You could say I had a typical suburban middle-class upbringing. I grew up in Stanmore, a commuter town in north-west London. We were financially comfortable, enjoying sun filled holidays abroad each year while I attended private school all the way up to my eighteenth birthday. My parents had a vibrant social life, often consisting of dinner parties followed by raucous games of Trivial Pursuit. Mine was a nurturing, stable, protective and above all happy childhood.
Mum assumed the duty of doting housewife and mother to a (slightly spoilt) only child – yours truly – giving up her promising career as an English teacher to look after me during my younger years. Yes, I could be a little shit at times and, like many kids, knew exactly how to press her buttons, but we invariably had a loving and close relationship, and I relied on her in those formative days, a real Mummy’s boy.
My Dad? I idolised him. Partly because I only ever saw him when he got back from work so time with him was more precious, but also because he was funny, playful and, even at my young age, I could tell he was a successful businessman, and that made me proud. Sometimes I would wait for him to come home and stand outside the house just so I could see his car pull into our street. He and mum were a perfect double act.
As I grew up, I slowly realised not everything was perfect about their relationship – it was their arguments that began to break that illusion. They weren’t common but when they did happen, they were disturbing to watch, and I remember frequently being upset by them. It wasn’t that they were violent or even shouty; what threw me was that after the initial blow up, my Mum went mute with Dad, sometimes for as long as a week. It made me wonder whether they would break up – my worst nightmare.
“Dad was usually so confident and certainly never awkward with me. Losing patience, I asked him to reveal all...”
I expected that leaving for uni would remove unnecessary friction, and that their marriage may well flourish into a new golden era. How wrong I was. Within my first year, they had separated, after one of the worst arguments I had ever witnessed when I was back for Christmas. Suddenly, that was it – my parents were now living separate lives.
Later, living and working in London, I got a call from the old man (that’s what I was calling him these days). He wanted to invite me for dinner as there was something he had to tell me. I didn’t like the drama but, of course, accepted. I furiously tried to work out what the news could possibly be – I decided either a terminal illness or a lovechild.
It turned out I was wrong on both counts. He played with his soup, and looked decidedly nervous through our starters, which was very strange for me to see – Dad was usually so confident and certainly never awkward with me. Losing patience, I asked him to reveal all. He looked up but avoided eye contact, and began by telling me that at school he sometimes had feelings for boys… he was gay.
I was shocked. Relieved it wasn’t an illness or a secret sibling, but completely blown away. I just never saw it coming. I always saw Dad as a ladies man – a bit camp yes, but in an inverted, macho, Mick Jagger kind of way. In that moment I suddenly felt grown up – having this mature conversation with him, saying things like “I’m happy for you”, “you’re still my Dad” and “I hope you enjoy your new life but please be safe”. Yes I know, awkward.
I left the restaurant that night feeling as if my life had changed, but in a strangely positive way. This revelation altered my perspective, made me think about things differently. I never had any gay mates or even any experience of knowing gay people – now suddenly my Dad had revealed himself as a gay person. In a flash I was re-evaluating my father and how my relationship with him was going to evolve. While I was happy for him, there was also a sense of sadness that he’d had to keep this part of himself secret for such a large period of his life. Suddenly I had more questions than answers. How does one live like that and stay sane? Was he ever truly happy until now?
Just a week or so later, Mum then invited me out for dinner to discuss the bombshell from Dad. Or so I thought. Eating at a famous Hungarian restaurant in Soho called The Gay Hussar – apt, I thought – we were having a general catch-up when Mum mentioned she had recently moved in with a lady called Susan. Before I even wondered where this was going, another bombshell. Mum was gay too, and Susan was her partner.
I felt like I was in a dream, I was amused but in bizarrely detached way where I couldn’t quite believe what was happening to me. The gravity of what was unfolding slowly dawned on me. Both my parents had been living a lie for their entire lives and keeping a key part of who they are to themselves and from each other. It was too much to take in at first. I reacted in the same way to my Mum as I did to my Dad. I was supportive, encouraging, but this time we also laughed with each other about how bizarre the situation was. It was as if I’d been transported into a Hollywood film too crazy to be true.
“In just those two moments, I became so much closer to them both – I felt I suddenly understood them more...”
And so it was that both my parents came out to me within two weeks of each other. Both seemed so much more at ease, content within themselves, and I was genuinely happy for them. Even in just those two moments, I became so much closer to them both – I felt I suddenly understood them more. Mum’s relationship with Susan continued until her untimely death from ovarian cancer eight years later, which shook me to my core. I’m still very close to Susan and we see each other regularly.
It was certainly no longer a typical father son relationship either. Within months, I found myself taking photos of him for his new Gaydar profile. He was also soon talking to me about the finer points of house and happy hardcore; he used to be an opera and classical music lover. And then he started experimenting with the drugs – something I had also done and which was now a conversation topic with my own father. So in some ways his life became more alien to mine, but in others there were new things he was discovering that I could strongly relate to
Looking back, what happened with my parents profoundly changed how I view marriage, relationships, sexuality, even true love itself. Their relationship was so much more complex than I realised when I was growing up. I know they loved each other, perhaps even more than in a normal relationship – they stayed together and enjoyed their life despite this massive barrier to having a functional marriage.
For my part, I’ve become more acutely aware of gay rights issues across the world – something I was admittedly quite ignorant about beforehand. I find myself getting angry when I hear people argue against things like same-sex marriage – what on earth has it got to with these people, whatever their antiquated views are? When it is connected to how people you love live their lives, it makes it all the more personal.
But perhaps the most profound insight has affected how I perceive people. We are far more complex than we ever realise, and however straightforward someone may appear at first contact, there is always a story to be discovered about each and every one of us.
James Lubbock is author of Breaking Dad, published by Mirror Books, available now
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