Growing Up With a Gay Dad

It's Personal

Growing Up With a Gay Dad

For Selby Drummond, having a gay dad wasn’t quite what people expected it to be.

Written By Selby Drummond
Photography Taylor Jewell

People often ask what it was like for me when my father came out of the closet. Unlike so many lucky children growing up today in the loving care of a same-sex couple, I didn’t get a Gay Dad until I was 5 years old. Before I was 5, he was just a dad: In 1992, the modifier “straight” was implied. Nota bene: In 1992, Gay Dad was capitalized.

Especially if they were born before 1980, people tend to assume that the emotional baggage incurred would still be with me. To this day, I get the occasional tender hand atop mine when I am struggling with something in my life and some well-intentioned stranger thinks they’ve unlocked the reason for my hardships: “I understand,” they offer; “You do, after all, have a Gay Dad.”

I sometimes feel I'm disappointing people when I offer back that beyond the fact of my parents divorcing as a result, my dad’s sexual orientation didn’t strike me as particularly eventful – let alone something to be alarmed about. I can’t say that I even remember being informed – I know that my parents disagreed about how to tell me and my 2-year-old sister, weighing seriously this information that ought to be sensitively delivered, but I guess it didn’t make much of a difference how it was sorted out. I just remember a time when my parents were married and then a point when they weren’t and by the way, he was also gay. However everyone got from point A to point B on that particular detail was more difficult for them to plan than for me to process.

My dad proceeded to go to great lengths to live within walking distance from wherever we were living with my mother in Manhattan, and my sister and I spent every other weekend and regular overnights with him throughout childhood. He became, if anything, an overactive parent, anxious to pick us up from school and celebrate the smallest of occasions – a decent crayon drawing was met with oceans of praise.

Regardless of his efforts, though, divorce is a massive and painful upheaval, and an especially bitter pill to swallow when it looks rationally avoidable to those affected.  To this day, my father maintains that he would have done anything to stay married to my mother – that he was in love with her from the beginning and regrets nothing about the family they made together. I believe him, but I never quite understood why my mom should have been inclined to buy into such a plan: This was not the life she had agreed to, and indeed, with this revelation, their shared life came to an end. She has told me that there was a part of her that hoped that he would finally find peace in his truth, but at the same time, I allow her the moments of resentment caused by the feelings of betrayal that are the result of a long-hidden secret, and the unwanted transformation it caused in our lives. I learned a great deal from my mother about our ability as humans to hold 10 different and conflicting feelings about any one thing as true, all at the same time.

I, on the other hand, have mostly enjoyed having a Gay Dad. Mine was popular and different and funny to my childhood friends: an object of fascination and adoration, sort of like a hot mom might be with a crew of teenagers. He let them say curse words and stay up past bedtime out of a particular distaste for societal norms and behavioral decrees that I can only assume was magnified by the whole being gay thing.

It helped, too, that in our progressive, New York City community, the coolest kids were the ones with gay parents. As soon as it actually meant anything to me, I felt immediately in distinguished company. I got to join the exclusive “Banana Splits” lunchtime club at my elementary school, which can best be described as a sort of proto-support group in which children of separated parents were essentially buoyed between classes by regular ice cream sundae breaks. Whether your parents were gay or straight did not factor into admission.

"It is hard to put into words how much it has shaped me to have seen my father stand up for who he was even when it was not popular, while maintaining compassion, understanding and acceptance of others whose views differed from his own."

I do, unfortunately, remember the odd parent who made it clear that they would have preferred my father to be more discreet about his romantic life; however, he had a strict policy of honesty and non-denial, even with kids. It is hard to put into words how much it has shaped me to have seen my father stand up for who he was even when it was not popular, while maintaining compassion, understanding and acceptance of others whose views differed from his own.

That being said, my dad wasn’t, like, that “gay,” as far as I could tell. He liked opera and Shakespeare, but he also liked hockey and hated shopping. He did, however, have two serious partners during my life who introduced me to all the splendors of gay life in the 90’s and 2000’s. First, there was Bill, the European sculpture and decorative arts curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a 10-year-old self-proclaimed artistic ingénue, I could think of no greater adventure than the occasions on which he would take me into the storage crates beneath the museum’s galleries. Bill had impossibly chic taste, a legacy to which I was all too happy to lay claim.

The second was a 28-year-old from Puerto Rico, 20 years my father’s junior, who moved in with us when I was 14. To say that Enrique was the big sister I never had would be an understatement: I’ve never met a friend with a big sister who knew more about Barbra Streisand or red-carpet trends or made me giggle as hard as he did. I don’t remember when I first met Enrique, or how he was introduced to me, but I remember being very sad to say goodbye when he moved back to San Juan.

Both of my households growing up always felt like a celebration of women. My mom is a strong working woman and feminist, and she remarried one of my favorite types of people: a straight male feminist. But my father did his part as well: He insisted on referring to g-d in feminine pronouns, and his greatest honor in recent years was to accompany me to the Women’s March. I always assumed that all the men in my life would be just as revelatory of the supernatural power that is womanhood and as interested in attending the Women’s March with me as my dad was, but the older I get the more I think it has to do with his unique perspective. It is only now, in my 30s, that I am coming to realize just how spoiled I was to be a young woman with a Gay Dad in my corner.

Selby Drummond is the director of accessories and special projects at Vogue. Follow her on Instagram @selbydrummond.