Father’s Day for a lesbian’s son

16 June 2024

In this excerpt from chapter nine of Jephthah’s Children (Wilberforce Publications), Robert Oscar Lopez shares his experience of being brought up in a lesbian household, the impact of fatherlessness on his young life, and why reminiscing on ‘Father’s Day’ particularly prompts him to oppose same-sex parenting

I waited until the night of Father’s Day to write this, because I couldn’t bear to post it in the midst of all the winsome Father’s Day specials everywhere—odes to the mentorship, paternal fealty, male role modelling, and caring that everyone attributes to fathers.

I do not want to be covetous, so I am genuinely happy for everyone who has fathers to celebrate and commemorate on this day.

I have a close relationship with my father. I had to go out of my way to build that from scratch when I was in my late twenties. Some of this is not the fault of my lesbian mother. None of this is really the fault of her partner. Some fault lies in my own reaction to things growing up, my curling up and withdrawing from what was such a confusing arrangement of custodian figures and role models and parental units that I had to protect and shield, when I was still a child who just wanted to be protected and shielded.

Father’s Day isn’t a day when one should be finding fault. One should be cherishing one’s father. And I have one now, so I cherish him and love him. But Father’s Day is always painful because it is on this day that everyone around me shares stories and tells tales about this person in their lives, most often involving the tender years of childhood and adolescence. I have a father but I don’t have those stories to tell, so I am torn. Instead of narratives about being taught how to pitch a baseball or pep talks to stick up for myself against bullies, I have maudlin and pathetic stories about being a teenage freak, getting beat up, having nobody to turn to and defend me, feeling abandoned and alone, finding solace in male prostitution and hookups with lecherous gay men.

My father became my father when I was twenty-seven.

By that time, I was already a New York City professional, working at MTV Networks. The time had passed for me to learn how to be a man. Lost were the rites of passage or masculine guidance. I had arrived at my late twenties not knowing how to be a man, and making it up as I went along, replacing the missing father with the collective nurturing but ultimately unhealthy guidance of the gay male community. I’d looked for and found countless proxy father figures who ended up dying of AIDS or disappearing. I’d been accustomed to having a huge void where my father should have been, which I filled with a lot of self-medicating behaviours: compulsive sex, drinking, obsessive careerism, recklessness.

I had cancer in January 1998. I ignored the pain as the growth hardened and worsened, convincing myself nothing was wrong. I had no reason to believe I had cancer. The thought never crossed my mind. But then on a cold winter day, the doctor told me that he’d received a report on my blood works. My tumour markers were hundreds of times the normal rate and the growth was likely to metastasise. He said he had to operate immediately.

My brother took the train up from Manhattan to help me prepare for the surgery as I rushed into Montefiore Hospital’s ambulatory care unit. The Harlem River seemed to separate me and my brother, like a continuing symbol of the gulf that had always divided me from him in the same family. I’d looked up to him as an older sibling, but we’d never been close. I had almost no memories of him and me doing anything together in the house where we were growing up. He was always close with a family down the street that had three sons, one daughter, and an all-American Mom and Pop business they ran as a clan. In some ways it seemed as though they adopted him as an honorary Polish American when we were kids. He was always over at their house, leaving me to deal with the crazy lesbian melodrama of our nutty Puerto Rican asylum.

I didn’t feel right leaning on my brother in the middle of the crisis. I was living with an HIV+ cross-dresser who I worried might shock and discomfort him, so I was wary of having my brother come over to my house. Little white lies aren’t so bad, right? I told my brother I’d be fine and didn’t need his help, so he could go back to his place off 125th Street. Then when he left, I felt terribly alone. It wasn’t just the pain, it was also the knowledge that something as serious as cancer was real and happening to me. It was the fact that the ultimate consequence of the disease was still an unknown. I needed someone there, someone of my flesh and blood. My mother had been gone for eight years, but I knew that her partner would come to New York if I called her.

I picked up the phone. Something snapped in my head, and instead of calling her, I called Dad. His voice was calm and unruffled over the phone as I told him about what was happening. There was some surprise, but he was never one to get hysterical in a crisis. The fact that we were speaking to each other was a shock in itself, for I’d grown accustomed, over the years, to communicating to him only by leaving messages with his receptionist. I drummed up the courage to ask if he would come and help me through the operation.

