I felt like a child playing hide-and-seek, only to discover, hours later, that no one was looking for me — not even me. I had abandoned the child of my youth, and all his secrets, for far too long.
Some memories are hard to face, and growing up with Dad was one of them. As painful as it was, though, I had to confront my past.
Taunts of “Not good enough,” “Only sissies cry” and “Be a man” rang in my ears, my father’s voice loud and clear despite the more than 26 years since his death.
I grew up thinking Dad wouldn’t love me if he knew I was gay; it just wasn’t part of his plan for my life.
From an early age, my father knew I was different. While other toddlers tightly clutched teddy bears and “blankies,” I carried Grandmother’s old purse and a battered fur piece that I affectionately called my “woo-woo.”
Dad reluctantly permitted me to keep my “woo-woo,” but the purse was more than he could stand. One morning, I awoke to find it gone.
In my preteen and teen years, I continued to swim against the current in the masculine mainstream. I preferred the company of girls, favored aesthetics over athletics, and detested competitive sports.
In an effort to protect me, my father felt he must shape me. So, to toughen me up, he enrolled me in after-school football. After-school sports did little for my self-esteem. As third-string right guard, I was on the bench far more than on the field.
Once again, I felt I’d disappointed my father. Once again, I felt his shame. I wanted, above all else, not to disappoint him; I wanted to win his love.
Like Pavlov, Dad doled out love based on a system of punishments and rewards. To earn his love, I adopted “the heroic image.” I was the altar boy, Eagle Scout and struggling student. I was positive, upbeat and above reproach.
Slipping into the armor of perfection, I strove to meet every one of my father’s criteria for success.
I learned, as many gay men and women do in childhood, that it was not safe to be who I was. I masked my true self to conform to society’s norms.
As a child, my bedroom closet was my secret sanctuary, a temple of safety. There, I retreated into a fantasy world, my imagination my only defense against the powerlessness I felt.
Dressing up in flowing red robes, crowns and crosses, I became a man of authority, power and control. In my closet, I was king to my father’s pawn. I was lord of my own destiny.
Flying through the house with a red robe tied around my neck, I was Superman. But I would gladly have traded all my super powers for the power to create a world in which my personhood could thrive.
When I was 18, my father died — but his control over my life continued. All through college, and later as an adult, I sought to earn his love. I went to a college he’d approved, joined his old fraternity, and majored in business. After graduation, I embarked on a successful career, became active in the community, and married a woman whom I would shape into my mother.
I met every one of his goals and even exceeded his expectations, yet it wasn’t enough.
I still didn’t feel his love. I still didn’t feel his approval.
At 39, I finally said, “Enough!” I exploded. I shook my fist at the sky and shouted, “I did it your way, you son-of-a-bitch, and now it is my turn!”
Over the next four years, I came out, divorced, left my job, and moved. Dropping the masks, I began to shed layer after layer of the heroic image, as a snake sheds its skin.
I dreamed of Dad’s old desk one night: All his papers were gone. The drawers were pulled out, and each one was clean.
I’m still untangling his expectations from my own needs and desires, still searching for my authentic self. But the more I accept myself, the more I feel Dad’s approval. And the more I love myself, the more I feel his love.