When Clifford was a college senior, he brought his boyfriend home for spring break. His parents were fine with this. They had warmly accepted Clifford’s sexuality years before. He didn’t have to come out to his parents—his father took him out to lunch to have a conversation that acknowledged Clifford in every way.
So one afternoon, Clifford and his boyfriend were on the family computer, and Clifford by mistake clicked on his father’s account. A suspicious screen name came up—it made these two young men shake their heads—the screen name was decidedly gay.
Nothing more happened that day. Then Clifford’s father offered the young men tickets to a local movie. “Use my MoviePhone account,” his father said. “Here’s my password.” They enjoyed the movie.
Clifford of course remembered the password, and on another afternoon, he somehow managed to click his father’s account and enter his father’s password. It all became clear in an instant. In his bookmarks and his correspondence, Clifford’s dad revealed his homosexuality, the struggles within his marriage, and the conflict between his love of his family, and his desires. There was also plenty of gay porn.
Clifford never said a word to his father, and the students went back to school at the end of the vacation. Clifford was revolted by this information, imagining his father as one of those elderly gay men who hang around bars trying to pick up handsome lads—young men just like him.
He didn’t raise the subject with his two sisters or with his mother. He joked about it at college, it seemed so absurd. Sometimes such a secret causes a rent in the fabric of the family, but not in Clifford’s. The family relationships remained stable. They all lived apart and alone. They were never very communicative, joking more than talking. Authentic conversation was not their habit. Clifford went about his life: business as usual.
Then, shortly after Labor Day a group email arrived, addressed to the three children. His father informed each of them about his sexuality, and his mother told them of the impending divorce. Communicating this kind of information by email may seem strange, but this family wasn’t used to talking much.
Clifford was relieved that the secret was out, so he could discuss it with his sisters. It turns out that they also had discovered their father’s sexuality, but they kept quiet because they didn’t think the others knew. Later that fall, his mother offered to visit for a weekend. Clifford dreaded it because he was in no mood to talk about the situation. He was relieved when the subject never came up. Clifford adopted the same stance with his father: if son didn’t ask, then father wouldn’t tell. When his father tried to bring up the subject of their shared sexual experiences, Clifford fled.
He was furious. He felt distanced from his father. He worried about both parents: how could they afford to live apart? And what about his poor mother, who was unfairly made to suffer her husband’s secret—and then had to live with the truth. He went home for Thanksgiving. It was one of the more awkward holidays of his life. He stayed away for Christmas.
Simmering. Embarrassed. How could this be? Clifford’s father was gay, just like him. Clifford been accepted by the family, why wasn't he more accepting of his father?
I think it’s because no children want to know about their parent’s sex life. Kids, until they are grown, fantasize that their parents had sex one time per child. Picturing his father’s sex life on the basis of his own experience, and knowing that his father wanted to share—all this gave Clifford the willies. It was boundary breaking. He didn’t want a chum to trade sexual exploits with. He wanted a father.
Then came Easter. Clifford felt obligated to go home, because his birthday happened on that weekend. He dreaded the trip. But it went better than expected. He had a chance to catch up with his mother, who was fine, better than Clifford imagined. She had kicked his father out of the house because he was a pain in the neck—it wasn’t his sexuality. And his parents lived near each other, sharing the one family car. His father continued to do the household chores, mowing the lawn and taking the leaves out of the gutters, sporadically—as usual. It seemed that they had achieved a new normal.
Then came his birthday dinner. Clifford was shocked to realize that his father had cooked and planned the meal. He had invited Clifford’s grandmother (his mother’s mom, who had made peace with the situation) and made sure that Clifford’s younger sister was there. Looking around the table, Clifford felt better.
His father, by sitting at the head of the family table and providing the meal, had slipped back into his primary role: Dad. Clifford was relieved. He realized that he still had a family, that his father, whatever his sexuality, was still his father, and that everybody still cared for one another—in their own fashion.
It wasn’t so much the revelation that undid Clifford; it was the thought that his father wanted him to move from son to peer. After the birthday dinner, Clifford rejoined the family. Of course he had never really left, he just went into exile until the boundaries went back up.
Jane Isay is the author of many books, including Secrets and Lies (Doubleday).