The first time my dad and I made my mom cry, I was probably around 15. I don't remember much about this fight -- we had so many while I was growing up that they all blended together -- except that it was him and I alone in the car and I was absolutely, blood-singingly furious with him.
Though I don't remember the circumstances or what set us off in the first place, one phrase does stick out in my mind: him spitting, "Sodomy is illegal, Kate. It's an abomination. Those people ... it's not natural."
I hadn't known. Though I thought of myself as being politically savvy, in that way that most teenagers do, I hadn't learned yet about just how far legislated bigotry can go in some parts of the country. I felt, in that moment, doubly betrayed: Both by the law -- which, as a white, middle-class girl, I'd never had reason before to distrust -- and by my dad, who'd never explicitly articulated just how far his hatred of queer people went until now.
It was later, after I'd recounted the entire thing to my mom, that she started crying. "You and your father are going to have to learn to get along," she said. Even then, I wasn't so sure.
I can never tell him, I just remember thinking. Shit, I can never tell him.
These days, I have a tendency to come out as basically as soon as I meet someone. After all the capital-D Drama that encompassed my queer experience in high school and early college, it feels incredibly freeing to tell someone up front that I "swing every which way."
I've reached a point in my life where I can tell people that, largely without fear of consequences, and the rush of it still fills me with an easy, heady joy. I know it's not like this for everyone, but my queer identity is a pretty important part of me. Being able to define yourself to the world, rather than having the world define you, is a privilege I still don't take for granted.
It's also something of a defense mechanism: If a new friend takes issue with the parts of people I put in my mouth, it's far preferable that I know about it right away rather than after I've gotten emotionally attached to them.
Unfortunately, that practice hasn't quite extended as far as my own family. When I came out to my mom and brother a few years ago, they both had the same reaction. "I'm not surprised," my mom said. "But. Maybe wait to tell your father."
These days, rather than flying into fits of rage at each other, my dad and I mostly get on each other's nerves in more intentionally prickly ways. Now that we've gotten out of each other's hair a little bit, it's easier for us to retreat into our corners and lick our wounds, glaring at each other, rather than dissolve into screaming matches that inevitably ended with someone (me) getting their (her) AIM privileges revoked.
The tension between us is still there, though -- it just blooms to the surface in the form of teasing rather than yelling.
For the most part, it's not so bad. For one thing, I get to stand up for myself, which is something I never got to do as a kid for fear of being grounded for "mouthing off."
"Gay marriage is against Jesus," my dad will tell me, a propos of nothing, as I squint around my parents' kitchen looking for coffee. "It's in the Bible."
"Yeah?" I'll respond, fully aware that my dad, like the rest of our family, hasn't gone to church in years. "So's not eating shellfish, you want to stop going to sushi?"
Or, "You hear this singer?" he'll ask as "Fat-Bottomed Girls" comes on the radio. "He died. Of AIDS. That's what happens to those people. Because he was a gay."
"Really?" I'll say. "Is that why you and Mom kept that 'Best of Queen' album in the minivan growing up?"
A few weeks before Christmas, when we were talking on the phone about our holiday plans, my dad said conversationally, "I wish there were an open season on the gays."
My mom, also on the line, laughed uncomfortably. "Come on," she said.
"Like, open hunting season," he clarified. "On the gays."
"What's that, Dad?" I said, pretending not to have heard him correctly. "Gay season? It's called Pride and it's in June, you want me to hook you up?"
My mom laughed again, for real this time. "Point for Kate," she said.
I was pretty proud of that comeback, so I related that story to a few of my childhood friends when I went back to Sacramento for the holidays. Instead of laughing, though, they were horrified.
"If I'd've been there, I would have just left," one of them said. "Just gotten up and gotten out the door."
"It wasn't so bad," I said, meaning it.
Later, though, I realized why: As much as I pretend to be annoyed by the sparring, I've managed to completely disconnect it from my own identity. It doesn't bother me that my dad is gleefully fantasizing about shooting and killing queer people, because I have to believe that he doesn't mean me -- or anyone, really, apart from some made-up Gay Bigfoot that doesn't exist on any plane of existence. Otherwise, I think I'd be heartbroken. (At the least, I'd be eternally infuriated.)
This, I know, is kind of cowardly -- not to mention selfish. Obviously homophobia isn't something I should tolerate, no matter whom it targets. And when that illusion crumbles, as it does sometimes, it makes it even harder to deal with.
On my last night in Sacramento, my brother and I were swinging our legs at the kitchen counter when my dad steered the conversation to his favorite topic -- LGBT people, their existence, and the various and creative ways they're all going to burn in hell.
"You know," my brother said, glancing at me. "I know a lot of queer people. You probably do, too."
"Yeah?" my dad said. "Have you ever been solicited by one?"
"What, like ... hit on? By a dude? Yeah, and it's -- "
"For sex," my dad said. "They're predators."
"No," my brother said, getting annoyed. "You're thinking of pedophiles."
"What's the difference?" my dad said.
Boom. There. For some reason, that one hit me. My dad wasn't talking about some abstract caricature of a queer person that he'd created from an amalgam of Fox News broadcasts and Neighborhood Watch propaganda. He was talking about me. He'd always been talking about me.
Without saying a word, I got up and got out the door.
In the past, I've rationalized not coming out to my dad. I don't want to make my mom's life harder, for one, or my little brother's. I've never had a serious girlfriend that I'd feel comfortable saddling with my Big Gay Coming-Out Party Plus-One invite. A part of me is, as always, afraid I'm suddenly going to wake up straight one morning. And really, I've thought, what's the point? He doesn't need to know which facet of the population I'm interested in boning.
But these are just excuses, because beneath it all, I'm terrified. Not of being cut off or kicked out -- I have the advantages of being a legal adult who can support myself. I'm terrified that I'll have been right: that my dad was talking about me, with contempt in his voice, this whole time.
My dad loves me. I know he does. My grandma told me he cried when I was born. He taught me how to read before I hit preschool, the two of us painstakingly spelling out long strings of words on index cards, through the hallway and up the stairs. On August afternoons, he'd wait in his truck for me to get out of soccer practice, his big hands tying a water-soaked bandana around my neck so I wouldn't get overheated.
We spent my whole fourth grade year building rockets together in our garage before launching them in the field out behind our house. They were cheap, only good for a mission or two, but we'd cheer them on anyway, leaning against each other in the gray early light and watching as they spun back to the ground, exploding in glorious particle-board chaos. I know my dad loves me. But he doesn't love all of me. How could he, when he doesn't even know all of me?
I wouldn't be friends with a racist or a homophobe. I wouldn't call one every Thursday night to chat. I wouldn't tolerate that shit from some dude I just met at the bar, let alone someone who's known me for more than 20 years. It's time for me to gut up, already.
So here it is, my 2014 resolution. (I may need a whole year to run up to it.) It's to tell my dad that every time he talks about "the homos" being sub-human, or cracks a joke about dykes, or, yes, calls gay people pedophiles, he's talking about the girl who wrote him a poem about Jack Russell Terriers that he still keeps in his desk. He can't hate one and love the other. Or, at least, I hope he can't.
I talked to my mom about this the morning before I came back to Chicago, still feeling raw and shallow-breathed from the night before. "What happens when I tell him I'm queer?" I said, almost panicky. "How -- how is he even gonna react to that?"
For once, she didn't try to dissuade me. "Guess that's something you'll have to work out," she said.
Kate is queerin' up: @katchatters