'There Were No Models': Growing Up in the '70s With an Out Gay Dad

An interview with Alysia Abbott about her new book, "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father"
Alysia Abbott and her father in Mexico in 1977

In August 1974, Steve Abbott drove a beat-up VW bug over the Golden Gate Bridge, his three-year-old daughter Alysia beside him. His wife, Barbara, had recently died in a car accident, leaving Steve to care for Alysia as a single dad—a single gay dad.

As they crossed the bridge that day, Steve and Alysia crossed into a radically different life in San Francisco. Just months into his marriage, Steve had publicly come out in a student paper's column at Emory University, where he was an organizer for Atlanta's Gay Liberation Front and the gay lib editor at the underground paper The Great Speckled Bird. Steve would become a leading advocate for gay rights as well as an influential poet. He marched in the first gay parade with Alysia perched on his shoulders. He read in front of audiences at the newly formed Cloud House, a poetry collective which is now home to one of the largest archives of American poetry in the country. He interviewed Allan Ginsberg. He supported Harvey Milk. His magazine Soup named the New Narrative movement that would "reclaim personal space in writing"—and was especially important during the AIDS crisis.

Days before Alysia's 22nd birthday, Steve Abbott died of AIDs-related complications. Soon after, Alysia discovered one of the greatest treasures he left behind: his journals. They contained poems, cartoons, and letters—a legacy documenting not only his life and work in a thriving artistic community but the richness of his relationship with his daughter. A relationship that—while unconventional—was honest, creative, and above, all loving. Alysia Abbot's new book, Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, is the story of Steve Abbott's place in gay rights history and his role as a single gay father—one who found himself in entirely unfamiliar territory.

What was it like to be in the Haight in 1974?

It was five years after Stonewall, which many credit as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. My father was involved with the Gay Liberation Front, modeled in the tradition of anti-war and other civil rights movements. It was an important year in gay rights because homosexuality was removed from the DSM-IV, the listing of mental illnesses. For the first time, gay men and women could express themselves sexually without being technically diagnosed as "sick."

San Francisco was already known as a place of relative tolerance and freedom, so it was a natural destination for a lot of gay men and women. Also, men who were dishonorably discharged, often from the Navy, were left at the port of San Francisco—so there was already a gay community in North Beach and in the Haight, too. The Haight was an aesthetic scene. There were leftover hippies—and gay hippies—reinventing themselves. Painters, photographers, performers. There was a bohemian community spirit. It was mixed: black and white, gay and straight, male and female.

What is "Fairyland"?

Fairyland wasn't just a world I shared with my dad; it was a world that existed in San Francisco in the 1970s. It was a generation of people compelled to find themselves: the "me generation." It was experimenting with bisexuality or mysticism or astrology or drugs, or whatever would help you find your quote-unquote "true self." A lot of people moved away from their families and away from more conventional society to San Francisco. San Francisco was cheap enough, and open culturally, that people were encouraged to explore themselves and try new things. You could live on general assistance and food stamps and run a poetry reading.

For a lot of people in gay culture, the Wizard of Oz is important—finding your family with people who are somehow imperfect, who are missing something. It's coming to a place that's suddenly in Technicolor and fantastic, full of wondrous creatures and magic. A place very different from where you came from, one that enabled you to look for and find yourself.

How did that world compare with your summers spent in Kewanee, Illinois with your maternal grandparents?

Kewanee was a completely different world, a world of riches—it was a big, clean house, a big, expansive yard, a nearby field. I could go to the swimming pool every day or turn on the big TVs, and there was always delicious food. I could press buttons in the car and make the windows go up and down—I loved it. It could also be confusing for me, because my father was not part of these summers. For my openly gay father, going to rural Illinois with his in-laws wasn't the number-one choice of an activity to engage in. But there was a sense of his absence—not just physically, but from conversation. There were no pictures of him. There was a sense that he wasn't a part of this world. I felt I lived a bifurcated life. I liked the material comfort and the cleanliness and order and wholesomeness, but I didn't want to renounce my father and his world.

How did your dad fit into the literary scene in San Francisco?

San Francisco had a reputation from the beat movement and its aftermath that was centered on the bookstore and publisher City Lights. And, of course, the poet Allen Ginsberg—who was very involved with the hippie scene—and other poets. When he came to San Francisco there were a lot of open readings and an active but disorganized poetry scene. The beat aesthetic was very much about unfettered self-expression and mysticism, and some say that by the '70s it was a little indulgent.

The poetry my dad was taught in college was more formal, and he was excited to see that it could be creative. In 1976, he discovered the Cloud House in the Mission. It was an era very unlike today—the Mission was almost a completely Latin-American neighborhood, with cheap rent. The Cloud House could rent a whole storefront where they'd meet every week and do open poetry mics and public readings in the street. You would read aloud and support each other. It was very non-judgmental. My father did a lot of readings for the first time.

It's fascinating that your dad came out as gay publicly just months after he and your mom were married.

It's hard to conceive of today, but I think in that moment in time, my parents had a radical stance on family. They believed that a lot of traditional forms of family structure were unhealthy for individuals. My mother was active in the women's movement, and traditional marriage was not necessarily something that she wanted. She was excited that my dad could be so open sexually. My suspicion is that she didn't expect that he would fall in love with someone else. When they first met, my father was a serious student and thinker, very active in the anti-war movement, president of the student body at Emory. But he came out so late, and when he fell in love with a man named John Dale, he dropped out of school. When John broke up with him, he was inconsolable and acted very immature. My parents had this naïve idea in honesty and being true to yourself above all else, so my dad had to explore all of these things. But it wasn't being responsible or mature.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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