When cleaning out my late parents’ house, I found my father’s wallet. The dark brown leather Amity trifold was smooth, still gently curved from the years it resided in the back pocket of my dad’s snug jeans. I opened it, surprised to discover the contents – old credit cards, a ten-dollar bill, membership cards, and family pictures.
My dad had died a dozen years before my mother and it appeared she’d put the wallet in the back of a dresser drawer without looking at what remained inside.
The collection of photographs were all from the 1950s and 1960s – a small black and white of my parents on their wedding day, a snapshot of my mother in surprisingly sexy shorts, a family picture from Christmas 1961, and a number of elementary school photos of me, my brother, and sister. A small, worn image was stashed between them.
It was a single frame cut from one of those photo booth strips of two men, one of whom was my father. I didn’t recognize the other. But he appeared in two additional wallet pictures sitting close to dad, smiling with that warm possessive smile of an intimate. My father had carried those pictures, hidden amid the photographs of grinning, toothless first-graders, for more than forty years.
And it dawned on me that the man in the pictures, whose name I will never know, was my father’s first love.
* * * * *
My parents were married in 1958, and celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary shortly before my father died. Marriage is always complicated, but theirs more complicated than most.
I have no idea when my mother knew that my father was either bisexual or gay. Before Stonewall. Before same-sex love was spoken of openly, before political and social movements for human rights for LGBTQ people. Before the acronyms.
But I remember when I did. I was fourteen. It was a Tuesday. My father was a florist and he worked every Saturday. Tuesday was his day off. On this particular Tuesday - a hot autumn day in Scottsdale, Arizona - I had cramps and the high school nurse sent me home midday. My mother was at work, and my father didn’t answer the phone. So, I walked to our house. I opened the door of our 1970s split-level. When you walked in the front, the opposite wall of the foyer was glass, with a full view of the backyard pool. Dad was in the pool. But he wasn’t alone. His co-worker Gary* (*not his real name), another floral designer, a much-younger man who had just arrived in Arizona from the midwest, was lounging on a raft. My father was applying tanning oil to Gary’s back. Gary looked up at dad - with the sort of look which, until then, I had only seen pass between men and women.
I ran into my bedroom, hoping they hadn’t seen me. My dad was gay.
* * * * *
Eventually, I told my brother and sister. They both knew, having discovered the family “secret” in different ways. In those days, that’s what familial gayness was - a secret, something to be hidden or problem to be fixed, something sinful and shameful. We children were good soldiers in the task of keeping the secret. We never spoke of it as a group with my mother until after my father died.
While it was confusing growing up, knowing my father’s sexuality also helped me eventually understand the things that happened around me. We moved a lot. There were times that my father went to the “hospital” and we children weren’t allowed to visit. He was “sick,” but the illness had no name. Once, the police brought him home covered with bruises. My mother said that he’d argued with his father, had walked home from work (about 10 miles!), and had fallen in a ditch. At least part of the story was true - as I had witnessed my grandfather’s cruel treatment of his son.
Now I understand much better. We moved to evade detection. My dad probably went to some sort of anti-gay therapy. He was most likely the victim of gay bashing. When we finally went to Arizona, my parents cut ties with my grandfather. For good reason. And good riddance.
My father was remarkable. He was artistic and accepting, with a keen sense of beauty and appreciation of nature. He was funny, drove a Jeep, listened to the latest rock and popular music. He loved the desert, loved to dance, loved movies and Broadway shows. He was unbeatable at bowling and miniature golf, and held several weight-lifting records at the local gym. My friends adored him - he was the coolest dad ever. His deep spirituality manifested itself in serving the sick (he always reached out toward those who were ill and dying), filling the world with flowers, reading the Bible, and leading the altar guild at his church. Unlike my mother (who leaned toward theological skepticism), my dad was a true believer, an adult-baptized Methodist who dedicated himself to loving God and others.
The “secret” didn’t negate all these things. Moving to Arizona didn’t “fix” being gay (as I suspect my mother thought it might). But it gave us all a chance to breathe, to start over, to see things differently, to be free. My always-closeted dad whose family kept his not-so-secret secret navigated rejection and shame toward a great capacity for love and friendship. The story started in the 1950s, stretched through the silent 1960s, and was shaped by political and social changes of the 1970s. It wasn’t your typical mid-century family - no Leave It to Beaver for us - but it was our family.
I thought my parents might divorce. Instead, they grew closer as they got older. They laughed more than I remembered from childhood. I don’t know how they made their relationship work. After my dad died, I asked my mother. She said it was “complicated.” I told her she could date again. She said, “No. I don’t want to. I loved your dad. He was my best friend. My very best friend.”
