Comment: The story of a gay man and his dad

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Paul Burgess shares the powerful story of the journey his late father Cyril went on when it came to accepting his son’s sexuality.

My parents have two sons, one of them gay. They also have two daughters, one of them gay. They are a part of that rare club of parents who can honestly say they have four children, one of each. Not easy things to own for a man like my father. At least, not at first.

Cyril Wild was a typical married man living in a northern cotton mill town. He regularly bet on horses, regularly went to the pub and socialised with other men, many of them as butch and masculine as the cast of a good western. He was also my father. It wasn’t a job he was great at in my younger years, and it was certainly a job I made more difficult for him.

I was an effeminate child, and teenager. I could and would be as camp as Christmas, often exaggerated for effect. I didn’t make things easy, and yes this was a conscious act on my part. You see, to me, this man once epitomised everything I despised about straight men. He was my example of what NOT to be, and I revelled in the opportunity to show him how different and opposite I could be, to everything he was.

He made it difficult too, for both of us. I recall one incident when I was around 11 years old. It was summer and I’d eaten a red fruit ice lolly, so my lips were stained red. Dad flipped out when he saw me, he screamed abuse at me and gave me a hard clip around the head.  “Get that f**** lipstick off” he said. The problem was of course, I wasn’t wearing any.

We rarely spoke anything more than a hello and goodbye.

On New Year’s Eve in 1989 I asked my boyfriend at the time, who was staying at our home in the spare room, to get into my bed. Not to have sex, but just to sleep with me on the last night of the year. I wanted to snuggle. That was all. On New Year’s Day 1990 my father walked into my room, saw that we were in bed together, and promptly threw me out, simply stating: “I’m not having any of that queer stuff going on here”.

I left. I became independent. I became a man myself. Things were rocky with my dad for three years. We barely spoke; we still harboured much resentment towards each other. 

I gave up on the idea of us ever having a father/son relationship. 

As it would turn out, I gave up way too easily.

Fast forward three years to another New Year’s Eve. It’s the end of a night out with my parents and I’m still not really speaking to dad, we’re in the back of a taxi van and he’s about to step out of the cab. He turns to me and says: “Let’s me and you start afresh son”. He then holds out his hand for a shake. I shake his hand and he pulls me in for a hug. I believe it was the first.

Life suddenly changed, dramatically and so much for the better, although I wouldn’t quite realise that. Yet.

From that moment on, we got along incredibly well. With one gesture from him, he had changed our relationship deeply, and forever.

In 2009 he sat in the front row of my ‘big gay wedding’ and cried as much as my mother. He hugged me after the ceremony and told me it was one of the proudest days of his life. 

We had both become two very different men to the pair constantly at loggerheads in previous years.

I had a father and he loved me. Unconditionally.

Nothing else changed. He still bet on horses, went to the pub, had the same mates.  He was exactly the same man.

He epitomised the fact that anyone can change. Anyone.

He even became a big fan of the work we do at Pink Triangle Theatre, a company tackling homophobia in schools, colleges, workplaces and even prisons across the country. He stated that when he couldn’t drive anymore, he wanted us to have his car instead of our “tin can”. What we did was important to him and he wanted us to be able to do it easier, in a more attractive and reliable vehicle.

Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2012. He was given ten months to live. As a family we really made the most of those ten months. Dad even paid for all of us, his children and our partners, to holiday for an all-inclusive week in Majorca at the start of October 2012. It was an amazing week. My family hoped he would be able to have at least one more holiday after this one. 

I knew, deep down, as did he, that this would be his last.

On January 21st 2013, at 6am in the morning, dad died. He had battled for almost a year, and he battled hard. Mum called me to come down quick, she couldn’t sit him up. Luckily Jason (my husband) and I had moved six doors away from my parents in August, so that we were on hand for this. Exactly this. I was there within moments, and I had to tell mum “He’s gone mum”. Followed by the awful calls to my brother and sisters. Calls I’ll never, ever forget.

My family were broken. They all fell to pieces for a while. Maybe hope had been hiding all the inevitability. I had as much to do with the stages between death and funeral as I possibly could. I helped when the funeral directors came to get him. I went to the chapel of rest and dressed him myself, with the help of my sister. I chose his final outfit and dressed him as if he was going on a Friday night out with my brother. He would have liked that.

Cyril Wild, my wonderful dad, is my own personal Hero. He is also an important lesson for parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people everywhere. 

You too can change. You too can learn to accept all and love unconditionally.

I still miss him terribly, but I’m thankful that I had a chance to say everything that needed saying before he was gone. I told him the truth. I said that I didn’t regret one single thing that had happened between us. Not one. I told him that everything, every single thing, all the good and bad had been an important part of making me the person I was today, and I was proud of myself. He told me he was proud of me too, as he was proud of us all, and he said he couldn’t have married a better woman.

He meant every single word.

My tribute video for him is on YouTube. A Gay Man & His Dad.

A shorter version of this piece was written for Polari during LGBT History Month.