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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  • jamessweet

    I remember you telling that story before, it’s a wonderful story, and a nice counterpoint to the horrible thing Ashley is going through.

    It’s also very foreign to me, because it is hard for me to imagine something my sons could do that would cause that level of estrangement. The closest I can think of is if one of them became so involved with some kind of cult that they wouldn’t stop bothering me about it, and for purely practical reasons we had to distance ourselves from each other. But even then, I wouldn’t be doing it to intentionally shut them out.

  • frankniddy

    Ed, that story about your friend is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve heard on this blog site. I choked up a bit when I read it. I haven’t told my very Christian parents that I’m a nonbeliever yet, and while what LGBT people go through is many times worse, I can understand why so many stay in the closet.

  • Your friend’s parents were Dharma & Greg?

  • Sastra

    It probably isn’t just upbringing. I wonder what sort of culture Ashley’s father has surrounded himself with — either in real life or only in his head — which echoes and confirms his choice to do this with “yup, we hear yah, that’s the right thing to do.” If he was in the KKK or something similar, Ashley would probably have known about it.

    Very, very sad and frustrating story. Also puzzling.

    Apparently religion isn’t the mainstay here, with an irrefutable “faith.” Maybe the lack of that could end up being a wedge which breaks the father’s resolve. What sort of tight-knit group support is he getting for this — and how tight could it remain in an open society, one where even many hardline Southern conservatives will put family over “appearances?” The criticism which will count will probably be that which is coming from his own “side.”

    Let’s hope it comes.

  • Michael Heath

    As a culture we promote rituals, beliefs, and defective thinking like deploying faith and even acting upon faith. I’ve learned over the years these behaviors and thinking is steeped in infantile and juvenile thinking. On certain topics we actually work pretty hard as a culture to avoid having to grow up and taking on an approach to thinking and making conclusions that are mature and wise, even condemning those who do remain rational. And in some areas, like our interactions with others, having children invigorates this juvenile quality which in turn promotes more bigotry.

    And while the uneducated along with theologically and political conservative Christians are the most obvious examples of people who promote and think like this, it extends beyond those groups and even beyond those who are religious. However, I do think this infection comes from religion and reveals how even the cultural remnants of religion infect even the irreligious, and probably will for generations; even in families that aren’t religious.

    For example, I haven’t been religious since my late-teens where I made some bad decisions as late as my early-forties by relying on faith, in spite of having already developed critical thinking skills I successfully used in other categories of my life. Our ability to compartmentalize when we deploy our critical thinking skills doesn’t seem like a feature to me, but instead a bug though one we can overcome.

    And while conservative Christians routinely condemn Hollywood movies, that industry and the sports industry are probably the most effective marketers of thinking in a way to leads to our defending the juvenile approach to thinking that cherishes a fantasized bigoted individualistic worldview.

    A week ago last Sunday 60 Minutes did an interesting feature on infants who are born good but are also born bigoted. the latter being the apparent result of self-survival instincts we obviously require in order to procreate and flourish. These researchers also showed some findings on how some of our bigotries are eradicated in some of us as we grow older. Just like we can unlearn the avoidance of critical thinking on topics where political and religious ideologues prefer avoiding their pre-frontal cortex, we can unlearn those bigotries which are not moral. Where the culture significantly stands in our way unless we dispense with faith.

    I think it’s critical these educative efforts are overt, not merely hidden in the lessons we teach now where we have some vague faith our progeny will unconsciously and indirectly assimilate ways to consistently think critically and realize when they’re reaching for their amygdala. But can you imagine the public reaction to public schools disparaging faith? It ain’t gonna happen for a long time, even many liberals celebrate faith. At least for me, being aware of when I’m naturally tempted to revert to my id is the first step to consciously putting the brakes on forcing myself to slow down to try to reason. And that only came when I was confronted with studies here in Ed’s blog over the years that this sort of defective thinking infects most if not all of us.

  • frog

    The only words that could describe Ashley’s situation to me are “fucking appalling.”

    I don’t understand parents who could disown their children over stupid shit like this in general, and in the year 2012, to have it be such blatant, open racism is just staggering. I know there are still vicious pockets of hard-line racism in this country, but I’ve always figured someone has to be active KKK/Aryan Nation levels of racist to disown a child over it.

