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

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.

The idea of gay marriage, that he could even meet someone and marry him and have societal approval was completely foreign, completely out of the question. People didn't enter into unions believing that they were really entering into coupling. A lot of lesbians were probably shacking up more and having long-term relationships and living together more than men were. I think the sexual appetite of men, generally, is not necessarily as commitment-oriented. I don't think it's something that afflicts gay men so much as men in general. It wasn't that my dad didn't want to have a long-term boyfriend—it just didn't work out that way—but it would've been hard for my dad to get involved with someone while he, himself, was caring for a young daughter.

In a piece you wrote for The Atlantic, you say your dad wanted you to call him "Steve"—that "dad" was unsexy.

Ha! Yeah, or he'd say, "You can call me 'sugardaddy.'" That was his sly joke. He wanted to be appealing to men, and to have a daughter whining, "Dad! Dad!" did not make him appealing to men. It might make him appealing to women, but it didn't make him appealing to gay men in that era!

On top of being a single dad, and being gay, he was raising a girl. He taught you to pee standing up, for example, which your grandparents corrected when you visited one summer, telling you "little girls should sit down."

It was harder for him to raise a girl when I became a teenager because I don't think he knew about the social pressures I felt to look a certain way or conform. It was definitely harder for me to feel comfortable with what I was supposed to look like or do as a girl. I was very late to buy a purse—and to understand why a purse was more important than having a wallet in the back of your pants. I was late when it came to understanding makeup or the idea of how to attract straight boys. I felt self-conscious around my friends, not knowing how to be feminine. It was left to my grandmother to prepare me for menstruation and adolescence. But I think my dad was excited when that happened, proud of it.

Your dad uses a metaphor about your relationship: He's the author; you're the poem.

When I was in high school, he said our needs mixed "like fire and oil." It was a way to understand how what was going on with us and explain to me how he viewed parenting. Parenting is like authorship. An author works with language, but language comes charged. Words have their own meaning and associations and the author has to balance shaping that language with the already-charged nature of that language. Language completely unfettered—that is, words without any order—wouldn't make any sense. As a parent, he didn't want to squash my energy but he also knew I needed some order. I think it's a universal issue in parenting: how much do you take control and how much do you let your child make their mistakes?

You are a straight woman who writes, "This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history."

There's more interest in gay rights and gay history in mainstream culture than there has been at almost any other time. It's fashionable for people to come out in support of gay marriage. I think a lot of that is exciting because there's a real moral clarity in that. This is our generation's civil right's struggle. But so much of the focus on the gay rights movement has been on gay marriage or "don't ask, don't tell," which are noble efforts, but focus on conservative goals: to get married and join the army. They aren't very much, culturally speaking, in line with the history of the gay rights movement. It's important to embrace gay culture that doesn't want to get married. Gays who were condemned for pursuing a relationship with someone of the same sex. The open gay celebrities on TV and in the movies wouldn't be here if it weren't for the people who were willing to risk their reputations and their lives to be what was considered deviant. It was daring for people to come out in the '70s. And in the AIDS years, a lot of the losses wouldn't have been so severe if there hadn't been so much homophobia and fear at the higher levels of government. It's a tragic time to consider. Our most vulnerable citizens were treated very poorly, and people should know that history.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in The Sexes

Just In