“Do you ever think that the whole ‘forbidden’ thing makes gay stuff sexier?” my father asked me seven years ago while loading a forkful of shrimp into his mouth. Flecks of creamy orange grits were in his beard. I glanced at our waiter grinding pepper over a dish at the next table. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to have heard. Unfortunately, I had.
I had recently come out as gay. Shortly after, my mother had gotten remarried to a trans man. Dad seemed concerned about some sort of mother-daughter gay recruitment scheme (despite my new stepfather’s beard and male-pattern baldness). This question — about “forbidden” gay stuff — was just the newest in a parade of all the wrong questions. Had his parenting impacted my sexual orientation? Was I really sure I wasn’t in love with my best friend from high school? He didn’t ask about the present — my experience coming out and the new girlfriend I still believed I’d grow old with.
I wasn’t sure that this particular question should be dignified with any kind of response. It turned out I didn’t have to think of one. Before I finished chewing, I realized the question had been rhetorical. “I met this guy,” he said. “And well, to tell you the truth, I’m in love.”
I think I said congratulations. I can’t be sure. The recruitment scheme was apparently picking up steam.
A few months later, we sat across the table from each other again, and this time his new “friend” sat next to him. I was in my twenties, a year older than the friend, who seemed acutely aware of my seniority despite my attempts to put him at ease. He loaded butter onto a corn muffin then didn’t eat it, spoke softly about video games, and asked me questions about my English degree. I could tell my father mattered to him by the way he listened to my answers.
When I was growing up, dad used to trap telemarketers on the phone, pacing outside beneath a pecan tree with the clunky cordless phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I still remember the time he talked for two and a half hours to a man who worked for the Saltine cracker company. He had called the customer service line, incensed that he’d pulled a fresh sleeve from the box to find the crackers had gone stale. He’d covered everything from his deep South childhood to the grind of teaching elementary school and was showing no signs of slowing down when he had to answer call waiting. He begged the sales rep to hang tight. When my dad clicked back in and the man had hung up, he was confounded. An accident, surely — wires crossed. If only he had a call-back number.
I suppose he had a long history of seeking out emotional intimacies with men. These intimacies hadn’t seemed sexual, but they did have a certain intensity. And there were more stereotypical signs as well: his love of horoscopes and wearing women’s sunglasses with mottled frames and the wildflower taxonomies adorning his favorite purple T-shirt. The women he continued to date seriously throughout the next decade pulled me into bathroom stalls and gushed about his sensitivity. Nothing like the other men I’ve dated. Some of those same women left when they found out the other thing that made him unlike other men they’d dated: his bisexuality.
Over the course of the next year, I asked myself, my partner, and my queer friends what it did — or didn’t — mean to share an identity I never imagined I would with my father. In re-contextualizing his response to my coming out, it became clear that his fixations on the roots of why I was the way I was, his need to understand my identity as the result of some divergence or interruption en route to personhood, had been a form of self-searching. And so I began to wonder if the inverse was true: if my response to his revelation had more to do with me — and my relationship to queerness — than with him.
Before his coming out, I thought I’d done the ugly, gritty work on internalized homophobia and emerged loud and proud. I’d worked hard to feel confident weaving my same-gender partner into conversations, and I thought I’d arrived. But every time I hesitated to drop the pronouns of a man in my dad’s life — to my girlfriend’s parents, to friends in a new city — I had to ask myself: Was I protecting his privacy, or was I protecting myself from a different shade of the same queer shame that had tailed me throughout adolescence and young adulthood?
I’ve had to acknowledge the external forces that have helped me accept myself. My queer network, for one. The cultural palatability of relationships between two women, especially white women, in comparison to the endless other permutations of queer love. Not to mention, the simplicity of being either gay or straight but not somewhere in between. Intellectually, I’d already embraced the word “queer” for its rejection of these fragmentations, but my father didn’t seem concerned with labeling his sexuality, and the fact that that unsettled me proved that I had more work to do.
I don’t feel any more or less close to my dad because neither of us are straight. The same was true with my mom. Maybe that’s because sex is at the crux of sexuality, and sex just isn’t something you connect with your parents about. But I’d wager that it’s more a testament to intersectionality and to the vastness of queerness. My dad has had relationships that are interracial and intergenerational. He has taken a male date to an office Christmas party full of guests who work in the construction industry in our Southern state. Meanwhile, I have done research on adoption and surrogacy in exploration of what a queer family could look like for me. He eschews labels in favor of “loving the person;” I read sparknotes of Butler and Foucault to try to situate myself in a largely invisible history. There is so much that does not overlap. And yet, we still see each other.
We can see each other because queer makes room for both of us.