The bond between mother and gay son—often intimate, sometimes overwrought—gets all the publicity. In fact, they used to blame homosexuality on overprotective mothers. Dads, on the other hand, can fail to connect with male offspring who don’t feel exactly like a chip off the old block. Amidst the coming-out drama, dads may be the last people let in on the secret.
But gay men and their dads can develop special relationships. Ironically, the connection can improve after the coming out; the revelation means that a son’s long-time preference for theatre over, say, playing hockey wasn’t a rejection of dad and what he had to offer—it was just an orientation that wasn’t anybody’s fault.
Though some dads may be squeamish about the details of gay sex, they can be more easygoing than moms about dating and relationships, more broadly speaking. In these spotlights on five father-son bonds, we can also see that it also takes a special son to drag his father to a gay club, let his father see him strip or ask his father plan his traditional Hindu wedding.
MIKE AND MIKE CHALUT
“When I came home from school and Mikey would be playing down the street, he’d sprint down the street and jump into my arms,” says Mike the elder, now 64 (pictured left with son Mike). A perfect Catholic family of four (Mike Junior has one younger sister) living in Windsor, the father-son closeness continued when Mike Junior started high school.
“We were as thick as thieves,” says Mike Junior, now 36. “My dad taught and was head of the guidance department. I was student council president and on the spirit team and so for five years, my dad and I basically ran the high school.”
SUSPICIONS AND TENSIONS
“In high school, I never thought of being gay. I dated all the pretty girls, I was Mike Chalut’s son!” says Mike Junior.
“Deep down, I think I knew, but I always buried it. I thought, ‘I’ve got this guy who loves me so much, everything’s going our way and there was this one thing that wasn’t right.’” Says Mike Senior: “What Mikey never realized, and it’s sad for me to even say this, I kinda thought he was gay when he was in grade nine, just because of his mannerisms and being into acting. He had a lot of girlfriends. Just a lot of little things, like the way he carried his books.”
When Mike Junior was in his early 20s, he moved to Toronto with his girlfriend to pursue an acting career at a time when his parents’ marriage was coming apart. (Mike Senior eventually remarried and has two sons, which Mike Junior considers brothers.) “I pulled away from my dad for a good six months, but he never gave up on me, he’d call, leave messages,” says Mike Junior.
At 21, Mike Junior became the first manager at fly nightclub and invited his dad and his wife to visit him there, absurdly refusing to tell them he was gay or even that it was a gay club. “I was like, ‘This is not a normal place where I’ve been to before. What the hell is he working here for?’” says Mike Senior. Finally, dad decided to press the issue.
Says Mike Junior, tearing up: “He said, ‘Tell me so I can tell you I love yah.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, dad.’ He said, ‘There’s nothing to be sorry about. I don’t have a gay son, I have a son that I love, so let’s move on.’” Mikey’s mother, who went deeper into her Catholic faith after the divorce, didn’t take the news so well.
Father and son talk every day and Mike Senior has co-hosted on Mike Junior’s afternoon show on Proud FM, which he will be leaving. “They say you should never be your kids’ friend, be a parent. I do have that boundary and I sometimes have to remind Mikey about that. We talk—some people would say we talk too much. But how do you love someone too much?” says Mike Senior. Awkward moments do happen around sex and relationships. “I don’t want to put my head in the sand. I don’t understand it or pretend to understand it. I think sexuality is private As a Catholic, I think gay people still have to have morals,” says Mike Senior.
“Totally, totally,” interjects Mike Junior.
“For me to mess around with a bunch of women, that’s wrong,” says Mike Senior. “For a gay person to go mess around with a bunch of guys, that’s wrong, too.”
“Dad, you’re so good, you’re so right!” says Mike Junior. “These are the calls I get every day.”
