'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.

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.