When I was 17, I concluded from overwhelming evidence that I was probably gay. Over the next few months, I came out to a couple of my closest friends, but the spring and summer of that year would prove the time in my life when I was most depressed, struggling with my own identity, unrequited love and the looming necessity of telling my parents.
I was raised in a close and loving family with a fairly liberal outlook and no religious preconceptions. But no matter how open and loving a family, there's still a huge anxiety in coming out to your parents. Even if you think they'll take it well and won't throw you out of the house, you can't predict how they will react. For one thing, it can challenge everything they likely conceived of your future (even though it shouldn't - I still plan on marriage and kids).
It also didn't help that while I was coming out, we lived in straight, white, conservative Ontario suburbia. I barely knew anyone else who was gay, anyone who could be a role model or with whom I could talk. In my school of 2,000 students, one guy was publicly out. I only had myself.
I'd always been especially close with my mother, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in my school and was always present and loving. I certainly didn't expect anything but support from her. Still, when I did tell her I came at the issue sideways, starting the conversation by telling her about someone I liked and slowly implying it was a guy. I never actually said the words, "I'm gay." Her response was mostly to hold me tight while I cried.
I had a much harder time with my father. Not that we had any less love for each other - we were always close but he worked a lot, travelled on business and could occasionally be more intimidating than my mother, so we never had quite the same kind of relationship.
I remember one day, before I came out, we were having a typical conversation about relationships. My mother said something about me finding that special girl - "or guy, there's nothing wrong with that." My father added, somewhat jokingly, "But it had better be a girl!"
It's the kind of latent homophobia we've come to expect from our heteronormative world. Regardless of whether or not he meant it as a joke, that offhand comment struck me, and stuck with me. It sticks with me still. That small remark was damaging to a boy struggling with his own homosexuality.
I never did tell my father myself. My mother did, about a week after I had told her. It was a few weeks after that, late that summer, before my dad came to me, finally, for the Conversation.
He said the things I've come to realize are typical for coming-out talks: Are you sure? (no, I just decided to try out a life of harassment and difficulty for a while); what makes you think so? (let's see … I like boys); I just want to make sure you haven't come to a conclusion too hastily (as if it hadn't been torturing me for months already).
But he also said something else during that conversation. He said he'd gone to the bookstore and had done some reading - parenting books and the like - to learn more. He'd let himself think about it before he talked to me.
He'd educated himself.
And that, too, stuck with me.
It was a long time before I was comfortable with my identity, a long time before I felt I could be comfortable discussing it openly.
But one night a few months after my dad and I talked, over dinner I was telling my parents about a girl I'd recently become good friends with. After hearing about what a great person she was, my dad said, "Well, too bad she's not a guy."
He didn't say, "Too bad you're not straight." He said, "Too bad she's not a guy."
It just came out, like that. And though I didn't think much of it at the time, I realized later what import that one sentence had. In that one statement, in that moment, he had unconsciously shown his acceptance of me.
That was five years ago. Last year, on National Coming Out Day, the company he works for (now in the United States) had a staff meeting at head office. At the meeting, the company's internal LGBT group gave a presentation to management about issues they faced.
My dad volunteered to be identified as an ally, putting the symbol of a pink triangle inside a green circle on his office door to signify his office as a safe space. He put himself out there, visibly, publicly, as the father of a gay boy and an LGBT ally in upper-management Corporate America.
He e-mailed me that week to tell me. As I read the words - so matter-of-fact - I sat back in my chair. I reread them. I smiled, then I cried.
This from the man who once upon a time said, "But it had better be a girl!" like so many other fathers do every single day.
I visited his office over the holidays, and saw the symbol on his door. I got a little choked up all over again.
And though I think there's a lesson or two in this for parents, I don't want to put on my activist hat. That's not what this is about.
This is about my dad. This is about how my coming out has been a journey for him as much as it was for me. This is about how far he has come. This is about how, as proud as I am to be gay, I am so much more proud of my dad.
Lucas J.W. Johnson lives in Vancouver.