“We Tolerate You. Isn’t That Enough?” How A Father Grew To Embrace His Queer Son.

by Peter Zook

I’m Peter Zook and I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio.

So I came out when I was 16. First, my mom – at first, I told my mom. It was during the summer after my sophomore year of high school. And I asked her to wait and let me tell my dad when I was ready. This is the summer before Bush got reelected.

And she came home one night and said, “I’m sorry I told your dad!”

And I was like, “What? I asked you not to!”

And she was like, “I know but we were out to dinner and he was talking about how he was going to vote for Bush again, and I just blurted out, ‘You can’t vote for Bush! Your son is gay!”

And I was like, “Cool…”

The following weekend we went away to Michigan for a little bit. It was my mom, my dad, and my older sister, the 4 of us, and so we’re driving from our cabin to go out to dinner. We pass this volleyball – this beach volleyball court with some girls playing, all in their bikinis, and my dad’s like “Hey, Peter, check out those girls!” And I was in the backseat and I was like, What the fuck? Like, he knows that I’m gay. Why would he say that? That’s so awkward.

But I just ignored it. I was like, “Yeah, cool.” And then we went to dinner and after dinner was some ice cream. I was walking next to my sister as these two cute college guys were approaching. And I was like, I’m going to try this out before. I have never done this. So I kinda elbowed her and was like, “Hey, look at those cuties.”

And she was like, “Ew. Never say that again.” And I was like, What the fuck? I was like, Damn. I’m 0 for 2 tonight.

Because of those two awkward moments, when we got back to our cabin I sat us down and I was like, “Can we just talk about the elephant in the room? Like, I know you all know that I’m gay but you have been kind of weird this evening.” Long story short I let them convince me that I’m bisexual because for them that’s easier to digest. But I’m like, Yeah, sure, because I’m not gonna tell them about the things that I’ve done or other instances, because in their mind, they’re like, Well, you haven’t done anything with a guy, so how do you know?

Fast forward a few months. Bush does get reelected as we all know and I decide to write an op-ed. And I wasn’t coming out in it, but if you read between the lines, I basically was coming out in this piece. And we had a really terrible new principal that year. The principal calls my dad and is like, “Do you know that your son’s writing this article?”

And my dad’s like, “Yeah, I do. Why are you bothering me at work about this?” And I was like, All right… that’s pretty rad, Dad.

They were handling it well but I also felt like, okay, if you are gonna be these really wonderfully accepting parents, then also do more. Get involved. Do PFLAG or I don’t know, read a book or something. I remember trying to challenge them to do more one night and my dad said, “We tolerate you. Isn’t that enough?” And I was like, Wow.

Then I went away to college, out of state in Wisconsin. And UW Madison’s known for its super liberal atmosphere and I got really involved in different student organizations and definitely started to really embrace and come into my own as a queer person.

So then after college, I moved back home. I tried this thing in San Francisco, that doesn’t really work out, I move back home yet again, which I never wanted to do. My parents had never met anyone who I had ever dated and they were away one weekend. and so the guy was staying over at my place and I hear the garage door opening. I look over at him and I’m like, “Don’t freak out. My parents were coming home.”  And I mean it was maybe one of those mortifying moments of my life, but to their credit, they handled it super well. So I was starting to get glimpses of, you know, They can be good with this. I just have to let them have the opportunities to do that sometimes.

And so I moved to Philadelphia about 6 years ago for grad school. Having that distance allowed me to really figure myself out some more and to learn how to be open to them. This past year was hard for various different reasons, one of which is just my job is really exhausting and I needed some help. So I reached back out to my parents and I was like, “Hey, can one of you come out and take care of me?” And my dad was like, “Sure, I’ll be there.” And he was. By the end of the week, he had flown in and was here throughout the weekend.

And one night, we went out to dinner at this tiny hole in the wall in South Philly. And I saw some people who I don’t know really well but I’m super shy and awkward and so I was trying to avoid them. But this place is so small that that’s not really possible. So it’s a group of gay guys and they flag me over and there’s two seats right next to them, so they’re like, “Come sit here!” and I was like, “Great!”

Like I said, it’s so small. I can’t help but hear their conversation. It happens to be Father’s Day weekend and one of them’s talking about how they hadn’t come out to their family yet and they don’t really think that they’d be accepted. And the other person’s, “Like, yeah, my parents don’t know.” And it was just this really surreal moment to be hearing this and sitting across from me is my dad who does know, who has, you know, to the extent that he can, embraced me and was there.

After that dinner, we still haven’t really talked about why he had flown out to take care of me. He was totally following my lead, giving me all the space they needed. And later that night, we are back at my place and he did ask and I did feel ready to sort of talk and open up. I mean, it definitely felt like a sort of – I wouldn’t say a turning point in our relationship because it’s never been that bad. But it definitely felt like sort of we’re even more connected. It was really good to get to have that experience. I know other people who’ve lost their dads or have, you know, less great connections with their fathers and so as a gay queer son to have a dad who’s willing to fly out with little notice and be there, especially over Father’s Day weekend, and it’s just, you know, nice.

Like all relationships, family relationships require a lot of nuance. And I had to change, my parents had to change, and we’re all still also figuring it out. It’s not perfect and I don’t know if it will be.  And I’m a therapist and I often say to my clients honor the wish, accept the reality. And, yeah, I honor the fact that I want them to be different all the time but I also accept that they are who they are. And I have to let them be them if they are going to let me be me.

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