Saturday 11 August 2012

A Letter To James: Fathers and Their Gay Sons

On the first Sunday in September, Australia celebrates Fathers Day. Depending on the kind of a relationship you have with your father, it can be a nice day, spending some time with your dad and probably having a barbecue and a drink with him, a few laughs and some good discussion about the government, the game or the grandkids. Or perhaps it's a torment, fraught with tension because the relationship is not so good. Whichever of the two (or somewhere in between), we are definitely reminded of the father relationship at such a time. We all recognise that it is an important one. Gone are the days when dads were just bread-winners who put no emotional input or nurturance into the family or the raising of the children but just stuck to putting bread on the table and a roof over heads. These days, dads do it so much better. Or they should. We know so much more about parenting these days. We have learned from the mistakes of past generations and have set out on a greater adventure of parenting than our grandfathers or their fathers could ever have imagined.

One of the more difficult family relationships is that of father and son. Two guys competing for dominance in the family, one wanting to conserve the previous generation's values, the other rejecting them and believing that dad is fairly irrelevant to his more modern way of thinking. There is not uncommonly a tension between father and son. This is actually something that modern psychology can live with fairly comfortably because there is supposed to be a separation and a distinction between father and son. It is the psychological journey of adolescence. 

However quite often, there is more going on than this. Typically, men are socialised from a very young age to think that you have to be in control at all times, that you have to be a man - that usually means a 'man's man', that you have to tough it out, that you shouldn't give up, that you should face the fear and do it anyway, that you should stand your ground, that you should never show weakness or softness, and you should - - - -  well any other of a hundred different macho cliches.

Rough and Rusty
by Myphotoevolution: Flickr
Now it's pretty obvious to all that this stuff is gendered. It is masculine to be this way. It is not masculine to be different from this. In fact, it is considered feminine or girly not to demonstrate these so-called manly qualities. And softness is something a real man must never show. So a real man is not supposed to be too emotionally demonstrative. Showing too much care or tenderness is left for the womenfolk lest a man's sense of masculinity is called into question, either by himself or God forbid, by other men. Being too emotional highlights your softer side and that calls into question your masculinity because women are supposed to be the emotional and nurturing ones. We all know that, don't we?

As a result, men haven't always given their sons the necessary love and connection that is deserved from a parent. Many sons grow up with a disconnect (to use that horrible modern usage) between themselves and their father. I know - I see them in my Consulting Rooms regularly. "No, never really had much to do with Dad. He was always busy when I was a kid and he never seemed to have much time for me or what I was into anyway. Not really sure how to talk to him." And so generations of sons have grown up effectively estranged from their fathers and unable to relate to them. You might be one of these sons or you might be one of these fathers. Thank God this is changing, but we've got a long way to go yet.

So what happens when a son tells his father, "Dad, I'm gay?"

I am writing this post to fathers for a number of reasons. The first is because Fathers Day is coming up and it will be the first I have experienced after the loss of my father on Christmas Day 2011 three weeks shy of his 84th birthday. I wanted to commemorate him somehow for this special day and I thought a post about his response to my coming out to him as a gay man would be a good way to do this. Secondly, I recently read a letter from a father to his son that has gone viral on the web, originating in Los Angeles. It touched my heart immediately, as it has done to many others, and quite frankly, it brought me to tears. I titled this post after the young man James of that letter. Finally, in an earlier post, I wrote a piece to American Moms about their children being gay. And I did think that one day down the track I should probably write something to the dads too to even up the score. You can see the post to Moms here and I suggest you read it first, if you haven't already, before you proceed with this one. It will background you considerably on some of the more important issues related to this topic.

So, dads, how about it? You've read the post to Moms and acknowledge the issues involved. Your son comes to you and tells you that he is gay. What are you going to do? What are you going to say?

Here is one dad's response, the response of a father to his young James.

Where do I start? My first inclination was to silence. I just felt the pain of the onslaught and could utter no word because no word is possible. But this is a blog and blogs are about words. So how about by stating that this letter would have to be one of the cruellest things I have read outside the context of war atrocity. Its impact and intention are forces of destruction and death. He even uses symbols of death at the conclusion of the letter in the passage on the funeral. Like death, it is the ultimate rejection of life, and in this sad case, of his son's life. The emotional and psychological impact of this letter could be utterly devastating even fatal to someone if they were struggling. I do hope James has lots of support over the coming weeks. Judging by the comments on the Net, he will. 

James has received the message that he is not good enough to enter into his father's house, and why? Because of a sexual orientation no less, an aspect of life that James has no control over. It's like saying, "You are not welcome here because you have blue eyes or are left-handed. I reject you and your life as a result. You are not good enough for me. Take your blue eyes and your left hand and get out of my presence and never return."

