Lisa Deanne Smith
"Resistance, Like Leather, Is a Beautiful Thing," by Lisa Deanne Smith, audio transcript:
My father died on September 3, 2012. He was seventy-four years old and a gay man. The following June, my daughter, sister, and I spent a weekend going through his belongings, a bittersweet task. As we decided what to do with his leather pants and cap, I thought about the queer community and how it has changed since my father came out in the late 1970s. Back then, it wasn't easy to be a gay man or a gay father, but it was possible--barely. It had only been legal to participate in consensual homosexual acts in Canada since 1969, although George Klippert was arrested in Northwest Territories just before the law changed as "incurably homosexual" and a dangerous sexual offender for admitting to having consensual homosexual sex with four separate adult men. He was not released from Canadian jail until June 1971. I was six years old at the time and had no idea how much my father was struggling with his sexuality. Coming from a large Catholic family, near the village of Harvey Station, New Brunswick, being openly gay wasn't an option. In fact, even pondering the idea of whether or not he might be gay was something that his conscious mind could not afford. Thinking back to discussions with my father, it was evident that from a young age he was searching for something elusive--he didn't know what he needed, just that he didn't have it.
I don't have any memories from when my parents were together, as they separated when I was three. What I've learned has come through discussions with each of them over the years. My mother is also from New Brunswick. She grew up in the village of Fredericton Junction, a forty minute drive from my father's home. Being a talented basketball player, my mom played on her high school team. When she was fifteen, she played an away game at my dad's high school, where he was the scorekeeper. They noticed each other and hit it off. My dad looked like Sal Mineo, 1950s singing icon and actor in Rebel without a Cause, and my mom was "pretty as a china doll" as my dad liked to say. They dated on and off throughout their teenage years. On the day of my mother's high school graduation, while sitting in his car, my dad offered her an engagement ring. She told him she didn't want it, but he convinced her to "just try it on." And, just like that, they were engaged. Time passed, but no wedding date was set. My father moved to Toronto, and my mom remained in New Brunswick. Recently, my mom told me that she proposed to him through a letter which said "either we marry this Christmas or not at all." She thought he would say he couldn't as he had just moved to Toronto. But he didn't.
Newly married, they began their life together under the bright city lights of Toronto. After a few years, they bought their dream home in the suburb of Brampton and began a family. My dad, always friendly and charming, worked in sales at Copp Clark publishing, and my mother, smart as a whip, held various office jobs, including the bank of Nova Scotia, Bell Canada, and finally with Air Canada (which she remained at for over thirty-two years).
When I was a baby, my father accepted a yearlong work transfer to Vancouver. He loved that city. He must have sensed something satisfying for himself there. After returning to Brampton, he thought about Vancouver often. My mom and dad began to argue, and found fault with each other in the trivial details of life. A year passed in our suburban home on Roberts Crescent, but ultimately my father quit his job and took a new one in Vancouver. My twenty-six year-old mother was left on her own to raise two daughters under the age of six. It was very difficult for all of us. In my father's later years, he sometimes mentioned the guilt he felt about moving across the country. But it was difficult to weigh the guilt against the exciting life he had discovered in the west end of Vancouver. I didn't know when my father officially came out. I assume it was a process as I remember meeting a girlfriend of his in Vancouver when I was around six, but as the years passed, the women in his life were just friends. We met many more close male friends, a couple boyfriends, and a few that became family.
Meanwhile my mother, older sister, and I moved back to Toronto leaving the suburban home we could no longer afford. We were confused and heartbroken. Being three years old, I wasn't rational. I felt as if it was my fault. I felt as if I wasn't good enough for him to stay. We settled into a low-income apartment complex behind a strip mall in north Etobicoke, alongside many immigrant families and others making a fresh start. It was a vibrant, diverse community. Three twelve-story buildings framed a large open area with a park, playground, and swimming pool, where a pack of forty or so rambunctious kids ran wild. My mother worked long hours. She was tired all the time. Through watching her, I learned the value of work and the necessity of a powernap. She met all of our needs, helped with homework, and encouraged our talents. I would like to say that everything was terrific--that having a father who lived on the other side of the country, who we saw an average of twenty-one days a year, didn't bother me at all, but it did. I longed for him.
