My Father Once Tried to Take Me Away From My Mother Because She's Gay

For gay and lesbian parents in the 1970s, the fear of losing a child was real. Despite progress, that fear persists today in some places.
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On a hot summer morning in 1974, a few months after my parents' separation, my father came to visit my mother and me. He offered to take me for a walk. I was 10 months old.

"In retrospect, I should have thought it odd that he wanted me to give you a bath before the walk," my mother recalled. "I understood later that he wanted you clean for the journey."

I can imagine the scene outside Mom's rented, white clapboard house in Athens, Georgia: She handed me over to him. He looked down at me, recognizing himself in the shape of my chin and telling himself that what he was about to do was the right thing, the best thing for me. He lowered me into the stroller and headed for the sidewalk.

Hours went by. We didn't return. Apart from terror, my mother doesn't remember specifics from that part of the day. I assume this is a sign of panic and trauma. Did she tearfully wander the neighborhood, calling out for us?

***

My mother does remember looking in the mirror at age five and trying to comb her hair to look like her father's. She remembers the powerful crush she had on Miss Gunderson, her biology teacher in high school. And she remembers the frightening yearnings she felt for a college friend I'll refer to as Amy, though their relationship, while deep and emotional, was never physical. "We were in love but we couldn't call it that," she told me. "We didn't know what to call it. We had no vocabulary for it."

In 1968, fearing what was brewing inside her, and without a language for being gay, she decided to leave the country, and leave Amy. "I wanted to spend time with her more than anyone else, but I was overcome with shame and fear, fear of who I really was," she said. "The emotions I felt were overwhelming. I joined the Peace Corps to get away from those feelings, to stay frozen in time. It broke both of our hearts."

The Peace Corps took her to Malaysia, a place she still recalls fondly. In one of her stories, a headhunter from Borneo fell in love with her and requested a lock of her hair so he could concoct a love potion designed to win her affection. There's another one about being stalked by a tiger.

Also in pursuit -- for her hand in marriage -- were a captain from the English army, as well as an Indonesian police chief, whom she remembers having the kindest heart of all. But she couldn't see herself living in Malaysia for the rest of her life.

And there was my father, an American who worked in the Peace Corps office in the city of Penang. They had a brief chat there one afternoon. It was the first time Mom ever felt even the slightest twinge of attraction to a man. At 22, she was fully a product of her background: southern and conservative. "The feeling I felt for your father in that one moment felt right in a socially prescribed way, so I pursued it. It was a kind of relief, actually, to feel attracted to a man, even if just fleetingly. I knew my mother would approve."

They were married in Kuala Lumpur, assisted by a family of Australian tin miners.

I've seen a few pictures of my parents from that era. Brash and tan, my father smiles wide in one of them. He has a subtle under-bite and deep-set, drooping eyes -- features I inherited. He's standing shirtless in the jungle. My mother is beautiful and slim, with high cheekbones. She smiles a feminine smile straight out of the '60s, the one in countless advertisements from the era that seem to say, "This is my man and he will guide me into the future."

But that was not to be. Somewhere along the way, the woman in this picture, the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel fighting in Vietnam, realized she would have to step out of the frame.

***

My mother and father returned to Athens in 1970. He began graduate school and she worked to support him. According to Mom, my father was devoted to his scientific research, a devotion that shaded into obsession.

Meanwhile, my mother found a community of women who helped her find a language for who she was. She was also influenced by the emerging gay rights movement, which was breaking into mainstream culture. In 1971, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution stating that lesbian concerns were a "legitimate cause for feminism." Meanwhile, in nearby Atlanta an underground newspaper called Great Speckled Bird was championing gay rights and announcing some of the city's, and the nation's, first gay pride marches.

Even so, Mom never directly came out to my father. According to her, much of it was unspoken and tacitly understood, as they lived in a time and place where homosexuality was unspeakable. After completing his first doctorate, my father accepted a job in his home state of Maryland. My mother refused to go, saying only that something was wrong with the marriage and she and I needed to stay in Athens.

Mom told me that while their relationship was strained for many reasons, her decision not to move with him to Maryland came down to the fact that she was gay. "Had I not been gay," she said, "I would have gone with him. I'd been taught that women suppressed their own needs for the wellbeing of their husbands and that in return, they'd be taken care of. But being gay pushed me beyond the limits of what I had been taught to do. It was nature. I couldn't ignore it."

***

The evening of the abduction, my father called from the airport in Greenville, South Carolina. He'd taken me across the state line, out of the jurisdiction of Georgia law enforcement. "His voice was calm, measured," Mom said. "He told me he was taking you to Maryland. Then, he hung up."

Of course, I have no recollection of the journey. I try to imagine myself sitting on his lap on the plane, doing what babies do. Did I give him much trouble? Did I need a diaper change mid-flight? How and what did he feed me?

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Joshua Gunn is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Columbia, A Journal of Literature and Art and Poetry Northwest. He is the founder of Planet Nutshell, an animation studio.

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