[OPINION] How I became friends with my father

Tristan Lugod

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[OPINION] How I became friends with my father

David Castuciano/Rappler

'When I think about my father and how our relationship improved after I came out, I also come to think about the parents who are not as accepting of their children'

For the first 20 years of my life, my father and I had what I can perhaps only describe as a lukewarm relationship. My father’s job kept him away from us Mondays through Fridays and was home only on the weekends. Exhausted from work and the trip, my father would spend his time watching TV. Most of our interactions were passive — renting movies, visiting grandparents, dining out, going for a swim. Dad and I didn’t have that deep father-son bond that was the stuff of textbooks or commercials. It didn’t help that I was the most different among his sons. I was not tough or athletic. I was the secretive one, and I neither shared private details of my life with him nor came to him for advice.

My early twenties were more of the same, although this time I was working and living in the big city. Moving to Manila brought me my first gay friends, and for the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who knew how it felt to be me, people who understood. Suffice to say, my early twenties were a period of self-discovery and self-acceptance. This was when I shed the anxiety and the doubt and self-loathing and grew comfortable in my own skin. But there lingered the matter of my family not knowing, especially my father. Coming to terms with who you are is one thing; others reconciling with the facts is another.

It’s funny how we think we’re being clever, that we’re able to hide secrets. For years I thought I was getting away with mine. And my father thought he was getting away with feigning ignorance.

“How’s your kuya? Is he still with his girlfriend?” he’d always ask me while we sat at the garden set outside my grandmother’s house.

“He’s fine. They’re still together,” I’d answer back.

“How about your dikong? They’re still together?”

“Yes, they still are.”

“How about you? How’s your job?” he’d ask after a pause.

“I’m doing okay.”

“Good. Save money.”

We would talk like this, staying on the safe side of small talk and skirting around every subject that could lead to the disclosure of details beyond what we were ready to divulge or find out. As long as we didn’t talk about it, the matter didn’t exist. The charade wasn’t difficult to sustain; you can count the times we saw each other in a year in one hand.

I suppose in a way coming out to my father was the logical end of a long and gradual process. I first came out to my best friends, then to my brothers, and then to my mom and our extended family in a span of two years. But it took another four years before I felt ready to tell my father the truth about me.

The thought matured in my head over time. I realized I had to open up not merely because it was the truthful thing to do. I had to come out because I figured that by leaving him out, I might be depriving him of the happiness that comes from knowing that something beautiful was happening in my life, that I might be denying him the joy of gaining another son. It helped that I didn’t know how he’d take the news. This implied there was a chance for acceptance, and that chance was good enough for me.

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Coming out to my father was no dramatic moment, not like those on primetime television or realist plays. It happened one night as my family waited for my arrival for a father-and-sons dinner.

“Your dad knows you have a boyfriend,” glowed the text from my sister-in-law. I was on a cab on my way to the restaurant.

“How did he find out?” I texted back.

“Your kuya told him.”

I wasn’t mad at my brother. I was responsible for this. I knew my father would never ask me and it was unlikely for me to volunteer the information. We just weren’t close enough for that. So I enlisted my brother’s aid to that end. Years before I had asked my brother to tell him the first chance he got, and I guess this night was it.

“How did he react?” I asked my sister-in-law.

“I don’t know. He didn’t really say anything.”

They were halfway through the meal when I arrived. I came to my father and kissed him on the cheek and then sat at my appointed place. Something inside me was churning. I had always suspected that my father knew and accepted he had a gay son. But a part of me also feared that I might be wrong and that I’d get rejected. I had told myself that I would stand my ground if it came to that.

My father gave his customary greetings and then asked, “Where’s your boyfriend?”

“Oh, uhm, he’s not available tonight,” I answered.

“Bring him next time so that I can meet him.”

I knew then everything was all right.

Illustration by Guia Abogado/Rappler

The change, too, was neither grand nor sweeping. Our relationship didn’t transform overnight. Instead it came slowly and in trickles: a series of small discoveries about each other, a gradual re-acquaintance between father and son, an easing into cordiality more typical of friends than parent and child. The dreaded secret was out now. I had nothing more to hide. He no longer had anything to sidestep. Sitting with him no longer felt like waiting for bad news that may or may not come. And so we came to talk casually and honestly. We asked questions we never asked before. We shared our opinions matter-of-factly. All steps too small to measure daily. But over the years they added up to real progress. The space between us was finally swept of cobwebs, like a clear, well-cared for window through which we could see each other undistorted.

As I opened up to my father, I realized I’ve taken after him in more ways that I would have cared to admit when I was young: the way I dress, my taste in music, my love for films, how I like my coffee. In the past, distance made me wary of any resemblance and quick to refute every remark on our sameness. But now I see we have the same lips, the same height, the same frame, even the same unusually jagged hairline, for which I am thankful, seeing how his hair remains thick even at 70.

When I think about my father and how our relationship improved after I came out, I also come to think about the parents who are not as accepting of their children. I certainly know more than a few who face the real risk of disownment should their parents find out. It puzzles me how some parents would rather lose their children for being different than take the time to know them well, or embrace them, or at the very least choose kindness and compassion and support them for who they are even though they don’t fully understand where they are coming from. But I am not here to talk about other parents; I am only here to talk about my father. My father, who doesn’t wince when I talk about gay stuff, who asks after my boyfriend the same way he asks after my brothers’ wives.

In an ideal world, my father’s reaction would be the norm. But this is not an ideal world. In other parts of this country, coming out could mean ridicule and isolation. In other parts of this world, people are shunned, beaten, and killed for being gay. That this man is my father reminds me of how fortunate I have been.

As I write this, I ask myself why exactly am I telling this story. There’s nothing majestic about it. My story is a feeble firecracker compared to others’ explosive tales. Then again, perhaps it is remarkable because it is mundane. In a sea of coming out stories filled with rejection or Damascene conversions, here’s my father who barely flinched. And isn’t this preferable: a coming out story so utterly anticlimactic, so utterly dull that it fails to stir even the slightest drama? After all, the degree of difficulty in coming out is but a measure of intolerance that permeates an environment, regardless if it’s real or imagined. That it was uneventful with my father does him credit.

“You should stop smoking while you’re young,” my father used to say every time we met. “I’m old. I can’t stop now. But you, you’re young. Stop while you can.” Minutes later, Dad would lean over the counter and point to a pack of Marlboro Reds. I’d ask him to buy me a pack of Blues and he’d tell the vendor without hesitation, then we’d head out to smoke our cigarettes. Between puffs my father would ask after my brothers, their wives, and my partner.

These are the moments I’ve come to love — us standing beside each other, cigarettes between our fingers. I’ve since quit smoking, but the talk remains the same to this day. Over coffee, or his favorite halo-halo, or the dishes that I cook for him whenever I visit. In these moments, we cease being father and son and become just two grown men having a good time. –

Tristan Lugod was trained as a nurse. He now works as writer and editor for a writing firm in Makati.

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