Being a gay dad in the early ’80s was a big deal. So was having one
The moment of truth arrived on an ordinary day in the kitchen of an unremarkable red brick house in small-town Ontario.
It was 33 years ago and Alison Wearing was 12. She remembers the ugly beige linoleum with brown squiggles, and her toes curling around the rail of the stool as she watched her mother unload cereal bowls from the dishwasher that never quite got the dishes clean.
“There are a lot of things about Dad that you don’t know,” her mother said, as she lifted out the cutlery basket.
Something about the word “gay” hung in the air amid the clink-clink of knives and forks.
Then the crushing realization that the world as she knew it had just ended.
These were the days long before the phrase “same-sex marriage” made headlines or gay couples appeared on sitcoms. People actually used the word “fairy.” Toronto Pride Week hadn’t yet launched. And the thought of an openly gay premier was about as out-of-this-world as The Jetsons.
The only thing young Alison knew about “gay” was that it was Very Bad News. Something to do with boys kissing other boys. In other words, gross. And pretty much the worst thing that could happen.
So as her father, Joe, came out in his 40s, his daughter went underground. He left their Peterborough home and spent most of his time in Toronto. She and her two brothers visited on weekends, relished his gourmet meals, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and eccentric circle of friends. But back home, she became a storyteller and an actor whenever people asked about him.
“My life in theatre started then, I had to create,” says Wearing, now 45.
“All these questions would come at me. I had to invent on-the-spot stories about my life that would be acceptable.”
Years later, those same skills have come full circle. Now she’s used them to tell the truth. And she’s done it in an engaging and poignant account of her family’s experience, which happened to parallel gay liberation in Canada.
The story, she soon discovered, is much more than the one she set out to tell.
“It’s not just about having a gay father. It’s about seeing your parent as a person, having what you think of as an imperfect family and dealing with it,” she says.
“It’s about what happens when someone in your life is not the person you thought they were. How do we embrace that and accept them and grow through that?”
That middle-class red brick house offered up all the key ingredients: secrecy, longing, conflict, acceptance, love, laughter and a rollicking cast of characters.
Joseph, now 77, was a politics professor who gave his preschoolers bonus minutes in the bath if they could recite the names of every prime minister. He was also an amateur musician who rolled out pastry for croissants on weekends, and then conducted an imaginary orchestra to the blaring Verdi “Requiem” while they baked.
There was her marathon-runner mother who preferred nourishing her kids with piano playing. And two brothers who showed creative genius when it came to tormenting their sister.
It was a story that practically told itself, first as a 30-page script for her one-woman stage production that premiered in 2011, and now as a full memoir.
Cocooned in the turret of her neighbour’s house in Stratford day after day, the memories poured out “and I’d have to race to keep up with it.”
Her own part was finished in a couple of months. But she knew there was more to tell. She went to get an opinion from her dad, who lives in Toronto with the partner he’s been with for 30 years.
He disappeared to the basement and came back with a box he hadn’t opened for three decades. Inside were clippings and scribbled diaries full of more details than she ever wanted to know.
“Instantly I knew, here’s the rest of the book right here.”
Now she had a way to tell the other side of the story in her father’s voice. And it’s a compelling one, as Joe Wearing grapples with his conflicting desires and tries to come to terms with living as both a gay man and a doting father.
Despite mixed feelings of having his personal life made public, he had seen his daughter’s stage version and believed in her work.
“He said ‘I don’t want to meddle. You’re in the driver’s seat. You use whatever you feel you need,’ ” recalls Alison.
Before the book was even out, Wearing started hearing from people who had gone through similar experiences or were facing them now. This week, she and her dad are attending a meeting of Gay Fathers of Toronto, a support group they were among the first to join years ago.
There’s one more story she wants to share that didn’t make the book. It’s about her own son, Noah, who at 13 is just around the age she was that day on the kitchen stool.
Not long ago, one of his buddies was over and spotted the mock-up of her book cover.
“Oh wow, is that your mom’s book?” he asked.
“Yeah it’s about her dad. My grandfather’s gay,” replied Noah. Then off they went to the kitchen to see what was in the fridge. Just like that.
“That was a beautiful moment,” says Wearing. “Here we are one generation later and he just tosses that one off and then says ‘what do you want to eat?’
“I would never ever, ever have imagined that would have been possible in my lifetime.