The best part of the safari was when our guide, Themba, stopped the jeep in an open field and said in his deep Xhosa accent, “Let’s take a break.” We were weary from riding on rough terrain, tearing through trees and the adrenaline that comes when being face to face with animals that could kill you.
My husband, Keith, and I took my dad on a safari to celebrate his sixtieth birthday and ten-year victory over cancer, and his double knee replacement, and the fact that he didn’t need surgery on his veins anymore, and the recovery of the wound on his leg that took three years to heal due to his leukemia and bad circulation. We were still working on his fractured ankle.
Themba passed out wine, beer and Amarula, a South African liqueur, to me, my dad, Keith and the five strangers who were staying at the Vuyani Lodge with us. It was fall, so we were bundled in khakis, scarves and sweaters. We stood around breathing the crisp evening air, sipping our beverages and watching in awe of the sky as it turned shades of gold, peach and red.
It was so quiet you couldn’t even hear the sound of kudu lurking in the grass or the yelp of a distant bird. My dad took this as an opportunity to steal the stage from the African countryside and said, “Man, if you wanted to get rid of your wife, you could just bring her out here and leave her.” He clapped his hands and fell apart with laughter over his own joke.
I looked around at the other guests. The three 40-something sisters from London looked at each other unamused. The young man from China gave a polite laugh and squeezed his wife a little tighter. Themba was in tears from laughter. His eyes were wet and bright with joy. I have never seen a man laugh as hard as Themba did that day. Maybe for him, it was gallows humor; he was married and from what he told us, had confronted death many times at the paws of leopards and lions.
But I think Themba was really laughing at this rare sighting in the bush: a man with a Texas accent, the size of a linebacker, with the gait of Paula Deen, dressed as if he were vacationing in Hawaii instead of Africa, making jokes about getting rid of a wife he certainly did not have.
When my dad says things like that, I find myself wanting to explain, “He’s not being sexist you guys. He can’t be sexist. He’s gay. He’s a trailblazer for the marginalized, trust me!”
But I think that’s what makes it funnier for other people — the juxtaposition of an out, sixty-year-old gay man living in modern times but making jokes as if he were Don Draper.
To some, this joke may have seemed harmless, but for me it was the tipping point that made me finally realize, after 35 years of life on this Earth, that my gay dad is sexist.
* * *
Other people with gay dads like to say, “My dad is just like every other dad,” so as not to set back the gay rights movement. But my dad hasn’t ever been like anyone else’s dad I’ve met in my entire life (and thankfully so). When I was growing up, he may have looked like a typical dad — he was over six feet tall, husky and wore glasses — but who else’s dad was so addicted to “The Young and the Restless” that he had to come home on his lunch break every day to watch it because our family could not afford a VCR? Then when we did get a VCR, who else’s dad threatened to ground their children if they taped over his “The Young and the Restless”? Who else’s dad not only waited up to see when they returned from their dates but also stuck around to ask, “Did he smell good?”
The relationship between my father and me was more like what my friends had with their moms or sisters, a kinship that went beyond just being related. We both loved men, and I cherished that about my dad. He could relate to many of my feelings in ways that not even my tomboy-ish biological mother could. But there was something about him that has always angered and frustrated me, and that I could never figure out, until I was a 35-year-old woman and we were in the middle of nowhere in South Africa together.
Growing up, I assumed our family was progressive because my dad was gay. But it was actually like being raised by an old Southern matriarch from a Tennessee Williams play. I was encouraged to marry and marry well. He’d say things like, “Elizabeth, if you don’t learn how to cook and clean, how are you going to keep a husband?” and “Elizabeth, you need to hold out until you can find a man that can afford a two-carat ring. He needs to be able to buy a home big enough for me to get my own guest house.”
When I would “come out” to my friends about my dad being gay, I automatically seemed cosmopolitan to them. But many of my friends’ parents were doing much better at raising strong independent daughters. My best friend’s mother was a career counselor who plotted out her daughter’s entire high school career, so that she could get into the best colleges. My father once told me if I got pregnant in high school he’d help me take care of the baby. He didn’t care if I went to college, I just needed to marry and provide grandchildren and not necessarily in that order. It was mentally jarring because everyone else’s parents, all my teachers and all of society seemed to be trying so hard to get teenagers to focus on school. I didn’t understand why he valued preparing me for marriage and children over academic success. Fortunately, I knew we weren’t living in the Victorian era and he couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do. I told him many times, “I want to go to college. Marriage and kids can wait.”
In my mid-twenties when I was “still” unmarried, he tried to marry me off to anyone who was single. Once when he was in the hospital from complications with leukemia, he tried to set me up with the man he shared his room with. The guy was getting his gall bladder removed and walked with a cane. When my dad introduced us, the man couldn’t even speak, he just waved.
In my thirties, I “finally” married someone and bought a home. My father began making his plans to move in. He said, “I could move in and be y’all’s nanny.” I replied, “No! We’re not even having kids yet.” He said, “Elizabeth, I am not going to live that long.”
This pressure he put on me my entire life is not just motivated by sexism, but by my father’s fear of death. His mother died from cancer when she was 42, so he feared his end was imminent his whole life, that he would also die at 42. When I was a little girl, he made it seem that our time together was so precious and fleeting. But as I got older I realized there was nothing wrong with him (physically), until he was diagnosed with leukemia at 50. His doctors said he only had one year to live, but there we were ten years later in Hoedspruit, South Africa, celebrating his sixtieth birthday. My father’s two favorite things in life were animals and the film “The Color Purple,” so to be anywhere in Africa was a huge accomplishment. I’m not sure why he had his heart set on living with my husband and me. Not even Celie from “The Color Purple” lived with her pa when she was married.