Let it be said that this father is not an individual only in his homophobia. He is a product of a society that transmits this homophobia from generation to generation and so the responsibility must be shared between the individual and the society. However, I do find it difficult to imagine that in the twenty-first century any father could cast off his child so completely and ostracise his son so absolutely based on attitudes to homosexuality. We are not living in the 1940s after all. This is mind-numbing and willful ignorance at its worst and is a screaming example of why people need to be educated out of their ignorance and into some semblance of intelligent analysis around these issues.

Does this father not know (clearly he does not) that being gay is not a choice? Does he not know that being gay is not a lifestyle and should never ever be characterised that way? Does this man not know that being gay is not unnatural for gay people and that in fact we are wired this way genetically, biologically, physiologically and psychologically? Does he not know that our sexuality cannot be changed and that it remains stable across the lifespan as is his own? Does he not know that James didn't just wake up one morning and decide to join a sexual minority group? Does he not know that human sexual orientation is part of the fabric of what makes a person who they are - just as much as personality, temperament, aptitudes and eye-colour? Where has this man been for the last twenty-five years? Has he done any reading at all? Has he at least not seen something on the television about gay people and how it all works? For goodness sake, even 60 Minutes ran a large segment on it that you can still see on YouTube. And while we're on the topic, has this man never heard of the internet? Has he even bothered to take a look at what science has to say about human sexuality and do some exploration about our understanding of how it all works? It would appear not.

His letter is damning. Not of his wonderful son, who had the courage to disclose this part of his life to this selfish troglodyte  - no easy thing to do by the look of it - but utterly damning of himself. He has failed the basic test of parenthood. He has rejected his child, not because he is a killer or a thief or an arsonist, but merely because James is gay.

You know fathers, this letter in its brevity is actually a good diving board from which to plunge into the issues around this topic for straight men. So let's dial it back after James' father's attitudes and look at this systematically.

First, your son's being gay says nothing about you and your masculinity. Your own sense of being a man is not compromised because you have a gay son, not now, not ever. You do not have to worry that you have not been man enough for him to emulate. No, sexual orientation does not work that way. And anyway, would you really be comfortable with a masculinity that mandated rejecting your child because he didn't fit into some masculine stereotype? I wouldn't have placed too much value on that kind of masculinity.

Secondly, your son's being gay does not mean you failed as a parent. No, absolutely not! If anything, it means that you succeeded as a parent because your son trusted you to handle his disclosure and treat it with respect. Just think for a moment about how hard it is for a son to tell his dad that he is gay. Your son trusted you enough to tell you, the one person he more than likely feared telling the most. This shows that you have built a good relationship between the two of you and proclaims loudly that you have been a successful parent and done a great job of raising your son. He was able to summon the courage and come to you with this most personal of declarations. And think of what that says about how he feels about you? Even though he was fearful of telling you, he went ahead and did so regardless, because he wanted you to be able to share the truth of his life, not some fakery that he would have to act out in front of you. You get the real son not the fraud. In my book, that's not bad!

Thirdly, it is important that you show your son unqualified acceptance. He has had a long and probably difficult journey in accepting himself, so now you must traverse that same road vicariously. And you need to show him acceptance straight away as you begin that journey. He is the same young man you have always known. He has a personality, a temperament and a sexual identity just as you do. It's just that his sexual identity is oriented down a same-sex path not an opposite-sex path. Come on, you can do it. Make the mental shift. It's not that hard. Millions of dads have done it and will tell you it's the best thing they ever did regarding their gay sons.

Fourthly, be vigilant against homophobia - the non-acceptance of gay people for who they are. In men, it is very much tied up with that masculinity stuff we were talking about at the top of this blog. You know all that masculine macho stuff that all of us males are exposed to. There is a new lesson here; a really important one. There is not one masculinity, but many masculinities (plural). In other words, there is more than one way to be a man. Lots of straight guys don't much like stereotypical masculine past times like cars and engines and sport and action movies and  - - - well you know the list. There are many ways to be a man and lots of straight guys are into all sorts of past times and hobbies and pursuits that are not always valued by the stereotype.

As a gay man your son will traverse his life in much the same way as everyone else. There will be disappointments, sorrow and challenge, as well as joy, laughter and success. He will have his friends and probably a partner with whom he falls in love and maybe even wants to share his life. Certainly that happened to me and I feel wonderfully privileged and blessed to have found such a great guy.

