Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dad, I’m a Lesbian

Her name was Sara Lee. I couldn’t get over the fact that she shared the same name as my favorite cake. She was our family counselor, paid to deal with the lesbian problem my sister was having. Like all counselors and therapists, she had a peaceful way about her. Dressed in loose clothing, she closed her eyes and gently nodded her head up and down when the conversation turned combative. Her empathy rating was off the charts. Once when it was raining, she looked out the window, nodded and said, “Rain cleanses the earth and the soul.” It was intended to be a metaphor for our situation, but it fell flat and no response was made. Even my sister, who was open to that get-in-touch-with-your-feelings crap, was dumbfounded. This hippie introspective talk kinda freaked me out and was the antithesis of my feral suburban upbringing.

To me, at the age of 17, Sara Lee looked like some old hippie I would see on Telegraph writing poetry in a clothbound book when I shopped for records at Rasputin’s. It would be some time before I utilized the services of therapists. I was still a well-adjusted suburban punk, void of guilt, self-reflection and culture. I was ignorant and life was good.

My sister Lisa called me at home and left a message with my mom to call her back. She was in her first year of college at San Francisco State, majoring in Women’s Studies and living in the dorms. I figured the call had something to do with who was playing the Mab or the On-Broadway, as most of my weekends were spent going to punk shows with her friends and sleeping on the floor of her dorm.

I called back and Lisa said, “You know I love you, Greg.” This sort of declaration was not unusual for her. She was young, expressive and enjoyed playing the role of mentor to me. Knowing my sister and her propensity for extremes, I prepared for information about a pregnancy or perhaps a pre-operation procedure to become a man. Either possibility was conceivable with my sister. She continued, “I wanted you to be the first to know…I’m a lesbian.” I knew that it was extremely hard and frightening for her to tell me this, but I was 17 and had known she was gay for a long time or at least fluid in her sexuality like so many Women's Studies majors across the planet. My response reflected this: “Duh, Lisa.” She laughed and said, “You knew?” I said, “Well, of course I did. I didn’t figure all those bull-daggers you were hanging around with were married and living in Pleasanton.” I embraced the situation as it gave me the oppressed credentials that I so desperately needed: “Dude, don’t fuck me with me, my sister’s gay.” Without it all I had was, “Dude, fuck off, I’m from Pleasanton.”

In fine Lisa fashion, she came out to my Mom on Christmas Eve. We were standing in the kitchen cooking dinner and talking:
“Mom, I want to tell you something.” By the tone of her voice, my mother stopped what she was doing and looked at Lisa.

“Ah Jesus, Lisa. What is it?” Bracing for bad news, her face was blank, almost like she flipped a switch and turned herself off.

“I’m a lesbian, Mom.” It was the second time I heard this and her delivery was exactly the same. I assumed that Lisa had consulted some of her “professional” lesbian friends for advice in this matter.

Mom’s response was quick: “Jesus, Lisa. Did Scott turn you gay?" Scott was my sister’s last boyfriend. They had recently broken up. When they were together they were very affectionate—always sitting on each other’s lap and inappropriately touching each other, even when performing mundane tasks, like going to the supermarket. Because of this, I wasn’t fond of being around them as a couple.

Laughing at the absurdity of the response, Lisa replied, “No, Scott didn’t turn me gay, Mom. I’ve always been this way.” She was as gentle as one could be in this situation. I reveled in the fact that my mom said “turn you gay.”

My mother continued on, processing this new information on the fly and reacting without thinking. “How are you gay, you’ve had tons of boyfriends? Why would you choose to be gay? It’s not an easy life.” It was like she was referring to a handbook on why people are gay.
She saved the best one for last, turning her attention to me: “Well, I guess Greg is gay, too.” This took me by surprise. I was happy being a spectator, but not a participant. I gave my sister a look that said, “Deal with this.”

My sister sassed back, enjoying the brief diversion of attention away from herself, “Well, why don’t you ask him?”

I preempted her question: “Yeah, I’m gay.” Even though it wasn’t true, it was the obvious answer in this situation.

