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everything to receive a blessing. I was ten when I first heard the words “I am gay” from my adoptive father. It had been four years since he adopted me in the” Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” era. For years he had been telling me that some men “liked” other men and that I should not judge them for that. Of course, at that age, I was a year or two away from “liking” anyone (of either gender) anyway, but I did know that being “gay” was something to be feared, something you had to deny in front of your 4th grade friends. Anytime someone did not get along with you, and you would spend the night at your best friend’s house, they would make innuendoes as best as 4th graders know how. At the time I was just plain scared. My father was a “gay.” With these taunts in my head, and imaginings the horror of the discovery of my father’s secrets by the rest of the world, I blurted, “Just shoot me!” Of course my father was patient with me and calmly explained that being gay was not much different than being straight and that society just did not quite understand him yet. He also told me that he would not tell any of my friends that
he was gay so as to give me freedom with my own life. This gesture raises a larger question: Why the need to deny part of himself to the world so that being who one is does not hurt those around him? Why, like Abraham left Ur for Canaan, did father have to leave his past life to raise a child? Before I could understand my father’s sacrifice, I would need to understand the other half of my father’s life, the one separate from our suburban life. I was in 5th-6th grade when we realized we had black mold in the house we owned, due to a tenant’s washing machine leak that could only be repaired by tearing the house apart. So we found ourselves at the “Rawlins Chateaux,” an inexpensive apartment complex a couple streets down from Crossroads Market, a coffee shop that I had been to once or twice while my father would grade papers. As I started to pay more attention to the neighborhood, I noticed that two men could actually publicly display affection. My father explained shortly after that this was “a gay coffee shop” and that the majority of the customers there were gay. I met several men in this coffee shop at Crossroads Market in Dallas, Texas who literally put my life on a new path. An account from the Native American nation the Montaganais- illustrates the sense of community that I felt growing up there. According to the account,” Missionaries tried to tell a man [of this nation] that women should love only their husbands so that men could be sure of whom their children were; he responded, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all
love all the children of our tribe.”1 At Crossroads Market, I was accepted into a new “tribe.” I would meet the first member of this “people” or “tribe” that would prove the Indigenous man’s quote about “loving all the children of the tribe” true. Rick Vanderslice breathes the radio, and radical politics. He used to work at a Dallas jazz station, 107.5 the Oasis, and when I was twelve, my father directed me toward him. I can remember one day going up and singing the slogan “107.5 The Oaaaasis!” to him almost every Tuesday when I walked into the coffee shop. Rick would patiently laugh it off, hand me a newspaper, either the New York Times or the Dallas Voice (the local gay paper) and tell me to read a particular article. One day he gave me his “How to be an intellectual” speech, in which he said “Be skeptical, but never cynical, and always remember that when you are fighting for civil rights, its worth it, and you are on the right side of history. You are religious, and regardless you know that we are not a criminal class, so tell people. Bigotry comes from ignorance and fear plain and simple.” I took this speech to heart and kept on coming back to the coffee shop every week to discuss the latest newspaper articles with Rick, who would sit in the corner and encourage the group of people that came in to discuss an issue of the day and create a conversation. Rick has been my main political mentor in many ways. His patience and insight were the first steps in allowing me at age thirteen to start believing that I could discuss issues that mattered with anyone as long as what I said was not reactionary but well reasoned. Rick is radically impatient when it Chicago Illinois, quoting Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (New York, Monthly Review Press 1981),35. 3
1 From The Meaning of Marxism, D’Mato, Paul, p.29. 2006. Haymarket Books,
comes to Gay rights. He believes that he should not have to wait for the rights that he knows he deserves, and that if the system does not protect his rights, then the system be damned. Rick has invited me onto several of his podcasts and his radio show, to encourage me to put “conversational activism” into practice.
