Losing a Father to Bigotry

Losing a Father to Bigotry December 4, 2012

If you haven’t seen this post by Ashley Miller, it’s a must-read. Ashley, you see, is in love. She’s found a guy she’s just crazy about and she took him home to meet the family for Thanksgiving. And now her father has disowned her as a result. Because her boyfriend is black. I’ll paste just a bit of it, all quotes from Ashley’s stepmother, who delivered the news by phone:

I’m sorry to be doing this over the phone, your father has forbidden me from seeing you in person. I’m sorry, he just cannot support your lifestyle anymore, he will not be speaking to you again, he asked me to tell you…

Your father wants you to know that he still loves you. But you’ve gone too far…

Your lifestyle is just not OK with him, he has bent as much as he will bend. He has bent so much and you haven’t bent at all…

We’re not telling you what to do. If you love him, you should be with him. But I’m going to stand by my husband, just as you some day, if you get married, will stand by yours. We both love you, he’s just not going to talk to you. Maybe, in a long time, he might change his mind, but I don’t think so. I think it was too much.

I read this first thing when I woke up on Monday and it hit me like a punch to the gut. I don’t know why I’m shocked by this. I know I shouldn’t be. But I still am. I think it’s because it’s just so foreign to my own experience. This is the same thing that made me become a gay rights activist, seeing so many friends go through similar things with their family because they’re gay, and it being just so incomprehensible to me. I simply cannot imagine that I could bring anyone home, of any gender or race or religion or anything else, and have my parents be anything but accepting — and that includes my fundamentalist stepmother. If I were gay and I came out of the closet and brought home a man, I can’t imagine they would be anything but supportive and loving.

My stepmother would be disappointed, of course. She’d think I was committing a sin, just like she did when I lived with a woman for several years. But she never treated Kris badly. She brought her into the family and treated her like a daughter, never showing anything but kindness. She prayed about it, I’m sure. She wished that we would get married, I have no doubt. And she’d do the same thing if I were gay or brought home a woman who was black or Muslim or anything else. And because I’m so close to my father, the idea of losing him to something like this is is just inconceivable to me. I can only imagine how painful it would be, and is already for so many. And it just makes me sad.

But it also brings to mind counterpoints, instances where the opposite happened even when I thought the worst would happen. I think I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again. One of my oldest and dearest friends was Mr. Conservative growing up — chairman of the Michigan Young Republicans in high school, chairman of the MSU College Republicans in college, worked for Jack Kemp’s campaign, became a fundraiser for conservative causes and was very well connected in conservative politics. One day when we were in our late 20s, he called me and told me he was gay.

I know his parents very well. In high school and beyond, they were like a second set of parents to me. And they were a bit of an odd couple, his father very conservative and straight laced and buttoned up and his mother a free spirit who died her hair strange colors and gave off an earth mother kinda vibe. So I asked him, many years later, how his parents took his coming out. I assumed that this mother had taken the news well (in fact, she was the one who told Jeff that he was gay and drew it out of him) and his father had not. The story he told me was quite surprising.

He told his mom that he was really worried about telling his dad. She suggested that he write him a letter and pour his heart out, tell him everything, and then give him a few days to process it and call him. So that’s what he did, writing a very long letter explaining when he knew, how he knew, how he had tried so hard to cover it up and deny it even to himself for so long and that now he had to be himself no matter the consequences.

His dad got the letter and immediately went into a state of depression for several days, moping around the house and not talking to his wife or to almost anyone else other than for business. She tried to give him his space and not push about it, but after several days of this she finally decided they needed to talk about it. She told her husband that he couldn’t act this way, that this is still their son and they need to love him no matter what. And what he said in reply stunned her and me and Jeff and probably everyone else too.

He said, “I’m not upset for the reason you think I’m upset. I read that letter and it broke my heart, not because Jeff’s gay — I couldn’t care less about that. But because he has been struggling with this and punishing himself for it and living a lie and being terrified to tell us or anyone else. And if only we had known about it, we could have helped him avoid all of that. We could have made this so much easier for him. But I obviously made him feel like he had to cover it up out of fear. And I feel like I have failed him as a father. And that’s killing me.”

And she said, “I think you need to tell Jeff that.” And he did. And they moved on with their relationship not only intact but stronger. Just thinking about that again brings tears to my eyes. It’s such a powerful counter-example to what Ashley is going through, but it doesn’t do anything to change the reality that there are still people who think like that. And they are causing incredible pain and suffering, all of it completely unnecessary.

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