“My dad’s not gay! You’re a liar!” I had never spoken to anybody with such violence, but I did so now to Jenny, a childhood friend.
We were settled in her bedroom, and the emptiness of the newly painted room echoed the grief that rang out in my voice. The walls seemed to be closing in on me. It was well past bedtime, and my two younger sisters were sprawled out on the carpet snoring in their sleeping bags.
We had arrived in California a few days earlier, just in time to visit our father for Christmas. My mother, step-father, and baby brother remained in Utah. We often spent Christmas at my dad’s condo in San Jose; however, this year we drove to Fresno. Dad explained that his friend, Dale and his daughter Jenny, had moved there and that’s where we would be celebrating the holidays. Jenny and Dale had been part of our lives since my parents’ divorce. Spending Christmas with them sounded fun to me. Jenny and I had spent the last few days bonding over music and boys. But now I was learning the most devastating news of my life at the age of nine.
I had needed a drink a few moments before, so Jenny and I had crept to the kitchen. We had passed the still-lit Christmas tree, then flooded the kitchen with light and raided the refrigerator. But tiptoeing back to bed, I noticed something I hadn’t before. As we passed the master bedroom, I realized that both my dad and Dale were sleeping in the same bed. The door was wide open and the two of them lay snoring on their backs, unaware that Jenny and I were up way past our bedtime. We reached her bedroom and shut the door softly, thrilled that we hadn’t been caught.
As we clambered back onto her bed overfull with pillows to talk, I giggled, “Our dads are having a sleep-over, too! They’re sleeping in the same bed.”
Jenny’s smile vanished and she looked at me seriously. “Emily, it isn’t a sleep-over.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you really want to know?” Her brown eyes were wide and full of concern.
I wasn’t sure if I did, but I said yes anyway.
“They’re gay, Emily. That’s why they’re in the same bed.”
And that’s when my world exploded.
I have a few memories of my father before he left. My favorite is the one of him taking us to meet his coworkers or secretaries. Dad would say, “These are my daughters: Emily, Haley, and Afton.” The coworker would inevitably say, “Oh, they’re darling Ron! This one looks just like you!” while pointing at me. I’d feel so proud to earn that distinction, the daughter who looked like Dad.
But the most vivid memory is of a Sunday morning, with my dad in bed while my mom, my two sisters, and I got dressed for church. My dad was a police officer who often worked graveyard shifts, making this situation unremarkable. He could have been sick. He could have been tired.
When we arrived home after church, my mom’s demeanor seemed to alter. Her hands shook slightly as she fit the silver key into the lock, her palm sweaty and struggling to grip the brass knob. Then, instead of entering the house, she poked her head in tentatively her hot-rollered waves bouncing as she scanned the living room. She finally stepped over the threshold, her black open-toed heel getting slightly caught before she fully entered the house.
My sisters and I followed her, the three of us bumping into her legs and each other, pushing to enter the familiar territory that our mother was suddenly treating as unfamiliar. Mom seemed to get her senses back after entering, striding into the kitchen, setting down her bag.
“Ron?” she called down the hallway of our rambler. “Ronald? Are you still sleeping?” She paused to listen for a response, one that didn’t come.
She lifted her leg, bending it at the knee, and removed one shoe, then the other. She took them in hand and walked slowly down the brown-carpeted hallway toward the master bedroom. We followed, tiptoeing so we wouldn’t wake Dad. We knew the routine. We had to be quiet during the days; he needed to sleep.
We entered the bedroom behind our mother. The bed was neatly made and empty. The first thing that jumped out at me was an envelope lying against the pillows. At age five, it was just at my eye level. But Mom didn’t see it because she was staring into the open closet. Half of it was empty, a stray tie dangling from a wire hanger like an exclamation point. Mom gasped as she stared into this void, not too loudly, but loudly enough. We all looked at up her.
But when she turned around she wore a tight smile, though her chin trembled slightly. “Let’s find Daddy,” she chirped. “He must be here somewhere.”
She began calling his name, stumbling from room to room, finding the bathroom devoid of his toiletries and the linen closet missing its namesake. Her act worked on me. My dread subsided and I skipped gaily after her, calling for Dad and thinking that he had devised a new game of hide and seek, only removing his possessions to show that he wasn’t hiding there.
After five desperate minutes of calling his name, my mother switched on a Strawberry Shortcake video and filled our hands with crackers. We sisters grinned at each other, watching cartoons was more exciting than our usual routine of changing our clothes and setting the table for dinner. But the change made me wary and dread began to pool in the bottom of my stomach. Usually Dad would be here too, just waking up or removing his tie if it hadn’t been a late night.
