My father was the first person I came out to.
It was a summer night some ten years ago, the second night after my graduation from high school- the first night had been spent partying with friends, the second one eating a celebratory dinner with my extended family.
Dinner was over. It was midnight. Everyone apart from the two of us had gone to bed, only we remained, sitting outside in the garden.
It was a strange, transitionary time for me- I had just finished high school in Germany and was in the process of applying to British universities. My father had left England for my mother shortly before my younger brother’s birth, when I was five years old, now I wanted to return- Germany had always felt like a foreign country to me, a place I didn’t belong at. The language, the people, everything was slightly off. ‘Home’, for me, didn’t mean the vineyards of Stuttgart and the breweries of Munich, it couldn’t be found in the black forest or the flat farmland around Hamburg. ‘Home’, for me, was the incessant lapping of the waves against the cliffs of Dover, the way Big Ben provided London with a heartbeat whenever the bells announced the hour, ‘home’ could be found in the impossible grace of gothic buildings arching up towards the grey-white sky over Oxford. England. Home. It was home back then; it is home now.
My father and I are, and have always been, very similar. We have the same face with the grey eyes and the lopsided grin, we have the same dry, self-deprecating humour, the same posh accent, the same fascination for science and technology, the same urge to prod and poke at a problem until we finally understand it. My brother takes after my mother, warm and kind and funny where my father and I are rational, sometimes aloof, and witty.
Growing up, I was close to my father. We, the two people in the household who considered English their primary language (my brother always preferred German) discussed British literature, argued over our favourite Bronte sisters- mine is Anne, his Emily, a fact that I always explained with my deep-rooted fascination for reality and his equally deep-rooted tendency towards escapism- laughed about British political satire, read the Times, and loved Ben Goldacre with an intensity my mother characterised as bordering on obsession. We were strangers in a country that wasn’t completely dissimilar to our home, but different enough to make us realise every single day that a considerable body of water called ‘The English Channel’ separated us from home.
On this summer night, when we were sitting in the garden together, I knew I was about to leave him behind in Germany. I was going to cross the English Channel and go back home, a home, I am sure, he missed just as much as I did. I was afraid of deserting him, but I knew I had to go. I couldn’t be happy in Germany, and the university of my dreams had accepted me. He was happy for me, I am sure of it, just like he still is happy for me today.
I also knew I had to tell him about my sexuality before I left. It felt like the right thing to do.
‘Dad?’ I whispered into the warm summer night. We always spoke English when it was just the two of us. Even in German, I never called him ‘Papa’- he was ‘Dad’, always.
He made one of these non-committal hum-like sounds that he always makes to indicate he’s listening.
‘I’m kind of gay.’ I whispered. It was the first time I said that sentence, which would become my default sentence for coming out to anyone from complete strangers to my best friends, out loud. I have said it in many different ways, since then- angrily, laughingly, annoyed, calmly, full of pathos, matter-of-factly- but that first time, it came out as a whisper. ‘Kind of gay’ is the closest I ever came to a label other than the decidedly unspecific ‘queer’. ‘Kind of gay’, in my case, means that I generally like women, but am not totally averse to the theoretical concept of men, even though I have yet to meet a guy I am attracted to enough to consider sleeping with him.
I had expected my father to be a little surprised, somewhat shocked, ask a few questions, and then accept it. He is now, and was back then, liberal, modern, rational, and decidedly not outwardly homophobic. But his answer was nothing like the one I had expected.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before answering:
‘You really do take after me, don’t you?’ He whispered.
It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he had just said. Then, I asked:
‘Are you saying-?’
‘Yeah.’ He answered with a broken-sounding whisper. ‘I’m kind of gay.’
‘Oh.’ Was my decidedly ineloquent reply.
‘Yeah.’ Was his grim one.
‘Don’t tell your mother.’ He whispered desperately. ‘Please.’
‘I won’t.’ I whispered back.
My father was the first person I came out to. I don’t know how many people he came out to before me, but I suspect it weren’t all that many.
To this day, that late-night conversation with my father was the most surreal conversation I ever had- and believe me, I had some pretty damn surreal conversations over the course of my life.
I came out to the rest of my family over the course of the next few days. I moved to England and started to live a happy life as an out ‘kind of gay’ person.
We seldom talk about what he said that night. In fact, we only do so when both of us are drunk, and only ever at night. It feels like a conversation only to be had at night and only to be had in an intoxicated state, a conversation to be hushed by the first glimmer of dawn.
A year after our mutual coming-out, we had a disastrous conversation after my brother’s birthday party.
I asked him whether he loved my mother. He started crying. Not pretty-crying, but really crying, crying with huge, heart-wrenching sobs. In a bizarre reversal of my childhood, I handed him my handkerchief- he had always handed me his when I had cried as a child- and tried my best to comfort him, which ended in more tears on both sides.
Sobbing, he told me that he loved my mother as a friend and maybe even romantically, in a strange and hard-to-explain way, but not the way he was supposed to love her. I asked him whether my mother knew, he negated and cried some more.