JEREMY AND GERRY DIAS
Jeremy and his younger brother were born in Edmonton before their parents separated in 1998, when Jeremy was 10 years old. By the time Jeremy was 14, the brothers were living with their mother in Sault Ste. Marie, regularly visiting their dad in Edmonton. “The divorce was an unfortunate situation but we were always excited to spend time with dad,” says Jeremy, now 30. Originally from the Indian state of Goa, the family was involved in various community organizations and Roman Catholic charity work; it wasn’t uncommon to spend weekends bringing food to someone who had experienced a loss, welcome new Canadians to the neighbourhood or volunteer at a fundraiser.
SUSPICIONS AND TENSIONS
Jeremy suspected he was gay in grade school, “but I passed it off as being more spiritual. We were involved in the Goan association and we used to do a lot of dance and theatre, which is interesting because I’d argue that Goan culture is very feminine and gay.” Getting involved in theatre in Sault Ste. Marie, he developed his first crush on a guy.
Gerry says he didn’t have a clue until he started hearing about Jeremy’s problems in school, being bullied and beaten.
“He was put into sports like ball hockey, soccer and fencing and there wasn’t indication he was gay,” says Gerry, now 60.
Jeremy came out in a telephone call when he was in grade 10, as he was grappling with being picked on in school.
Says Gerry: “I remember that telephone call very vividly. I did feel a little in the dark. I didn’t have many conversations with his mother, so I only knew bits and pieces. It was so out of the blue, it didn’t strike me that he was gay.”
“I remember him being quiet,” says Jeremy. “I’m the first and only person in the Goan community in Edmonton to come out. It was sort of, now what? There really wasn’t much to talk about.”
That summer in Edmonton, Jeremy saw his stay with his father as an escape from his high school hell. He went into party mode and met his first boyfriend, who was eight years older than Jeremy. “I was very protective of him,” says Gerry, who insisted that the boyfriend pick Jeremy up at home. At first, the coming out brought them closer together, but Gerry’s then-girlfriend (now wife) didn’t like Jeremy staying out late. “I was a teenager who was feeling choked so I left the house and spent the last two weeks with my boyfriend.” Father and son didn’t talk for years.
At age 17, Jeremy launched a human rights complaint against the Algoma District School Board because he was not allowed to start a gay social club. He eventually won Canada’s second-largest human rights settlement and in 2005, founded Jer’s Vision (Jersvision.org), which works to eliminate bullying, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination among young people. That year, Jeremy’s birthday fell on the same day as a Pride event tied to the organization’s launch. “Dad called just as [former Liberal MP] Sheila Copps and [late senator and broadcaster] Laurier LaPierre were dragging me off into a room celebrating my gayness. I was so glad dad had reached out. It was huge.
We talked and talked and talked a few more times,” but not much about “the gay thing.”
When Gerry had a serious stroke, Jeremy, who now lives in Ottawa, and his brother went to his side and stayed at the hospital for two solid weeks. After recovering, Gerry attended the next Edmonton Pride where Jeremy was nominated for an award. “I’m very proud of him, not just because he’s gay, but because he’s accomplished quite a lot,” says Gerry. “I’m still a staunch Catholic, but because of the way the gay community has progressed and become part of everyday life, it’s not something to raise eyebrows about. It doesn’t matter what orientation you are, as long as you’re a person of integrity and respect, that’s what important to me.”
When Jeremy ended a relationship a few months ago, his father provided him consolation. “You don’t want to live a life with unease in your relationship, you need to find someone compatible.” Says Jeremy: “Given where we’ve come from, I would never have anticipated dad being okay with me being gay.”
JAMES AND JOHN FOWLER
Toronto artist James Fowler (jamesfowlerart.com) was born in Lahr, Germany, but grew up with a younger sister in northern Ontario. His father was an electronics technician in the Canadian Air Force so the family moved around (John used to work on the CF 100 now on display in a park in North Bay). “I remember both my parents being very involved. We did a lot of camping,” says Fowler, now 43. “They were very supportive of my creative side. My dad had a workshop I was allowed to go and play in.”
