My father, Hank, once took me to a men’s gymnastics meet at the University of Minnesota. I was maybe twelve. Thirteen. His partner joined us. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a non-Olympic men’s gymnastics meet, but you pretty much have your choice of seats. Hank steered us to the second row. And this is where it gets, from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, batshit creepy.
He broke out the binoculars.
Oh my fucking god we are sitting in the second row and Hank the Blank is looking at the gymnasts through binoculars. Every time he raised those fucking things to his eyes I felt like a huge million-watt spotlight swung over and fixed us in its glare, while a loudspeaker boomed:
HOMOSEXUALS SITTING IN SECTION A, ROW 2!! THREE HOMOSEXUALS!! YES, THE BOY IS ONE TOO! HE WILL NEVER AGAIN BE NORMAL! IN FACT, SECURITY, PLEASE ESCORT THE HOMOSEXUALS FROM THE BUILDING!
The handful of times I’ve recounted this memory to friends I’d stop there, framing it as nothing more than a squirmy-funny anecdote of What It Was Like to Have a Gay Dad.
But there was so much more.
I remember that the gymnasts took my breath away. I remember the smell of sweat and powdered chalk. I remember their smooth round muscles. I remember their nerves and their power – the fluid impossible beauty of their mid-air contortions. I remember my scrawniness, and how small and clumsy and ugly I felt sitting there beside my father, from whom I’d inherited that scrawniness. I remember the yearning – peculiar to gays, maybe – of wanting to be what I also desired. I remember knowing that all of it – my yearning, my father’s yearning, the fucking binoculars – was wrong.
My sexuality was waking up alongside my father’s coming out. And I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be like him – I didn’t want to be a child molester. A creep. A blank.
I remember how the gymnastics coaches would step in, and help lift the gymnasts up to the rings, and then step back.
I remember how desolate I felt, sitting there, imploding with feelings I didn’t want, and that the man who could have helped me understand them, the man sitting next to me, had proven himself, one night, three years before, to be utterly untrustworthy. The man who had abdicated his fatherhood of me.
Few fathers help their sons understand sex. Or at least, that’s my guess. I don’t mean to suggest that I was special.
Only that I wanted to pull away from Hank, and from the binoculars, and climb somewhere higher in the stands, somewhere up near the back, so that I could watch the gymnasts on my own, not just the parts of them that the binoculars could show, but the whole fucking thing, all of it, the crazy, heart-rending, mid-air opera. The men stepping in, lifting the boys, and stepping back.
For several years after that day in the gymnasium, I’d steal Hank’s porn mags. First Hand, they were called. I was a teenage boy. I’d read those stories and then slip them back in his dresser drawer.
Sex is a goddamn mystery. It’s a distant alien star pushing and pulling us, and we deny it every step of the way. Until we don’t.
It’s funny in a squirmy kind of way to admit that when my father first told me that he’d been writing erotic stories and posting them to an online site, I knew exactly which site he was talking about, because I’d visited it many times.
I never wanted my sexuality to have anything to do with Hank. And so for many, many years I tried very hard never to wonder why I had a thing for older guys. And in recent days, when I’ve forced myself to sit with that wonder for a while, I feel confident in saying I never desired Hank.
Rather, I wanted what I never had. I wanted what those gymnasts had, someone to step in and lift them up to the rings. Someone who’d step back and make room for their miracles.
So this is a very long, digressive, muddled answer – there is nothing wrong with reading those stories. There’s nothing wrong with writing those stories. We all have our shadow sides, and it does us no good to deny them. Consenting adults, be free!
I want that to be clear. My pain and skin-crawling horror of recent events has little, really, to do with the stories themselves. If I’d found out, accidentally, from some other source, that Hank the Blank had written stories about incest and posted them on the internet, it would have been awkward and weird and yeah, I’d probably wonder a little about his inner self.
But that’s not what he did. Hank the Blank wrote stories about incest and then decided to share those stories with the son he’d once molested. A series of decisions that made a couple of things clear:
- He had no remorse, or even the barest understanding, of the long-term effects of molestation.
- Someone that unaware was dangerous.
- His disinterest in attending therapy or examining his actions in any kind of sustained, supervised way, made it unforgivable.
This took some time to put together. Immediately after reading his stories, in those first few weeks, I walked around, shell-shocked and hollow. I couldn’t see anything, let alone make connections.
My own sanity, my own sense of being a man, a human being walking around on the planet, demanded that I leave him, separate myself, climb up, somewhere higher in the stands, so that I could see not just the separate parts, but everything.