My Father's Secret

This morning, Father's Day, I will give a public reading from the book in which I've told a truth about my father's life, a truth he didn't choose to reveal while he was alive.
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This morning, Father's Day, I will give a public reading from the book in which I've told a truth about my father's life, a truth he didn't choose to reveal while he was alive. It was at 11 a.m. on Sundays that my father, Paul Moore, Jr., known as "Bishop Moore", was his most heroic - six foot five and towering in any pulpit he took. It was at that hour, for all the years I knew him, that my father spoke truth to power about corporate greed, poverty, racism and bigotry of all kinds, preaching fused with an emotional and spiritual intensity that made every sermon memorable.

One day in 1990, my father called to tell me it had come out in our family that he had lived a hidden life as a bisexual man. He sounded sad and defeated, and he said he wanted to talk to me about it. I was stunned and surprised, but also full of sympathy for the shame and fear I heard in his voice. My father, born in 1919, had come of age in times that required he live a closeted sexuality, but I had grown up in an effusive and buoyant moment that had all but invited me to enter a life of sexual freedom that included open love affairs with my own sex..

The days after my father's admission brought a barrage of feelings, and I looked forward to our conversation. There had always been a way in which my father was mysterious. Would I finally begin to know him? But when we talked, my father refused to communicate anything at all about his gay life or feelings. He shut down, speaking of his regret that "this thing" had come out. He had to work things out, he said, with my stepmother, (my mother had died in 1973). Naively I had thought that this great advocate of the rights of others, including gay rights, would speak openly. He had supported the rights of gay people; he had fought homophobia. Now, it seemed, he was a victim of it.

In that conversation I lost a father and gained a secret. To whom was I to go with my anger about his years of deception? In the light of my father's complexities, what was I to make of the dualities in my own nature? How was I to navigate my own sense of honesty while keeping a secret I disagreed with? I told myself I could have friendships without sharing my father's secret, but how was I to explain the rage and frustration that boiled over every time I spoke of him? Eventually I spoke openly with close friends and swore them to secrecy.

Eventually too, because I am a poet and writing is how I make my way, I began to write, scrutinizing every memory for signs of this new father in the father I thought I had known. I called these pages my secret pages and told myself that I could write and not publish, but that decision only caused my writing to founder. The pages let me to begin a novel and then a memoir, but I put them aside.. No matter how uncomfortable I might be, I concluded, while he was alive, my father's secret was his to keep.

And he did keep it, leaving it out of the memoir he published in 1998. When I tried to convince him to tell the truth in that book, he said he wished he could, but that he didn't want to hurt my stepmother, who had already suffered enough. After the book was published, my father and I went into therapy together, and began the conversation I had long wanted to have. The process was interrupted when my stepmother became ill and died in 1999. And then, in early 2003, my father was diagnosed with a recurrence of melanoma.

He died on May 1, 2003. In the weeks of his terminal illness, the idealistic love I'd felt for him as a child began to return, and I was able to join my siblings in taking care of him. After he died, in the raw beginnings of my grief, I began to write about the powerful moments I'd had with him during his last days. In the months and years following, the book that had foundered for so long almost wrote itself as I came to remember the father I had known, integrating into our story the secret he had found so shameful, but which I now found to be crucial to understanding that mysterious intensity in his preaching and his great compassion for others..

When my book brought my father's bisexuality into the public eye, some people protested. One friend of my father's said that in revealing my father's hidden I had not "honored" my parents. But another friend of his said the opposite, that by telling the truth, I had honored him. Still others suggested I was continuing his work.

But the work I was continuing was my own. I have lived in times whose revolution has been that of erotic life. I am part of the generation that gained sexual freedom for women, the generation of Stonewall and gay liberation. Our poems, fiction and memoirs have disclosed and celebrated the complexity of human sexuality, and our scholarship has integrated erotic life into the stories of great cultural figures.

How deeply can we understand Walt Whitman or Michaelangelo without looking at their homosexuality? Virginia Woolf or Colette without thinking about their bisexuality? Consideration of the mystery of human life, including how those who have lived before us have understood and dealt with sexuality, has enlarged our sense of who we are as human beings and how we love.

One of my father's most courageous acts was ordaining Ellen Marie Barrett, the first person of openly gay orientation to become an Episcopal priest. He wrote a book, Take a Bishop Like Me, that is an impassioned response to those in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere who criticized that action. I remember his excitement at the time. How much richer that story becomes when we understand more about the man who performed that ordination. It never occurred to me when my father and I talked about Ellen Barrett's priesthood that he identified with her, that in ordaining her, he was retrieving part of himself.

Honor Moore is a poet and the author of "The Bishop's Daughter", a memoir.