This year for Pride month, we wanted to revisit a topic that’s long interested us — the relationship between cis male family members and their LGTBQ brothers and sisters; sons and daughters; and various permutations of extended family (cousins, grandchildren, etc.). And so, every week in June, we’ll be spotlighting one such family as part of a series of conversations we’re calling “Proud Families.” This week: Twenty-eight-year-old Alex and his 60-year-old father who we’re calling James (he preferred to remain anonymous). Alex is the middle son in a family of three boys from New Jersey. He and his younger brother are both gay (his brother came out to his dad first). Meanwhile, Alex’s mother and father, as well as his two brothers, have all been diagnosed with personality disorders and have experienced episodes of mental-health crisis, adding another layer to an already challenging family dynamic.
James: I don’t want to do anything that would offend or upset my son in any way.
Alex: You’re not going to offend or upset me. You can be honest. That’s the nature of conversation. There’s a possibility of conflict. We can talk in a way that’s honest and thoughtful.
James: Okay, but in our family dynamic, beyond just you and me, honesty and thoughtfulness aren’t paramount values. Besides, the way I was raised is completely different than the way my own children were raised. My father was an immigrant from Colombia. I grew up in a Catholic home, which is one big difference. My own children didn’t have that religious experience or have the ethnic experience of having an immigrant father.
Alex: I grew up in an affluent, white, Jewish suburb in New Jersey. It was very homogeneous. My dad and mom divorced when I was pretty young, so I mostly lived with my mom growing up, but my dad lived nearby and I spent time with him regularly. We went to church sporadically, but I wouldn’t say any of us were particularly religious. It was the Bush years, and there was a lot of talk about the violence and ignorances that Christianity was creating in America. Christianity had a bad reputation, so I was partly reacting to that. Otherwise, I went to a pretty good public school in my town. I was into art, school and tennis.
I have an older brother and a younger brother, so I’m the middle child. In the typical three-part family model, the middle child is the lost child. Maybe they’re more introverted, drifting and artistic with their endeavors or exist more outside of the family. In some ways, I apply to that model, but I never felt like I was completely forgotten. I just wasn’t the focal point of crisis. My brothers are both intense personalities. My dad can speak to that.
James: I’m estranged from Alex’s older brother. I haven’t spoken to him in seven years. My description of him is just memory. He has Asperger syndrome. He’s very isolated, and from what I understand, he’s an angry person in general. He was hospitalized for depression after our estrangement, so I don’t know what his situation is. His younger brother has severe mental illness and has been hospitalized for psychiatric issues five times. He’s heavily medicated, and he has a lot of problems with functionality. He’s currently in the process of trying to get Social Security Disability.
So Alex, compared to his two brothers, is a very social, accomplished person. He went to a very good college [Wesleyan]. He did well there. He did well in high school and was relatively popular there. He was the president of his fraternity in college. He’s always found a community.
The circumstances of parenthood were a little unusual in the first place. My oldest son is adopted, and my ex-wife has a strong personality. She made a decision that she wanted to have a child, so we tried biologically, but there were issues. So we adopted him. Honestly, I was far from ready to be a parent. I don’t think it got much easier over the years, but I mean, what is “good” anyway? It’s all subjective. You do the best you can, and that’s all you can do.
I did make one critical error, though. As a divorced parent, once my kids were in high school, I didn’t insist on seeing them every week as part of their regular visitation. I didn’t voice myself on them, arranging trips for activities or anything. It’s ironic: The only one of them who was interested in hanging out like that was my oldest son, and now, we don’t speak.
Alex: We weren’t as glued to cell phones when I was growing up as we are now, so it wasn’t like my dad and I were in constant communication. We’d see each other once a week or something, so there was a disconnect. My younger brother came out when he was 14, which surprised me. We’re both queer, obviously, but at the time, I still had this idea that you never really know with teenagers or kids. You’re growing up and changing so you’re not sure if you’ll be bisexual or maybe end up having a girlfriend some day. I was toeing that line. But my younger brother was extremely flamboyant, even if that sounds trite. He was wearing wigs, dancing around and saying, “Yes, bitch.” He was audacious, slutty, fabulous and crazy. He wasn’t like anyone else in our town. He was a Michael-Alig-wannabe and a professional ballet dancer doing coke and sucking dick in New York at 15. All of which he thought was super fab.
James: With respect to my youngest son, there was a confluence of things that were occurring simultaneously. He was was extremely, stereotypically gay, as Alex described, but he also had a lot of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. This led to some crazy behavior. Plus, of course, his heavy drug use. He’d deny his illness by blaming the drugs, which is common among people with mental illness. It’s common to attribute your behavior to something else. In other words, he blamed cocaine-induced psychosis. But if he’d not taken drugs, he’d probably still have ended up in psychosis.
As far as Alex, I knew he was gay, too. I have good instincts, and he’d never shown any interest in girls in high school. I didn’t look into it too closely, but I thought about it a lot. Then I found out he’d come out to his “family,” meaning everyone but me. Our dynamic was like, there was his “family” and then there was me.
Alex: That’s not true.
James: Well, it felt that way. So he never came out to me, and I was unhappy that he hadn’t told me. Eventually, I confronted him, and he was unhappy with that. I just asked him, “Are you gay?” He gave me an excuse about how it’s hard for gay people to come out to their father, but it wasn’t believable to me. I felt marginalized. I felt that my wife delegitimize me during our divorce and that his decision to withhold that information from me was influenced by that.
I remember I spoke to Alex and his younger brother about the gay lifestyle a couple times, and Alex would get angry. He’d tell me it’s not a lifestyle or choice. But while I may not have communicated this adequately, what I wanted to talk about was extreme gay stereotypes, like people who love going to leather bars. That’s definitely a choice. I’ve never had a problem with either of my children being gay though. I’ve always supported them. And I’ve always supported Alex in what he does as an artist, too.
Alex: My parents were fighting my entire childhood. There was never any peacemaking. It was a vicious relationship, and that’s an intense way to experience your parents as a kid. Although other parents got divorced, I felt like things would get tough and then settle down. But with us, there was never a friendly conversation. They couldn’t be in the same room together. They were always fighting. So while mom did vilify you in some ways, you helped create those myths as well. You contributed to your own alienation, and these ideas we have of you being angry. Even now, when you say you didn’t care what we did growing up, it sounds like freedom. It’s nice to be liberated, but the sentiment is still “I don’t care.”
James: But that’s obviously not what I meant. I didn’t want to control my children like a puppet master. I felt that everybody should find their own way.
Alex: Totally. That makes sense to me now. But when I was 12, 13 or 14, I wasn’t looking for such a liberal approach to caring. We have a better relationship now because we can communicate, but at the time, you were wrapped up in your own shit. You figured things out and have settled into some sort of mental-health routine that works for you, but that wasn’t the case at the time.
James: I was hospitalized twice for depression. So I have my own serious problems, and while Alex was growing up, I was very sick. That directly influenced my behavior and my ability to interact with him and become a parent.
Alex: It’s interesting, because these days, we share a lot of similar interests. We look at the world in a similar way and have overlapping curiosities, which isn’t always the case between a parent and child. I had to get through my growing pains. I also had to let go of this idea of “I need my father teach me how to be a man and care for me” because that wasn’t part of our family’s model. I eventually mutated some of my anger into appreciation for the way he is as a person. He’s politically engaged and open to talking about things in a real, invested way. We can talk about the news, museum shows and books. He doesn’t have any specific expectations or checkmarks for me either, which a lot of parents do.
James: I’d tell fathers experiencing mental illness to get help. The consequences of you not getting help might be very negative. The second part is medication, which really does help.
Alex: For me, the experience of having mental illness in the home was influential in terms of my interest in art. In art, there’s a rich history of diverse and divergent ways of thinking, alternative models and iconoclasm. I’ve always read writers and been drawn to queer artists who felt inspired by emotional or philosophical poignancy rather than feeling victim to it. That’s what I try to do, too.