Lisa stepped in, seeing that this admission could lead to a regrettable medical emergency: “Mom, calm down. Greg’s not gay.” My poor mother. Lisa and I laughed. “But I have one other thing,” she continued. The mood quickly soured. Without a pause, Lisa continued, “I’m in a relationship with a black woman!”

“Oh Jesus, Lisa. You always take things to the extreme, you always have.” My mother was right. Lisa was not one for temperance.

True to her nature, when my sister came out, she exploded. This was typical in my family. Lisa and I had a family motto: “If things don’t get better, make ’em worse.” Many times we made things horrible. Lisa took this motto into her first year of Gaydom. She, of course, embraced separatism. It was the logical stepping stone from hetero to gay. It was the 80s and all the lesbians were doing it. She proudly strapped on penises and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. When we were out at punk shows, she would get in fights that I almost always unwillingly got involved in. She was a big bull-dagger separatist pain-in-the-ass that took no shit.

On a smaller scale, I understood this extremist behavior. When I first got into punk rock, I gathered my Pink Floyd and Police records and purged them from my collection. Instead of selling them at the used record store, I threw them like Frisbees from our front patio, watching them shatter into hundreds of pieces when they hit the street. It was a cathartic act.

During the year of her coming out, we started seeing Sara Lee. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but once a week for a month or so we made the trip to Sara’s practice. Sara arranged the chairs in a circle, where everyone was equal. We dutifully took our places each session, staring at our feet or staring straight ahead, stone-faced. For a very normal family that was loving but not used to sharing their feelings, this was as hard as it got. I was the only one that appeared to be enjoying the theater of it all. Essentially, I was there because the therapist’s title had “family” in it, and I was, well, family.

Sara Lee did her best to broker middle ground between the two factions. Both sides argued history and nature: my parents used my sister’s promiscuous past and her desire to be marginalized; Lisa argued this was how she was born and that her heterosexual beginnings were due to repression. I sat between the two, siding with my sister, knowing it would be blasphemous to side with my parents. Lisa and I were alike in that we were both looking for some sort of self-imposed marginalization, which we found in the opposite of everything that was around us and our upbringing. This is very common in white suburban kids. If being gay and black was a choice, we would have both willing changed. And, looking back on it, my sister’s desire for significance probably swayed her fluid sexuality from one side to the other.

When negotiations stalled, Sara Lee asked my sister to address my dad. Sara said to my sister, “Lisa, do you want to say something to your father?” Lisa confidently looked at my father and said, “Dad, I’m a lesbian.” Silence permeated the room. Even I, the good son with a pink Mohawk, stared at my feet, feeling sorry for everybody in the room. The cat was out of the bag and a new chapter in our family’s history had begun. It was final.

We rode home in silence. It was a beautiful sunny day, but it might as well been a dreary winter day in Cleveland. The coldness was palatable and it wasn’t leaving.

My parents’ relationship with my sister was tumultuous. Mom joined PFLAG, walked in the pride parade and then had a falling out when Lisa and her girlfriend adopted two children. My dad, on the other hand, quietly missed his first born.

Last week I got a call from my sister pertaining to her sexuality. I let it go to my voicemail. The strain of being the good brother and good son, took its toll on our relationship. I was sick of being in the middle and hearing both parties bitch about each other.

I retrieved the voicemail: “Little brother, hey, I wanted you to know that I decided to start dating men. I’m dating a guy that looks a lot like you.” I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to call her back and say, “What the fuck, Lisa? Please don’t tell Mom and Dad!”

My mom called the next day and said, “Did you hear the good news?”


  1. Been there, done that. Same. Ditto. Same. Maybe your sisters could join a support group for the fluidly sexual. All my dad could say when he heard the news, after years of begrudging acceptance, was that he wasn't sure if she'd now be happy dating men.

  2. I meant, maybe our sisters could join a group.

  3. I think Sara Lee must be sister's with the therapist I had when I "became" Bipolar!

  4. Give me a gold star lesbian any day of the week. Now that's not easy, given their propensity for fluidity. Or something like that.

  5. Good job, man. Paced quite nicely.