As a child I was often anxious when I went to visit my dad. I wanted him to come back to live with us and thought he would if I was good enough, funny enough, and pretty enough. The first time my sister and I flew to Vancouver to visit him, I was four, and my sister was seven. I remember feeling I would burst with excitement. My sister and I left home gussied up in matching velvet dresses. Upon arrival, due to my nervousness, I ran to my dad wearing only my crinoline as I had thrown up all over myself on the plane. At one family gathering, a few years later, I remember clinging to him for hours. I wrapped myself around his leg, like a baby orangutan, and wouldn't let go. The time we were able to spend with him was precious. We were ecstatic to be together and savoured every moment, smell, and touch of one another. I can still hear the warm baritone of his laugh. I can still smell his freshness and feel his soft, faded jeans. We tried our best to please him, and he us, because we wanted our time together to be perfec.t NO child should be that far away from either parent. Unfortunately, my father was only comfortable exploring his sexuality as a gay man and eventually coming out at a distance from everyone he knew, including my sister and me. When we were growing up, homophobia was common. I often wonder if it hadn't been so widespread in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, would my father have chosen to live closer? Could he have been himself and helped to raise us? A great deal of pain may have been avoided. At age six or seven, I developed anger issues. Day to day, I was a pretty happy kid, but sometimes I exploded. Once, while alone at home, I broke a few pieces of my mother's fancy china. I took them out of their cabinet and smashed them, one by one, on the floor. When my mother came home, surprisingly, she was very calm and concerned. She asked me why I did it. I thought deeply about her question and felt scared because I had no answer other than to admit that a huge uncontainable rage welled up inside me. Looking back, I've realized that I was furious with my dad for leaving us, but at the same time, I couldn't express my anger to him as that would have ruined our precious time together. Over the years, I grew to understand the intense pressures my father lived under as a gay man. I eventually expressed my anger toward him, and it finally dissipated. My father loved my sister and me, but the societal norms of the times caused scars for us all.
I began to clue in that my father had boyfriends, not girlfriends, when I was about fifteen. At the same time, my body was rapidly changing. Sex was constantly on my mind. With the Toronto bathhouse raids in the news, I learned that people of the same sex got together in many different manners. I fooled around with both women and men, as I began to discover what made me feel good. As I was engaged in discovering my own sexuality, it dawned on me that my father was gay. This discovery made me happy, as I had always sensed a hidden side to my dad, and now I knew what it was.
At the time, my anger found an outlet through hating the life I felt was prescribed for me. I hated high school, corporations, racism, governments, disco, Dorothy Hamill, work, authority, Ronald Reagan, war, nations, Farrah Fawcett and John Wayne--basically anything that represented mainstream society. I quit school and left home. Searching the streets of downtown Toronto, I quickly found punk rock and explored different ways of being in the world. I packed in a lot of living. I worked two North American tours as a roadie for MDC, a hard-core political punk band from Texas--one being the infamous Rock Against Reagan tour in 1983 with the Dead Kennedys headlining. I lived in squats from San Francisco to Berlin, producing fanzines and LP covers; I was often hungry, and sometimes I supported myself by begging on the streets. I tried out my French in Montreal, but was much more successful at eating bagels and partying. I felt that having a gay dad was cool, as it also didn't fit into what was considered normal at the time. It created a special bond between us.
My father and I both liked to paint the town red, and we made a great team. In Vancouver, we would start a night out at the Luv-A-Fair on Seymour Street. I danced to punk music while my dad warmed up with a few drinks. One night a young man tried, unsuccessfully, to hit on me. After my lacklustre response, he turned to my father and asked, "Why is she with you old man?" My father replies slowly with his warm smile, "Because I've got the money, honey!" We both chuckled and left for John Barley's in Gastown. The club would be packed to the rafters with sweaty, musclebound men and a few women. My father knew almost everyone there. It was a trip: his friends treated me like a queen, well since I really couldn't compete with many of them for that status ... maybe more like a princess! All night, my drinks were free. I was feted, and I danced until early morning to loud disco, which I learned to love, but, at the time, only in the atmosphere of sweaty, muscular, leather-bound gay men. I relished in the safe and distinguished status I felt as my father's daughter. It wasn't common that one of the leather boys and his daughter had so much fun together. Often I lost myself on the dance floor, once in a while finding my dad with my eyes and a smile.
I don't remember my dad formally "coming out" to me. It happened gradually through our interactions. One day while on my own in my dad's Vancouver apartment, I rifled through his bedside table. I found a soft black leather wristband with flat silver studs and adjustable snaps and promptly put it on me. When he returned with his boyfriend, he noticed it and asked, "Why do you have that on your wrist?" I watched as the two men exchanged horrified, awkward looks and I realized what it was. "Ewww," I thought as I gingerly unsnapped the leather and handed it back to my dad.
My father eventually returned to Toronto and moved into a white high-rise apartment in the heart of the gay village. Toronto Pride became a family event for us. We adored the beer gardens and together pranced up a storm. One year, my dad and his friends created a float for the Pride parade. Dressed as Cleopatra, my father was displayed like royalty. It was hot, and he managed to survive the heat by being fanned by a harem of frond-waving men. My heart swelled with love for him. I didn't know anyone with a gay parent at the time, and it empowered me to have a place to openly celebrate our family.
The late eighties rolled in with intensity, which brought the AIDS crisis and the deaths of many of our friends. It was scary and heart wrenching; the air was full of fear and lies. My lifestyle led to regular testing for AIDS. The wait after a test was frightening. At the time, AIDS was a death sentence, and frequently, the media alluded to the disease as payback for depraved activity. My results were always negative, making life that much sweeter, for a while. Anonymous testing was illegal at the time, but I went to the Hassle Free Clinic on Church st., as they provided it anonymously, despite the law. My father lived close by, and I'd visit him, fill him in, and pester him to get tested. He always refused. He hated illness of any kind and instead spent hours at the gym. He was buff, but still, he was scared--we both were. It was a very dark time. Activism erupted in response to the way the epidemic was being handled. It galvanized the community, and the fight for access to healthcare, dignity, and respect changed the lives of the next generation. My father remained steadfast in his decision not to get tested until the late nineties when antiretroviral treatments became available in Canada. One day, he called me out of the blue to share his results. He got lucky: they were negative. Many weren't so fortunate: in 1994, there were 32,995 Canadians living with HIV.