Each second felt like an hour as I waited to see what he would say. My first guess was that he’d say he had too many appointments. His business partners would need him to be away on business, or else he didn’t know how his presence would help. But then came the big surprise: He said without hesitation he would fly down.

Things sped along in the next day or two. I was rolled into surgery, and someone miscalculated the anaesthesia, so it wore off in the middle of the procedure. The pain I felt being cut open and sewed shut was something that defied description. Perhaps the worst part of the surgery itself was that I felt truly alone surrounded by doctors and nurses I didn’t know if I could trust. They put me to sleep with some injection then rolled me into a basement hallway to recover next to stabbing victims and junkies going cold turkey.

When I came to, my father was there. “You’re my father”, I said. “I’m your son”. That was all I could really say, but it said everything that needed to be said.

In the two years that followed, I embarked on a recovery that went far beyond overcoming cancer (I ended up going into complete remission and being fine, eventually). The aftermath of cancer turned out to be more focused on my father, this mysterious man who’d hovered over me like a question mark, and less about oncology.

Perhaps on a rash whim, I quit my job at MTV Networks and moved into my father’s house in Buffalo. The doctors transferred my care from Montefiore to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, skipping over the doctor’s recommendation that I go to Sloan-Kettering. To outsiders, the next years might look creepy or distorted: I regressed to the emotional state of a nine-year-old, wanting to relive my childhood, but now with my father there. I enrolled in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo down the street and got a scholarship that allowed me to focus on my studies. Other than my studies, I was largely concentrated on learning how to be a son. I helped take care of my father’s ailing mother, who was in her nineties. I did chores around the house. I invited myself to his parties to drink beer alongside his buddies. We went to football games. I watched all his favourite James Bond films and his beloved documentaries about World War II. In 1999, we went to the Philippines together and he was proud of my fluency in Spanish, which allowed me to translate the nineteenth-century baptismal certificates of Dad’s ancestors and build his long-lost family tree.

The fact that my father was proud of me, that I wasn’t something to be kept secret or feel ashamed about, meant the world to me. It really did. Some of my friends mocked what was going on, because they couldn’t believe that a grown man with a career in television would willingly move in with his dad and act like a teenage boy begging his pop to play catch in the backyard. But for strange reasons, I didn’t care that it was weird. The point was, I had lived my whole life never having these Dad and son things. My life had brought me to a point where I was convinced that I deserved them and shouldn’t shy away from taking them back.

Did my reunion with my father make up for lost time? No. It wasn’t lost time. It was new time. It was a relationship that became something profoundly important for me, even transformative, something that allowed me to understand all of who I was and why I had to turn away from the hurtful self-medicating behaviours that had filled the void in the past.

Though I love what my relationship with my Dad has become, the void wasn’t really filled. It’s still a void for those first 27 years, when there was no dad, because my mom was a lesbian and she didn’t really want a dad in her life—or rather, in mine. She was actually very close to her own father.

Therein lies the rub for the boy raised by lesbians. You grow up seeing a loving relationship between two women who have defined themselves against what you are, and against the man who gave you life. Father’s Day becomes a black hole of time, a day you get through, trying to listen to everyone’s stories about their dads without rolling your eyes. The happy ending that concluded my journey through a fatherless life is something I treasure and am grateful for. But I grieve for the many boys raised by lesbians who will never have the fortuitous twists that allowed me to reunite with Dad: the cancer, the empty room in his house, graduate school, my own inexplicable decision to send my brother home and call Dad instead.

If there is any day If there is any day on which I feel the importance of opposing same-sex parenting, it’s Father’s Day by far. Lesbian moms have done something cruel by forcing kids to grow up with a gaping void that their peers never feel. There are children whose fathers die, of course, but most often, these children have a tombstone to visit and their widowed mothers will sit them down and tell them sentimental tales about what their father was like. That’s not like having a lesbian mom who can’t bear the thought of your dad, the reflection of you as a male, sharing your home and actually being part of your life.

I used to be timid about criticising lesbian moms I used to be timid about criticising lesbian moms, but not anymore. People have been too reserved about telling them to their faces that their families are abusive and their decision to deprive children of fathers a gross crime. Father’s Day is a time of love but also a time of honesty. Honesty can be affirming, but it can also hurt. Every child has a father. The lesbian couple raising a child has simply decided to steal the child from his father and to steal the father from his child. That’s wrong. And this would be the day to take a break from the charming stories, to be frank.

Read more of his story, and testimonies from others in Jephthah’s Children.

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