Just a few short weeks ago, my father passed away at the age of ninety-two. I was privileged to be present, and it was both unreservedly sacred and utterly terrifying to watch him enter eternity.
As I reflect on his life and death, the United States Supreme Court may be on the cusp of opening the door fully to same-sex marriage in all fifty states, thereby changing the definition of marriage in a way history has never seen before. While I do not wish this tribute to my dad to be overly political, I cannot help but realize how different my life might have been if I had been raised by two mothers or two fathers.
I learned so much about being a man from the late Donald Leroy Evans. Only after his death am I now beginning to see how it affected me at every turn.
A Non-Traditional Beginning to a Traditional Family
My life growing up was not perfect, nor was my dad a perfect father. I grew up in the late 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. This was the end of an era that exalted the ideals of a perfect home: the two-parent family with two cars in the garage, a mother who was neat as a pin and kept her home in the same manner, and a father who brought home the bacon and always had time to listen and understand his children. No, that was not my home. Not exactly.
But neither was it hell on earth. I am the youngest of eight children (there was one miscarriage just before me, so in reality nine total). My parents eloped at the grand age of eighteen in December of 1941, marrying again a few months later (April 1942) in the Catholic Church after my Protestant father, still eighteen, converted. My dad had a high school education, but my mother had been forced to quit school and work. Having children and eking out a living on a small farm was all that either of them knew. My dad had been the hired hand on my mother’s parent’s farm, and it was a simple case of boy meets girl.
After they married, they almost immediately began having children. Once my parents were in their early twenties, they had three small mouths to feed. By the time I came along, they had a family of ten and were at the ripe age of thirty-three—not far past the age our modern generation begins to think about settling down to produce their two-child “modern” family. My family had very few possessions, and we wore our cousins’ hand-me-down clothes as well as one another’s. I can recall our small-town volunteer fire department delivering toys for Christmas, much to the embarassment of my proud Irish mother. Though I never heard him say so, I imagine that accepting charity in that way also hurt my father, a man who worked tirelessly to be sure his children were fed and clothed.
It Gets Better
When I was around nine, things began to look up for my family. My mother inherited just enough money from her late father to buy a house, free and clear. A first for us, it even had running water and indoor plumbing! A year or so later my dad got a job driving a city bus, and three of my siblings had left home to begin establishing families of their own. Suddenly, there were fewer of us to feed and more money to go around. We moved out of the country and into a small town, giving us all more freedom to grow up as middle-class children.
It was around that time I began developing hormones that, in my case, awakened me not to the world of girls, but of boys. But this story is not primarily about me; my story is elsewhere. I only mention it because it is an integral part of something far bigger.
Much has been written about and by those who have been raised with same-sex parents. The most publicized voices are those adult children of gays and lesbians who believe that marriage should no longer be defined as the union of a man and a woman. More recently, Katy Faust, Bobby Lopez, Heather Barwick, Dawn Stefanowicz, and other children of LGBT parents have begun to speak out in favor of retaining the traditional, conjugal vision of marriage.
But how often has a person like me—a person who is attracted to people of the same sex—spoken out to say, “I’m glad that I was raised by a devoutly Christian mom and dad?” I am.
A Father’s Journey
I didn’t realize it growing up, but my dad’s background, upbringing, and faith journey up until that point simply hadn’t equipped him to deal with or understand a son who played with dolls and read alone in his room rather than shooting hoops or watching sports on TV. As a result, we weren’t very close when I was growing up.
There are many theories about what causes homosexuality—how much is genetic, how much is environmental, and so on. I do not know, nor does science, what the answer is. But I do know this much: the man I needed most and admired the most was not able to give—or, at least, to communicate—unconditional love to me during those crucial, formative years. I will not deny that I often felt both angry with my father and inferior to him as a man.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. Although attracted to men, I never acted upon those feelings and was for twelve years married to a beautiful, inside and out, Christian woman. When I came out to my family after my divorce in 1992, I was already in my mid-thirties and had accomplished at least a few things I knew that my father was indeed proud of. As a teenager, I had left the Catholic Church and eventually started a ministry with the Assemblies of God. My ministry, although never huge, did impact a number of people. Even though it was not a Catholic ministry, my father made sure that I knew he was proud of and pleased with the man I had become. We became closer during those years, and when I finally had to tell him about my homosexuality, although I was nervous, I was fairly confident that he would be able to handle it. And handle it he did, with honor and grace.