One night, in the same neighbourhood where the two of us had shared many Pride parades, my father walked home after enjoying a dinner party with friends who lived in the sister apartment building. It was a short jaunt through the park between the two buildings. As it was his neighbourhood, the gay-bourhood, he didn't think twice when three young men called him over with a seemingly friendly question. They jumped him in a premeditated gay bashing. My father was hospitalized. The hate he experienced shook him to his core. He was left full of anger, shame, and a sense of powerlessness. A recurring dream developed in which he turned into a superhero, fought back, and exacted revenge on the men who stole his sense of safety. In a strange way, this experience brought my father and me closer. I was an Ontario College of Art student at the time and had invited my dad to come to my first gallery exhibition. Had I not demanded he come, I might have never known that he was hurt, as he kept the experience hidden from most people. But he said "no" and insisted I come visit him instead. I still feel sad remembering his lumpy black and blue face. He was wounded by the cruel prejudice of his attackers as much as he was by their fists. His pain came pouring out when I visited. He hated that he couldn't come to my show. We both hated the hate. It was, and still is, incomprehensible. No one was ever charged for the crime.
Soon after his physical recovery, my dad bought a house in Crystal Beach, Ontario, with two of his oldest friends. They left Toronto's gay village for small-town life--a town that has an active queer community in which they could retire gracefully and in style. My daughter, sister, and I always loved visiting their impeccable homes. My mother came sometimes too--as we grew older, my parents rekindled their friendship, and we spent most holidays and special functions together. Although queerness wasn't, most often, directly discussed with the immediate or extended family, we all knew and accepted that my father was gay. None of us accepted homophobic comments, and at one point, my mother had a boyfriend who wasn't able to adjust to having her gay ex-husband around, and it contributed to why that boyfriend didn't last.
My father and his two roommates became family to us. I often joked that they should have made a sitcom of their household. Of course, it would have been called The Golden Boys. Outwardly, all three of The Golden Boys seemed to become more conservative as they aged, although their witty banter at dinner parties was still drier than a martini from the Park Hyatt Hotel. My father and his Golden Boy roommates started going to the Catholic Church across the street. Pies and muffins were often baked for fundraisers. Red wine still flowed freely with dinner, but his leather pants and leather cap stiffened up with neglect. The Golden Boys loved when we came to visit. They lavished us with attention, humour, and impeccable good taste. My daughter and I would make an adventure out of it and pitch our tent in their backyard. Although they never said a word against my girl's grubby hands, I could see them all relax when it was time to move our adventures to the tent or even further afield to the beach. It was as if my daughter had three doting grandfathers. And although I felt many judgements from mainstream parenting communities concerned with my decision to breastfeed my daughter until she was almost four, not once were my dad and his roommates disturbed. Their acceptance of me and how I chose to live my life in politically subversive ways throughout the decades was absolute. These men, who had felt the pain of intolerance, were among the most inclusive and compassionate people I have ever known.
I remember the little girl I once was, the one that clung to my father's leg afraid that if I let go, I'd never see him again. That day came when my father died at the age of seventy-four from lung cancer. I lay with him in his hospital bed, holding his hand, as he took his last breath. My daughter was in the next room sleeping, and my sister had just arrived after a panicked, nonstop journey from Quebec. Earlier that day, my dad and I had listened to Marvin Gaye sing "What's Going On," one of our favorite songs from the 1970s. The lyrics capture the deep concern, frustration and love we share about society and its effects on our lives: "Oh, you know we've got to find a way to bring some understanding here today."
Since my father died, I've spent a great deal of time reflecting on how our communities have shifted over the last thirty-five years. We no longer can find one label that comfortably fits the LGBTQ, QPOC, transgender, two-spirit, agender-gender fluid, gender non-binary, queer, lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, and gay communities. My fourteen-year-old daughter expresses her impatience as I struggle to find that elusive, all-encompassing label while writing this. She doesn't yet understand the past work and activism that have created an atmosphere in which it is normal for her to have non-cis-gender-identified friends. At the brink of maturing sexuality, she and her friends are just beginning to identify sexual preference. Recently she told me, "Mom, you are so uncool trying to label everything." I responded with how vital I believe it is for people to have an individual voice while still supporting the need to have terms that bring communities together in solidarity, movement building, and political activism. It is liberating for her generation to have so many possible options--things of course are not perfect, or even easy, with so many pressing issues of hate and intolerance to transform--but it is a very different world from the one my father and I grew up in. Resistance, like leather, is a beautiful thing.
Essay published in Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up With LGBTQ+ Parents, edited by Sadie Epstein-Fine and Makeda Zook (Bradford: Demeter Press, 2018), p. 190-198.