Father and Son
a coming out story

I am the bisexual father of a bisexual son. That son, Bill, took his own life at the age of 17 when he could no longer face a future he saw as an endless wave of harassment due to his sexual orientation.

Some people may wonder why I feel it is necessary to make a public declaration of his and my sexual orientation. I do it because I know there will never be complete acceptance for all people so long as there are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who feel they have to hide their orientation.

We have all heard someone say something like this: “I don’t care what you do in the privacy of your bedroom, but you don’t have to slap me in the face with it.” Or: “Heterosexuals don’t flaunt their heterosexuality, so why do you?”

Well, you don’t have to flaunt it. It is a given. Unless you state your sexual orientation, you are assumed – rightly or wrongly – to be heterosexual. And many of you do flaunt it in many ways. You put a picture of your wife or girlfriend on your desk at work. You walk down the street holding hands or you kiss goodbye at the airport – or you tell jokes based on the assumption that everyone else is like you, and anyone who is not is somehow deviant.

My son heard those jokes when he was growing up. He knew what the dominant culture thought about homosexuality. Understandably, he was afraid to come out. But he conquered his fears. He was 14 years old. He came out first to my wife, Gabi. He said, “Mom, I am bisexual.”

Gabi said, “So is your father.”

She knew. A few close friends knew. But I sure as hell had not announced it to the world in general. It took me about 30 years to admit to myself that I was bisexual. Bill was a lot more courageous. Even though he knew we were accepting and open- minded; even though he knew we loved him unconditionally; even though our best friend, who was also our housemate, was a lesbian – he could not be sure of our reaction. He said he was afraid we would disown him or stop loving him. Although everything he knew about us told him we were not like that, there was that lingering doubt. It took a lot of guts for a 14-year-old kid to face that.

And then that wonderful brave young man was beaten to unconsciousness because of some other kids' reaction to his honesty and openness about his sexual orientation. After the assault Anna Schlecht, a wonderful activist here in Olympia, organized a rally to show support for Bill and his friends, and to give the community a place to speak out against hate. At the rally, a school board member quoted the lyrics of a song from “South Pacific”:

You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade. You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.

You've got to be carefully taught! You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught.

Bill stood on the podium with his friends and said:

"In all likelihood, my friends Sam and Jenny will never have to tolerate this – or never have to endure this type of hate crime or any other type in their lives – and I hope that's true. But as an openly bisexual person in Olympia, I'm probably – or may be – the victim of this sort of thing again."

I tried to speak, but I was so emotionally overwhelmed that all I could do was blubber. I thanked the crowd for their show of support and apologized for not being able to speak. I left the podium in tears.

Bill seemed uplifted immediately after the rally, but it was not long before he sank into a severe depression. He told us he was suicidal and needed help. We put him in a hospital in Seattle. His doctors said his depression had nothing to do with his sexual orientation or with the fact that he had been beaten. They said he needed his mother to back off, and he needed me to play a larger role in his life. They were playing into the classic myth that homosexuality is “caused” by a domineering mother and an absent father. That was pure bunk and we knew it. But we were so desperate to see him get better that we were willing to follow some of  the doctors recommendations.

When Bill was released from the hospital I took him to the Seattle Art Museum. There was a Jackson Pollock painting in the museum, and Bill had said Pollock was one of his favorite artists. He was one of my favorites, too, and it gave me a wonderful feeling that day to be able to share the Pollock painting with Bill. I had no idea it would be one of the last joyful moments we would share.

Shortly after that Bill took his own life. I came home from work and found him unconscious on the kitchen floor. We rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. He never regained consciousness.

Father’s Day was just around the corner. The local PFLAG chapter invited me to speak at their Father’s Day meeting. Gabi and I had never before attended a PFLAG meeting. We thought it was just a support group for parents who were having a hard time accepting their gay or lesbian children, and that had never been us. Anyway, we went. That was in 1995, and we haven’t stopped going since. Not only did we need support then, but we discovered that PFLAG was more than a support group. We found that it was a place for activists too.

Gabi has become one of the most outspoken glbt activists in the world. Really. Check out her Websites at http://www.youth-guard.org/gabi/ and http://www.gabiclayton.com/ and you’ll see what I mean. There you can also read Bill’s story in much more detail.

I have been a more reluctant activist. Mostly my activism has taken the form of driving Gabi here and there and taking over some of the household chores in order to give her time to do her work. (I’ve become a halfway decent cook.) One of the reasons I have been reluctant to become more active is that I am jealous of my free time – I don’t want to get too involved because I need time to write and paint.

Then there’s the matter of coming out, which is pretty much a necessary byproduct of becoming more active. Practically everyone I know knows that I am bisexual, but I have never come out publicly. Well, now I have.

We will never “get over” Bill’s death. You simply don’t. But much that is wonderful has grown out of our tragic loss. As a direct result of Bill’s death and our involvement in gay, lesbian, bi and trans issues, we have made more meaningful friendships than most people can imagine, and we have built full and active lives centered mostly, but not entirely, around glbt activism.

Sometimes it seems like our lives totally revolve around these issues, but that is not so. Sometimes we go entire … hours without mentioning anything to do with sexual orientation. There is also music in our lives, and art and literature and theater. And we have another son, Noel, who is the (almost) perfect son most parents would kill for. He is a stagehand in Seattle. He tells great stories about what goes on backstage at the opera and the ballet and at rock concerts, and he is generous and loving, and we have many friends in common.

When I think about Noel in the context of the things I’ve been saying here, I look back to the beginning of this article where I wrote about the need for coming out, and I think that maybe by the time he is as old as I am now sexual orientation will not be such a big deal. Maybe by then hate based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, gender identity and sexual orientation will be a thing of the past. I know that’s a lot to hope for, but I’m not giving up. Accepting the alternative is not acceptable.  

copyright © Alec Clayton 2007

Bill Clayton Memorial Gear
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My wife Gabi has designed Bill Clayton memorial shirts and tote bags that are for sale on her store at CafePress. Proceeds go to help her with her work on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and  transgender persons.


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