My father had been missing for days, and I had begun to accept that he was likely dead, when I discovered that he had been arrested at a fast food restaurant for agreeing to pay for sex with an undercover cop and a fictitious minor. I know now that he gave a bondsman a bad check and ran. He ran far.
Paranoid and malnourished, he began to lose his mind while fleeing from Pennsylvania to South Florida. A young woman called my grieving mother to tell her that a man had given her his checkbook and told her to spend it. The police found him unclothed and delusional, swimming in a canal. They transported him to a Miami-Dade hospital.
It was then, after days of restless worry, that, thanks to a compassionate nurse, I was able to connect with him for just a few seconds. "I've always known you were gay," I said. "Please don't kill yourself." I could hear him weep. He said, "OK," and hung up.
I grew up with great admiration for my father. He was compassionate, organized and successful. I used to emulate his home business with pretend office setups, and I would mimic his public speaking skills. He would take me on hikes and carry me on his shoulders when I got tired.
I was a gender-nonconforming child, and both my parents were very supportive of me. When I became suicidal in high school as a result of extreme anti-gay harassment, they found a way to transfer me to another public school. When things didn't get much better, they took out a home equity loan to pay for me to attend college early without a diploma. They attended the radical, socialist LGBTQ rallies that I helped organize, and they treated my partner like a part of the family.
Over the years my inkling that my dad might be gay grew and grew until eventually I had all the evidence I needed: Internet browsing history and the like. I confronted my mom about it, because I thought maybe she was in on it. She wasn't. They went to marriage therapy. He remained deeply closeted. A respected Sunday school teacher and insurance salesman, he would have lost most of his clients if he'd come out.
We lived in a refurbished barn on a small mountain in a very conservative, rural community, Snyder County, Pa, the same community where a young gay student, Brandon Bitner, committed suicide just a couple of years ago, and where Michael Auker was beaten into a coma for being perceived as gay a few years before that. Though I can't make excuses for some of the things my father did, I can find compassion in my heart to help me understand his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality.
From the hospital he was transported to a Miami-Dade prison, where he was unable to contact the outside world. He shared a cold, sterile cell with another man with whom he sang gospel songs to pass the time. After a few days he was transported, hands and feet cuffed, up to Pennsylvania in the back of a van. There he entered the county jail, where he was left without his medicine and glasses for weeks, eventually collapsing. Other prisoners came to his aid.
He was sentenced to three to six years in jail and 10 years on the sex offender list. In prison he slowly began to come out as gay through his regular letters to me. I sent him letters with thoughts about how to wrangle his feelings and survive on the inside and what to look forward to on the outside. A few times I was able to visit him. It was a sobering experience to see so many other people with fathers and loved ones in jail, to be unable to embrace, and to have just a couple of hours together each year. There are very few resources available for people who have parents in jail, and even fewer for registered sex offenders and their families. We had to figure out how to cope with the bureaucracy of the prison-industrial complex on our own.
Four years later, and recently released, my dad is still, in a sense, imprisoned. It took over 80 applications to get a "housing plan" approved by the prison system and to find a landlord willing to house a registered sex offender. He isn't allowed to see his nieces and nephews, even when accompanied by other adults. If my partner and I adopt, he may not even be able to see his own grandchildren. I'd love to have him live with me in San Francisco, but the sex offender laws are even stricter here. Politicians continue to use irrational fear mongering to pass egregious restrictions on sex offenders so that they look tough on crime.
My dad won't let these challenges bring him down, and neither will I. We talk regularly on the phone about everything from politics to gay pop culture. He goes to church with other gay men. He volunteers to help empower the homeless. He goes to the bookstore, and he works on a local garden. Being gay, and being there for my gay dad as he grows into himself, has brought us closer.
When I visited him for the first time since he was released from prison, I took a credit card along to take him shopping for the more stylish clothes he'd always wanted. I could tell he was a bit apprehensive about giving me fashion shows in the store, but it was an incredible feeling to be able to be shopping in public with my gay dad. Just the other day he called me to let me know that he had purchased some purple shirts. This was significant, because he would never have worn purple in public before.
Today I wear a pin from COLAGE that says, "Second Gen & Proud." Meanwhile, my mom continues to heal from losing her husband of 30 years. She still feels hurt and betrayed, but she is incredibly strong. After my dad's arrest she quickly sold our house, which was financially underwater, and bought a new one near family and friends. She travels often and even visits me here in San Francisco from time to time.
I was privileged to have a family that had the financial means to support me as I left my rural hometown and went to college, and my father was similarly fortunate to have family on the outside with the resources and time to find him a home plan. I remind myself often that many families, especially families of color, do not have access to the same resources we had. I can only imagine how tough it can get.
My story is one of the countless unheard and silenced stories about children of LGBTQ parents. So often, the stories we see in the media are those that portray a stereotype of the "perfect" family. It is my hope that eventually our movement for LGBTQ liberation will bring us to a place where all of us in the queer community will feel safe and comfortable sharing our truths without fear of hurting an image created to make us seem palatable to the mainstream.