“Hey, Dad!” It was the mid-nineties, and my 8-year-old son, Jason, was walking toward me with a piece of paper in his hand. “My teacher said we had to write a letter to the person we admire the most in the world. Can you read this and tell me if it’s okay?”
I looked up from my desk. My wife and I worked from home. Our place wasn’t that big, and my “office” was located in an open alcove at the end of the hallway. “Sure,” I said, holding out my hand. “Who’d you write to?”
“Bette Midler,” he said, peering up at me through his wire-framed glasses. “She’s pretty great, you know?”
The first inkling I had that Jason was going to walk a path very different from my own was when, for several months as a 3-year-old, he chose to dress in the play costume pieces my wife, Suz, had bought for him and his sister. Jason’s go-to outfit: anything plus a gold lame cape. The feather boa was optional.
But that was just the beginning. Starting sometime around when he was 5 or so, it would not be unusual for us to see Jace dance—and I mean dance—from place to place in our house. This was pretty shocking, but not because I’m a horrendous dancer. He could have learned what he was doing from Suz, but here’s the thing—he didn’t. The way he was moving was completely created by Jason. He didn’t get it from anybody else. It was already inside of him. He was just letting it out. (And by the way, it was pretty cool to see. By the time Jace was 10, he was taking tap dance classes, and he was GOOD.)
And then there were the mannerisms. When he got disappointed, there were times when—as a first grader—he would throw his head back, and walk off, in a huff. A 6-year-old huff. Suz and I didn’t do huffs. Where was this stuff coming from?
By the time he was 11, Jason was memorizing—word for word and note for note—entire scripts and scores from his favorite musicals, and offering to present the shows to us using figurines from games as actors and sets he constructed from castles and blocks and anything he could get his hands on. And suddenly it became pretty clear to me that the question “Where was this stuff coming from?” was far less important than “Do I have what it takes to be a good father if it turns out that Jace is gay?”
Because in many ways, Jason was a walking (and occasionally dancing) catalogue of stereotypically gay likes and behaviors—musical theater, showy dress, Bette Midler. Bette Freaking Midler. My 8-year-old son’s most-admired person in the world.
So if Jason was gay—and with every passing day, that seemed more likely—I had to confront the fact that I had no idea how to be a good father to a gay son.
I should point out that this wasn’t a question of figuring out how I could love a gay kid. I’d loved Jason unconditionally from before he was born. The gold lame cape, the show tunes—none of that changed the way I felt about Jace. What I was worried about was if Jason was gay, did I know what I needed to know? Was there something special about being gay that a straight father needed to understand so he could tell his gay kid about it? Was I going to fail my son because of my ignorance?
While I worried about those kinds of questions, Suz and I got busy making sure that if, indeed, Jason was gay, there would never be a question in his mind that we loved him exactly as he was. The first thing we did was get together with all of our friends, and make sure they understood that casual gay “jokes” or remarks that denigrated homosexuality in any way were not acceptable in our home.
Next, when the opportunity arose, Suz and I tried to expose Jace to examples of successful out, gay people, and express our admiration and pride in their achievements. (“Did you know that one of the guys who wrote the songs for The Little Mermaid was gay? I bet his parents are really proud of him.”) And happily, Turtle Lane Playhouse, the local theater where Jason spent much of his time auditioning and performing as a little boy in musicals like Oliver! and The Music Man, had many kind, friendly members who were openly gay. As we became friends with these good people, Suz and I got even more opportunities to demonstrate to Jace that whether a person was gay or straight had nothing to do with whether we thought they were worthy of love, friendship, admiration, and acceptance.
But then, the big day came. At the age of 15, Jason came out to Suz and me. And ready or not, I had to face my fears. Did I have what it took? Could I be a good father to my gay son, despite the fact that I didn’t know squat about what it was like to be gay?
I braced myself. I was in it now. Straight guy, gay son. What would I need to do? What would I need to say? Now that Jace was out, how was today going to be different from yesterday? Was I up to the responsibility?
But then, something surprising happened.
Nothing happened. Because in truth, nothing had changed.
Sure, we were all now clear that Jace is gay, but that knowledge didn’t change who he was. And it certainly didn’t change how much I loved him and how proud I was of him. It didn’t change how much I wanted him to grow up to be a happy and healthy man. And it didn’t change the fact that in the following year he was going to take his driving test. And the year after that, he was going to start looking at colleges.
And it wasn’t long before I realized that being the father of a gay son is pretty much the same job as being the father of a straight son. You love him. You stand by him. You try to help him when he needs it. You don’t need any extra training, any special knowledge, any secret code words. Sure, one of our world’s shameful realities is that there are more challenges for Jason than for a straight kid. But helping your kid face challenges is part of what being a parent is all about.
So I taught Jace how to drive. And I took him to visit colleges. And I talked to him about the misguided and hate-filled people who haven’t yet realized that their kind of discrimination has no place in our world. And I marched in candlelight vigils at the Massachusetts State House and went door to door to collect signatures to help protect marriage equality.
Because Jason is my son. And I’m his dad. I love him. I stand by him. And I try to help him when he needs it.
And for the record, I think Bette Midler is pretty great, too.