Father Knows Best?

From the daughter of a gay dad comes a journey of acceptance

Alison Wearing’s dad, Joe, was everything that a father is supposed to be in our culture—a consistent provider, a loving protector, a man who cheered on his adored offspring at every assembly, performance or gymnastics meet. He was also deeply enamoured of musical theatre, French cuisine, prancing along sidewalks and lounging in silk pyjamas. In other words, he was what is known in gay parlance as a screaming Mary.

Not an easy person to be, especially back in 1978. The daughter of a queer dad, that is. Reconciling the seeming contradictions of her beloved father’s identity, and in the process reconfiguring her own, is the tableau of Alison Wearing’s memoir Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad. Charting her personal journey from embarrassment to acceptance, Wearing shares with the reader her evolving understanding of the meanings of sexuality, gender and family as realized through her relationships with both of her parents.

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is an account of a very specific set of lives, ones marked by significant privilege. Wearing acknowledges this, exploring how her comfortable sense of the world was ruptured by the news she received at the age of twelve that her father was possessed of an aberration of the sort that normally just was not talked about in Peterborough, Ontario. A clever, lively and thoughtful read, the book is valuable not merely at the level of personal revelation, but also for capturing perspectives—both her father’s and her own—on a specific socio-historical moment perhaps now on the verge of being forgotten as the drive toward LGBT equality continues to propel forward.

Wearing is the author of several plays and a well-received previous travel memoir, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey. Her father is a professor emeritus of political studies at Trent University and author of The L-Shaped Party: The Liberal Party of Canada 1958–1980, a 1981 study. Her mother, Anne, is a driven multi-instrumentalist who taught piano and ran marathons. Along with her two younger brothers, Alison and her parents lived a quiet and happy life in Peterborough, until her father started to stay away from home in downtown Toronto for increasing stretches of time for reasons that were eventually revealed. These ranged from exploratory sexual trysts to attendance at meetings of the support group Gay Fathers of Toronto.

The author has chosen a structure reflective of the multidimensional nature of its contents. In addition to a conclusion set in the present day, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is divided into three parts. The book starts with Wearing’s first-person recollections of an idyllic childhood. She writes, “When I went missing, someone looked for me; when we got lost, we found our way. We laughed, played, ate well, loved each other.” She then explores her reactions to the revelation of her father’s unexpected sexuality. The second section is a pastiche composed of various selections from a cardboard box owned by her father, which contained a scrapbook of sorts—personal correspondence, journal entries, newspaper articles and other items that formed a part of his two-year process of coming out as gay. The concluding section describes subsequent conversations that an adult Wearing had with her now-divorced mother, who originally broke the news to her pre-teen daughter after discovering that very same box.

Wearing’s prose style is at once elegant and poetic, yet breezy and readable. The book is filled with hints of—occasionally delightfully outré—humour, starting in the very first paragraph with a reminiscence about a childhood pet dog with an astonishing propensity for emitting diarrhea while leg humping. If anything, she perhaps spends a bit too much time setting the context of her happy home before the great reveal of her father’s sexuality nearly a quarter of the way into the book. At this point though, the pace picks up considerably.

Along the way, she offers interesting observations of gender and masculinity from the recalled perspective of her youth. Given that, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, queerness was rarely spoken of and never positively, the youthful Wearing does not think twice about ascribing her father’s effeminate characteristics to the unorthodox nature of being an academic. But subconsciously, she understands something is awry. When a best friend confesses to teen lustfulness for Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb, Wearing responds by admitting that she has fantasized about having the hirsute disco Lothario as a father: “Hip, hairy and heterosexual. I couldn’t imagine a more thrilling combination of traits to have wandering around the house.”

Wearing’s personal recollections are interlaced with bits of information about key moments in LGBT history taking place in Canada as she came of age, including the Stonewall riots in New York, Pierre Trudeau’s Criminal Law Amendment Act decriminalizing homosexuality and the 1981 raids of Toronto’s gay bathhouses, in which 286 men were arrested and one police officer eerily evoked the Holocaust, shouting “I wish these pipes were hooked up to gas so I could annihilate you all!” Margaret Atwood joined a rally protesting this attack on the queer community. Three years earlier, Wearing’s dad had narrowly escaped similar entrapment; he was at one bathhouse at the precise moment when another was raided.

The impact of such events upon queers of the day is exposed even more starkly in the section in which Wearing curates artifacts from her father’s box of letters and clippings. Joseph Wearing’s diary entries counterbalance the twin poles of his existence—the liberating nature of sexual explorations whose motivations he has tried to submerge for his entire life, and his deep love of his family and aversion to disrupting their lives or hurting them emotionally. Having grown up sublimating his desires and hoping them just a passing phase, the elder Wearing inches out of the closet at a time when attempting an openly gay life was both dangerous and exhilarating. A handwritten list of emotional quandaries captures the man’s divided loyalties and emotional torment: “my moods change wildly, even within a day—at times my home life is a cage, at other times a precious refuge which I want to cling to as long as I can … Why do we have to endure such pain?” Despite all the advances in LGBT visibility and rights in the intervening decades, this conundrum is still faced by many people today.

After years of soul searching, Joseph Wearing eventually meets a long-term partner named Lance; more than 30 years later, they remain together. Meanwhile, the teenaged Alison maintained a “double life” in which she would spend weekends with Dad and Lance and their gay friends in Toronto, but fabricate sanitized accounts of those trips to recount to all of her friends. Over time however, particularly influenced by the rejection of her father by his siblings, she comes to realize that her love of her father in all its complexity should not remain a secret, declaring that “the truth really does free all of us in the end.” For father and daughter both, a long journey of forgiveness and acceptance ends on a high note. One cannot help but cheer them both on.