“My father is gay and in the closet,” Roland confides in a recent r/AskGayBros thread. He and his brothers have known since the late 1990s, when his dad would drop them off at the mall and playgrounds while he went cruising.
One time, at a Borders outside of Philadelphia, 8-year-old Roland had to pee but didn’t want to leave the store by himself. “I asked my older brother, who refused to take me because he was balls deep in a book about castles,” Roland tells me. Unable to hold it any longer, he relieved himself in the periodicals section. “We had no way of finding my father since cell phones didn’t exist back then,” the now 33-year-old Pennsylvanian says.
“What were you doing?” Roland asked when his father finally returned. His dad claimed he’d been shopping. “But you didn’t buy anything,” a confused Roland responded. On another occasion, Roland recalls being left with his twin brother to ride their bikes in the park. A little later, they spotted their dad walking with another man, shirtless and sweaty, with “big smiles on their faces.”
Now 63, Roland’s father still has yet to come out to him. His parents, who have been married for 30 years, have learned to live with each other’s baggage — dad’s sexuality, mom’s mental illness. Roland only raised the issue once as a teenager, when he asked his mother if she thought his dad was gay. “Yup,” she responded matter-of-factly, and left it at that.
“It’s just something we’ve gotten used to,” Roland says, while insisting he’d be “totally cool” if his dad came out. But he also recognizes the difference between growing up gay as a Boomer and growing up gay as a millennial. “It just wasn’t accepted back then,” he explains. “In his mind, gay relationships were never an option — and probably still aren’t. The whole thing is like a true-crime show, where you really want to know what happened — and why it happened — but never will.”
Roland is among a quiet legion of sons who were raised by a closeted gay man. “He didn’t hide it from me, per se,” says Jeff Campbell, now a middle-aged father of three in Austin, Texas. “He hid it from everyone.” Like Roland, Campbell tells me he sniffed things out as an adolescent. And yet, there was never a “ceremonial coming-out moment,” despite a few close calls. After high school graduation, for instance, his dad drove him to the edge of Lady Bird Lake in Austin and said he had “something important” to tell him. “Imagine my disappointment when he admitted he smoked pot,” Campbell says, adding that years later, he and his father’s husband Tom often joked about his dad’s belief that no one knew he was gay.
There were at least three boyfriends before Tom, Campbell says, one of whom attended his wedding as his father’s date. There were also occasions when his father voiced some regret. “Deep down he really didn’t want to be gay and blamed his sexuality on a childhood friend who ‘turned him,’” Campbell says, explaining that as the son of a Baptist preacher in the panhandle of Texas in the 1940s, his father learned only to be ashamed of his feelings. Which is why he continues to cultivate his secret, offering Campbell and his family a choice: You either know about it and don’t bring it up, or you don’t know about it and don’t bring it up.
Roland and Campbell’s stories are typical, says Paul Nelson, a sex therapist at Maze Men’s Health in New York who has counseled more than 50 closeted fathers this year alone. “I have a client whose father came to him as a 50-year-old. It wasn’t traumatic at all for the son, but it definitely was for his dad.” Aging Gen-Xers and Boomers believe they have to fit into “the man box,” Nelson explains, which dictates how men are supposed to express emotion. “Sleeping with other men is so far outside of the man box that they have to compartmentalize it, otherwise they’d go crazy,” adding that most are “terrified” of their kids finding out.
“I can’t lose you,” Jared Bilski’s father explained on his deathbed, his skin “as yellow as a Simpsons character” thanks to a failing liver ravaged from cancer triggered by HIV. But it wasn’t death that Bilski’s father was most afraid of, rather it was how his son would react to learning he’d been lied to his whole life.
Again, not that it was exactly a surprise. When Bilski was 18, some sexually suggestive emails of his father’s surfaced. “It was clear there was a relationship going on,” Bilski tells me, recalling references to wives and needing to “keep things a secret.” That, at least, seems to have worked. His mom insists that she “never knew” her husband was gay, and was “devastated” when she found out. “I’ve asked her repeatedly, ‘How could you not have known?’ Maybe it was her own form of denial,” he theorizes, admitting he was a little shaken, too. “I was confused about it. We’d always been brought up to be accepting of everybody, which we learned early on.”
When he and his sister confronted their dad about the emails, he insisted it was “a joke between friends that had gone too far.” But he adds, “Most guys don’t spend Christmas with their buddies,” before telling me about a man named Gus (a pseudonym) who would spend holidays with them in the years after Bilski’s parents divorced. Bilski wasn’t ready to explain to his dad that he didn’t care if he were gay, so he demonstrated that sentiment by acting overly warm to Gus. “I wanted to make him feel very welcome,” he says.
Sometimes, a father’s secrecy involves abusive behavior, as it did for Ken, a 24-year-old student in New York City whose dad is closeted despite being married to his mother for 30 years. His parents marriage seemed “pretty normal,” he says, except that he never saw them hug or kiss. Once, too, he overheard them talking on the phone and she was angrily referring to his “roommate.” Another time, he borrowed his dad’s phone and stumbled upon multiple gay porn sites. Everything started making sense: His parents not being affectionate; his three younger brothers born via in-vitro; his dad’s close relationship with a guy who was acting as his chauffeur, whom Ken later learned was the “roommate” his mom was yelling about; and his father’s two gay best friends.
“I’m gay, and my dad was physically and emotionally abusive toward me,” Ken tells me, recalling that his father was “angry about something all the time” and took it out on him.
This is also common, explains Justin Lioi, a men’s therapist in Brooklyn. “We see cases where a dad has such shame about being gay and notices something that indicates his son is as well and tries to beat that out of him. When we look at violent masculinity, shame is at the core of much of that, which can be covered up for only so long before it’s revealed in incredibly unhealthy ways.”
The only gay father I could find who would talk to me was Michael, a 40-year-old in Northern California. He and his ex-wife were conservative Christians, and despite coming out to her before the wedding, she convinced him that if he just did as she said, he’d eventually change. “This resulted in her controlling everything I did,” he explains. Finally, after dinner one night, Michael told her that he either had to stop pretending or would end up harming himself. Her response: Keep pretending or get out.
He eventually came out to his kids — a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter — who initially took it hard but who quickly came around. Michael knows “many” closeted dads, believing it to be much more prevalent than people like to admit, particularly among conservative Christians. “These are regular guys who feel too trapped — by the church, by society, by circumstances — to live their lives in an authentic way,” he explains.
His advice to such fathers is to remember that they “aren’t alone.” As for their sons? “It’s okay to feel confused or hurt. Talk with your parents about it,” he suggests.
Roland and his brothers hope to do just that, but ironically, they’re maybe the ones with the most apprehension about pushing the issue. Or as Roland says quietly, “We’re afraid he’s going to get angry and disown us.”