My father and I have a rather stunted relationship, mostly due to the fact that on the whole we’re two extensively different people. He was raised a good Christian farm boy with eight brothers and sisters in Saskatchewan and even though he moved westward he’s still conservative. He was the last person to find out I was queer and when I finally came out he told me, “I thought you might be, but I didn’t want to ask.”
Part of me resented him missing out on a big part of my life but I realized it was up to me to take control of the dialogue. I don’t really understand the ins and outs of a father-son relationship, so throwing in sex, politics and morality makes things really messy. But it wasn’t till a recent trip out west that I realized how difficult some viewpoints are to explain.
Sitting in the car with my father, I became aware of the seemingly infinite space between me and the driver’s seat. I’d felt this tension before, the calm before the storm of his horrifying need to “have a talk,” about something in my life. As he reached over to turn down the radio I knew the storm was about to hit the coast and with the meandering countryside flying by my window I braced for the impact.
“So you’re having… real sex… in this… movie?” he asks nervously, trying to keep an even tone. Last May I was fortunate enough to be a sextra in John Cameron Mitchell’s nonpornographic-but-sexual opus Shortbus. Knowing the film might eventually get released — it’s out this month — I made it a point to mention it to my parents at the time. Normally this kind of detail seems like the kind to keep secret, but I told them to make it clear it was a decision I could proudly share. My mom mentioned how she loved Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig And The Angry Inch, while my dad’s reaction was surprisingly muted — until this drive.
“I only heard what I wanted to hear,” he declared. I laughed at how he could have managed to turn “I’m having actual sex in the film” into anything else and proceeded to justify myself. I mentioned the film premiered at Cannes to heaps of praise and that Cameron Mitchell was a Golden Globe nominee. But dad was still concerned. I even mentioned the group scene I was having sex in was cut from the theatrical version (it’s only on the DVD) but still no dice. While I struggled to find the words to tastefully explain I wasn’t exploited and that I had exhibitionistic interest in being in the film, the floodgates opened.
“Why are gay people so obsessed with sex? I just don’t understand,” he blurted out.
“Have you turned on a TV or looked in a magazine recently,” I snapped back. “I think the success of Baywatch proves it’s an across-the-board thing.”
I began to righteously explain that queer culture celebrates sexuality because that’s the inherent quality that sets us apart. It’s an overtly sexual community because that’s what we’re trying to fight for, the right to be openly sexual and not hide behind lies, closed doors, years of oppression and the fear of retaliation. I briefed him on sex-positivity, sex as protest, open relationships, polyamory and nondestructive casual sex, trying not to creep him out too much.
But his blank stare proved I could have been speaking in tongues. He thinks I’m a sex addict.
“I just want you to settle down and find someone and be happy and not lose out on your future because of, well… mistakes.” He was trying to end the conversation. To the uninitiated like my father, queers can be one of two kinds: the shallow sex-obsessed drug fiends of Queer As Folk or the desexualized picket-fencers fighting for marriage, kids and “normal” life as seen on the evening news. He knows that I’m not the disco-queen variety, but he seems unable to wrap his mind around any alternative. For him, an art-house masterpiece is pornographic, just like the defunct Vazaleen club night was a sex-obsessed event rather than a gay punk performance haven. My queer writing and art become a threat to “real” success.
At the end of the day I just had to let things go; I understand his concern comes from a place of love.
But I have to wonder if I’ll ever really get through to him. In spite of working at gay strip clubs, tranny bars and being in “sex films,” I think I most shocked my dad recently by getting a huge grant from Bravo to make a children’s film. In a world where The Terminator is a governor, nobody cares what you’ve done; it’s what your doing that counts.
Perhaps the only way really win over my father will come through a long process of demonstrating my happiness, pride and success in my choices. That might mean still more excruciating chats about how sometimes it can be political and freeing to be slutty… I mean sex-positive.