A Dad’s Journey
My name is Mike Fisher and I want to share with you a piece of my journey. I see life as a journey. We know the start, but cannot predict the path or its end. No one is guaranteed the life we thought we would have. It’s no one’s fault. Circumstances change, challenges arise, war or disease rears its ugly head.
Life is lived day to day. All we can do is be the best we can be, one day at a time, trusting our instincts and values, informed by Faith, aided by prayer and grace, family and friends.
My journey around homosexuality began in a place that many of us will find familiar – I didn’t know much at all. I grew up in a mid-sized city and LGBTQ was just not part of the landscape. It was firmly in the closet, not part of public consciousness.
I became more aware of homosexuality in my early adult years and got to know some gay and bisexual people. Sometimes I heard talk that was understanding or sympathetic, but often it put gays down or was violent.
For that reason, I never understood the term “gay.” Their lives were not gay in the sense of carefree, joyful, lighthearted. They seemed more burdened than anything else. And society did not accept them, that was clear. Then came the AIDS scare of the 80’s when we learned there may be a horrible price to pay for being gay.
Closer to home, I got to know one of my fiancée’s friends, a gentle, funny man, a piano teacher and church organist, who also happened to be gay. He was scared I would reject him and he would lose his best friend, my wife-to-be. I understood where he was coming from, couldn’t help but accept him and he became my friend too.
This is background to my journey as a parent of gay sons. Being a father was a big part of my life. I am proud to say my wife and I parented 22 children, some born to us, one adopted, many fostered, plus some nieces and nephews.
We fostered for the Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society, specializing in long term placement of children with special needs. While some were adopted or returned home, others became adults in our care. We loved and cared for them all. To this day, three foster children gather with us for Christmas and holidays because they are family. Kids were baptized and received the Sacraments; they went to Catholic schools and to Church every Sunday.
I never expected to have a gay child. Seems totally silly, doesn’t it? Why would a good family upbringing and Catholic schooling prevent a young person from being gay or lesbian? At the time we were having kids, people talked about “sexual preference” as if sexual orientation were a matter of choice. I had to learn a lot on my journey.
Two pieces of personal history made the journey a little easier. I was born in the US and had to wrestle with fighting in Vietnam or resisting the draft. I learned about the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that we are bound to follow our conscience faithfully in all our activities. I became a conscientious objector.
Second, I was living in Washington DC when Pope Paul VI issued an Encyclical on birth control. At Sunday Mass a letter from Cardinal O’Boyle was read to the congregation. The Cardinal had demanded all his priests pledge to promote this teaching and, if they did not immediately do so, he ordered them out of their rectories on the Saturday.
We had Catholic priests sleeping on Greyhound bus station benches that night. I walked out during the middle of Mass because of this astounding lack of Christian charity. I learned that the Church organization is run by people and sometimes they get it wrong.
My oldest son Gene came home for a visit from University because he needed to talk to us. He said he thought he was gay, and he wanted to “come out” and tell us. Typical of Gene, he read a book on “how to come out” and was following its advice. I was floored, never saw this coming. He assured us it would not change things, he would still go to church on Christmas and special occasions.
Very important, he said he would never have chosen to be gay, why would he? It was not a choice, it was who he was.
I kept thinking about this in the days ahead. It was difficult. Denial came first. I hung onto the “thought he was gay” part. Maybe if we gave him time, he would realize he is not. Denial is always a short-term strategy, but it had to run its course before I could move on. Grief was always there.
I feared for my son, for the way society might shun him, for the risk of gay bashing or AIDS. I worried for his faith life and salvation. I wondered what his lifestyle would be. Public perception and gay pride parades suggested promiscuity, so what would his future look like?
While he first talked about adopting, this didn’t last long. I came to realize that traditional family life, wife and children, were my vision for him, not Gene’s for himself. He found someone he liked and settled into a long-term relationship.
True to his word, he attended Christmas Mass with the family, but when John Paul II made statements about homosexuality, Gene took it as a personal insult and distanced himself from the Catholic faith.