“I didn’t know anything about art and he was doing stuff that was so strange. I thought, ‘Jeez, my son’s from space or something.’ I didn’t understand it at all,” says John, now 69 and retired.
SUSPICIONS AND TENSIONS
Around puberty, James started thinking, “Hm, there’s something different. But we lived in a small community and I wasn’t exposed to gay culture. I remember in grade school, in sex ed, learning about AIDS and how gay people might get AIDS and I thought I was doomed to that.” John didn’t suspect. “It never occurred to me. [Gayness] wasn’t a big thing to me. I spent 13 years in the air force. That kind of stuff—there’s not a lot but it’s certainly there. I worked with these people and they were as normal as anything else.”
“It was wonderful when it happened and I mean that sincerely,” says John. James was 19, living in Toronto and home for Christmas during his first year of university. “We were shooting the shit and out of nowhere he said, ‘Dad, I’m gay.’
And I was like, ‘So?’”
James’ sister and mother already knew, but his sister had encouraged him to tell his father, a pretty butch guy. “I remember being so worked up about it. I was crying,” says James. “He said, ‘I’m a little bit ashamed of myself. I feel like I’ve done something that you couldn’t tell me sooner.’” Although James was more nervous about telling his father, his mother was more awkward in the beginning. “My father was, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, what are we having for dinner?’”
For a long time, James was upset because John didn’t want him to bring a boyfriend home, suspecting his father was embarrassed or uncomfortable. “It wasn’t until years later that we had this great conversation where he told me he wasn’t embarrassed, he just didn’t like the guy.” James and his current partner, Rick, helped move John and his wife from Ontario to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a couple of years ago, an adventure for all four of them.
“I like to be able to say that my son is gay,” says John. “It’s not about shocking people. It’s more like, ‘Wake up, this is a new world.’ If I said that to somebody and they made a remark, they wouldn’t be my friend anymore.”
James remembers taking his father to Wilde Oscar’s (now O’Grady’s) for a meal on Church Street years ago.
“Somebody asked me afterwards, ‘Who’s that older guy you were with? He’s really handsome. Are you seeing that guy?’ I was like, ‘That was my dad!’”
Recently there’s been some lighthearted family pressure for James and Rick to get married. “If I don’t get to be the best man, I won’t go,” laughs John.
RISHI AND VIJAY AGARWAL
Rishi grew up in Mississauga with one older brother. His father, a professional engineer, moved to Canada from India in 1970 and married here in 1975. “Rishi was an ideal boy,” says Vijay, now 67 and retired. “When I asked him to do work around the house, he was always helpful and bubbly.” The boys attended both Baptist and public schools. Rishi didn’t play many sports, but his brother didn’t play many sports either.
SUSPICIONS AND TENSIONS
Rishi, now 33 and a senior accounting manager, suspected he was gay in elementary school. “I knew I was different, that I had certain feelings that I shouldn’t be telling anybody about,” he says. Although Rishi was somewhat effeminate when he was growing up, his parents never suspected. “I remember Rishi and my wife talking about another guy, whether he was gay, and my wife told him, ‘You don’t know anything, that guy’s not gay,’” says Vijay.
When Rishi was in grade nine, one of the South Asian classmates of his brother, who was in grade 11, came out, then killed himself, which pushed Rishi deeper into the closet.
Vijay has the date seared in his mind: July 1, 2004. A guy that Rishi had secretly dated during a trip to Vancouver gave him a heartfelt card that Rishi felt he couldn’t display anywhere, so he threw it away. “On the plane, I bawled for five hours. In that moment, I decided that was enough.” As soon as possible, he dropped his “bombshell” on his parents.
“He made us sit down,” says Vijay. “He said, ‘Mom and dad, I have some information to give you and an announcement to make.’ There was pin-drop silence for 40 seconds. In our household, I’m not known to be a quiet person…. I said, ‘The reason I’m quiet is that I don’t have the knowledge to say anything.’” Vijay and his wife spent the next 72 hours without any sleep, borrowing books and documentaries to give themselves a crash course on gay issues. “During that time we were feeling so bad that our son was going through the issue and we were not there to help him.” Rishi begged that his parents not make him live a life that wasn’t his own. “I said, ‘There’s not going to be anything like this, you’ve suffered enough,’” says Vijay.
