They say my dad jumped up and down for joy on the day I was born, running the halls of the hospital yelling, “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” I imagine him, curly black hair and Burt Reynolds mustache, beaming with pride at the infant version of me, a perfect projection of masculine achievement.
I am my parents’ second son, the fourth child of five. Like the Catholics, Evangelicals take the Biblical command to “go forth and multiply” literally. I am told my dad’s reaction on that Wednesday afternoon in April, on an otherwise peaceful spring day in Rowan County, Kentucky, caused quite a stir in the operating room. The cause for celebration wasn’t just my birth; it was the surprise signifier of flesh bundled between my legs. I wasn’t supposed to be a boy; or rather, according to family lore and a blurry ultrasound image, I was supposed to be a girl.
The crib at home was anxiously awaiting my delivery, surrounded by all the delicate trappings of femininity. My mother had hosted a baby shower in pink, where I imagine all the women from church prayed blessings over the righteous woman of God I would someday become. They even picked out a name: Abigail. Abby, like one of the frontier girls from the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels my mother loved to read, or the dolls from the American Girl collection my sisters kept locked in decorative suitcases full of trinkets and colonial gowns. I would hold on to Abby throughout my childhood like a talisman, eventually gifting the name to our first family dog, a rust-colored golden retriever who played fetch with rocks and would get stuck humping the neighbor’s mutt in the summers.
I was supposed to be a girl, they said. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t He? While running around basking in the newborn glow, my parents could have never imagined the divine comedic twist that awaited them: in place of another daughter, they got a gay son.
What my father hadn’t anticipated was that I’d grow up to relate more to women, that I’d be captivated by the interior worlds of my mom and sisters, that from my first conscious moments I would connect with the feminine gaze and a rift would be wedged between us, growing wider as the years passed. If only he had known we would spend the rest of our lives trying to speak to each other from across an impassable gulf.
“No matter how much you try to avoid it, you’re going to have to give the little boy inside some attention,” urges my therapist in his cold, Manhattan office. I’m thirty-one and haven’t lived in my parents’ house in over a decade. Yet I still find myself thinking of all the times I felt as a little boy that I didn’t measure up, and how much I wanted my dad to notice me, to look at me with something other than disappointment.
I know my therapist is right, at least on an intellectual level, but something about the whole idea seems utterly ridiculous to me. I nod in agreement, but what I really want to do is scream, “You don’t get it! That child you’re talking about is a sissy!” I can’t play with that little boy inside me. He’s a permanent stain on my family’s reputation, a force that needs to be contained and put back into a box fitting neatly inside my parents’ universe. He doesn’t know his place. When the sissy comes out, there are consequences.
Like the time I was four years old and playing dress up with my older sister, Johanna. We put on ball gowns and danced to our favorite songs from Steven Spielberg’s An American Tail. A natural stage director, she cast me for a part in the musical number of “There Are No Cats in America,” though not in the role of Feivel Mousekewitz. I was dressed up as a more interesting female mouse of her own invention: half Russian refugee, half cheerleader.
“Look at you. You’re so pretty!” Johanna encouraged, stepping back to marvel at her creation. I looked in the mirror and saw infinite possibilities: the dull roar of applause, the blinding lights of a stage, the curtsy to an audience of admiring onlookers. When I came out of the bedroom prancing around the house in full drag, pleated polyester skirt with white bloomers underneath, blonde pigtails tied in blue bows, mascara and blush smeared across my face like a half-crazed circus clown, my dad flipped.
“What did you do to him?!” he yelled, glaring at my sister. Whenever my father became incensed to that level he would scream with the terrifying skill of a ventriloquist from behind a clenched jaw, teeth grinding. “Get back in your room and change right now! You are not a little girl and you are not to leave the house like that! You hear me?”
I have never been more afraid of my father than I was in that moment, and I’ve never been more acutely aware of the cost of gender transgression, a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since. “Why can’t I be left alone to play with Johanna?” My four-year-old self sulked indignantly back into the caged blue walls and Tonka Trucks of my bedroom. That was probably when my parents decided to sign me up for Little League Baseball and Boy Scouts, both of which I would fail at miserably.
For as long as I can remember, there was something different about me. I sometimes wonder how long it took my dad to notice it, too. What was he doing the moment he realized I wasn’t going to be the kind of son who would play catch with him in the yard? What kind of facial expression says: My son is gay?
Did the knowledge come in the form of a prophecy, speaking itself into existence, like God separating the firmament above from the waters below? Did my father wake up one day struck with a sudden revelation, like a jolt of static electricity when your finger touches an elevator button? Or was it a gradual awareness, something that slowly crept up and settled into the worry wrinkles engraved over time on his forehead?
I can’t imagine any of those scenarios fit. Something more akin to willful oblivion sustains my family’s delusions. To this day, we’ve never discussed it openly. I don’t have a coming out story. Just an open secret, like a gaping wound refusing to scab over, understood between us but never acknowledged. My dad—Dr. Tracy as he’s reverently called in our small provincial town, the doctor who impressed the congregation as an erudite scholar of Old Testament scripture when delivering the occasional Wednesday night sermon—has found a way to live comfortably in the impenetrable fortress of his false reality. Pretending is how we operate in my family. I can’t remember ever doing things another way.
Years later our dog, Abby, died. A hit and run on the side of the highway near our home. And I grew from a little boy into a young man, learning to maneuver through life inside the straightjacket of expectations placed on me, hyperaware of every single mannerism and inflection in my voice, trying my best to keep my own Abby at bay.