Another son Tom, did not sit us down for a talk. We knew his high school years had been difficult. He was not a person to share a lot, as he kept himself to himself. But he let us know in his own way through choices in friends, and we let him know that was OK, we supported and accepted him.
It was a bumpy ride, he felt his privacy had been violated. Much later he was comfortable enough to say directly he was gay. He also shared that he was bullied and singled out in high school, taunted for being gay, things that should never have happened in a Christian environment.
My journey became more complicated. In some ways I felt responsible. I was raised an Irish Catholic, so I knew guilt quite well. Maybe this was my fault? Maybe I did not give them a strong male role model when they were growing up? Maybe it was biological? Biology 101 says the male determines the sex of the baby with an X or Y chromosome. Maybe my chromosomes were defective.
What to tell the family – grandparents? younger brothers and sisters? Gene’s book said it was important to tell everybody. But I would not dream of calling the grandparents to announce my kid was heterosexual. Why would I call to say homosexual? But it couldn’t be a secret.
I chose moments to share when it fit into our conversation. My sons told the younger children when they were ready. Then there were conversations about what this meant. My mother-in-law thought this was Gene persuading his bro to choose this lifestyle. My sons were saying something very different – this was not their choice, it was who they were. Expert opinion said the same thing.
Maybe a year after that, our son Dan came home from school. He met separately with my wife and I, and had a heart-to-heart with each of us about being gay. He was clearer than his brother, denial was not possible. Again, I was caught flat footed, never any suspicion. I had more questions than answers and was feeling overwhelmed.
I kept encouraging my sons to stay true to their faith. This is a hard road for young adults in a secular age, but harder for them. The Church was not making it any easier. After another son Dan, finished university, he told me he was looking for something in his life and went to Mass at his local parish. It happened to be the Mass where the appeal from the pulpit was for signatures on the petition opposing gay marriage. He felt like an outcast and he did not go back.
I saw a notice in our Church bulletin and joined a group that gets together for an annual retreat for Catholic Parents of Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons. We have discussion leaders from within the Catholic Church – priests or professors or other parents with lived experience. We have discussions on key topics. Three examples:
- Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children, issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Biblical passages and Roman Catholic Church teachings on sexual orientation
- The right and duty to follow one’s conscience (a doctrine that my son Dan refers to as the best kept secret in the Catholic Church)
But we always share our stories with each other, listen hard to parents whose children have just “come out” and give each other support.
During all this, I was grappling with a new question: Why did God give me three gay sons? I felt He must have had a reason. After prayer and reflection, I came to realize my initial question actually was: Why did God give me three gay sons?
The real question was: Why was it God gave me three gay sons? And the answer was obvious. He gave them to me so they would have a father who would love them and care about them all the days of their lives, not despite who they are, but because of who they are.
That was a watershed moment for me. The questioning was over. I found my answer. It tied right back to my vocation as a parent.
Later, when our godson John shared with us, he was gay, I now felt grounded and could speak more clearly. Some things never change, however. God loves you. We love you. Sexual orientation is only part of who you are and you are still the same person you always were.
About the Church, I told him it is both laity and priests. I may worry about what the Church organization is saying about homosexuality, but our role is twofold:
- Be compassionate and patient. The Church is reflecting and finding its way, it doesn’t have it all sorted out yet.
- Be a witness for this community of Catholics (people with a homosexual orientation, their parents and supporters), so that Church members will understand and practice Christian charity.
A couple years ago, I attended Mass while on vacation and heard a homily both praising Chick-fil-A for opposing same sex marriages and criticizing homosexuals. For the second time in my life, I walked out of Church in the middle of Mass. But I witnessed by writing the priest about my concerns. He replied and I gave feedback on the bias shown.
About his faith, I told my godson he carried it within himself. Pay attention to your own faith, look for a parish that accepts you, be hopeful of the change we see around us. I assured him of our love and our prayers.
Note: This account was written using pseudonyms for family names.