The early, crazy years of gay sexual liberation in this country, from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, created an unexpected—weird, even—breed of gay family, long before married same-sex couples were raising kids.
A previous generation of gay men had hidden their sexual orientation, succumbing to societal pressure and marrying women. They participated in traditional heterosexual family life with varying amounts of enthusiasm, even while their sexual imaginations resided elsewhere. Then things changed. The generation of gay men who came of age later didn’t have much time for charades. They were much less likely to date women, never mind marry them. They proceeded directly to gay life and, if they ended up raising kids, have been able to do so as openly gay men.
But then there were the men caught in between. Those who started heterosexual families during the transition from the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name to the love-that-does-what-it-pleases lived through a remarkable time in history. And so did their families, for better or worse. For the wives who discovered or were told their husbands would rather be with a man than with them, it was probably worse. Who wants to learn their domestic life was built on a lie? But for kids, amidst the acrimony and the divorce proceedings, there was also the delight of another world unexpectedly opening up.
Alison Wearing was 12 when her father came out as gay and in hindsight, at least, she sees the experience as something magical.
“My father was so damn happy. It was like seeing someone come into full flower,” says Wearing. Her theatrical memoir of the experience, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, plays at George Ignatieff Theatre during WorldPride, following a highly successful run on the festival circuit. “From the beginning he was so accepting of himself. If he had been wrestling with demons, we would have been wrestling with the same ones.” But he wasn’t, which made all the difference. “He really went out of his way to include us. There was an element of celebration about it that’s very contagious when you’re a kid.”
Although the book of the same name became a bestseller last year, the Confessions project actually began its life as a play. Wearing, now 46, was trying to write a memoir about her family’s time in Mexico, but memories of her father’s coming out when she was a little girl in Peterborough drowned out other childhood recollections. She could imagine the scenes on stage. The trigger memory was the fateful conversation she had with her mother one day when she was 11.
Wearing complained that her father, a political science professor, wasn’t around much and wondered why he was spending so much time at an apartment in Toronto. “There are a lot of things about your father that you don’t know,” her mother told her, setting off another round of questions.
“I remembered sitting in the kitchen on a stool and how, if I got nervous, I would grip the steps of the stool, lift them up and let them crash down,” says Wearing. “I remember doing that and seeing how much it was irritating her. I could feel something was wrong and I just wanted to get at it, like a child pulling on her mother’s pant legs, tell me, tell me, tell me. I remembered her unloading the dishwasher and the exact bowls she was pulling out, and how that dishwasher never worked well and so there was always grit on the dishes. For a writer, it was like finding a whole palette of paints.”
Wearing had set off that uncomfortable conversation herself, quite by accident. She misreported a meal with her father at a gay village restaurant as a visit to a gay bar—at the time, Wearing didn’t even know what a gay bar was. But her repeating someone else’s joke set off her mother’s alarm bells. Of course, there had been early warning signs. On Wearing’s seventh birthday, her father substituted her requested menu—hot dogs, coleslaw and chocolate cake iced with Cool Whip—with his own: Gruyère soufflé, waxed beans with tarragon butter and crème brûlée. Plus there was all that opera he took her to.
The separation and divorce that followed consumed Wearing’s teen years. On one hand, she felt uncomfortable talking to friends about what was going on at home. On the other, the revelations expanded her idea of what form relationships could take. “I would think, ‘Both your parents are straight? Oh yeah, yeah. I guess some people live like that.’ In the same way it rocked my world, it broke it open. I could see there were so many ways of living and loving.”
All Wearing’s family members have seen Confessions, in which she plays all the roles: herself as a child, her mother, her father and her teenage friend. Her older brother was relieved when he saw it—he expected the worst. Her younger brother happily took his young daughter. It was most difficult for her mother. Though her mother blossomed and remarried later in life—and resumed friendly terms with Wearing’s father two years ago—the play ends when Wearing is 23, with her mother still a tragic heroine.
The first time her father saw the play, he was embarrassed. Now 77 and in a gay relationship for more than 30 years, he hadn’t realized how hard it was for his kids.
“But then his seeing audience reactions made him realize, ‘This isn’t a roast, I’m actually being celebrated and isn’t this extraordinary how much people are moved by the story.’”
Although the play has been performed in Toronto as part of the promotional effort for the book, this is the first time it gets a full theatrical treatment here.
Producer Larry Peloso was given the book by a straight friend who had seen the show elsewhere. Reading the story, Peloso realized Alison’s father had been a professor at Trent when Peloso was a student there and had directed Peloso in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore in the late 1970s when neither man was out.
Peloso decided he had to bring the show to Toronto for WorldPride.
Wearing sees the show both as a piece of Canadian gay history and as something far more universal.
“If he had been born 10 years earlier, my father might never have come out. And if he’d been born 10 years later, he might never had gotten married,” says Wearing. “So that’s changed. But you don’t have to drive too many hours outside Toronto before you find families living the exact same story our family was living 32 years ago.”
Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter. June 25-28. George Ignatieff Theatre. 15 Devonshire Place. fairysdaughter.com.