I asked him why. Why he hadn’t told my mother, why he had married her in the first place, why.
He just cried harder, not giving me a straight answer.
A few months later, I introduced my girlfriend to my family, a wonderful woman I met at university, who shared my love for science and covered the walls of my flat with her watercolour paintings. She was- is, we’re still together- warmer than me, yet fiercely intelligent, talented, and, altogether, perfect.
My mother immediately adored her, so did my brother. My father looked at us with a strangely wistful, dreamy expression. I knew what he was thinking about: The things that could have been, if only he had done something differently, made a few slightly different choices. Looking at my father now always feels like looking into a strangely warped mirror. I see a version of things that could have been, if the circumstances had been somewhat different. I imagine he feels vaguely the same when looking at me.
During another tearful, drunken conversation, he had told me about a guy at university. Let’s call him Peter, in case he’s not out either. Peter studied engineering, just like my father, and they were close friends. That’s all I know about him- that, and that my father was in love with him and Peter, apparently, felt the same. There was a drunken confession of love and a kiss at a party, the next morning, there was a freak-out on both sides, and they never spoke again.
I wonder what would have happened if things had gone differently. My father wouldn’t have married my mother, my brother and I would never have been born. He might have been incandescently happy, he might have got his heart broken and thrown himself off a bridge- no one knows, after all, what would have been.
I hate what he’s doing to my mother. She has, to the best of my knowledge, no idea about any of it, but that doesn’t really improve the situation in any way. My mother, previously a fixture in both of our lives- the warmth to even out our coldness, the laugh to complement our sarcastic smirks- now stands between us like a ghost. I look at him, and I see the person who had my back all my life, who taught me how to read, who helped me with my homework, who studied German with me, who proofread my application to Oxford, who once screamed at a sexist teacher of mine who had told him that I shouldn’t be taking advanced mathematics classes because it was ‘unsuitable’ for girls so loudly that the people in the room next door almost called the cops, who played tennis with me for hours, who carried my suitcase to the airport when I was leaving Germany, but I also see the person who married my mother even though he knew he couldn’t love her the way she deserves.
We still discuss literature and politics, I still love him, I still understand him as a person, but I don’t understand one of the most important choices he ever made in his life, and that drove a wedge between us that I don’t think will ever disappear.
He looks at me and sees a version of himself that could have existed, if only the circumstances had been different. I look at him and see a version of myself that could have existed if the circumstances had been less favourable. I am eternally thankful for the fact that he was part of the favourable circumstances that allowed me to be the way I am, which is, in one fundamental aspect, not like him.
My father, for me, is one of my role models. He believes fiercely in the things that are important to him- science, progress, rationality- and the things that are important to him, for the most part, are important to me as well. He is willing to stand up for those he loves, he is convinced that there is no situation that can’t be improved with a good sarcastic joke. But apart from being my role model, he is also functions as a warning: Don’t be like that. Don’t do that. Don’t lie. Don’t drag innocent people into your messes. Be honest, be proud of who you are, and tell everyone who doesn’t like it to go to hell, where you will meet them after your demise to beat them up.
I don’t know how things with my father are going to develop. He might tell my mother, one day. I have learnt to accept that it’s not my job to tell her, their relationship is not mine, but every time I look at her, I feel guilt nagging at me.
I don’t know how he lives like that. I just know that I don’t want to follow into his footsteps.
One day, probably not that far in the future, I will have children myself. They will in all likelihood not be mine genetically- there will be no third person with the features my father and I share, not yet another human with that same way of raising their left eyebrow when they are confused and smiling lopsidedly when they are happy- but I hope that even though I will not be able to hand over my face to them, I will hand over a few aspects of my personality, and consequently, in a way, my father’s legacy. I want them to inherit our drive to be the best we can be, to achieve the best for everyone- not just ourselves-, the fierceness, the awkward yet uninhibited way of dancing.
I hope I will live up to my father as a parent. He was damn good at it, after all. I didn’t turn out too bad, as a matter of fact, I turned out hella fine.
Yet I never want my kids to learn that I live a lie, that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t want them to experience that Go Set a Watchman-esque moment of realising that your parent is someone else than you thought.
I guess, in a way, I have my father to thank for the fact that I’m proud of myself instead of hiding it away. He instilled into me exactly the feeling he himself never had- an unabashed awareness of the fact that I might not be perfect, but I am allowed to be my own, imperfect self, and as long as I do the best I can, I’m allowed to be proud of it- and my sexuality has got nothing to do with how good or bad I am as a person.
If I could say two things to my father, they probably would be something like this:
Fuck you, dad, for doing this to my mother.
Thank you, dad, for doing the best you could at being a father and for making me who I am today.
I never said it wasn’t complicated, did I?
I don’t know how to deal with it. The only thing I know is that I’m kind of gay, and that’s okay, and my dad is kind of gay too, and that’s okay as well, but the way he is dealing with it is not okay the slightest bit.