Fifthly, you will need to get your head around the sex. Gay men, just like straight men, really enjoy sex and, like straight men, we have it in many different ways, not just one way. As you become more and more comfortable with your son and his friends, your distaste for gay sex will evaporate as you learn and understand these guys. They are people, not a behaviour, and not a sexual behaviour. Really, I think it shows a mark of both maturity and respect that you abandon your original attitude to your son's sex life as quickly as possible and just accept the fact that sex is physical, mental and emotional for all of us and that we all have different things that turn us on and that we enjoy. After all, we gay people don't generally go around decrying heterosexual sex just because we don't do it. It is not a huge mental shift. You can do it if you are willing. Surely there is room in our collective psyches for mutual understanding and acceptance that we're not all cookie-cutter sexual beings.

And finally, be prepared to do some listening. Your son's journey has probably been a tough one, so give him the chance to talk if he wants to. Don't problem solve. Just listen. Be a good hearer for him and offer support where he asks for it. You have a lot to learn about being gay and because your son is gay, you will want to learn more about this orientation and his life. It's quite exciting and very interesting stuff. If you want, you could even go and talk to some other dads at places like PFLAG or other groups, dads who have trodden this path before you. They will tell you that they have learned so much and that they are incredibly proud of their sons and feel just so privileged to have them in their lives. Now that sounds pretty cool to me.

One other thing before I share a little of my own dad. Religion. I want to tell you that the traditional teachings of the church on human sexuality need to be revisited. They are full of quite destructive premises and have caused untold harm to good people and frankly, to the reputation of the Gospel. And there are many errors in the way these issues are argued by fundamentalists of every Christian persuasion. If you are Christian, I urge you to do some homework and find out about this. You could start by reading my book, Being Gay Being Christian which has been very helpful to many people and which has been very well received. Get your bookstore to order you a copy if they don't have one, or just click on the cover at right and you can purchase it online.

Bill Edser - Surprise 80th Birthday Party January 2008
My father was born in 1928. His name was David, but he was known as Bill. He married my mother and they were together for 63 years, having four sons, one of them gay - me, the third son. Dad was an electrician as a young man and eventually educated himself so that he could be manager of an electronics company. He was on the conservative side of Australian politics and was a faithful Catholic coming from a fiercely Catholic family in those old Pre-Vatican II days. He went to Mass every Sunday his whole life and had all of us boys educated in Catholic schools. Dad was pushing 70 when I told him I was gay. Here is what he said.

I was very close to both my parents. Gay kids often are if given the chance. They had been part of my life in every aspect as I was growing up and venturing into young manhood, study and career. We were in my living room sitting in comfortable couches and had finished a cuppa. I ventured into the feared territory and made my disclosure nervously and falteringly. There was silence at first. For me, it felt like an eternity. Looking back, it was only a matter of about a minute. Dad moved himself forward in his chair in my direction and said, "Stuart, we have always loved and supported you and we always will." With that, I got teary which made him teary and Mum was already teary. I knew that no matter their journey, we would be alright. We talked some more and they asked me many questions which I answered as honestly as I could. As I talked, I could see them nodding and eventually they said that "it's all starting to make sense now," as they began to join up all the dots of my life.

Now my father has gone. He succumbed to a form of dementia in his final years which took him cruelly. It was very hard for us to watch. He died in my and my mother's arms. I watched him take his four last breaths and counted them, then he was gone. I kissed him goodbye and cried out to him how much he was loved by us all as he passed away. He had lived and died for his wife and four sons and his love was unconditional.

2001 Christmas l to r  Me, Dad and Chris.
I was playing with being blonde
and this was Chris' first Christmas with us
"Stuart, we have always loved and supported you and we always will". I will never forget those words. They are of the strongest and most influential words anyone has ever spoken to me. He never asked me to change. He never asked me to seek psychiatric help. He never asked me to repent. He knew this was the truth of me and that this was how I was. He accepted me and launched himself and my mother on a journey of exploration that would include lots of talks over coffee around their kitchen table and their accepting and loving my partner Chris and our lives together.

So dads. What's it going to be? Can you be the man you need to be at this time? Can you step up and be brave against a world that is still homophobic? Can you out-think the heterosexism of this world, the belief that everyone is straight or ought to be? Can you truly love your son as being a man and not some creature? Can you allow the love that you have in your heart to well up and overflow and be offered unconditionally to your son?

Book Cover: A Mormon Dad and his Son
Please don't be like the father of James who put himself and his ignorance first. His shame will live on if he does not change. His son James deserves to have a dad who will be there for him, support him and love him all his days. And that dad should be able to enjoy the warmth of the friendship and love of his son and his partner. 

Fathers, show the love you have in your heart to your son.
Demonstrate it.
Don't just be a man.
Be a good man!
Don't just be a father.
Be a good father!

Pax et Amor - Stuart

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