When fathers come out of the closet
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER recently won an Oscar for his nuanced portrayal of Hal, an elderly gay father, in the movie Beginners. Hal’s son Oliver spends most of the film coming to grips with his dad’s late-age emergence from the closet after his mother’s death, including its reverberations on his own romantic life.
At one point Oliver asks how his mother, Georgia, accepted such an arrangement, if she knew about Hal’s sexual preference at the outset of their 1950s marriage. Hal pleads for Oliver’s understanding, describing his own desire for a married union, and recounting Georgia’s promise to him that she could “fix” any problems that arose in the bedroom.
My own father also came out of the closet late in life. The break wasn’t as clean or simple as Hal’s, because it involved dissolving his marriage. But one aspect of Beginners really rang true for me: Hal’s strong desire to live a married life, lest he lose the major privileges of a middle-class life. It was only later on that he realized something was missing, that his choice came at a cost.
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I’m certain my father knew he was gay from early on in life, just like Hal. When I look at the photos of him in his teens and 20s, it seems obvious – his walk, his expressions, and in old home movies especially, his body language and his choice of what to film.
Dad’s education and career were interrupted by the war, like they were for most people born in the 1920s. But after he got out of the army and finished university, he set out to build a normal life for himself. That meant meeting the expectations of his family and society. Bachelorhood was an option I suppose, but a marginal and lonely one, and not suitable for someone on his career path – the Protestant ministry.
Do I make it sound like a calculated and rational choice on his part? I doubt it was. I think he was as fooled as my mother (or any of us) by his deception. He learned to put his sexuality in a little jar and keep it on a backroom shelf, well hidden from the neighbours, and maybe from himself.
Yet, I wouldn’t say that he completely repressed his homosexuality. Call it compartmentalization, maybe. He treated it as separate from his real self, the tall guy with the Rock Hudson good looks (my dad’s generation exactly), the one everyone else saw. According to my mum’s sister, everyone at their wedding thought my mum had scored a huge catch with my dad, a guy that any single woman would have desired.
Less than five years after his marriage to my mother, and after having fathered four children, my dad began having sex with other men – strangers in parks and other dark places. It was a lie to my mother and to us, but one that allowed him to balance the complex duality of his chosen life. Although secretive and highly risky, he made it work for over two decades.
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I have a family photo, taken when I was nine or ten by the local weekly newspaper. The event was a community bike ride, although I can’t recall the purpose. It’s sunny and all six of us are beaming, Mum and Dad confidently leading their young family, the older kids with new full-size bikes (mine looks way too big), and my little sister perched on a tiny bike seat behind Dad. (No bike helmets of course.)
Middle-class suburban white family, circa 1967. For me, it’s an ironic portrait. I was happy, and as far as I knew, so were my parents. Nothing seemed amiss. My dad was an excellent father, gentler and more understanding than many others I knew. Certainly, our dad was aloof; that was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s. And yes, he seemed to be away a lot, in the evenings especially, doing his ministry work we were told.
It makes me wonder now: if we hid our little secret so well, what mysteries were other families hiding?
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It all unraveled quite unexpectedly, as you might imagine. When Dad was 64, on the cusp of retirement, he suffered a stroke. It left him a little disabled, but more significantly, also caused a full-blown depression. He thought he was dying, his life flowing away like water down a drain. In his anguish, he confessed to my mother the secret he’d been carrying his whole adult life.
It took awhile for this revelation to work its way through our family, years in fact. Mum had serious problems of her own at the time, with a recent breast cancer diagnosis and surgery. For a while, the secret simply became enlarged, until everyone in our immediate family knew. Dad recovered from the depression, and they built a retirement home together, albeit with separate living quarters inside. Our parents still lived together as a couple, so their façade was maintained for the outside world.
But after several years, this arrangement became untenable. My father wasn’t keeping whatever promises he had made to my mother. His social behaviour was increasingly reckless. My mother felt estranged from her community, and especially her church (which was in the midst of a divisive internal debate over the issue of … ordaining gay ministers!).
Eventually, she asked him to leave. The worst part for me was having to urge my mother to do this, and also to explain my dad’s choices to his sister, who was flabbergasted to learn the truth of something she’d probably known, at some level, her whole life.
Dad resisted separation at first, but then relented, and never looked back. They each moved, changed their wills, but never divorced. In fact, they remained friends, living on the same block for most of a decade, in separate condos. My mum went through therapy for a while, but she wasn’t into a lot of introspection – “wheels within wheels” she called it.
She could never quite accept the label of “gay” as it applied to her husband; she preferred the term “bisexual.” She returned to the spiritual comfort of her church, outshining my dad in that department, the retired minister. My mother never acted as his wife or caregiver again, but she forgave him and I believe came to understand him better than ever.
I can’t speak for my sisters, but I judged my dad harshly at first. It wasn’t his sexual identity that bothered me so much as the lies and the emotional detachment. And I resented that he’d pressured me about my life choices, without being honest about his own compromises and failings – holding me up to a standard that he didn’t respect himself.
Did I somehow suspect that he was gay, before he revealed it? (And did my mother not know, at some level?) Once again, I can only speak for myself. Sub-consciously, I think I knew something was up. I became highly attuned to the unfolding AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. When some hate-minded teenagers murdered a gay man in the park near our Toronto home, I was upset for days, without understanding why the death of a stranger was affecting me so deeply.
• • • • •
My father gained a measure of peace in the final chapter of his life. Not quite as vigorous as Hal in Beginners, but he did join a support group for men in his situation, and he corresponded with an admirer he’d met on holiday in Palm Springs. Unfortunately, his health continued to fail him, the strokes recurring until he died at the age of 78.
By his final year, I’d managed to accept and forgive my father’s failings, mostly as a partner to my mother. He once told me about caring for his own ailing father in the late 1940s, helping him bathe and shave as he died at home in Toronto from Parkinson’s disease.
I lived a continent apart from my parents, but I did manage several solo visits during my father’s last spring alive. One sunny day I took him to the community pool, helped him get in to do his lengths, then shaved and showered him in the family washroom, as if he were my young child.
There was a similar tender moment in Beginners, when Oliver shaves the elderly Hal. Whatever distance there may have been between them dissolved with this simple act of intimate physical care.
• • • • •
Our country has changed massively over two generations when it comes to the choices for gay and lesbian couples. I know homophobia still exists and so does gay bashing. But so do gay families, gay marriage and even gay adoption. I’m sure some gays (and lesbians) still live under the cover of heterosexual marriages – in the same way that most families hide all sorts of secrets under their outward veneer.
But I’m hoping the promise of “it gets better” applies earlier in life for most people now, so they don’t have to wait until it’s nearly too late to enjoy an authentic and honest life, expressing their true nature to everyone around them, both inside and outside the home.