And then I asked, “Can I write about dad being gay? About our family?” She replied, “After I die. Tell the story as you see it. Tell the truth.” She never spoke of it again.
* * * * *
Father’s Day. Pride Month.
The truth is whenever I see a rainbow, I think of my father. “Bob, B-O-B” he’d say. “The same forward and backward.” And he’d laugh as if he’d invented the joke and was the cleverest Bob in history. Bob, the same man, “straight” and gay, married and with lovers, florist and desert-dweller, churchman and secret-keeper. Forward and backward. What was seen and unseen.
The first person to whom I told this story - in its fullness and complications - was the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the first out gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. We’d become friends through work, and one night, after teaching clergy in his diocese, I cried and cried and shared the story of my dad.
“You know, Diana,” he responded, “yours is a story that will be increasing rare.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“As LGBT people gain acceptance, as the laws change, gay and lesbian people will marry and have children,” he said, “there will be fewer and fewer marriages like your parents’. Stories like yours - stories of the last days before gay rights - will become history.”
He added: “You bear witness, you hold an important part of gay history. I hope you are proud of your dad - and your mother. They were part of our community. Their story matters. I hope you’ll hold that history with pride.”
I’ve learned. And I am proud.
I am who I am because of the people who influenced me growing up, and many of them were gay. No one has any right to tell anyone what makes a family.
— Drew Barrymore
He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.
— A.E. Houseman
Without pause, grabbing and cutting, placing and jabbing, he put all the flowers into the vase. . . He would sometimes produce a surprisingly seductive arrangement using only white flowers, by turns flimsy and then juicy, moving from the barest edge of peach to cream and then sheering off to the green of pooled water. The whole composition filled your eye with the unexpected ardor of that virginal color.
He was caught in opposing values, On the one hand, he held the belief, amounting to a religious faith, that there is an underlying something - a law, a rule, an innate recognition of rightness - that exists within matter itself and is understood as elegance. . . On the other hand, he stands at the ready with his pocket-knife, just gazing at the welter of cut stems. Then slashing and cutting, jabbing in a perfectly wild, even dangerous way, shaking whatever is at hand, finding a place for all of it. This is spontaneity; trust in the face of choice, buoyancy at the edge of chaos. Here, alone in the design room, he appears to be on the side of the demons of originality, not the angels of order.
He was by nature a quiet man. He brought this silence, an aura of quiet, to the flowers he arranged. But he didn’t arrange them. It was himself he arranged.
— Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter
As the Freeing Jesus book launch wraps up, I was interviewed on two popular podcasts. They are very different - and both moving, unexpected, and inspiring conversations. With Jen Hatmaker in FOR THE LOVE, I talk about faith transitions, when things fall apart, and putting the world back together again; and with Tripp Fuller in HOMEBREWED CHRISTIANITY, I delved into issues of post-modernity, fear and security, and why Jesus matters.
FOR THE LOVE with Jen Hatmaker
From the show notes: “Diana’s newest book, Freeing Jesus, invites readers to rediscover Jesus beyond the narrow confines society has built around Him. While discussing the mass exodus that’s happening in today’s churches, Jen and Diana look at how faith can and does thrive outside the pews of the church, and they ask the question: if we are church-goers, how can we work toward making our churches alive and welcoming for everyone?” To listen: CLICK HERE.
HOMEBREWED CHRISTIANITY with Tripp Fuller
From the show notes: “Diana Butler Bass is not only a brilliant scholar and communicator but a mentor and friend. In this conversation, we discuss her newest book, Freeing Jesus, and the way it is a culmination of a trajectory first set in Christianity After Religion.” For more information and to listen: CLICK HERE.
THANK YOU for all your support with the Freeing Jesus launch in these last ten weeks. If you haven’t yet bought or read the book, you’ll find it a good beach read - a spiritual memoir with good storytelling that invites you back into your own story. It is available in Audible (I read it - so you hear it in my voice) and you can listen to it while driving, on a flight, or at the beach.
If you have read the book, two things: 1) Please share it with friends who would be encouraged by Freeing Jesus; and 2) Consider leaving a review at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, or independent bookstore sites. Sharing and reviews are so important to the success of a book!
Finally, groups are booking live, in-person events for 2022 and dates are beginning to fill up! Freeing Jesus is a perfect book for Lent. Also, I’ll be leading more retreats and writing workshops on the importance of spiritual memoir for both personal growth and healing our fractured communities. For more information, contact Jim Chaffee of Chaffee Management.
Keep an eye on my website calendar as we post event dates for fall 2021 and upcoming 2022. Updates soon!
I’m so looking forward to seeing you in person again.
In the meanwhile, thinking of you from The Cottage: