I’m the daughter of gay fathers, but I’m also the daughter of the entire LGBTQ+ community. Because of this, I grew up with a different understanding of Father’s Day and Gay Pride, which usually falls on the same day in Portland. Growing up in Portland, I’ve watched the city’s LGBTQ+ community mature into a beautiful, diverse and inclusive community but rarely meet others with similar experiences. While writing about this is both empowering and painful at once, it’s also important to share.
I didn’t always consider myself lucky to have gay dads. My father came out when I was in the second grade, and my parents subsequently divorced. Although I’m an editor and English student now, the divorce caused me to check out of school completely; my second grade teacher asked my parents to hold me back because I couldn’t read or write. I don’t remember being incapable, but I remember the mobile trailer classrooms, constant testing, counseling sessions and watching my dad move out with his new partner.
After my father moved to northeast Portland, I stayed with him every other weekend and every Wednesday night. He drove my younger brother and I to school on Thursday mornings, which required him to wake up at 4 a.m. and drive three hours out of his way to work. His new partner offered structure and stability for us: He made our meals, demanded cleanliness and enforced quiet hours. We thought he didn’t like us, but he raised us like his own.
My father’s new friend circle consisted of men who were in their 40s. Back in 2000, this meant many of them were survivors of the HIV/AIDS endemic. Like my own father, these men encouraged me to be outspoken and strong and embrace my individuality. I loved art and theatre, and they encouraged my artwork. One of them in particular was Mark, who always went out of his way to make me feel special and talented. He promised he’d come watch me perform. But then I learned one of the hardest lessons of my childhood, and it’s one that isn’t actually unique.
The lesson was that I had no reason to be ashamed of my dad’s sexuality, but I had everything to fear. I kept my dads’ homosexuality a secret because I constantly heard anti-gay slurs in public. The Lutheran church I attended as a child condemned same-sex relationships. I saw local news reports about people beating and killing gay men around the country. I often heard my classmates call others a “faggot” and use the word “gay” as a pejorative. Then, I had to watch Mark pass away.
When I was 12, Mark became terminally ill from AIDS. During his last few months alive, I remember making him handmade cards with angels and telling him I’d see him again in heaven. Mark was moved, and my dad told me Mark cried. It was then I realized how little Mark was ever told he’d go to heaven, or that God loved him at all. I prayed for Mark’s recovery, but like so many others at the time, he eventually perished. This would be the first of many times where religion and society failed me as a daughter. Mark died from an illness for no other reason than the U.S.’s misinformed and prejudiced creation of cultural health stigmas. Mark didn’t simply die from AIDS; he died because he was gay.
As a child, these events were difficult to not internalize. I knew my father was suicidal prior to coming out: He shared his childhood experiences being bullied and threatened over suspicions of being gay. When you know your existence as a child is a direct result of denial and societal bigotry, it’s hard to not feel like a mistake. I dealt with this internalization by trying to be grateful for my dad not coming out sooner. If he had, he could have died from AIDS too; or even worse, he could have been beaten to death.
But hard lessons didn’t end with Mark. I denounced my faith at age 13; I lost respect for authority figures and lost the desire to fit in. I tried to be one of the boys; I played rough, skateboarded, listened to death metal and used drugs and drank far earlier than I should have. Because my dad was gay, my rebellious nature often led people to assume I was lesbian—especially from my own parents. Little did they know, I was trying to protect myself from being bullied further at school. I used to enjoy being girly until I started being called a slut and a whore at the age of 12 by classmates; I didn’t even know what sex was.
Over the next couple years, there were countless, well-intended interventions from my family to “admit” my lesbianism, which felt more like them pressuring me into being lesbian. It was like a parallel, heteronormative reality where instead of hiding in the closet, I was pressured to go in and then come out as the lesbian people insisted I was. As you could imagine, this was incredibly confusing. I tried to go in the closet, but it wasn’t for me, yet people still insist today that it’s where I actually belong. People will always try to stereotype you.
Over the years, I decided to embrace my childhood within the gay community. I went to the Escape on weekends with my out friends. My father and I had weekend dates where we eventually watched all of John Waters’ films, many times over; I celebrated local drag culture. Every sentimental moment of my life has somehow involved Madonna, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, or a quote from the classic movie Mommy Dearest. I even used every bit of my fun savings to take my dad to Madonna’s 2015 Portland concert. I’ve attended the Pride Parade with my Dad on Father’s Day and continue to celebrate gay culture with my dads. What felt like the end of my family before actually developed into the most beautiful, diverse and full family I could have asked for.
In light of recent violent events on Portland State’s campus, within Portland and America as a whole, it’s important to support and encourage the entire LGBTQ+ community and any populations that are systematically vulnerable to hate crimes. Communities aren’t exclusive to those who identify within them; they’re also a family of overlapping communities that are raising each other. Violence isn’t limited to physical abuse when it’s found in societies’ language, attitudes, implicit and explicit biases and the way we choose who or what to really care about. There’s nothing left to choose when it really starts with you.