Nonfiction by Julia Clark Salmon
When my sister first told me her sixteen-year-old son might be gay, I paused. Hmmm. There had been signs. I remembered the Little Orphan Annie costume he loved as a kid, complete with wig and tap shoes. Or the time we went on a family hike and he held his nose, declaring he “hated” nature. In fact, he hated sports of all kinds, preferring to read and hang out with his friends, most of them girls. He papered the border around his room with book covers from “The Babysitter’s Club,” his favorite series featuring mean rich girls acting bitchy to each other. He even wrote his own mock series and got permission to air it over the loudspeaker at his middle school. “Yeah,” I said to my sister after a judicious fifteen seconds, “you might be right.”
Bennett being gay was not a super big deal to me. He’d always been quirky; now he’d just be a little quirkier. My sister took a bit longer coming to terms. Bennett’s gayness meant changed expectations. At the time – about fourteen years ago – she thought it meant no wedding, no grandchildren, no daughter-in-law (although Jane admitted this last drawback might actually be a plus). At any rate, she processed through it and came to the other side without Bennett ever knowing she had some qualms initially. After a few months, only one real stumbling block remained in Jane’s eyes: our father.
Our father was a staunch Republican. (How come they always use the word “staunch” in conjunction with “Republican” anyway? Democrats are “die-hard”; Republicans are “staunch.”) He also came from the generation that didn’t mind describing someone as a “flaming fag” or flipping his wrist loosely when referring to someone he thought might be gay. So Jane had good reason to suspect Dad would have a hard time accepting the fact that his first-born grandchild, bearer of the family name and closest to his own heart, was gay.
Bennett and my father were, in fact, similar in many ways. They shared a voracious love of reading. One time Dad took seven-year-old Bennett to the International Wizard of Oz convention in Baltimore, Maryland. From a seat at the bar, he watched Bennett, dressed as the Wizard himself (at least it wasn’t Dorothy), compete against people six times his age in answering detailed questions about life in Oz. Bennett left the convention a champion – a tiny wizard carrying his scepter – and I don’t think my father had ever felt prouder of anyone in his life. Bennett and Dad also shared a quick wit, a sharp intelligence, and a somewhat arrogant life view that placed them a bit above the rest of the world. They were a team.
So it’s not surprising that Jane ultimately decided to keep the fact of Bennett’s gayness a secret from our father. At the time, Dad had recently been diagnosed with cancer of the mouth and throat; we knew his days were limited. What the heck, Jane thought, let him go to his grave without ever knowing about Bennett. Why rock the boat now? I agreed. Our family had seen enough drama over the years. Let’s let this one alone.
We continued in this vein for about a year. Neither Jane nor I told our parents about Bennett. Of course, we talked to each other about him. And I told our other sister, Genna. She, in turn, told her daughters, age 14 and 11. Then she thought she might have told our mother over the phone, but later decided that she had just dreamed that conversation. (My mother’s dream response to Genna’s dream revelation? “Oh, no, I don’t think so. He probably just thinks he’s gay because that’s the thing to be where THEY live.”)
Next summer, the whole family – minus Bennett who had a summer job in New York – headed to North Carolina for a family vacation at the beach. We did these family reunions periodically and I think we all knew this would be Dad’s last one. We spent our days lounging on the beach, our evenings eating, drinking and talking. My dad couldn’t really participate in any of these activities anymore – he couldn’t even eat at this point and had to tube-feed himself. But we always assembled a little group on the deck outside our parents’ room to chat with Dad before dinner.
The evening of Bennett’s “outing” is set in my mind like a photograph. Our parents sat in one corner of the deck in dark green Adirondack chairs. Jane and her husband, Chris, sat to their left on flimsier woven beach chairs. I rested on a porch swing with a giant glass of chilled Chardonnay. We chatted amiably about this and that, swatting at flies with our flyswatters and taking big gulps of rapidly warming wine. Dad, a former board member at the University of Virginia, started telling a story about a freshman coed who, upon finding out her new roommate was a lesbian, requested a room transfer. “I thought the request was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances,” he said, somewhat pompously. My dad’s board experience had definitely made him more pompous.
