For many who need room to grow in their lives, breaking out of behavior patterns and expectations developed in their childhoods, family gatherings can be a source of friction and conflict. How often this is true when it comes to a young LGBTQ person struggling with pressures both inward and outward to conform to parental and societal expectations that remain so real among us.
In Chapter 37 of my best-selling book, “Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization” (Lethe Press, 2014), I described my own experience one holiday season that was a turning point in my young life. I wrote:
“The social ferment for justice and equality caused me to realize that, just as Dr. King said about African-Americans, I could not be leaned on if I refused to stoop over. So, I decided to stand up.
“It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, even though my relationship with the gay world has been a spotty one at best, including what I considered extensive periods of virtual exile while the irrepressible surge of radical hedonism in the 1970s set the stage for the AIDS epidemic.
“But once I stood up by coming out, it compelled me immediately to devote whatever talents I had to building the gay liberation movement so that my experience could be shared by as many others as possible.
“Even more importantly, it provided me with the personal strength, through a new-found integrity of my inner soul, to throw off the accumulated burdens suffered through years of emotional and physical submission to the whims of a tyrannical father.
“My father died in 2002 and toward the end of his life we became close as I respected, loved and helped him despite everything. After all, he’d passed onto me certain strengths of character that not only gave me the courage to come out, but also to confront him at the risk of violence when I had to.
“It was Christmas Eve 1970, and when I arrived from San Francisco by bus to our family home on the Southern California coast, I had long hair and a beard. My father didn’t need to know anything more than that. He dictated that I would not be welcome at the family dinner, even though my two brothers and their wives and my grandparents would be there.
“It was a long day leading up to the dinner, with my brothers and their wives debating in the living room of our grandparents’ home next door whether or not to boycott the meal in my defense, and bemoaning our shared lives of putting up with our father’s arbitrary, violent and tyrannical ways for so many years. But in the end, they all decided to cave in and show up, leaving me isolated and excluded.
“I decided I could not allow that to be the final word, even though my father’s physical strength was legendary and he had a history of inflicting pain on my mom and us boys. I knew if I confronted him, he could pulverize me. I opened the front door to my parents house to find everyone at the dinner table, all, upon seeing me, frozen with forks and knives in hand and looking at me speechlessly with stunned, wide-open eyes. I assumed a pose as one steeled for a fight, and unleashed a stream of loud, angry invectives against my father.
“When I’d spent myself I was surprised that my father made no move toward me. He continued to sit and sputtered, ‘So, you want to ruin our dinner?’
“I turned on my heels and strode out, slamming the door. As I walked away, not my father, but my brothers chased after me, threatening me for my violation of their shameful compact of subservience that they knew was wrong.
“That night, which I viewed as sealing my ‘coming out’ by claiming my identity and my life, freed me to become whatever life had in store, never again to kowtow to unreasonable convention or fear.”
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].