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.

Dad left first, followed by mom, who paused at the doorway just long enough to say, "They say the mother's always the last to know."

My mind was clouded. I needed to tell my mom I was sorry, to tell my father I was sorry, to tell my Heavenly Father I was sorry, and to ask him back into my heart so I could still be raptured away with all the other good Christian people who weren't gay porn fiends.

***

The first time I cracked open one of my volumes of Daddy Issues was during my first therapy session with Dr. Reeves. He asked me to tell him about my parents.

"Well, my dad's a pastor, and he also works at... he's a manager of a store that sells... I don't really know what it is."

I knew, but I was embarrassed to say that he managed a store that sold pressure washers. I also knew that my embarrassment was my dad's fault, and so I took note of that. He could have been a doctor or a lawyer or something honorable. But pressure washing?

I'm not sure how it happened, but hearing the word "pressure washer" in my head brought up a flood of emotions, and I spent the next 75 minutes unloading all of my daddy shit onto my therapist, who politely sat there nodding his head and every once in a while squinting his eyelids just a tad.

I asked Dr. Reeves a question. "Do you remember in the early 90's when guys used to wear their hair like Shawn from Boy Meets World?"

His nostrils flared out as he thought about it, and then told me he had an idea as to what that meant.

"Right." I rolled my eyes at how old he was. "Anyway, one time, I was getting ready for church and fixing my hair like Shawn, and my dad got into a fight with me. As always, mom got in the middle of us and tried to calm dad down and explain to him that he was an idiot."

"OK," Dr. Reeves recapped, "so you and Dad were fighting about the Shawn hairstyle, and Mom got involved..."

"Yeah, she told him that my hair was nice, and that after I blew it dry, it wouldn't look so—" I paused, and the air became heavy.

"So what, Brandon?" Dr. Reeves asked. He cocked his head to the side.

"My dad's not great, but look, he's not—I don't think he's an actual jerk."

"If you blew your hair dry," Dr. Reeves asked, "it wouldn't look so what?"

"My dad said..." I started to say.

You know how every now and again you remember someone's words verbatim? You remember the words that come just before your first kiss, and the words you hear from the first cop that pulls you over, and the words that woman from the DMV says when she fails you for bad perpendicular parking—for the second time. Well, turns out, you also remember the words your dad says the first time you realize he's afraid you might be gay.

"My dad said..." I told Dr. Reeves. "He said, 'I'm not letting my son go out of the house with those faggot curls.'"

The room grew very quiet. Dr. Reeves squinted a bit, and it looked like his blue eyes were thinking about crying.

"How did that make you feel, Brandon?"

One of the volumes of Daddy Issues had been opened, and my entire brain was beginning to deconstruct. My desires, my fears, my anxiety, my ambitions, my secrets, my humor, my talents—everything about myself was contained within my father's 14 words to his 10-year-old boy.

I'm. Not. Letting. My. Son. Go. Out. Of. The. House. With. Those. Faggot. Curls.

***

Around the same time I learned about faggot curls, I learned about gay toilets.

One night at dinner when I was in second grade, I told my mom I didn't want to go pee at school anymore because I was worried that would make me a fag. She said needed more details.

"If you use the gay toilet," I told her, "you're a fag. I don't know which one is the gay toilet, and I don't wanna risk it, so I just won't pee."

The next day at school, Ms. A, my teacher, asked all the boys to follow her to the bathroom. She knocked on the door, and asked if there was anyone inside. When she didn't get an answer, she said, "Teacher coming in," and made us all follow her, and line up in front of the row of urinals.

"Now," she continued in her scary teacher voice, "which one is the gay toilet?"

Everyone looked to me, and then to the floor.

"I have asked you which toilet is the gay one?" she repeated.

"That one," one of the boys said. "That's the gay toilet."

"And why, young man, is this toilet a gay toilet?"

A chuckle started rippling through the line of students.

"I'm waiting," Ms. A said, placing her hands on her hips.

Tariq fessed up: "Look at the handle!"

Ms. A looked at it. "OK..."

"It looks like a woody," Tariq said, and the bathroom devolved into laughter. All of the urinals except the gay toilet had handles that were squared off at the end. This particular handle was rounded and, in their sexual wisdom, my second grade classmates decided that that was what an erection looked like.

Well, I didn't know what a woody was, and who knows if Ms. A did. But we were the only two not laughing.

"From now on," she said, "no toilet is the gay one. These are all... these are just toilets. Do we understand? They are toilets."

That afternoon when my mom picked me up from school, she asked if anything interesting happened.

No.

What she means is, did Ms. A happen to mention anything out of the ordinary?

No.

What she means is, did Ms. A have a talk with us about, perhaps, the sexual orientation of toilets.

"Did you tell Ms. A what I told you?!" I screamed.

"Daddy thought I should say something..." she said. "He cares about you, Brandon, and he doesn't want you to, you know, he doesn't want anyone being mean to you."

I opened the sun visor and looked in the mirror at my hair. I thought about the connection between faggot curls and gay toilets, and I wondered if that's what my dad was worried about.

***

By far the most homophobic man in my dad's family is his brother. It seemed like every time he was within earshot of me he was dropping the f-bomb. Those faggot priests who rape boys, those faggots marching in the parade in belly-shirts and tiaras, my faggot nephew who don't know how to mow a lawn.

That's how I knew what the word "fag" meant when my dad used it in front of me. And while I didn't really understand its correlation with homosexuality, I knew that you used it to describe a man that was different than you were. Whose hair was different than yours was.

My uncle told my dad he needed to intervene: "Frank, you gotta get him into sports! He's gonna turn out to be a gay! You know what those people are like... San Francisco!"

So, heeding his warning, my parents promptly signed me up for rec baseball. That was a disaster. The only compliment I ever heard from my coaches, one of whom was my dad, was "Good eye, Brandon!" If you aren't familiar with Little League, then you don't know that that's what you say to the kid at bat who just stands there and doesn't swing. You tell him he has a good eye because you want to trick him and the audience and yourself into thinking he chose to not swing at that pitch. Or that one. Or that one. And... walk. Good eye, son.

I'd be lying if I said that my dad was trying to force me to be the kind of boy his brothers or church wanted me to be

I learned from Little League that I had a talent for watching the ball—for watching it zoom right past me. Because of my poor performance at bat, my parents had my vision tested, and as it turned out, I needed glasses. I was nearsighted.

My parents will tell you that I was bad at baseball because I couldn't see. This is probably true. But it's also probably true that my performance was directly affected by my aversion to being there.

The only excitement I found in putting on my jockstrap—well, one of two things that excited me about it—was that I got to pretend to be a cheerleader when I was benched, which was most of the time. Suffice it to say that I was less concerned with scoring runs and more concerned with teaching the other players team cheers, which were always very stylized and intricate group dance numbers complete with cartwheels, body rolls, and full splits.

Because of my position as head cheer coach, I loved going to baseball rehearsal. Thrilled that I was finally taking an interest in competitive sports, my dad's brothers showed up to the first game. Needless to say, they were less than elated when I ran out onto the field and, instead of singing the national anthem, shouted "5, 6, 7, 8!"

Giving up on their dreams of me being a mediocre baseball player, the men in my family got together and came up with another idea that they would put into effect on Christmas morning. As I sat in a pile of wrapping paper and unisex toys, I opened the present from my uncle et al.

"What is it?" I asked. It was a non-descript box containing what looked like a deflated brown pig named Wilson.

***

I'd be lying if I said that my dad was trying to force me to be the kind of boy his brothers or church wanted me to be. I may have suffered through one season of Little League ball, but I spent most of my childhood performing at a community theatre in Baltimore. My dad had a background as a performer, actually, and so he ended up directing many of the productions. I was also very involved in choirs at the performing arts high school I went to, and my dad always traveled around with us as our sound guy. And he always watched me perform with a big smile on his face, and would later brag to everyone about how talented I was.

But I'd also be lying if I said that my entire relationship with my dad was defined by mutual understanding and open communication. We didn't really talk as much as we could or should have. There were times when I don't think he knew how to respond to me. Once at my cousin's house, I put on the musical Pocahontas and played the title role of the Indian Princess herself. I could only imagine what was going through his head as he sat there watching a production that rivaled that silly thing Disney released: There's my son... playing Pocahontas... wearing a boa around his head... singing about the love of his life, John Smith.

There was a certain look he gave me while watching me play Pocahontas. It was the same look he gave me while watching me stare at the men in the underwear ads in the Penney's catalog, or play "Say-Say, Oh, Playmate" with the other questionable boys at summer camp.

I knew that there were questions—one in particular—behind this look. The way he watched me made it seem like he had something to ask me—something I wasn't ready to be asked.

***

"Daddy wants to talk with you," she told me.

"No."

"Brandon, he's your father, and he just wants to talk with you."

"No."

"Well, tough, you're only 19, and you're gonna talk to him."

"About...?" I asked.

"That book," she said. A few days earlier, my mom had been going through my book bag looking for the keys to her van, or maybe my diary. She came across a book my shrink gave me called You Don't Have to Be Gay, which is one of those Christian books written by an ex-gay reminding you that God loves you, but hates your sin, and so oblige Him and stop snorting coke off penises at discos. Granted, you'd think after the gay porn debacle, my parents would have had an idea that I might turn out gay or at least very experimental; but I think they thought all that stuff was just a phase.

That night, my dad asked if I wanted to go to grab soup and wine, and I reluctantly agreed. We were at the diner for almost two hours talking about God knows what. The only thing I remember is that I made sure we didn't talk about that. I was almost home free when my dad paid the check, and we walked to our car.

As my dad drove up to our house, he slowed down the car, only to floor it again and continue down the road. We halted to a stop by a baseball field, and my dad put the car in park. He collected his thoughts and then looked at me.

He was watching me.

"Let me ask you a question," he said. He took my silence for compliance. "Do you think I would love you any less if you were gay?"

"No." I said it rolling my eyes as if it were the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. Probably because it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard.

"Good," he said, and came an inch closer to me, "because I wouldn't."

We looked out the windshield at the stars that were trying to burn their way through the Baltimore smog, trying as best they could to illuminate what was happening on that baseball field.

"We used to go upstate New York, your grandmom and I." He was starting one of his stories. He always told the best stories. He was animated and lively and would do the voices—you know how you have that one friend who does the voices? My dad's stories were elaborate, and were always told with perfect narrative structure. And they always, always had the funniest and most happy endings imaginable. You'd sit there listening to his stories, and you'd think, "Where is this story going? Where's he going with this? What does a hippopotamus have to do with anything?" And you're listening to him, and you find yourself laughing uncontrollably just from hearing him talk and do the voices.

"Up there, Beje, in New York, you can see stars for days."

I looked over my left shoulder at my uncle's house. I thought about how he hated me for being gay, and how he would hate my father for not hating me. I thought about my dad's church and my dad's rapture, and I wondered if I would go to Hell. And I thought about my dad's God, the God who was Father to both me and my dad.

"Do you know what I want for you, Brandon?" he asked.

"What, dad?"

"My prayer for you, Beje, is that you will be as happy as possible."

14 words.

***

Cough.

The doctor came back into the room to tell us that dad hadn't had a heart attack.

"I told you, Beje, I'm fine," Dad said. "I feel great, I just need to sleep," and he winked at me with his tired eyes—eyes that were watching me, and taking more snapshots of me, eyes that were whispering their gratitude to God for not closing them just yet.

My dad's eyes have seen many things. He watched his mother's wrinkled mouth explain to him and his siblings that their father wasn't coming back. He watched the sun rise one Christmas morning as he woke up in a car with his mom and sister. He watched his sister's body devour itself with rheumatoid arthritis, and his brother's mind destroy itself with flashes from Vietnam.

We could go, the doctor told us, but my dad should take it easy the next few days because, well, he isn't Superman.

We passed Dad's brother's house on the way home.

"You know what, Beje? He's an idiot." My dad was referring to something his brother posted on my Facebook wall a few days before. He wrote,

I love my nephew, but in my opinion, FAGS should be rehabilitated or annihilated.

"I know he is," I replied. "But he doesn't really bother me..."

"Well, he bothers me," dad said, and raised his eyebrows.

We pulled up to our house, and he put the car in park. "Trust me, Beje," he said, "he's never going to say anything like that to you again."

"Why? What did you do?" I asked.

He winked at me and told me they just had a little talk.

It's been a few years since that night at the hospital, and, while I'm not sure we've yet perfected how to be Dad and Son, we're at least learning how to be us. How we're doing that is by looking at the snapshots—the happy ones, the ugly ones, the faggot curls, the EKG, the stars for days.

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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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