How I Unlearned the Bigotry My Father Taught Me

It took years to sort through the opinions that colonized my mind.

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When people find out that I grew up the daughter of a man who was staunchly anti-gay even though he was secretly attracted to men, they're immediately curious about my opinion of homosexuality. If my father had been out and proud, then you'd expect me to be a parade-participating advocate for equal rights and marriage equality. But the fact that he preached "traditional marriage" while claiming to "struggle" with homosexuality made things a little more complicated. 

Despite his sexual orientation, my father raised us to believe that homosexuality was a disgusting sin. We weren't allowed to watch shows like Will and Grace or movies like Boys Don't Cry because they promoted "the homosexual agenda." I remember being confused about how I was supposed to suddenly hate certain celebrities for coming out of the closet or depicting a gay person in a film.

Gay people were supposed to be our enemies, but I wasn't sure how they were hurting us. I watched my parents persist in their unhappy marriage, and by the time I was in high school, I began to question why we were superior to families of divorce or how a gay couple was a threat to a situation we couldn't even make work for ourselves.

But when I was 13 years old, I accessed my father's email account and found hundreds of messages between him and other men. They arranged meet-ups and exchanged photos. I was absolutely repulsed. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I didn't mention it to anyone for five years because I was so ashamed to be the daughter of a gay man. I would've preferred him to be a murderer or some other sort of criminal. But gay? That was the gravest of immoral choices. 

My father's choice to preach bigotry while "battling homosexuality" on the sly was more harmful than any episode of Will and Grace or friendship I've had with a boy who has a boyfriend. When I finally asked him about what I'd seen in his email, he denied it. For years, he told me I'd made it up, or was full of hatred and trying to turn everyone against him.  

When I was 17, I was accepted into an art program in California. My best friend from church gave me a going-away gift with the following advice about leaving the Bible Belt for the West Coast:

"Be strong and stay Republican. You might be the only one but know what is true and right. Remember that being gay is sick and wrong and while you will be surrounded by them, never grow adapt[ed] to them."

I found this in a box of memories last summer and was absolutely horrified. I felt like I'd stumbled on incriminating evidence of my past crimes and didn't want to be associated with that level of hatred. But then I realized I hadn't thought twice about it when she gave it to me. I probably thanked her.

Why was I in agreement with what she'd written? Was I naturally wired to think a person with a different sexual orientation was my enemy? I don't think so. I don't think I'm wired to think of anyone as my enemy unless that person is running at me with a weapon. Gay people became the enemy because of the words spoken around my family's dinner table. 

After high school, I didn't speak to my parents for years. I went to college and met people who were different from the church community I'd grown up in. I traveled overseas and learned to see things through the perspective of others. Eventually, my father admitted that he'd been lying. He told my mother he'd been sleeping with men since before they were married, but that God had healed him and his same-sex attraction was a "thorn in the flesh" that proved his spiritual devotion. 

To this day, if you ask him why we don't have a relationship, he will tell you it's because he struggles with homosexuality. He assumes I'm living out the bigotry he taught me. But the real reason I don't speak to him is because he's a hateful person who mistreated my mother and taught his children to be hateful just to further his own agenda. 

It took years for me to sort through the opinions and assumptions that colonized my mind. I had to look at each and every internal judgment to determine whether it was truly mine or whether it'd been put there by someone who wanted to group people into categories of "other."  

I've come to realize the true enemy is not gay people or anyone different from you. The true enemy is someone who goes to great lengths to convince you that some groups of people are not worthy of respect or human rights. That's who we need to teach our children to watch out for and who we need to work against.

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