I ran into John Selig while seeing his Sports page lying at the opposite end of the table from his newspaper. I grabbed it, and he quickly stopped me, getting “indignant” saying “I think I will now read Sports. I never have, but it’s my paper thank you.” I learned right away that John was tough as nails, and that he was different from Rick. John used polemics, instead of pure logic to make his point, while being an activist for his cause. Although Rick is an activist for gay rights, John is definitely more “specialized” in that he specializes in gay rights in his writing. However the most important difference between Rick and John is that John has a straight son, Nathaniel, who visited the coffee shop once or twice. John gave me a concrete sense that I was part of the community despite the fact that I was sure that I was not gay. At the same time as I turned fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, John would often be protective of me, quickly informing the few people who once in a while hit on me that “my gay father was over in the back grading college papers.” He pushed me to go on an AFS foreign exchange, an organization with which he had volunteered as area rep for North Texas many years ago, and insisted later that I consider the University of Chicago (I was rejected). He was formerly married to a woman, like many of his generation, but
he came out and John and Rodolfo have been married for six and a half years. Rodolfo must have a calming effect, because John is always more quiet and calm around him, or at least that is what the coffee shop crowd says. John says to me “You know me dear I will never change,”, an idea that gives me both a sense of security and terror. John has attended every one of my recent birthdays and is always ready to help me jump on the next opportunity. John’s experience as a gay parent was invaluable to my father and me, and his stable relationship with Rodolfo was invaluable in realizing that both gay and straight relationships are valid with regards to commitment and that love can work or go awry regardless of ones sexual orientation. My father is a quiet person, probably due to his Dutch and German upbringing in rural South Dakota and dad has not been active in Gay politics. So in 2008 when John asked my father and me to be guests his podcast, saying that he would submit it to organizations like the Family Equality Council, my father was hesitant. His gut was telling him that we would regret it later because anyone with access to Google could find our story. I told him that I had a responsibility to the gay community and that he should share his story too. I reminded dad that for the past 5 years I had told all my friends that my father was gay, and that his experiences as a gay parent would be invaluable for other gays and lesbians looking to adopt. We joined John on his podcast. The podcast has been as accessible as dad feared; it has served as a call to those thinking of adopting children. John has taught me to be bold, to disdain bureaucracy, to respect
diversity (through his AFS mentorship as well as his activism) and to appreciate of the fact that everyday stories are the most powerful tools in fighting prejudice and hate. Max Westbruck is another person who has changed both my dad’s and my own view of life. I met Max at the coffee shop when I was about thirteen. I knew him as “the German postman.” Max has two daughters and an ex-wife with whom he is on good terms. At about age fifteen or sixteen I started discussing a school project of mine on Alexander the Great, with Max. He happened to be Max’s favorite historical hero. As I talked about Alexander, Josephus, and first century Palestine, Max told me he would like to give me his copy of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West as a gift. Max defies the stereotype that classical education is only for the elites. More importantly, he has been irreplaceable in all of my ventures, helping me raise funds for my trip to Argentina, getting me to try new types of food, and introducing me to German culture. In short, he is an example that the gay community is not just enriched or bound together just by its gayness, but by actual people, each bringing their own experience to bear on the formation of the community. The gay community is made up of real people, not just stereotypes in a movie. Max pointed out my deep-seated prejudice against German culture, which came from my father, who out of uneasiness about the war crimes and horrors of World War II, had become uncomfortable appreciating his German heritage and the small German community where he was raised. Through Max dad has learned to embrace the richer side of his German roots. When I first met Max, I
was hesitant, because my father told me that Max could be crude in his jokes and no subject was off limits. Despite this warning I started talking to Max and I have encountered a different side to him. On one hand there is the man who says “I can lure a 30 year old man if I spoil him enough,” and the other side, a Max who with me sticks to Plutarch, Alexander, basketball, polka and politics.
Max has a gift of gathering friends together for monthly meals at the Bavarian Grill, a German restaurant in Dallas. In fact we have celebrated my last three birthdays there as well as my farewell party before I left for Argentina in 2009. Max is a contradiction, at once rough and sensitive, vulgar and yet he is refined, outlandish and parental. Max has an unwavering devotion to those he cares about and he is deeply concerned about preserving the communal nature of our Dallas Gay community over a plate of wiener schnitzel.
