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Coming out in a small conservative town made my father a trailblazer

It’s June, which means rainbow flags are flying high. 

To much of the nation, the flags represent gay pride — a month devoted to the celebration and support of gay rights. But to me, the rainbow flags represent something more personal. For me, those brightly colored flags represent my dad.

My father came out as gay when I was 5 years old. It was a seismic event. Back in the 1970s, coming out of the closet was not what dads in small Midwestern towns did. Especially when those dads were seemingly devoted husbands from conservative Catholic families, as my father was. 

My father would later tell me he knew he was gay for as long as he could remember. But life circumstances left him feeling pressured to embrace not who he was but who he believed others needed him to be. 

From my father, I learned that following one’s heart isn’t always the easy thing to do — but that, in all kinds of ways, it’s the only thing to do.

When my father was a little boy, his older brother was struck and killed by a car while getting off the school bus. It was a shattering blow to the family. As the only surviving son, my father tried to fill the void his brother left behind, working especially hard to please his own father, a farmer who spent long hours in the field and wanted a son to carry on the family name.

In the years following his brother’s death, my father played the role of a dutiful — and straight — son. He took pretty girls to the prom. He operated tractors and other heavy machinery with ease. He showed grand champion steer at the county fair. 

Shortly after meeting my mother and serving a stint in the Army during Vietnam, he proposed. 

At first, it was a picture-perfect life. My parents welcomed my older brother and then me. My father assumed the roles of responsible father, successful businessman, lector at Sunday Mass.

But then things went terribly wrong.  

My father came out to my mother after his second suicide attempt. Unable to reconcile the life he was living with the life he longed for, he tried to end it all.  

Though devastated, my mother saw the bigger picture, and knew my father needed love, not judgment. During a joint session with my father’s psychiatrist, she uttered the words to my father that he said ultimately saved his life.

“Dale,” she said, holding his hand. “If I can accept who you are, why can’t you?”

With that, my father charted a new course. 

It wasn’t easy. In coming out and divorcing my mom, my dad was starting over. And in working to keep one foot in his “old” world — decorated salesman, involved father — and one foot in his new gay lifestyle, he was something of a pioneer. There was no road map, no one to show him the way.   

Making matters more difficult, my father was forging that new path in the 1980s during the nation’s AIDS crisis, when homophobia and the cruelty and ignorance of large swaths of Americans were at heightened levels. There were members of our community who literally thought that sharing a meal with a gay person or swimming in the same pool could prove deadly. 

For every two or three steps forward in my father’s journey, there was often a very painful step back. As news of my father’s identity spread, my brother and I were bullied at school, often barred from parties and playdates. My mother was whispered about at the bank and grocery store. 

My father, meanwhile, had difficulty winning acceptance from his old world, including  some members of his family and business colleagues. Many friends turned their backs on all of us.  

But step by step, my father inched forward, blending his worlds, slowly but surely helping those around him to understand that being gay wasn’t something to be feared, that being a dad and being gay weren’t mutually exclusive.  

Through his actions, my father shattered one stereotype after another, showing those around him that he could be gay and love the Green Bay Packers, that he could be gay and be a proud military veteran, that he could be gay and be an expert with tools and lawnmowers and Weber grills. For much of his life, he even showed that he could be gay and be a card-carrying Republican.

As my father found his footing, he introduced me to parts of his new world. Some of my favorite memories with my father came during my college years in New York City. After my long days at the library, he’d take me out to some of his favorite gay bars, notably a pair of piano bars in Greenwich Village. Often I was the only female — and the youngest person — in the house. He’d drink his bourbon and seven. I’d drink my Diet Coke. And we’d join his friends, belting out show tune after show tune into the wee hours of the night. 

Ultimately, my father taught me that life is not about being everything to everyone, but instead about being true to oneself.

From my father, I learned that following one’s heart isn’t always the easy thing to do — but that, in all kinds of ways, it’s the only thing to do. My father showed me that the biggest mountains aren’t scaled, and society isn’t changed, in one dramatic swoop; that the really big changes come bit by bit, day by day, when individuals ignore the rules and forge new paths one brave and steady step at a time. Ultimately, my father taught me that life is not about being everything to everyone, but instead about being true to oneself. 

In 2013, my father, finally fully comfortable with who he was, announced that he and his partner were coming to New York to be legally wed and wanted to know if my husband and I would be witnesses. We were honored. After the ceremony at New York’s City Hall, our four children joined us in a celebratory meal for Opa.

My children have always been very accepting of my dad being gay and never saw it as particularly noteworthy — it was simply a fact of life.

One summer morning, my 9-year-old son announced he wanted to make a rainbow flag for Opa. I watched as he used a ruler and markers to carefully make the stripes, one at a time. When he was finished, I emailed a photo of the flag to my father. Within minutes, the phone rang. 

“Did Roman make the flag?” my father asked.

“Yes, Dad.”

Putting my father on speakerphone, I handed the phone to Roman.

“Roman,” my father said, unable to hold back his tears. “I can’t tell you what it means to me that you made that rainbow flag.”

“It was just a flag, Opa,” my son said sheepishly. “It was nothing.”

“No, Roman, for me that flag was everything. When I was growing up, nobody was supposed to be gay. Especially a grandpa. And grandpas who were gay had to live their whole lives pretending they were someone they weren’t. Or if they had the courage to be openly gay, there’s a good chance they never got to see their grandchildren grow up. You just made a dream I could barely dare to dream come true.”

At my father’s request, we sent him the flag. It was a work of art he cherished, displayed in a place of prominence in his home. 

Six months later, when my father died unexpectedly of complications related to pneumonia, that rainbow flag, drawn by hand, with heart, by my oldest son, was placed in my father’s coffin.  

Each June, when those rainbow flags fly high, my children and I smile. For us it’s no coincidence that the flags fly high in the days leading up to and immediately following Father’s Day. For us, the rainbow flag is Opa’s Flag.

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