When a former boyfriend meets her father for the first time, “his hands flittering around in the air like manic butterflies,” Alison Wearing smiles proudly and says, “That’s not a stereotype. That’s my dad.” [p. 9] Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing up with a Gay Dad
is a heartfelt, honest memoir about a young girl dealing with the discovery that her father is gay. LGBTQ rights still have quite an uphill battle these days, but Alison Wearing’s father had an even more difficult time of it. Among the most fascinating chapters in the book deal with the Toronto gay scene in the 1980s, including the horrific story of brutal police raids of gay bath houses. “What have the police got against cleanliness?” Margaret Atwood quips. [p. 106] While more about a family’s personal struggle than the wider social context, Wearing’s memoir has some sharp insights into gay life in Toronto, particularly from her father.
“If I’d been born ten years earlier, it’s very possible that I would never have come out at all,” he said in response to something I had asked about the timing of it, his being in the vanguard of the gay revolution. “And if I’d been born ten years later, most probably I would never have married.” [p. 162]
Wearing’s father has had a long time to think about his sexuality, and his tentative forays into accepting it wholly, even with a wife and children back home, are portrayed with sensitivity. On one hand, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he meets other gay fathers and realizes he isn’t the only man who married a woman in order to conform to social norms. Wearing writes about how gay fathers were ostracized even within the gay community, as if their marriage to women were a betrayal of the gay movement. Her father’s struggle to accept himself and his ultimate decision to live openly as a gay man are both courageous decisions, particularly in the politically charged atmosphere of the eighties, and it’s painful to read how he is rejected even by some of his closest family members.
On the other hand, and Wearing’s sensitivity to multiple points of view aids in this, her father’s decision to come out of the closet affected not just him, but his family as well. In some ways, Wearing is lucky because both her parents are very loving and have always taken care of her and her siblings. As a schoolfriend whose parents are constantly fighting points out, “So your father’s a faggot, big whoop. At least he’s not a lying, cheating, son-of-a-bitch, drunken asshole.” [p. 100] Still, Wearing’s father’s homosexuality does cause the end of his marriage, and Wearing writes with great sensitivity about her experience as the daughter of divorced parents.
It never occurred to me to hate Dad for being gay […] What I did hate was the Greyhound bus, that long sprint on the dog’s back to and from Toronto. […] I hated the shame my mother wore in her eyes […] But more than anything else, I hated all the stories I needed to invent about my life, the dancing pink elephant in the room that I spent my adolescence trying to conceal. [p. 118 – 119]
A few chapters later, Wearing says that the gay part is incidental; it is the parenting part that is important. And in some ways, her experience is touchingly similar to other kids whose parents have separated for other reasons. The elephant she tries to conceal may be dancing and pink, but many families have their own elephants to hide. In this way, Wearing takes what at first seems like a very difficult experience to imagine — how would it feel to have a gay father? — and makes it familiar and relatable. When she wonders why her father “can’t keep being normal during the week and just go to Toronto to be gay on the weekends” [p. 86], it’s a poignant appeal to at least the appearance of normal family life, while still allowing her father (partial) freedom to be happy.
Possibly the most compelling figure in this story is Wearing’s mother, and to the author’s credit, she gives her mother’s less glamourous, less politically charged, story its due. Wearing even includes a few chapters with her mother’s point of view — sadly, it isn’t quite as extensive as Wearing’s own account or her father’s, but that is due more to the mother’s desire for privacy than anything. While Wearing’s father grappled with his sexuality, her mother was left to be the anchor for the children. Thus, when Wearing’s mother started dating another man, Wearing was furious: “Terrified, actually. Convinced she was going to disappear too.” [p. 124]
Wearing’s mother was the source of stability for her children, giving them something to cling on to even when their father spent a lot of time away from home. To Wearing’s credit, she is aware of the unfairness of her behaviour towards her mother.
It wouldn’t have dawned on me to create such drama over one of my dad’s departures. He had come and gone for so long, I never imagined I had any control over his whereabouts. And he had always had a social life outside the house. But if the double standard drove my mother “round the bend,” she never pointed it out to me. [p. 125 – 126]
This, too, is a form of heroism, much quieter than the courage displayed by Wearing’s father in coming out, but no less important. I only wish I got to hear more of the story from Wearing’s mother’s perspective.
Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is a tender, often amusing memoir. Wearing’s affection for her parents, and her desire to understand them, shine through and add emotional weight to their stories. I can’t even begin to comprehend the struggles gay individuals face today, never mind in the 1980s when homosexuality was just starting to fight for acceptance. But in Wearing’s book at least, love seems to go quite a long way.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.