When my daughter was 10, I sat her down and had an important talk with her. Her mother and I had been separated for about nine months. We'd been careful about explaining why we split up, discussing the differences between Romantic Love and Best Friend Love. But I hadn't been ready to tell her that I'm gay.
So I took her to the beach and explained the truth as best I could. The whole truth. Even though the thing about Best Friend Love between her mom and me was true, it wasn't the whole story, I said. I walked her through the real deal by telling her that I, her father, am gay. Yes, I was figuring it out a bit late in the game, but there it was.
Coming out to my daughter was one of the scariest moments I've ever faced. My biggest fear, the one that kept me awake at night, was that being honest about my orientation would permanently damage our relationship. I thought my 10-year-old girl would be resentful, confused, disgusted and angry at me forever.
But a year and a half after that day at the beach, she and I are as close as ever. We still make jokes about snot. We still tussle over her math homework. We still go on hikes. We still rock out together to Elvis Costello in the car. We still debate over who would win in a cage match: Superman or the Hulk. We still say goodnight to each other at bedtime the same way we have for years: "I love you, Crazy Kid." "I love you too, Crazy Daddy."
And I know that if I hadn't come out to her when I did, things between us would not be as good as they are today.
Here's what I learned about fatherhood after coming out to my daughter:
Honesty pays off, no matter how hard it might be.
Right after I came out to my daughter, I watched her expression carefully, and asked her how she was feeling. She paused to think and then after deliberate thought, she told me she was mad. I asked why. She was silent for another moment, and then her young brow furrowed and she said, "I'm not mad because you're gay. I'm mad because you didn't tell me sooner." Conclusion? Lying. Does. Not. Work. With. Kids.
Kids are investigators. Sooner or later, they figure out everything.
They are curious, inquisitive creatures who sense when a truth is being withheld from them. And when that happens, kids suddenly become relentless little CIA agents. Whether it's about searching for hidden Christmas presents, or figuring out why Mommy and Daddy are divorcing. They may not discover that truth until they're well into adulthood, but they'll find their answers eventually. And the longer something is withheld, the angrier they'll be.
Talking helps A LOT.
I firmly believe that one of the reasons my daughter is comfortable with me being gay is that we continue talk about it. Frequently. I made it clear early on that she was allowed to ask me anything. And boy howdy, did she ever:
"So do you think boys are cute?"
"So will you ever kiss a guy?"
"Is the divorce your fault?"
"Will you ever kiss a woman again?"
"Do you think the guy who plays Captain America is cute?"
"How come you didn't know you were gay before?"
Awkward. Awkward, awkward, awkward all over the place. And good. And healthy. I answer every single question she asks and we're both better for it. (And for the record, Daughter: Captain America? I suppose he's handsome in an obvious, square-jawed hero kind of way. If you like that sort of thing.)
To kids, being gay isn't about sex.
One of the big reasons people in my life told me I shouldn't come out to my daughter is because they felt she was to young to be exposed to something so "adult." "Why should a 10-year-old even be hearing about sexuality, let alone homosexuality?" they asked. But here's the thing: we adults understand that a big part of being gay is about a particular alignment within your sex life. But what everyone needs to understand is that it's also about love and relationships, and who we connect with in our lives. I have no intention of sharing details about my bedroom life with my daughter. I do want her to understand that being gay is as much about the feeling of holding hands with my partner as anything else. Kids get that.
If we want our kids to be the best versions of themselves, we've got to walk the walk.
How can I urge my daughter to be herself and trust in her own authenticity if I don't do so myself? When my kid is confronted with mean girls in middle school, how can I tell her that it's more important to like yourself than be liked by others, if I'm trapped in a closet, wrapped in self-loathing? In other words, if I want my kid to be true to herself, it's not enough to give advice. I have to be the best version of myself. If I can do that, we'll both be happier. That's what coming out ultimately means. I didn't just do it for myself.
Kids care about how their parents are treated.
Turns out my happiness is as important to my daughter as hers is to me. It took her some time to get comfortable with the idea of having a gay dad, but once she did, she became a passionate advocate for equality. I didn't thrust a rainbow flag into her hand and order her to start waving it -- she did that on her own. To my mind, you won't find a kid more fiercely devoted to gay rights than mine. When she hears that there are folks in the world who don't think I deserve the same freedoms as other people, she turns into a fierce little lion cub on my behalf. I don't want her to feel like she has to protect me from the world - that's not her job. But nevertheless, the girl has zero tolerance for unfair treatment of others. I couldn't be prouder of her for that.
Kids know when they're loved.
Going through a rough transition -- any transition -- can be hard on our children, even if those children are already adults. They may freak out, get angry, even try to punish us when the course of our lives changes theirs. But even though big news can rock the foundation a little, that's just short-term. When kids are loved, they don't forget it. If we show up for our kids, they'll show up for us -- especially when we need them most. That's what my daughter did for me.