Mom went to her bedroom and shut the door. Over the cheerful cartoon voices, I could hear her talking in a hushed yet frantic voice on the telephone. Haley wanted to pick up the kitchen extension to see if Dad was on the other line. I wouldn’t let her. The dread in my stomach made me think that Dad wasn’t on the line, that Dad wasn’t coming home. Grandma was probably the one comforting my mother right now; doubtless the envelope was lying opened in my mother’s lap.
While I yelled at her for being a liar, Jenny’s face deepened with concern. She must have realized what she’d driven me, quiet and shy Emily, to do. “Yes they are gay,” she explained evenly. “My mom told me.”
Jenny then told the story her mom had told her: how our dads had met, fallen in love, and decided to leave their wives and children for each other. The news filled me with a sickness. I knew that what Jenny revealed was true. My heart knew it so violently that it tried to beat its way out of my chest. But I didn’t want to accept it.
“No! No! NO!” I cried. “You’re lying. You don’t know what you’re talking about! My dad’s NOT gay!” Jenny relented. The tears pouring down my cheeks probably warned her against saying anything more.
“When you get home, you can ask your mom about it. Let’s go to sleep now,” she suggested. She turned out her bedroom light and we crawled into our sleeping bags.
Soon afterwards Jenny’s breathing became even and rhythmic, but I laid there with my eyes open, my heart still smarting at the news. Everything Jenny had said to me made sense. I knew that Dad would never come back to Mom now, never come back to me. I had thought there was still hope. I had thought we would someday return to California to live with him again because he hadn’t remarried the way my mom had. I imagined that he still pined for her, for his family. But all of those illusions now lay shattered around me. My stomach felt cold and empty. I didn’t want what Jenny had said to be true, but I knew that it was.
I also realized that his gayness posed an enormous problem for me.
I remembered that I was a carbon copy of my father. So far in my life, I’d noticed that I had inherited his picky personality and perfectionist persona. I liked to organize and keep things clean. He had always been fastidious in everything, his dress, manners, and housekeeping. Dread crept into my heart. Did my similarity to him mean that I would turn out gay, too? My only knowledge of the homosexual orientation was that it was a sin and you would go to hell for it. The kids at school constantly teased one boy in our class because he enjoyed gymnastics and spent most of his time playing with girls. I did not want to be teased as he was. Being gay seemed so gross to me, so backward from everything I’d ever been taught. I began to sob, for I felt that my father would be eternally damned and me right along with him.
I returned home to Utah after the Christmas vacation, dejected and guilt-ridden. I had already become a worrier in my young life, worrying over my parents’ divorce, my mother’s emotional welfare, my school work, my sisters, my new baby brother, the many times I’d moved, not to mention life in general. Now, I added to that list my father’s eternal welfare and burning questions about how much of my father was in me. Who was I? What would I become? It was something so horrible that I couldn’t tell anybody, not even my mother. How could I talk to her about something so awful, so personal for us both?
I decided to lead a normal life. I resumed playing with my sisters, eating dinner with the family, loading the dishwasher, watching my favorite television show, practicing piano, returning to school, doing homework, and just being. However, each night I’d crawl into bed, turn out the light, and cry myself to sleep. The pain seemed to physically rip through my body; emotional pain and physical pain were one and the same.
One night my sobbing became uncontrollable, so loud, in fact, that my mother came in to check on me. As she opened the door, I felt acutely embarrassed that I’d been caught, that my secret worry would now have to be revealed. But, I also felt a great sense of relief. I had wanted to tell my mother what I had learned, to ask if it was true, but I hadn’t dared. Maybe my crying became loud on purpose. Maybe it was a cry for help.
As my mother stood in the doorway, the light from the hall surrounded her, creating a halo as if she were an angel of mercy. She asked with compassion what was wrong. Instead of breaking the news gently, as I had been plotting the last several days, I blurted out, “Is Dad really gay?” and then sobbed with renewed vengeance.
My mom immediately came to my bed and gently pushed my hair off of my forehead. She continued stroking my hair as I sobbed out pent up emotion. When I calmed slightly, she took my hand and led me into her room for a talk. I climbed into her bed beside her as I had many times before, and snuggled under the quilt. She handed me a box of tissue, then made me start from the beginning.
I explained to her through tearful hiccups how Jenny had told me about Dad and Dale. Mom sighed, but answered honestly. Everything Jenny had said was true. This prompted a new wave of tears, but Mom just waited, which was good, because it gave me the bravery to ask my next questions.
Would I be gay like my father? Would I be damned? Would I follow him to hell because I was so much like him?
“We all have agency, Emily,” Mom responded. “Yes, you look like your dad, but that doesn’t mean you are the same person. You can choose who you want to be.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said through a sob. I wiped my nose and rubbed my eyes. The salt left my skin red and raw. “It is just so horrible. I can’t believe he’s gay!”