One weekend in college, I returned home for a visit. At the time, I was running with a crowd of pseudo hipsters who dressed like urban cowboys, though I doubt any of them had ever set foot on a farm. Wearing irony like a costume, we would crowd into house parties and drink warm cans of PBR in our dirty flannel shirts and tattered jeans.
My dad wasn’t in on the joke so when I expressed interested in buying a pair of cowboy boots that weekend, he was more than happy to oblige. We drove together in his Ford F-150 to a shop across from my high school, riding down the Levee Road like we were in a Don McLean song.
The “Boot Ranch” sat tucked between a tire shop in a strip mall and a tobacco barn, wafting a putrid sweet smell in the breeze every summer, a scent I found intoxicating and nauseating all at once. The clerk behind the counter greeted us with a voice made of sandpaper, as if she had smoked Marlboro Reds since adolescence.
“How can I help you boys today?” She added an extra syllable to the word “help” in order to draw out the vowel for a beat longer.
“We’re just lookin’ but thanks,” my dad replied. “You see anything ya like, Little Ruffs?” I’ll never know where he came up with that nickname but it’s how he always referred to me, even in public, in his rare moments of tenderness. In fact, I never heard him use my real name until much later in life, wincing in misrecognition when he said it out loud.
Looking toward the back of the store, my eyes scanned the row of snakeskin boots along the wall, placed in a gradient of amber brown hues. I settled on a pair with intricate blue and red stitching running from the top of the ankle to the middle of the shin.
“I’ll take ‘em!” I beamed.
Next to the counter I eyed a pair of skinny jeans and decided they would add the perfect touch to the bohemian John Wayne look I was going for. I grabbed them and scurried off into the dressing room. After some effort to squeeze into the pant legs, I admired the way they hugged my hips in the full-length mirror.
“What do you think?” I asked, emerging from behind the curtain.
“Oh, honey, those are from the ladies’ section,” the clerk laughed, erupting in a fit of raspy coughs.
My dad, growing visibly flustered, barked, “Take them off and let’s go!”
“Why does it matter?” I wanted to object, but the “W” got stuck in my mouth and I started stuttering, like I was back in third grade before my parents sent me to a speech therapist. My father shot me a horrified glance that said, “You’re embarrassing me,” and I felt my face flush with his shame seeping into my pores, becoming my own. I wanted to run back inside the dressing room and disappear completely.
We didn’t buy the jeans.
With the weekend over and the incident at the Boot Ranch behind us, my dad offered to drive me back to college. It was about an hour west on a lonesome stretch of I-64 and I didn’t have a car, so visits home meant hitching a ride both ways. Sitting together in the car, a shroud of pregnant silence hung in the air as he drove. I squirmed uncomfortably beneath its weight. Do we talk about the weather? Do I stare out the window blankly? Sometimes I worried even the sound of my thoughts might be too loud.
The sun set and the highway was dotted with the faint glimmer of passing headlights. For whatever reason, my dad decided against listening to his usual chorus of conservative talk radio shows that evening. Instead, he chose to sit with me in the heavy quiet for the whole ride, transforming the shared space of his truck cabin into something sacrosanct.
And then, unable to bear it any longer, I began to cry. Hot raindrops streamed down my cheeks. Something about the loneliness of the drive, the dark of the highway, the voice inside my head screaming to get out, the unfulfilled desire to hear my dad finally say, “Son, I see you. I accept you. I’m proud of you.” But he didn’t say a word and I didn’t dare make a sound. No sniffing, no sobs. Just tears of bathwater flowing from my face.
I thought my dad didn’t notice. I hoped and prayed he didn’t. I was embarrassed and didn’t want him to see me like that, didn’t want him to see what I was hiding: his sensitive little faggot boy in the passenger side of the F-150, an emotional wreck.
As we approached the city and the lights of my college town drew nearer on the horizon, he took an unexpected turn off the highway. Where are we going? I wondered, too afraid to ask out loud. Did he forget the directions?
He pulled over at an Arby’s drive-thru. “What do you want?” he asked, without diverting his eyes from the driver side. The illuminated menu screen cast an iridescent glow on his reflection in the window, revealing a face bereft of expression. I ordered curly fries and a vanilla milkshake.
We drove around aimlessly for a while. I could tell he was stalling, allowing time for my face to dry and my composure to return, before finally dropping me off in front of my dorm. I offered a tepid “thanks” and looked on as he turned the corner and left me standing on the sidewalk, clutching the bag of fast-food in one hand and a heap of laundry in the other. My eyes followed his truck peeling off into the night, as I let out a deep, sustained sigh. More resignation than relief.
One day, you’ll look back at the child you were and ask yourself why your parents left you so broken. You’ll wonder why they never did the things you wanted them to do, never said the things you needed them to say. And you’ll keep agonizing over this same irresolvable question: Why? Over and over. Until you’ll finally be struck by something, a thought that had never occurred to you but was painfully evident the entire time: your parents were once broken children, too. And they did the best they could. And maybe it wasn’t enough, but it was love. In their own messed up way, it was love. Shown in the only way they knew how.
Perhaps love isn’t enough. Perhaps it always disappoints us in some way or another, leaving our hearts cracked in the places where it falls short. Deep crevices full of undulating pain, ebbing and flowing like a tide. Yet, in the end, love is the best any of us has to offer.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard my father say to me, “I love you.” Sitting in his truck that night at the drive-thru wasn’t one of those times. But then again, maybe it was.
Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.