A world in which two men can legally marry—in this country, at least—and one of the most popular sitcoms features a gay couple (with a kid!) was unimaginable for authors Alison Wearing and Alysia Abbott when they were growing up with gay dads in the 1970s. They chronicle their very different experiences—small-town-Ontario-raised Wearing didn’t know about her father’s orientation until she was a pre-teen; Abbott was brought up by her openly gay dad in the heart of San Francisco’s queer culture—in two of this month’s most heartfelt new memoirs. FLARE brought the authors together via phone and eavesdropped as they swapped stories. —Briony Smith
Alison Wearing: I find it almost uncanny that these books are appearing within a month of each other, because they have extraordinary similarities. [I had] a box that was full of my father’s journals and letters, and I knew you had access to your father’s journals and letters— it’s amazing that both books not only tell our stories, but our fathers’ stories in their own words.
Alysia Abbott: You have the unusual position of your parents being alive, so that you could have them sign off or not sign off and ask them questions, and be aware of how they might receive the story, whereas I feel sort of a strange burden because I can’t fact-check with my parents. [Both of Abbott’s parents had passed away by the time she was 22.] In a way, I’m able to take liberties with their stories because they’re not there to stop me.
AW: When my father gave me this box, he gave it with some trepidation. There was nothing that he asked me to remove, but he did say it’s hard for him to imagine certain people in his life reading this material; it does give him a bit of a shiver! But he also felt it was an important story, and not just his story anymore.
AA: I’m curious about how you found out your dad was gay.
AW: We didn’t even have the word gay. I knew it was the worst thing you could say to someone on the playground. When my mother told me, it was disorienting and sad and shook up my world, but I didn’t really understand beyond that what it meant. But your situation was completely different—you grew up in San Francisco with your [out] dad?
AA: I have no memory of learning my dad was gay. It was [through] going to school and paying attention to TV and my grandparents and seeing what the regular world looks like that I was like, “Well, every family has a mother and a father and I don’t—I just have a father and he likes other boys, not other girls.” Then there was the world of my French private school, which was very strict, and I basically went into the closet about my father and stayed there for years. I lived that closeted life that I feel would be familiar to you.
AW: I use exactly the same term, even. “He came out of the closet and I went in.” I began to lead the double life that he had finally liberated himself from, and developed ways of coping and hiding and lying and creating answers to questions that kids had at school. I guess I imagined growing up in San Francisco would be more freeing.
AA: But the idea of gay fathers was still very unique. Back then, most were divorced and the mothers had full custody.
AW: Even within the gay community, fathers were quite ostracized because people saw them as an oddity. They represented this family model the gay community was trying to get away from—to liberate themselves into a different way of living and loving.
AA: My dad wrote in his journal that a lot of his friends were freaked out because they thought he had this ultimate responsibility and they were trying to escape responsibility.
AW: I was curious to see your subtitle that it was “a memoir of your father.”
AA: There weren’t a lot of people who’d take interest in the story of a gay man talking about his exploits in the ’70s and ’80s, but they could maybe relate to me. Historically, it’s been, “that’s gay history and this is American history,” and to me this is American history. When I thought about writing this book 10 or 15 years ago and I took a stab at book proposals, I didn’t think there was really a market for it, but today gay rights are being discussed in the Supreme Court.
AW: It does feel like these stories are ready to be heard. My son had a friend over the other day and the cover of my book was sitting on the table, and he very casually said, “My mom’s book is coming out about growing up with a gay dad. My grandfather’s gay. So do you want an orange or apple?” But you also don’t have to go far outside major cities before people are living almost the exact same story that I lived all those years ago—their parents are still extremely closeted and can’t imagine being out, and their children go to school and pretend that life is very different than what it is. There are people out there that really need these stories still.