uniform but I believed him. I wanted to. It made me proud to think of him as a soldier protecting America.

Months later, I overheard him on the phone. His long frame bent over the table and his blue suit jacket fell open.

“I’m with the State Department,” he said to whoever was on the other end.

What happened to the Army?

I didn’t want to think he was lying but I wondered.

Because I had secrets too.

Each day on the bus to and from school, my best friend, Nisha, and I huddled in the back, passing notes. Our thighs touched as the bus rocked along. I tried to find the words that said how I felt for her.

“I’ll never forget you,” I wrote, “no matter what.”

Nisha pressed the paper against her tan thigh and wrote back, “Don’t let boys get between us EVER!!!”

I felt light and happy as I moved to the front of the bus. I grabbed the smooth chrome bar, ready to swing out into the sunshine, when a boy sitting by the door said something to me. “Lezzie,” he hissed.

My joyful feeling evaporated. I stared straight ahead. I knew what ‘lezzie’ meant, although I don’t know how I knew. It wasn’t a good word. That’s when it clicked. It was shameful to be who I am, to like girls. I felt stained by this word, exposed. Now, everyone would see who I was.

I started to hide after that. It was easy. After all, I had watched Dad all my life – fading into the background at parties, nodding instead of speaking, letting people make assumptions that he neither denied nor corrected. I told myself that if I acted low key, like Dad, no one would know the truth.

Then in high school, I fell in love. Dori’s room was next to mine. Every time I crossed her scuffed floor boards, her eyes followed me. When I sat on her bed at night, I felt her energy pulling me closer. My own desire vibrated too, just below the surface of my skin.

But instead of touching, we talked – about our parents, the rich girls who went to our private school – everything but our desire. Then one night, after our words gave out, we lay facing each other on her small bed. I let my hand run down the slope of her hip, over the smooth, cool sheet. My heart pounded and my breath ran fast. It was the most I had ever let my desire be felt or seen by someone else. I kept my hand above the sheet and didn’t go any further. It was enough to have her reach her hand to my face and cheek, to hear her whisper, “I love you.”

After I graduated from college, I came out. I told friends I was a lesbian but not that my dad was in the CIA. I had learned the truth by then, but it still wasn’t something I was comfortable talking about. If a friend asked what he did, I used his old covers and told them he worked for the State Department or the Pentagon. Coming out queer seemed less complicated. Eventually, I told Dad I was gay. He responded that it wasn’t natural but that we didn’t need to lose contact. I stopped sharing information about my life with him after that, and I didn’t tell many other family members I was gay. Back and forth I went, in and out of different closets. It wasn’t difficult. I had watched Dad do this my whole life.

Then one day, Dad called to say he was retiring.

“You are?” I said.

I was in my late 20s and couldn’t imagine him as an ex-spy. I realized then that it had been voluntary for him – a job. When he used aliases and covers, it was a conscious choice. Deliberate. Not for me. He took an oath of secrecy at 26 but I on the other hand was born into it. I learned to keep his secret long before I even knew what it was. But now here he was letting go of his secret. After serving over 31 years in the National Clandestine Service, earning Chief of Station twice, and providing intelligence for major Cold War events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and the Invasion of Grenada, he was leaving it all behind.

“Yes,” he said.

Dad seemed ready but I wasn’t. I had dealt with being queer with the help of Pride parades, lesbian support groups and plenty of books. But there were no support groups for daughters of a spies. The idea of coming out of this closet made me feel like I was betraying not just Dad, but my mom and sister too. I didn’t know what to say. Somehow Dad and I had exchanged places. He was leaving the closet but I was staying. It didn’t hit me all at once. It was a gradual realization.

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