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

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.

What was it like to be in the Haight as a young girl?

On one hand, it was fun and exciting. I liked to dress up, and my dad had wild costumes, and sometimes there would be photo shoots for some of these books, or parties where we'd put on these costumes. When you're young, you have a wild imagination. When I would go to Cloud House, I was the only child and would often be left to draw. Those drawings would make it onto the walls of Cloud House or my dad's poetry books. He worked to make me feel involved with it, and I did. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes I was kind of bored, and sometimes it was past my bedtime and I'd have to fall asleep and come home really late and go to school in the next morning.

What was school like for you?

I certainly didn't feel I had a lot of support from my dad at school. Having come to San Francisco and embracing this bohemian lifestyle, he felt very uncomfortable around traditional, mainstream, middle-class interests. To have to go to school and go to a PTA meeting was not something he enjoyed or wanted to be around. I was jealous of classmates whose parents would help plan the school parties and were a little bit more enthusiastically engaged. I learned that my family dynamic was not like other people's family dynamic. It was a combination of not having a mother, not having siblings, having a gay father, and living with roommates in a kind of bohemian lifestyle, whereas all my classmates were from normal families and pretty nice homes. Today we're a lot more focused on children's acclimation. If this happened, there would be a lot of talks with the teachers, giving me books, helping me adjust, giving me language to explain my mother's death. Back then, I was left to figure out a lot on my own.

Your father fell in love and had a series of crushes and hookups. You write, "Does this behavior confirm the worst stereotypes about gay men: promiscuous, morally compromised?" Is this still a worry for you?

We're debating marriage equality in the Supreme Court and in state courthouses, and often it comes down to the children. Politically and strategically, there's an emphasis on how gay parents are just like straight parents. But the gay parents of my father's generation came into their parenthood very differently than gay parents today. Then, most children of gay parents were the children of straight unions, where one of the parents was closeted, or came out after the child was born and divorced, or stayed closeted. They were exploring their sexuality in the exciting, heady time before AIDS. Growing up believing all your impulses were sick, could get you arrested, and were sources of shame and secrecy and hiding—now suddenly you could be gay. And most of the people in that time and place did not have children. It was very unusual for a father to be fully responsible for a child like my father was. There were no models. There was very little in terms of how to make this work, or a community to compare notes with. My dad really was making it up as he went along, and I think it would've been very hard for him to not explore gay life as a single gay man. I would've liked it if he married a woman and had a really stable home, but after everything that he'd been through, I don't think he could've been true to himself and done that.

And gay marriage wasn't an option then.

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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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