    I hope Ashley’s father wakes the hell up and realizes what a horrific thing he did to his kid.

  • Unbelievable!

    Ashley is better off without that bigot in her life.

  • slc1

    Altogether too reminiscent of the attitude of whackjob Alan Keyes when he was informed by his daughter that she was a lesbian.

  • Mr Ed

    I wonder how I would react if my daughter brought home a dyed in the wool, hard core, fundamentalism christian. Some one who thought she should be a “traditional” wife and not seek a life of her own outside the home. I don’t think I would disown her but wouldn’t be happy.

  • rory

    I know it’s a sideshow to the main issue, but I think what I found most infuriating in Ashley’s story is the way her stepmom sees this an an issue on which there should be compromise. If only Ashley would ‘bend’ a little instead of expecting her dad to be the one to do it. If only she could meet him halfway! I’m wondering in what ways dad has bent on this issue–by letting Ashley and her boyfriend into the house? Or maybe this is in the more holistic sense, i.e., he’s put up with her being liberal and an atheist, but he draws the line at dating a black man.

    Absolutely revolting. My heart goes out to Ashley.

  • And Ashley thought, as conservative and “traditional” as her dad is, that he would never do something like this. Kind of a mirror opposite of your friend Jeff’s situation.

    Goddamn expectations.

    Dear bigots,

    If there is a “type” that you would disown your adult child for being in love with, do that child and the rest of the world a favor and don’t reproduce. Because you never know. You never know.

    This crazy thing happens when people grow up, called developing a mind– and heart– of their own. Even if they don’t manage to fall in love with precisely the “wrong” kind of person according to your standards, chances are extremely good that they will turn out to be non-bigots, or at least to reject the kind of bigotry you hold dear. And then your own children will be embarrassed of you. Not because you drove them to Homecoming in a beat-up car, but because they’ve grown as a person so much more than you managed to do. And outgrowing your parents physically is normal, but outgrowing them in love and acceptance is painful.

  • Sastra

    rory #10 wrote:

    If only Ashley would ‘bend’ a little instead of expecting her dad to be the one to do it. If only she could meet him halfway!

    Yes, I found that particularly annoying also. And I couldn’t help imagining a scenario where Ashley managed to avoid her father and stepmother’s complete disapproval by making a history of regularly announcing — and then renouncing — a long series of “bad” choices.

    “Hey, Dad, I was thinking of joining a commune and running naked in the woods all day.”


    “Oh, okay. I won’t.”

    “Oh, Dad. I just agreed to help out a friend by selling drugs for him.”


    “You’re right. I’ll tell him ‘no.'”

    And so forth and so on. That way, when she brings home a black boyfriend and is accused of pushing “too far,” she can simply point out how often she bent a little and met him halfway. “You remember when I gave up my dream to teach exotic dancing to prisoners only because you told me not to? Well, then — it’s your turn to compromise now.”

    If Only She Had Known.

  • I’m completely inflexible where assholery of this type is concerned. Her stepmom and her father? Fuck both of them.

    Get married, Ashley, or not. Make your life based on your values, your desires and your needs. And, when they call you, after you have the little tan babies? hang up.

    @9, Mr. Ed:

    Religious zealotry, unlike race or sexual orientation is a learned behavior and can be discarded like a suit of clothing.

  • Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Rory #10 – I touched tangentially on that issue in my comment at her thread. It really was disgusting.

    As for here, I probably said it the last time I read that story, Ed, but I cried (again) on reading it. We cannot cannot cannot be perfect parents. But the impulse this father showed on learning about one of his more important mistakes is what I would wish for all parents. What we go through matters – it can take a toll, being a parent – but it should always be less important to us than the effects we have on our children. We should always, hearing we are having bad effects on them, think first and second, “I’m sad I didn’t do better in the past; I must do better in the future.”

    On another note, feeling very maudlin about this whole thing. My steps are going through some difficult times adding a mom to their family and I don’t seem to be able to do anything to make it better. On top of that, yesterday was the birthday of the father that disowned me.

