The Gay Father I Never Knew

Snapshots of life at home.
April 15 2014 12:11 PM

The Gay Father I Never Knew

Wondering what might have been had my father come out 22 years ago.

The author and her dad in the countryside.
The author and her dad in the countryside.

Photo courtesy Whitney Joiner

On a Saturday afternoon in April 1992, when I was 13, my father told me we needed to talk. We sat on the itchy baby-blue blanket on my bed in the room I shared with my 8-year-old brother. I didn’t know what he was going to tell me. I already knew. I didn’t want to know.

For the previous four months, my father had been in and out of the hospital in Lexington, Ky., half an hour from this rented duplex in Richmond, where he’d lived since he and my mother divorced three years earlier. Dad taught business law at Eastern Kentucky University and served as a deacon at our church. Since my brother and I spent most of our time with my mother and stepfather, two hours from Dad in a small town south of Louisville, his life seemed far away when we weren’t with him. I knew he’d had some kind of “blood problem” for a while; he’d explained that much when we accompanied him to get his blood drawn during our summers together. “Like leukemia?” I once asked, as we drove away from the doctor’s office, thinking of the hokey Lurlene McDaniels books scattered around my middle school classrooms, in which innocent cheerleaders bravely fought some sort of cancer or another, hoping to get one kiss before they died. “Something like that,” he answered.

My father seemed healthy. He ate lots of fresh salads, played racquetball in the mornings, headed off to the gym in the afternoons, duffel bag slung over his shoulder. On summer evenings after dinner, we’d take long walks, bringing stale bread to a flock of ducks at a nearby pond, or circling the track at the university, chatting about whatever Peter Jennings had mentioned that night on the news, my brother running in front of us. Sometimes we held hands as we walked.

The author and her father, playing ball in the yard.
The author and her father, playing ball in the yard.

Photo courtesy Whitney Joiner

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There were signs that everything wasn’t OK. In December 1991 Dad called to tell me he needed some kind of anal surgery. It was so bizarre and removed from my day-to-day—the basketball games, the first boyfriend—that I didn’t ask too many questions. I was an insatiably curious straight-A student, and yet, I never once said to my father or mother, “So, is this related to the blood thing?” Thinking back on it now, it must have been purposeful obliviousness: Let’s keep this going—life as it is now—as long as we can.

A few weeks after the surgery, Dad was back in the hospital. The doctors had found a brain lesion. Dementia. I tried to ignore the wacky things he said during visiting hours. It was when he was finally released, home again, and OK enough to care for us over a weekend, that he told me we should talk.

“I’m HIV-positive,” he said, his voice breaking, as we sat facing each other on the bed.

I knew what this meant. I had a subscription to Time. I’d read about AIDS, the lack of a cure, Ronald Reagan, Ryan White, the firebombed houses of victims. I knew that he was definitely going to die, in the next few years, if not sooner, and in the most unacceptable way possible, of a disease I’d seen mostly accompanied by picketers and slogans on the news. My classmates casually tossed off their opinions about AIDS on a regular basis: that everyone with HIV should be shipped off to an island, that it was a cure for fags, that they deserved it.

I also knew that my dad must be gay—because, well, of course. While I’d never met an out gay man, I kind of knew what they were supposed to be like from movies and TV, and Dad fit the mold: He loved to cook; he cleaned obsessively; he kept the International Male catalog around, because, he said, “I like the clothes.” Dad never dated after the divorce—he didn’t even notice women when they walked by. The idea of my father paired up with another woman seemed totally unnatural and absurd to me, and selfishly, I didn’t mind. I loved being the only girl in his life.

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