I'm Gay, My Dad's a Pastor, and ... We're Working on It

A father and a son struggle to understand each other.
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"Where others see but the Dawn coming over the hill, I see the sons of God shouting for joy."
-William Blake

My dad has a family history of heart stuff, so when the chest pains started around midnight three years ago, my mom made me take him to the hospital.

"Beje," he said, as we walked to the front desk, "just let me handle this. It's not a big deal. We'll just—"

"Can I help you?" the nurse asked.

"Hi," Dad started. "How are—"

"My dad's having a heart attack, and you need to see him right now."

The nurse dialed a number and spoke hurriedly into the phone. A different nurse appeared and told us to follow her. After taking his vitals, she escorted us to our room and told us the doctor would be right in.

My dad sat down on the edge of the hospital bed, shivering and occasionally coughing.

"How long has this been going on, Dad?"

Cough. "It's really nothing, Beje." My dad calls me Beje, which he got from shortening the initials of my first and middle names: Brandon Joseph. BJ. Beje. He's the only one who calls me that.

"Are you kidding me right now? Look at yourself."

"I'm just tired," he said.

"Well you've been just tired for a long time."

Coughing, and then quiet. And then a wink.

I looked at my dad as he sat there hunched over, rubbing his opposite elbows with calloused hands, and cracking fingers. I looked at his skin, which, in spite of its olive color, looked pale. I looked at his sunken eyes as they fought to stay open, as they winked at me every now and again to assure me that he was invincible. I used to think winking was his brain's way of taking a snapshot.

"Beje, really—" Cough. "—I'm telling you I'm fine."

I was 24 years old, and I was worried I was going to lose my father, and I didn't want that to happen. Not because he and I had a great relationship at that point, but because we didn't. It'd been a rocky few years ever since my evangelical parents found out I was gay, and only recently were things getting better. I needed my dad to live longer. We needed more time to fix us. We were, as I learned from four years of therapy, a work in progress, and I liked the place we were progressing to.

After a few minutes of quietly waiting, someone came in to perform an EKG on my dad.

***

We were all playing kickball during gym class, and as usual, I was stuck somewhere in the outfield. This boy got up to kick, I think his name was Kyle, and he just—BAM!—killed it. As everyone clapped and hoorayed, I froze motionlessly staring at the red ball whirling toward me.

I wasn't quite sure what to do, but for some reason, I thought—for better or worse—I'd try and catch it. I locked my gaze onto the red, hurtling mass, and opened my arms, letting the thing slam right into my stomach. As soon as I felt it hit, I shut my eyes tightly and squeezed my arms around the—Wait... did I just...? And as I opened my eyes and looked down, there, cradled in my arms, was a red kickball.

Everyone cheered and hooted and whistled. I vaguely remember Amanda Lovelace passing out. The gym teacher just stared at me wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed. I felt like [insert name of famous catching athlete here].

Later that day as I walked into my classroom, my teacher, who no doubt heard about the miracle on the kickball field, asked me about my amazing play.

"... And I caught it and got Kyle out!" I said in a very accomplished voice.

"Oh, Brandon! Great job!" She seemed thrilled for me. "You're going to have to tell your dad!"

I was only in fifth grade, but I knew she meant something by that, even if I didn't know what it was. I thought it had something to do with balls.

***

What you need to know for this story is that I grew up hearing all the time that God sent people to Hell for sinning, and if I didn't want to go to Hell, then I needed to invite Jesus into my heart after each sin act I committed, whether that was whispering a curse word, puffing on a cigarette stub I found lying in the front yard, or kissing someone's belly button during a particularly experimental game of Truth or Dare. To be Christian meant, in the first place, not sinning, and if I won at that game, then the prize was being raptured away with all of my fellow Jesus Freaks.

My dad was a pastor with a denomination called the Church of God. Because this denomination's view of God informed some of my dad's ideas of fatherhood, I was raised with very strict rules, many of which were encapsulated in confusing one-liners:

Cuss words: "People who cuss have the mentality of an eggplant."

Smoking: "You can get cancer from just one cigarette."

Virginity: "Tell them you can lose it whenever you want, but they can never get it back."

I was only allowed to listen to Christian music, attend Christian rock concerts, and go to the skating rink on Christian night, which was the last Monday of the month. I couldn't watch R-rated movies ever, and sex scenes, even PG-13 sex scenes, always had to be fast-forwarded.

So you can imagine what happened when my dad found out I was looking at gay porn on the family computer. I was in seventh grade.

"We have a problem," Mom said, as my dad placed a piece of paper on my bed. The paper was a list with a few names scribbled on it in my dad's handwriting. I always thought my dad had the coolest cursive, which was always overly slanted, and longer than it was wide.

I looked down at my bed and my heart started racing. Contained on that list were the names of several adult male actors, each one hairier and beefier than the next. Each one was well into his 40s, and spoke in a deep, resounding voice. And each one commanded my entire, inquisitive soul with the raise of an eyebrow or the pulse of a pectoral muscle.

"Daddy's been looking at what you've been doing on the World Wide Web," she said, lowering her voice. "This is a list of... this list is what you've been..."

My mom tried to catch my dad's eyes to tell him to take over the conversation, but he wouldn't look at her. He wouldn't look at me, or the list, or anything in particular.

"These are gay guys, Brandon," she said. "You looked at gay porno."

I don't remember what she said next, or what I said, but I remember that my dad didn't say anything. The only snapshot I have of him in this moment is the way his face swallowed his eyes until they almost disappeared.

I've often wondered how my parents found out about my Internet viewing habits. Even in seventh grade, I made sure to clear the browsing history each time I signed off Netzero. (I was always embarrassed that we didn't have AOL like my rich cousins.) So how my parents, both of whom still type with their index fingers, were able to run searches for deleted cookies is beyond me.

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Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore. He has written for McSweeney's, The Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Baltimore Magazine.

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