During breakfast at the lodge, we ate in a dining area with a grand opening to the outside so we could watch the sunrise and monkeys hopping from tree to tree. We usually sat with the London sisters. They remarked on how lovely our relationship was, a father and daughter who were so close. My dad said, “Yeah, she’s great. But don’t get her mad!” The sisters looked at me, puzzled. One said, “She doesn’t look like she gets mad.” I gave them a demure smile and continued eating my berries in a calculated attempt to make him look bad.
He labeled me as “angry,” “mean” and “feisty” because that is what sexists do when women stick up for themselves. When I was a little girl I never talked back to my father, because I always thought he was on the verge of death. But as I got older it became difficult not to push back on him when he failed to see me as anything but someone’s wife, mother or daughter/servant. When he was sick or in pain I would do anything for him. But even when he was well, he would wave his glass at me to refill it. He did this because he saw me as a woman whose purpose was to serve him, not because he was ill but because he was a man.
I hadn’t “yelled” at my dad once during our safari, not yet. In fact, since my father’s impending sixtieth birthday, I’ve developed the attitude that he was getting old, so why continue fighting him on anything? Not that 60 was old, but for my father, who has had a slew of health problems over the last ten years, 60 was a lucky number.
* * *
I know many women have sexist fathers, but I felt the added betrayal of having grown up seeing my father as the maternal figure in my life, more so than my own mother. My dad was the one I trusted with my feelings about my life, my friends and romantic relationships. He was my confidant. So it was jarring when he switched gears from being the shoulder I cried on to the guy making wisecracks about what a terrible driver I was destined to be.
During our last supper at the lodge, my father said, “I think when we get back I’m going to stay with y’all for another week. I think I’ll just leave some clothes this time.” Without realizing how loud I was, I screamed, “No! You’re not staying with us!” My dad looked hurt. He remained silent but gave me a face that asked, “How could you do this to me?”
If he were homeless or incapable of taking care of himself, my husband and I would take him in with open arms. But he had new knees!
His leukemia was not affecting his daily life in any way. I felt that he just wanted to move in so he could live out this fantasy where he gets to be both the man and the woman of the house. Me taking care of him and him taking care of our eventual children, until he got too tired of course.
At the airport my dad pretended nothing happened. He said, “Thank you for the trip” as if I just let him borrow five dollars. I was still mad, but asked myself, “Is it worth fighting anymore now that he’s ‘old’”?
I wondered if his sexist behavior could be a self-defense mechanism. He grew up in a small Ohio town during the ’60s. Although he didn’t come out until the ’90s, while growing up the men in his family repeatedly told him to stop “walking like a woman.” He often got into fights at school for “behaving like a sissy.” Maybe the men in his family taught him that making lame, sexist jokes was what “real men” do. And maybe joining in was his way of saying, “I’m just like you guys.”
His sexism might also spring from the admiration he had for the women in his family and their old fashioned ways. He worshipped his mother, his aunts and his grandmas. Most of them were raised on farms and didn’t even think about going to college. He valued their abilities to marry, make babies, bake bread and sit around quietly while listening to everyone else.
Maybe he resented me for being a modern, free woman who is able to make my own choices. I would understand it if he did. Growing up his father coerced him to play football. In fact he was born just a few miles from Canton, Ohio, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame stands. Every newborn baby boy gets a little football in their crib at the hospital. But my dad didn’t want to play football, he wanted to star in musicals. Sounds like an episode of “Glee” I know, but in real life these scars do not fade so easily.
My father tried to do what his family and society expected of him. He played football, got married and had children. And while the irony is not lost on me that he was also putting unrealistic gender expectations on me, I had sympathy for him. All his life he had been hated by his family and peers for being not only gay but effeminate. He hated himself. He had no mentors or direction. He didn’t have his first real relationship with a man until he was 37. I am now 37; I can’t imagine just now having my first romantic encounter with a man.
I have had to deal with my father’s sexism my whole life, but we were both victims of a misogynistic world. While misogyny is a hatred or dislike for women, I would take it a step further and say it’s a hatred or dislike for anyone who is feminine and that includes some gay men, even some straight men. For a man, I would imagine it is worse. I am allowed to be feminine, but they aren’t. Especially men like my father, who grew up in small towns in the ’60s.
Even so, at the airport that day I felt that he should not be allowed to come to my house, complain about gay rights and then demand I make him a cocktail. Though it was inconvenient and we were about to board, I said, “I think you do this to hurt me.”
“What, that I want to stay a few extra days?”
“No, it’s that you don’t listen to me or respect my boundaries.”
“Well, sometimes you have a sharp tongue.”
I knew he was right. I said, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but I knew he did not intend to hurt me. It was that at times, he did not see me. He saw my form, but not its content. Men do that. Parents do that. People do that. Maybe like most parents, he wanted for me what he could not have: a husband and a simple, traditional life; a possibility I always took for granted. Maybe he will never be able to wrap his head around my desire for more. But I will continue to ask him to see me because he’s my best friend and I love him, and just like Celie says, “Dear God, we’re sill here! We’re still here!”