“You know,” I said to Dad, “I asked Mom once if you were gay.” Asking, but not asking.
“Gay?” he scoffed, taken aback, disgusted. “I’m not gay.” You can get it from women too, you know. He’d cheated on Mom, just once, during a conference in Nashville, years ago. A flight attendant. One mistake.
* * *
Five months later, a few weeks into my freshman year of high school, my father died. Mom confirmed what I’d already guessed—“Is there anything you want to ask about your father?” she’d said in our kitchen—after a long conversation she’d had with an openly gay friend from college, Pat, who had, apparently, been a confidant of Dad’s. I know it sounds strange, but I don’t remember anything else from that conversation—how I felt, what I said. Years later Mom told me that, according to Pat, Dad had been active in Lexington and Louisville’s gay club scene. “You don’t know how hard it is,” Pat had tried to explain.
There were no AIDS activist organizations, no ACT UP, no PFLAG in Bullitt County, Ky. And even if there had been, I’m not sure I would have joined. I barely knew anyone who’d lost a parent, much less one to AIDS, and my remaining relatives were furious at my father. To make that leap, to seek out other people who were going through similar experiences, I first would have had to stand up and say: This happened. My family wasn’t yet ready for that, and wouldn’t be for many years.
Other than a couple of lies I told in high school right after my Dad died (“of cancer”), I never actively hid my father’s identity. But I’ve never been open about it either. Despite being an editor and journalist for my entire career, I’ve never written about him, until now. I connected with my dad in smaller ways over the years instead: studying sexual politics and queer theory in college; watching Longtime Companion; standing with my brother and a throbbing crowd at Irving Plaza, 13 years after Dad’s death, as Erasure’s HIV-positive Andy Bell sang “Drama!” in massive sparkly angel wings. I danced that night for my father, who never got to see Bell sing, and left the show sweaty, wrung-out—and thrilled to feel connected to what I can only assume was a joyful part of my dad’s identity.
Every once in a while, my brother and I talk about the what-ifs: What if Dad had held out a little longer, if the drugs had been approved a little earlier, if time and the eventual softening of our culture would have softened him? Would he be meeting me for dinner in New York? Would I be flying to visit him in Louisville or Lexington with his middle-aged partner?
In some ways I think Dad was on the verge of coming out to me back then. When he went to see Truth or Dare with his hairdresser, Mickey, he told me about it. He sent me a starstruck postcard from London exclaiming, “Guess what? You know Jimmy Somerville from Erasure? I met him at a club here!!” (Never mind that Somerville was actually in Bronski Beat, another of Dad’s favorites.) But to actually let me in—to sit on that blue blanket, look me in the eye and tell me he was gay—was something he couldn’t do. It was probably one of the hardest conversations he’d had in his 38 years. I’m not angry about it; I just wish it had gone differently. I wish I could have known that some part of him accepted—and was proud of—who he was. “I asked Mom once if you were gay,” I would have said. And all he would’ve had to say in return was: I am.
Whitney Joiner is a senior editor at Marie Claire magazine. Along with Alysia Abbott, author of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, she is launching The Recollectors, a storytelling forum and digital community for people who have lost parents to AIDS. Their Kickstarter campaign to build TheRecollectors.com will remain live until Wednesday, April 16.