When Rishi started dating, his parents sometimes looked at the online profiles he was perusing. His mother suggested he take a chance and date Dan and, after three years together, the two got engaged. Vijay promised they’d have a traditional Hindu wedding just as impressive as Rishi’s older brother’s wedding. “The way it was done, there was no discrimination whatsoever,” says Vijay, who helped find gay-friendly wedding suppliers including, most onerously, a Hindu priest who would perform a same-sex wedding. They got no traction from about 10 priests before finding a willing officiant, who, ironically, had just moved to Canada from India. The attention of guests can wander during long Hindu wedding ceremonies, but the 200 guests were rapt throughout. “People came to me after the wedding to tell me there wasn’t a single dry eye in the audience,” says Vijay. “People were so emotionally moved by the ceremony.”
CHRISTOPHER AND DAVE HAYDEN
After his parents divorced when he was six, Christopher felt like he and his sister spent most of their childhood on the QEW, being shuttled back and forth between their mother’s place in High Park and their father’s in Mississauga.
Christopher was in Air Cadets, but otherwise was more of an artsy kid. “I was a singer, a dancer. I played trumpet and piano. I was the only person to strike out playing T-ball,” says Christopher, now 30.
SUSPICIONS AND TENSIONS
“I subconsciously knew I was different but I didn’t have the words for it,” says Christopher, who recently became a social worker after years of supporting himself as a performer and waiter. Dave, now 59 and a retired teacher, started to wonder if Christopher was gay when he was in elementary school. “I had a sense Chris was gay but I didn’t have a whole lot to base it on. When I was in high school I had a friend who was gay who used to be picked on a bit. I knew Chris didn’t like sports. As it got more into high school, I figured Chris was gay and I also figured he’d eventually let me know.” Attending the Etobicoke School of the Arts, Christopher’s first mentor was gay. “I remember idolizing him and wanting to know all about him and wondering why I was so invested in that relationship,” says Christopher.
As a teenager, Christopher snuck out of a ballet class early one night to attend an LGBT youth group meeting. He got home to his mother’s late, breaking his curfew. “They always say, do not come out in an argument, but that’s exactly what I did. I remember there was a lot of yelling and not understanding one another.” The day after, Dave picked up an obviously upset Christopher at school. Dave followed him to his room where Christopher told him he was gay.
“I don’t remember that,” says Christopher now, “but I don’t doubt it happened.” Dave says he had been waiting for it: “It was one of those crystalline images. I remember you lying on the bed. I could see the clock. It was 6:03. It was Thursday night. You said you were gay. There was a bit of a silence. I said something to the effect that I loved you and that it was unconditional. Once it was out in the open between us, it made everything easier.”
As a member of Boylesque (Boylesqueto.com/shows/), an artsy all-male burlesque troupe, Christopher invited his family to a Pride performance last year. He says he wasn’t self-conscious about bumping and grinding in his skivvies in front of his father. “The show had a high-school theme, so it’s kind of funny that my dad’s a teacher,” says Christopher. “I don’t really think of myself as super erotic or sexual when I do it. For me, it’s more political, because I’m a bigger guy without a six-pack on stage. It just wasn’t a worry, though I did simulate sex on stage. They knew what they were getting into. I think they had fun.”
“He had talked about what it was and I had seen YouTube clips,” says Dave. “No, I’m not easily shocked. We’ve been to so many of his high school shows so it was like going to a high school show except with less clothes.”
When Christopher started dating his current boyfriend five years ago, the couple spent what was supposed to be a discreet weekend at the family cottage, but they had to stop at a family function on the way back to the city. “He met everybody all at once. That provoked some anxieties in him, for sure.”
“Oh, he fit right in,” laughs Dave.