James Monk (we call him Jimmy) is the resident conservative of our coffee shop. I first met Jimmy when a lesbian friend of ours, Marlene, who watched me after school when I was younger, introduced me to him one afternoon at Crossroads. He said something about Ronald Reagan and I asked him how he could be conservative and gay. Jimmy said he was economically conservative, and that is why he voted Republican. John Selig, a non-practicing Jew and atheist, said, “Log Cabin Republicans are like a PAC called Jews for Hitler.” Jimmy dismissed that as rhetorical flourish and they got into a big argument about what it means to be gay. Jimmy argued that to be gay is only one part of
his identity and he cannot be wholly defined by it. He can compartmentalize it. On the opposite end of the debate were dear friends Fred and his partner George, who believed that to say “You are a gay man” means embracing that identity fully and realizing that it has repercussions for the rest of ones life. Fred turned to me (as General Pace was speaking in support of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2007 on TV) and said, “You do not know our community. You’re a straight kid. You cannot understand us.” Fred then repeated that he is “a gay man with every fiber of who he is.” The comments evoked in me both awe at his convictions, and sadness at his refusal to acknowledge what I thought to be true, that through my father, I had been accepted into his community. The Dallas gay community had left an indelible impression on me through its solidarity and determination to raise me. I was so saddened that Fred’s comments even caused me to doubt my assumptions about belonging to the gay community. Was I presumptuous? Was Fred right? Was my father’s struggle not my own? Jimmy helped me work through these questions, providing a cool head to explain that Fred was expressing emotions without putting thought into them. Jimmy said that I was always welcome, no matter what Fred said out of frustration without really meaning it.. Indeed, even Fred joked two weeks later that, “He should have taken his blood pressure medicine that day.” His comments long forgotten, Fred continues to teach me conviction. He teaches Identity with a capital I. Jimmy teaches compromise, a big tent, and cool softspokeness, which sometimes, taken too far, can seem like denial or indifference. Both points of view are fundamental in understanding the community dynamic.
Others in the community helped me in small but significant ways. A man named Luis would pull me aside when my father would scold me for getting too loud in arguments with Joe Scroggins, a former seminarian. Luis would calm me down explaining “sometimes ya just have to follow what ya daddy told ya to do followed by his infectious laugh. These surrogate fathers brought their own stories, their own history, and their own struggles. They shared their stories and their lives with me and make me a part of their lives. I will always be grateful for this, but I still could not personally feel the sacrifice. As an outsider, the gay struggle did not affect me or involve me personally. Until it did, Fred would be right. The final key to understanding struggle and healing would come from my father, who would tell me of his Abrahamic sacrifice that had paved the way for my adoption.
I have two gay godfathers, Steve and Keith, who are a constant example of love and fidelity. I also have another gay godfather, Bob. If Steve and Keith had not been able to take care of me in the event of my father’s death, he would have done so (and was actually the first to come forward). Bob attended my first adoption party on January 2, 1998. He joined us on several trips to Florida; he is a fixture in my childhood memories as “the most understanding man my father ever knew.” With so many other great role models in my life, I never understood why dad made this distinction about Bob. Several years ago, I found out. Before I arrived on the scene, my father had been with Bob for five years in a committed relationship. Unfortunately Bob had reservations about raising an adopted child
with my dad, fearing the pressures of me having to deal with the stigma of having gay parents- so they separated. It was one of the hardest decisions of my father’s life. This story gave more poignancy to his assertion, when I would misbehave, that “You went through a lot, and I will always love you, but I went through a lot to adopt you too.” When I first found out, I had a hard time understanding why my godfather would make such a choice. I always thought that I could have handled having gay parents. This story serves as both a symbol of struggle, through my father denying his identity and love for another man, because of society’s prejudice, to adopt me, and affirmation through my father’s love and sacrifice for me. Bob has moved on (and my father as well) to lead happy and separate lives, and my godfather grown to embrace his ability to raise children as a gay man. My father is grateful to see the process of self-acceptance, both in himself and Bob, which has taken place through the years. Dad finds a happy irony in this. My father says that Abraham is his role model because “Abraham was told by the world that he would never have a child, that his chance was gone, that his wife was barren. I was always told by the world that I could not raise a child, that I was lacking, that adoption was too hard, that gays cannot raise children, and that single men cannot raise children. But God said to me and to Abraham that we would have children, that it is not too late, and that nothing is impossible.” Dad says his greatest testimony to faith is that he has raised me in a community so that I would embrace my own identity, whatever that might be gay or straight or bi. I believe myself to be the straight. However I was always aware of the
possibility that I could have turned out bisexual or gay and the community would not have thought any less of me. When my father and I have encountered a gay professor, gay high school teacher, voice teacher, piano instructor, or a gay acquaintance on the journey of life, we indentify with them on a fundamental level, especially if they have children or are a committed couple. They intuitively identify with dad’s struggle. This liberation, this affirmation, this freedom to choose, and this feeling of blessedness, is why I think that dad is right, that I am Abraham’s Child, his inverse in a way. The child who might never have a true father was paired with the father who was implicitly told that he would never have a child. Despite all odds, through his struggle and unconditional yes of semi-blind faith, I am the child of a man who risked everything so that his son would know a more accepting world and have other surrogate fathers as numerous as the stars.
©2010 Travis Knoll
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