Closeted Dads and Aging Children

Back in the day, being gay wasn’t discussed. It was whispered in certain circles but it was normal for gay men to marry, have families and deny their authentic selves. Some managed better than others. Business trips allowed opportunities for guilty pleasures and, if they dared, sending the family out of the city to the cottage for the summer offered the chance to check out the other side of town.

Fast forward to 2015 and, while being gay may still be looked down upon in some circles, the law supports gay marriage, insurance companies cover same sex partners and it’s not assumed that your plus one at an event will be of the opposite gender. For those who can tolerate the odd look askance, being gay is now nothing extraordinary. There are still battles to be fought and attitudes to be changed. The list of assumptions about gay people is firmly fixed but slightly laughable. Anyone who has gay friends knows that there are gay people who prefer football to flower decorating, speak in deep, non-lispy voices, couldn’t match colours if they tried and have no interest in shopping however in the scheme of things growing up openly gay in this day and age is a giant leap forward.

Like any growth in society, modern day advantages are gained on the backs of the warriors who went before. Once suspected, much less discovered, gay men lost jobs, were subjected to horrendous bullying, denied access to basic services and even forced into psychiatric institutions. Shame and insecurity born of the need to be someone else has left a generation of now elderly men who are resentful and angry. Their wives have kept the secret, sometimes knowingly but most refused to acknowledge what they knew deep down so as unwilling enablers they, too, have been denied the full life they imagined as teenagers mentally designing weddings and happy lives.

As the child of a still-closeted but now elderly man, Casey speaks of knowing her father was different as a young child. Casey recalls periods of time when her father would shut himself away from everyone with no explanation. Before she was 20, she knew the secret. So, evidently, did a lot of other people. In fact, as the years went by it seemed that her father being gay was known to everyone, discussed by no one and her father seemed to exist in a blissful state of rather twisted ignorance. He thought nobody knew his secret but the truth was that most people did and those who didn’t suspected.

In his 80’s with a body that is breaking down and dementia settling in, Casey’s father has always been a perfectionist. Nothing and no one ever quite measured up. His children sought his approval well into adulthood but it never materialized. Casey says she now realizes what was going on. “My father was never able to be the person he knew he truly was. In the absence of being able to enjoy his perfect life, he demanded perfection from others but because he couldn’t be perfect himself, nobody else could be either no matter how hard they tried.”

Asked about her mother, Casey acknowledges that life hasn’t been easy for her, “because she was abused emotionally by her controlling husband.” Casey remembers her father examining the dinner table set for company and he would make subtle changes to various elements signaling that his wife hadn’t done it properly but only he was able to make the necessary corrections. More concerning was her father’s tendency to blame her mother for a variety of things and refuse to engage with her until she apologized. Silence in the house could go on for days until, inevitably, her mother apologized. Casey believes that her mother has long known of her father’s tendencies but kept it buried so as not to blow up their lives, however she became passive-aggressive as a coping mechanism. Whatever went on behind closed doors, Casey’s mother has said to her family on several occasions, “I’m not afraid of him anymore,” yet it’s a cycle with deep-rooted behavior that Casey feels her mother is unable to break. “Neither of them have great self-esteem and I think both of them are scared. Scared of each other, scared of the truth, scared of all the what ifs.”

As her own children grew up, Casey found herself increasingly having to protect them from the their grandfather’s often severe critique. Following one family dinner during which her father constantly corrected their grammar, one of the children, who was about 7 then, asked why Grandpa never really listened to their stories. Understanding that it was time to push back, “I started gently asking him to be Grandpa, not parent, but that was ignored so I had to push back harder. Things blew up during a family vacation. I had to be quite forceful verbally on several occasions in order to protect and support my children and their cousins. He didn’t like that one bit and things went downhill from there.”

Now estranged from her parents, Casey has been discovering that other long-time friends have been jettisoned from her parent’s circle of friends. Without exception these people received a letter or email after they had pushed back on being bullied or refused to accept her father’s point of view on some matter. The years and distance have provided an objectivity Casey didn’t have as a child or young woman and now things are making sense. “I believe my father has been depressed to one degree or another for decades. He has never considered therapy and, I think, he now spends his time looking back on a life of regret. Marriage and children weren’t in his life’s plan but happened anyway. He knew other gay men who were ‘out’ to their friends, but he couldn’t be like them.” Following the breakup of her own marriage, Casey’s therapist told her she had married her father and tried to fix him. “Lights were coming on all over the place,” says Casey, “and even though being gay wasn’t an issue my husband had, he was an alcoholic and there were a host of related issues. The ducks were lining up around how to make sure I didn’t fall into similar patterns with my own children.”

Casey believes her mother has her own regrets but they are kept bottled up, exercised only when she can get away with passive-aggressiveness. Her closet is full of clothes, some with tags still on, bought for her as needed by an apologetic husband but there are fewer places to wear them as their circle of friends diminishes either by death, rejection or the diminishing desire to spend the energy required to leave their apartment.

Her father may have kept his dark closet but Casey, now past 60, has found a lot of sunshine. Her advice to other aging adult children of closeted fathers includes the following:

  • Recognize that this is his battle – you can’t fix him or help him if he doesn’t want to come out and deal with his issues and, even then, a professional is better suited to give him the help he needs.
  • Set boundaries for family and enforce them – it can take decades to start reacting like an adult and not somebody’s child so make that conscious choice.
  • Understand that bullies have low self-esteem and will either choose to heal or go away – mine chose to go away and I had to accept that.
  • Breaking patterns of behaviour that seemed normal when you were young is challenging and often confusing but ultimately rewarding. Find new ‘normals’ that are healthy.
  • Develop the strength to find value and validation from within – looking for it from someone who is unable to give it will leave you spinning, constantly hurt and disappointed. You may unintentionally hurt others along the way as you ignore their needs clamouring to gain the acceptance of someone unable to give it.
  • Refuse to accept or participate in passive-aggressive behaviour.
  • Don’t be ashamed or afraid – children don’t ask to be born and you’ve done nothing wrong but it would be wrong to live a life of someone else’s design so choose your own path.
  • Google is your friend – read, research and understand how his demons affect you and then don’t let them. Seek professional help if necessary but understand that it’s a process not an overnight event.
  • Being gay isn’t the issue. The issue is denying the truth and you’ll find it in other areas of your family life once you start looking.
  • The power to break the cycle is within you.