Jane immediately seemed irritated. “Why is that reasonable?” she asked. Dad looked surprised. People in our family didn’t question him much. If you questioned him, you had to be ready for battle, and none of us liked conflict. Plus, our father usually won most arguments; he had the kind of brain that actually enjoyed the ins and outs of debate and didn’t mind squelching people in the process.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked my sister.
“No, it’s not, Dad. Not at all. Explain it to me.” My sister sat on the edge of her chair and looked directly at my dad. “Explain why it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ to tell a hopeful, excited young freshman that her roommate refuses to live with her. What are people afraid of? Are they afraid the girl will attack the other girl? Are they afraid she won’t be able to keep her hands to herself? Are they afraid she will convert the other girl to lesbianhood or something? What?” At this point, my sister burst into tears and ran into the house, leaving our father stunned.
“What just happened?” he asked.
“You went too far this time, Champ,” my brother in-law replied, standing up and following my sister into the house. My mom and my dad remained, looking perplexed.
“I’ll go see what’s the matter,” my mother said, also abandoning the ship and leaving me alone with Dad – unless you count my husband, Jim, who sat at the end of the porch reading his magazine, blessedly oblivious to everything.
I rocked the swing a few times, trying to act nonchalant. Dad looked at me. I looked back. “Do you have any idea what that was all about?” he asked.
Moment of truth. I could tell or not tell. I do have the reputation for being the family blabbermouth, and a part of me knew that my sister probably hoped I would just spill the beans some time and get it over with. But this had become a matter of honor for me. I can keep a secret, and I will. I am trustworthy. Plus this was not my secret to tell. It was Bennett’s or, barring that, Jane’s or Chris’s. I simply said, “Umm … I think they are a little sensitive on this subject, Dad.” In other words, figure it out, Dad! When Bennett came to the last beach gathering wearing a flippin’ caftan, didn’t you get a clue? But no, no clue.
A couple of minutes later my mom came back and said to my dad, “Come on back inside, Champ.” She shot me a fleeting glance as she helped him out of his chair.
“Did you know about this, Jule?” I nodded. Maybe I wasn’t a blabbermouth anymore, but I did want credit for keeping a confidence. I went upstairs.
All hell had pretty much broken loose. Apparently Jane had downed the rest of the bottle of wine while sobbing out the facts of my nephew’s sexuality to our mother in the kitchen. She then proceeded to throw up, wretchedly and loudly, in the bathroom. The grandchildren out in the hot tub on the upper porch, including my three kids and Jane’s 13-year-old daughter, Devon, overheard enough to know a family scene was well underway.
“I think it’s about Bennett being gay,” Immie reported to the gang after listening a bit at the door.
“What?” replied Devon, Bennett’s youngest sister. “Bennett’s gay?”
“You didn’t know?” Immie’s older sister, Maggie, asked. “Mom told us a year ago!”
“Why am I ALWAYS the last person to know anything in this family?” Devon cried and, like her mother, burst into tears and fled, as best she could, dripping wet in a bikini.
The rest of the evening is kind of a blur. More wine was consumed. A lot more. Lots of doors opened and shut. Whispered conversations ensued. Dad appeared around 8 p.m. and went into Jane’s room for a while. Later he said to me, “I just want you to know I’m not upset that Bennett is gay. What I’m upset about is that you all thought that would make a difference to me.” Well, that was good to hear; but, honestly, if we hadn’t heard him telling all those gay jokes over the years, we might have thought differently. You really can’t blame us.
The truth is, though, Bennett being gay did not make a difference to our father, and that knowledge did make a difference to us. In the final months of Dad’s life, Bennett spent time at the house helping to take care of both of my parents. He and Dad (known as “Pa” to the grandchildren) shared the same kind of easy camaraderie they had always shared. True, my dad did show a little more sensitivity. I remember one night, instead of turning on his favorite show, “Father Ted,” he told me he’d watch it later. “I didn’t want to watch it in front of Jane,” he said. “You know they make a lot of gay jokes in it … British humor. Jane’s kind of touchy about that.”
I had to laugh. Our homophobic Republican father really wasn’t a homophobe at all. He still loved Bennett as much as ever. And Bennett, well, he was highly amused by the whole tale of his outing. He never doubted anybody’s love, never thought it was conditional in any way, and always thought the women in his family had a tendency to make a big deal out of nothing.