    I wouldn’t disown a kid because at 4 ze wouldn’t stop screaming when the neighbors were being kept up by the noise…or because ze hit me…or because ze threw a fit and made her mom late. But I do feel like I’m failing them and my partner when my presence seems to aggravate tantrums instead of ameliorating them. I feel hopeless to make much difference until the kids can work through their feelings about the fact that sometimes it’s me that comes running instead of their mother. I get that their mother **always** came before and that hearing them say their mother is busy is like hearing the radio news announcer read a story announcing that electromagnetism is a myth: the story itself seems unbelievable, and the source doesn’t help. But still, it’s hard to run to help and be met with louder screaming.

    So I get feeling like you can’t do anything right. I get being frustrated. I get how bad those things can feel. I just don’t know how, in any way shape or form, any of those feelings would translate to wanting to disown a child.

  • otrame

    I told both my boys that if I found out they were serial rapist ax murderers, I would turn them in. And then I would go and visit them frequently while they were in prison. Because there is nothing that can make me stop being their mom. Nothing. My youngest said, “That’s kinda scary, actually.”

    What this sort of behavior comes down to is “my kids are a reflection of me, so they better damn well reflect what I want them to reflect”. It is pure egotism, arrogant and cruel. People like this care more about what the neighbors say than whether or not their children are happy.

    I loved the story about your friend. Made me cry a little. How relieved and happy that kid must have been after suffering so much fear of rejection. What a great dad he has.

  • I was trying to think if there was any situation where my parents might disown me for who I’m having a relationship with and I couldn’t think of anything but serial killer or child molester (and it should go without saying that I wouldn’t date one to start with). When it comes to anything intrinsic to a person though like their race, gender, age, disability, etc. I don’t think my parents would even consider it their business as long as I was happy.

    I cried when I read Ashley’s post because it made me feel so sad that anyone would do that to their daughter simply for dating someone of another race. Her dad doesn’t deserve to have a daughter as awesome as she is but I doubt that would be much comfort to Ashley, this is the man who raised her and has been part of her life since she was born and that kind of history can’t be brought to an end without a lot of pain.

  • slc1

    I posted the following comment on Prof. Singham’s blog but it is also apropos here as it demonstrates that a leopard can occasionally change his/her spots.

    I may have posted this information previously on this blog but it was some time ago so perhaps some of the readers missed it. It concerns the saga of a physic professor at Washington Un. of St. Louis, Prof. Jonathan Katz. Prof. Katz a number of years ago wrote a couple of gay bashing posts on his blog, proudly admitting and even trumpeting the fact that he was bigoted against homosexuals.

    Well, guess what, it turns out that his son Isaac is gay and came out of the closet a few years after the notorious blog posts. Although Prof. Katz was quite reluctant at first, eventually he apparently reconciled himself to the situation and accepted his son as he is.

    So I guess that there is, perhaps, some hope for Ms. Miller. Maybe her father will come around, just as Prof. Katz eventually did.

  • gerryl

    I was dating a black guy in college back in the 60s. My parents didn’t disown me, although they told me I couldn’t see my friends anymore. Had to come straight home after class everyday. I moved out. The bit that really stung — and that has stayed with me all these years — was overhearing my mother tell my brother, “I’d rather she’d have come home and told me she was pregnant. At least I would have known how to deal with that.” (I was still a virgin at the time.)

  • Stacey C.

    I remember when I was dating a woman in college and kept telling my parents we were just good friends. Because my dad had always been fairly overtly racist and conspiracy minded I worried he’d be upset. He finally said to me one day…”Is D your girlfriend? We don’t care…we just want to know. We still love you.” My old-fashioned Yankee dad outed me. And then when I started dating a black man my mom was so worried to tell my dad that when it finally slipped out he said “Is that all? The way you two were carrying on I thought he was married or something!” (I honestly think both things were harder for my mom but she never really did more than make the off hand remark about ‘nice white boys’.) And now I’m married to a different black man and my parents think he’s wonderful. I can’t imagine what I would have done if my dad wasn’t able to handle my different romantic entanglements. I am tearing up just thinking of how lost I would be.