Near the end of my first year of law school, I started dating someone who hadn’t had to endure the minutia of my father’s life and my efforts to reconcile it with mine. Dan just knew my dad was gay, and I left it at that.
A couple of months after we started dating, we planned our first weekend-long date. We saw some bands play, ate a burrito and biked to his apartment. The next morning, we had coffee in his quiet apartment filled with comic books and light. We headed out for brunch and then hit Reckless Records and Quimby’s Bookstore. It was a perfect Sunday in Chicago.
The day warmed up and clouded over. We biked to a barbecue where we would both know some people. We showed off being a couple. After a few beers, there still wasn’t any food being cooked, so we got back on our bikes and headed over to Lakeview to see the Gay Pride Parade. Dan knew a guy throwing a party on the parade route. He’d be able to show me how cool he was with gay people and maybe we’d get something to eat.
Streets near the parade were mobbed with people, and we had to walk our bikes. I was hot, sticky, hungry and hating the crowds. The party was well underway when we arrived, and most people were already drunk. Drunk enough that no one thought to start the grill at this party, either. Dan and I put our bikes in the living room and grabbed beers, following most of the other party-goers back out to the street to watch the parade.
Dan chatted with his friends while I masked the social exclusion I felt by pretending to eagerly scan the crowd. For what, I don’t know. I wasn’t likely to recognize anyone I knew. My friends weren’t much into large, corporate-sponsored festivals in yuppie neighborhoods and most of them were at that hipster barbecue we had just left.
The parade itself passed by. Gay and Lesbian Irish people in green T-shirts and tam o’shanters. A trans Carnival-style dance troupe with elaborate costumes. The headpieces must have been a nightmare in that heat. Here were the gay and lesbian AT&T employees, all wearing AT&T t-shirts and khakis and waving rainbow flags with the AT&T logo on it. I felt miserable for the gay rights movement to have come so far just for the pay-off of matching T-shirts.
While the parade itself felt whitewashed and sanitary, the sidewalks and crowd around it were crackling with energy and alcohol and a frantic search for sex. It was Sunday afternoon, the last chance of the weekend to hook up, and people seemed hell-bent on making it happen. The sweaty bodies mixed and the laughter around me seemed forced. I considered going back inside but didn’t know anyone there either, so I kept watching the parade.
Up next was the Gay Chicago magazine float, featuring staff writers and their partners. I deduced this from the fact that my father and his slave Patrick were at the back of the float. My father wore a black leather vest and cap, a white T-shirt, tight jean shorts, aviator sunglasses and black boots. He held a chain leash that connected to Patrick’s studded collar. Patrick sat at my father’s feet on the Astroturf-covered platform, wearing black leather pants and a leather halter with a large ring on this front. I wasn’t surprised by their outfits — although leather seemed an uncomfortable choice in this heat — but I was surprised to see them.
“Dad!” I yelled and put my hand on Dan’s arm. “Patrick!” I yelled several times before Patrick spotted me and waved. He nudged my father, who saw me and waved to me as well. The float was moving along, and Dan’s friends were suddenly aware that I was yelling “Dad” at a pair of Leathermen on a parade float.
The people around me had questions.
“Was that really your dad?” Yes.
“Did you know he was gay?” Yes.
“Is he, like, a real Leatherman?” Yes.
Peoples’ responses ranged from “I’m so sorry!” to “That’s so cool!” I wasn’t inclined to explain any more than I had. Everyone seemed too drunk to be listening anyway.
We went back inside the party and my notoriety preceded me. The rumor that was circulating in the party was that I hadn’t known my father was gay, and that I had just found out when I saw him in leather gear in the parade. People were trying to console me and were unsatisfied that I didn’t seem bothered by what they had just learned. Each expression of sympathy was accompanied by a whiplash-inducing expression of how cool it all was. I couldn’t seem to drink enough beer to get drunk, and my hunger was pushing me towards anger.
I found Dan in a bedroom smoking pot with a couple other guys. I declined to join in — I was hungry enough as it was and don’t like pot — and told him I wanted to leave. After some back and forth, we said our goodbyes and I led the way to the door. As we left, people yelled goodbye. As I started down the stairs, glad to leave the fog of smoke and music, I heard a woman referred to me as “that gay girl” as I passed her. I wish, I thought to myself.
This is an excerpt from my unpublished memoir Better This Way.