Todd Clayton is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the former Religion, Faith, and Values intern at GLAAD from 2012-2013. Todd is a freelance writer. In addition to writing for the GLAAD blog, his work has appeared in The Huffington Post and Thought Catalog. Two years ago, he told his dad, who is an evangelical pastor, that he is gay. This is his story.
The smell of potatoes and sausage was rushing up from my plate, caching itself in my nostrils, and—like fetid milk—making me nauseated. I hadn’t been able to keep down breakfast since summer: I remember having to dart from the shower one morning after trying to stomach apple-cinnamon oatmeal, making it to the trash can just in time to watch it all come back up. Now that it was November, I was used to the routine: stick to something light—fruit or granola; a bagel, if I was feeling steady—and eat it slowly. Chew more than necessary. Etc. Etc.
Since my parents were in town, though, and they wanted to meet in the morning, I was sitting in front of a hearty breakfast and slowly feeling the panic surface. My dad and I were in the restaurant of the hotel where they were staying, and my mom was still in the room getting ready for her day of meetings. He spoke first.
“Son, your wedding’s only a month away!”
Almost instantaneously, I felt my chin start to quiver, and I knew the tears were close behind. Like lead, they dropped from my eyes and cracked against the plate below, dancing with the scrambled eggs and making them runny. He put his fork down and looked at me from behind his glasses, eyebrows raised, mouth agape.
“What’s going on, Todd?”
“Dad, I’m really sick.” I started. “I haven’t eaten in three months. I haven’t slept in six. I really need to talk to you, and I need you to not let me get out of it, okay?”
“Promise,” he said, shifting his eyes to the door across the room. “Your mom’s coming.” I raised the back of my hand to my cheeks and wiped them dry. I cleared my throat twice.
“Can you tell I was crying?” He said no, and I started shuffling the food around my plate to make it look like I’d eaten something.
When my mom got to the table, I stood up and hugged her, and she kissed my cheek like she always does. I kissed her back, and we sat down.
“The invitations are beautiful, son. We got ours a couple weeks ago.” I tried to smile. She asked if the honeymoon had been booked yet, and—heavily—I told her we’d finalized it the Monday before.
“Kauai is going to be fantastic,” she affirmed. “My baby boy’s getting married.” We talked about the dress, my suit, how sticking to hors d’oeuvres instead of going with a full meal really did make more sense for an afternoon ceremony, and how eggplant and charcoal were perfect colors for December. When my hands started to shake, I put them under the napkin on my lap so she wouldn’t notice. After we paid, we walked to the parking lot to their rental car. I sunk into the front seat, which my mom said I should take since my legs were longer, and the engine quietly rumbled as we drove around the corner toward the school.
I had decided I’d skip my Shakespeare class that morning, so after we dropped her off my dad turned the car around, and we silently rode back to the hotel. Weighted anchors, my feet took hold of the ground beneath me—pulling up concrete and plants and dreams—as we walked toward his room. He slid the plastic keycard into the door, and the light flickered green before I heard the lock mechanically slide back. We stepped inside, and asking me to sit on the couch, he grabbed a chair from the desk across the room and sat in front of me. A small, forgettable coffee table separated us.
“So, what’s keeping you up at night?” My body went numb like it did when I jumped in the icy river water two summers before in the mountains of California. My breaths were sharp, and I stared into his sixty-year-old eyes.
They were scared, like mine.
“Dad,” I said. I couldn’t feel my face anymore. “Dad, I’m gay.”
“Yeah, dad. I’m gay.”
Like a mother who has stumbled upon her dead child, I collapsed to the couch and started to moan, that deep, guttural, unholy sound of bone-breaking, world-shifting hurt. I buried my face in the crook of the couch, too embarrassed to look anywhere but as far away from my dad as possible. I noticed his hands on my back first, then felt them slide around my convulsing, tortured chest. Infant-like, he lifted my limp and lifeless body off of the couch, onto his lap, and held me. I remember thinking he couldn’t squeeze me hard enough, and wanting so badly to dissolve into millions of impossibly discoverable pieces.
“I’m sorry,” I wailed. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shhhh,” he assured.
“I love you, Todd,
“I am proud of you,
“You are clean,
“You are whole,
“We’re going to get through this,
“I love you, Todd.” The crying would continue for twenty minutes, and he would rock me, singing these words—this hope-filled spiritual—over my wounded, naked soul. Like a restorative, long-desired, inexplicable balm, they coated my laden heart and begged me to breathe deeply.
“You can’t get married, can you?” he asked, after the writhing stopped.
“Not to a woman, no,” I said, and the agony and anxiety of what the next days would hold smashed against me: the unveiling, the undoing, the explaining.
“You want to go on a walk?” my dad asked. My face felt swollen, and the pin-pricks under my eyes and in my lips told me it was thawing out.
“That’d be nice.”