We were picking blackberries in Franklin, Georgia. He was on one side of the bush and I was on the other. I looked up and said “Dad, I am gay.” He looked directly at me through the thorny branches, heavy with berries.
“Well, you can’t be happy.”
I replied, “But I am happy.”
He said, “But you can’t be.”
Again I said, “But I am happy.”
Opposite sides of a thorny bush became a metaphor for our relationship from that day forward. In the blink of an eye, I went from “Daddy’s darling” to no-thing, literally nothing in his eyes. It colored everything he saw about me. I rarely ever went back to Franklin, Georgia where my parents had a hundred acres in the woods, backed up to the river. The place where I learned to drive a truck when I was ten years old, the place where Dad took us on rollicking dune buggy rides, and the place where my former husband and I spent our honeymoon night, became the place where my Dad and I lost each other.
Through the years, I made attempts to go home, but my parents would never allow me to join the family on holidays unless I came by myself. The first year, I acquiesced and I came home alone. Though I know my mother felt torn as to what she should do, she took the common course of women of her era and chose to support my Dad’s point of view. She would simply sob and reply, “You know your Daddy,” when I would ask why I couldn’t bring my partner, Barbara, home. From their perspective, to allow our relationship in their home was to condone homosexuality.
Eventually, I realized that this was a game that would be played for the rest of my life if I allowed it, and I chose to draw boundaries that honored and respected myself, as well as Barbara. I chose to spend holidays with her for our fifteen years together. I never quit staying in contact with my family, seeing them on occasion; once at my grandmother’s funeral, as well as a couple of other times in the mid-90s when they visited us in Kentucky the day after Christmas and when they met us in Florida for a few days. Those times were joyous and I felt disappointed they couldn’t welcome “all of me” home. Holidays together, at home in Atlanta, remained forever “off limits.”
My family always prayed I would “change.” They viewed homosexuality as a “sin” and encouraged me to repent, with my Dad citing his interpretation of the Bible. Ironically, I did change. I became me. The voice of Ralph Waldo Emerson still rings in my ears from Mr. Withers’ high school English class, “I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you, or you!” The mask came off, as I could not pretend to be someone I was not. I no longer found it palatable to pretend that Barb and I were “just friends.” My brother and sister didn’t have to lie about being married, and I saw no reason to do so either. Obviously, it was not the change they sought. I risked the consequences of their rejection because I never wanted them to eulogize someone they never knew.
Growing up, Mom and Dad expressed the importance of being honest at all costs. I believed them. (They never dreamed “honesty” would include something they not only did not want to hear, but could not bring themselves to accept). Indeed, honesty was what allowed me to stand with dignity in the face of rejection, as well as offer compassion and forgiveness back to the people who taught me the “honesty at all costs” philosophy. My parents were taught certain myths about gay people from society, as well as religious institutions. They believed that being both gay and a person of faith was an oxymoron, and unacceptable.
Ironically, I always respected their commitment to their beliefs, even when I did not agree with them. I felt that I could see both sides of the coin. I understood that scriptural interpretation and the rhetoric of the church were what fueled their beliefs. This eventually propelled me to take a stand with Soulforce, an organization committed to confronting the spiritual violence of religious institutions against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. When I sent some information about PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays), believing that if they only understood that things would be different, my mother wrote and said, “If we are ignorant, that is the way we want to be.” I felt wounded to the core, as if an arrow had pierced my heart.
In 2002, Dad was dying of cancer. 20 years had passed since we stood on opposite sides of that blackberry bush. Barbara, my former partner and the person who had not been allowed to go home with me, drove me to Atlanta one weekend to visit him in the hospital. Through a letter, I had already communicated to Mom and Dad that I was moving to the state of Washington from Kentucky and wanted them to meet Robynne Sapp, the woman of my dreams, the woman I chose to marry. Though my initial requests were denied, it never stopped me from asking. Despite feeling hurt and disappointed, I had become accustomed to this response and developed emotional and spiritual insight that allowed me to choose a response that felt empowering to me. As Dad lay dying of cancer, he became like a child, needing Mom’s constant care. Mom was finally free to make some different decisions.
I still remember how excited I was when my mother called and finally said, “Come visit. We want to meet Robynne!”
Robynne met me in Kentucky and we left early the next morning to drive to my parents’ home in Atlanta, Georgia. We arrived just before noon and didn’t leave until late that evening. My brother even broke through his own barrier and decided to join us for dinner and to meet Roby. He had written me in anger in 1999, regarding my decision to join the first non-violent Soulforce vigil in Lynchburg, Virginia, where we confronted the spiritually violent rhetoric of Rev. Jerry Falwell. Woody’s words now bring only sadness for him, rather than tears for me, as I copy from the letter he wrote, “Satan has drawn you into a trap that you refuse to walk out of, bringing grief to all who love you. This is a spiritual battle and I pray for you daily. I will continue to pray that God will break you of your perversion. You are a defeated foe in the name of Jesus.”
Sharing a meal together after all we had been through was such joy as the evening evolved into a heart-warming sharing old stories, with Robynne and my family having the opportunity to finally get to know one another. Then we noticed the clock said 10 p.m. Time to go. We were not allowed to spend the night.
My Dad sat slumped in his wheelchair as we prepared to leave. I had just finished giving him a manicure. It felt good to hold his hands in mine and offer what I felt was my open heart. Unaware is a word that I would never use to describe my Dad; us kids always said he had eyes in the back of his head and that was reason enough to behave growing up. As I hugged Dad, he straightened up and said in a raspy voice, “I wish you all the success and I like her!” Then, as Roby hugged his neck, he said loudly, “I wish you all the success and you’re PURTY!” (That means “pretty” in the South).
My Mom and brother, Woody, were shocked. Dad had just expressed everything they still could not bring themselves to say. There are no words to explain the joy we felt! Like two gleeful little girls, off we went into the night, driving seven hours back home to Kentucky. We giggled and laughed, experiencing an inner peace of heart, mind and soul. I felt as if I had discovered the genie in the bottle. The only difference was that rather than receiving just three wishes, I felt that I had received every wish I had ever hoped for.
Today, I see my family through a new set of eyes. It’s as if my camera gets a new lens every few years that clarifies, focuses, and zooms in when necessary, creating the picture of my family in an enlightened way. I recognize that the mirror provided by them has somehow reflected back to me who I am not, so that I might awaken and become whom I am.
Over the years, I have learned to respond, rather than react, with love and compassion enabling me to take greater risks, unattached to the outcome. As my inner healing has continued, there has been less to trigger inside of me, and my perspective has shifted.
Though I have never considered myself courageous for being honest about whom I am, I do consider myself bold for being honest in the face of potential risks and consequences. I gained much more than I lost by choosing to have, not the courage, but the boldness to live an authentic life with my family, as well as with friends and others. I feel as if I have found the illusive Holy Grail.
As Dad hovered near death, I sat on the edge of the hospital bed. Though he could no longer speak, it was as if time stood still with those piercing blue eyes locked in a gaze with mine. Suddenly, I was back at the blackberry bush. This time, however, as I held his right hand, I said, “Don ‘t worry about it, Dad. We’re OK. You and me; we’re ok.” At that moment, he lifted his left arm that he had been unable to move for several days, and wrapped it gently around my waist as I bent over his hospital bed. Lying there in an embrace, we had both come home.
Atlanta native Dotti Berry is a life and relationship coach in Washington state who undertook a road trip with her wife Robynne Sapp and their poodle in 2005 that they nicknamed Gay Into Straight America.