Advice and More
My father was always full of advice for his children, even after they had become adults. In this situation, he was no different. He told me that he had suspected sometimes over the years that I was not straight, and he admitted being disappointed about it. He then proceeded to tell me that he had realized over the years that tolerance of others was far more important than agreeing with them. He even gave me a lecture on being careful and using protection if I was indeed going to be sexually active with men.
In saying these things, he was in no way approving of my decisions, but he was clearly showing a kindness and sensitivity I had few times seen or felt in my earlier years. It was strangely but undeniably endearing. The fact that my father—this man whose approval I had craved all of my life—chose to offer me love and advice was a profound gift.
What made me closest to my dad, though, was his reaction to my return to Catholicism. I had searched in a lot of directions, some Christian and some not so much, for meaning in my life, and in 2005 I found myself longing for and then returning to the faith I had once had as a youth, once again becoming Roman Catholic, and taking classes in order to at long last be confirmed a few months later at age 50. Not only did my father attend my confirmation, but when I was confirmed I saw him, for the second time ever, weep. I cannot even type this now without tears as I recall that moment. The only other time I had ever seen him cry was when my mother died.
Later, he told me directly how glad he was that I had come back to the Catholic Church and how much the sacraments of confession and Holy Eucharist meant to him. These were conversations we simply had never had before, either while growing up or as adults. We developed a bond that we probably would never have had if God had not brought me back to the Catholic Church precisely when He did. The mutual pride, affection, and honest communication we had finally begun to establish was something I will always treasure.
This was what I had wanted all of my life, and I finally had it.
The End—and a New Beginning
In the last years of his life, my father and I spoke regularly, in a series of conversations that cemented our long-overdue connection. Rather than the half-hearted or forced feeling that had often characterized our interactions in the past, our talks now seemed to flow with ease as we spoke of life, God, and the Church. They never once ended without our saying that we loved each other. Eventually, my father’s health problems intensified, and he was told that he had only a few more months to live. During that time, he did his utmost to make sure he was right with and had peace with both God and all the people around him.
Although he had told me he was proud of my return to the Catholic Church, we had not discussed my homosexuality since I had become celibate and Catholic again. And that is where the gift I mentioned in the title of this article comes in. Before he died, he told me that he “believed that there was a purpose” in my situation, and wanted to be absolutely sure I knew he thought so.
I do not know what he thought of the campaign for same-sex marriage. I do know that, even if I had remained active in the LGBT world, he still would have loved me. But the fact that he wanted me to know that I, whatever my past or future, had been made for a purpose, and that he was not willing to leave this world without saying so to me, spoke volumes about what fatherhood is all about. I hang on tightly to those simple words. The man I had emulated all of my life did indeed accept me unconditionally. Whatever had been wrong or distancing between us disappeared with those words of love and deep affirmation.
If she had lived long enough to know of it, my mother would have loved me in spite of my same-sex attraction too. Of that, I am confident. But to know that my father really, really accepted me—the non-sports-loving son who may have been an embarassment to him at times—and that his love was utterly solid and unreserved, was probably the most healing thing that could ever happen to a man with same-sex attractions.
My mother, brothers, or any of my sisters—all who have been wonderful to me over the years—saying those same words would just not have had the impact this did. It had to come from my father in order to cause me to feel just a bit more masculine in the best sense. We learn to be masculine from our male parent, our dad. We learn our more tender or feminine side from our female parent, our mom. And without that complementarity, we cannot learn those lessons effectively.
I am going on sixty, and I still need that affirmation. We all do. Without role models of both sexes, we will not get it. God made marriage for a purpose, and His ideal is to place children in homes where they will have affirmation, acceptance, and love from role models of both sexes. My dad’s acceptance of me as a man, with full knowledge of my attraction to other men, was his gift to me. And though it was late coming, I am utterly thankful for it. It came not when I was actively gay or when I was married to a woman. It came when I was able to be honest with myself and with the man who helped bring me into this world.
Perhaps—just perhaps—telling this part of my story is part of that “purpose.”
This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and is reprinted with permission.