At this Mom seemed to look far into the distance for a few moments. Then she spoke quietly.
“Your father spends a lot of money to fly you to see him. And he does it every chance he gets. Not all fathers do that, you know.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t quite listening.
“He is excellent at quilting and knows how to sew. How many other dads can do that?” She nudged me playfully.
I giggled a little. It was true; none of my friends could say their dads had made them a dress.
I sniffed hard, and said “Dad is good at French-braiding. You can’t even do that!”
My mom threw up her hands in mock exasperation. “It’s true. He’s always been better at fixing yours and your sisters’ hair than I have. But remember the time he ripped out his pants while chasing a suspect?”
I laughed. “I love his police stories!
“He’s also an excellent dancer,” she sighed. “And . . .” she leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially, “he speaks French!” We both squealed with delight.
What a man!
My tears were drying and the dark heavy feeling of guilt began to lift. After a few more minutes of “mommy-time” I went back to bed and slept soundly.
That experience with my mom was the beginning of my understanding of what true love is. My religion told me that my dad’s sexual orientation was wrong, yet he remained my father. He was still a good person, still kind, still loving, still wonderful.
I sometimes think this next experience is silly and too comical to share, but it honestly changed me completely. The actress Sharon Stone, known for making borderline porn movies (e.g. Sliver and Basic Instinct), told Oprah about her near death experience after having a stroke. She explained that when she went to the next life, she felt an overwhelming presence of love and light.
At that moment, it hit me. God loves everybody. I laughed out loud and cried a little when I realized that even Sharon Stone, a woman who had not lived the way my religion teaches, felt the love of God when she died for a few minutes. The love of our Heavenly Parents is available to all, including my father. From, of all people, Sharon Stone, I learned not to judge. I learned that I could just love.
And that is why I finally talked to my dad about his orientation a few years ago. My husband and I had flown to California for my cousin’s wedding. There we spent time with my dad eating out, visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and shopping. But nothing really significant happened until we were sitting in the audience, my husband and daughter on one side of me, my dad on the other. All of the guests were dressed fabulously, and the scent of roses filled the air. The wedding had not yet started.
I don’t know exactly how I started the conversation, but somehow, I called up the courage to ask my dad, “When did you know that you were gay?”
He cocked his head and nervously bounced his knees. “Well, right after my mission. At BYU all of my friends were dating girls and I realized that I didn’t really want to date any girls.”
“So, what did you do?” I asked eagerly, fascinated to finally get the story from him. I had no idea he had known before he had married.
“I went to my bishop. He told me to date anyway and get married. He said once I found the right girl and married her, everything would be okay.”
“So sex would cure you, huh?” I laughed.
He chuckled. “Yes, that’s what they told us in those days.” He paused and stared ahead at nothing. He seemed far away, almost as if he were reliving the stress of his decision years ago. “It doesn’t work,” he finally said.
“Obviously. But, I think the Church is getting better at dealing with this,” I said, hoping to comfort him.
“Yes, they are,” my dad agreed.
I could see a longing in his blue-as-Paul-Newman’s eyes. He seemed to be thinking that he wished the church he’d joined at fourteen, the one that had offered such love and acceptance to begin with, would accept him once again.
We continued to hold our quiet yet momentous conversation until the wedding procession began. We spent the rest of the evening laughing and talking. When the dance floor finally opened up, my dad took me in his arms and we floated around the room, waltzing and fox-trotting. We smiled more with each other because of our comfort. My dad now understood that my religion did not make me hate him. I understood that my dad still loved me despite my belief in a religion that shuns him.
We had finally said “I love you no matter what.”
I wrote that essay several years ago in an autobiography class for my Master’s degree. I ended up reading it at the Sunstone Symposium, and it was published in Sunstone magazine in December 2008. I’ve referred to it several times here on my blog, but I decided to post the full text.
This essay has recently been reprinted in short-story collection Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction (2013). (You can check out the rest of the collection here.) While I was a little shocked when I first realized that my “true” essay was included in a short-story collection, I ultimately realize that much of what I wrote about my experience is fictionalized because of a faulty memory or years of telling myself how the story went and imagining what actually happened. While I claim that what I wrote is the truth, it is really the product of an unreliable narrator and her unreliable memories.
Ultimately, my purpose in writing that essay was to make sense of my feelings, get an “A” in my class, and to share my experience with others who might be confused and hurting as well. Growing up, I never had anybody to talk to about my family and its realities. Part of my therapy in making sense of what I’d been through was reading Carol Lynn Pearson’s memoir Goodbye, I Love You, which I posted about here. I hope that by sharing my experiences and what I’ve learned that I can reach somebody who needs help making sense of their own realities.