From “Utter Agony” to Love and Trust: A Father’s Journey of Acceptance Towards His Gay Son

by James Palmer

Hi, I’m James Palmer. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.

In my mid 20s, I reached out to a therapist because I was having some challenges with the relationship that I was in, and I was seeking her guidance and help. On day one upon sitting down with her, she laid down the gauntlet, so to speak. She made clear to me that before I could progress in any other area of my life, including relationships, that I needed to come out to my dad. My reaction was hell no, that I was prepared to go to my grave without my dad knowing, because I felt like it would utterly destroy him. 

I eventually acquiesced and I realized that coming out to my dad was an important step to take so that I could claim to be the man that I wanted to be in my life. So after working with this therapist for a year and working with a local PFLAG organization during that time, I decided it was time to come out to dad.

I arranged to sit down with my parents in their suburban Atlanta home after their church service on this particular Sunday, and we were gathered in each of them in their favorite chairs and me on the couch. With shaking hands, I handed them each a copy of a seven page letter that I had so carefully crafted. My mom, I recall, interjected and said, without even looking at the letter, said, “Just tell us what you need to tell us.” 

And the whole time my dad had this bewildered, confused look on his face as if what in the hell is going on in this room? And I can recall my dad sitting in his recliner. And it wasn’t until page two of this letter that I announced that I was gay. And as he turned page two and read that I can remember so vividly to this day, he took the letter in his left hand and he crunched it in his hand, brought it to his temple, and he had turned beat red. And he was clearly in utter agony. 

He wasn’t crying at that time, but there was some light wailing as he clenched this letter to his temple. And he recovered briefly, got up and walked out of the room. And I was destroyed because I felt like I had destroyed this very proud man. So two weeks later, I very unexpectedly got a phone call from my dad. And very succinctly he told me that he loved me, but that he never wanted to speak about my sexuality again. 

After the phone call, my life moved forward. I eventually left Georgia. I moved to New York City in 2003 and really dove into living my best gay life. I joined the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus soon after arriving in New York. I was in relationships. I was really having all the adventures that life in New York can afford, and I was maintaining contact with my dad, but there was an honor of his wish to not really know about aspects of my sexuality and my true identity. I didn’t push the envelope and I didn’t go out of my way to share too many details with him. 

Around 2009, I was back south visiting with my dad, and as I was getting ready to leave this particular afternoon, I had my bags packed. They were by the front door of my parents’ home, literally getting ready to go out the front door. And my dad very awkwardly and sheepishly pulled me aside into the kitchen and shared with me that he had just recently seen something about the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus on PBS. He was clearly very nervous to even broach the subject of the Gay Men’s Chorus. I was so totally blown away that he had gone there and I didn’t know how to respond. But I can remember this sense of joy even that my dad had finally been able to acknowledge a part of my life and a part of who I am. It was a pretty profound moment. We left for the airport thereafter, and I don’t remember a whole lot thereafter.

My dad had finally been able to acknowledge a part of my life and a part of who I am.

My life continued for six years. So for many years, I had thought that it was paramount that I, before my dad died, that I would be able to sit with him and to have a conversation and to really hash out my sexuality and my identity as if to pick up where we left off with that phone call so many years before. And unfortunately though, I was not able to do that. 

Around 2015, I got the call that my dad had had a stroke, and I rushed back south to be with my dad. It was a late July afternoon, and we were all gathered in my father’s hospital room. It was my mom, my brother and his wife, my dad’s sister, physicians. And my dad was losing the ability to talk and to communicate. And his physician asked him pointedly who he wanted to make healthcare decisions for himself. 

And my dad with much weakness raised his hand, and pointed to me. I was at the very end of the bed opposite of him. I can remember being totally blown away as if my dad was telling me that I was the one that he trusted and loved. And it was a moment of reckoning for me. Any shame that I may have had or he may have had around my sexuality had evaporated, and that he did indeed love me and trusted me.

I think that my take away even from my own story was that no matter the outcome of telling my dad – coming out to him – no matter the outcome, that it was important for me to come out to myself. That it was important for me to tell my story and to be who I am to them. To be visible to them. To be known to them.

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