When my wife, Karen, was pregnant with our first child in 1972, I had a dream that it was a girl. In my dream, she was a beautiful child with blond hair and a glow about her, which suggested a spiritual power or a bit of magic. It was a time before you could tell the sex of the child from tests, when the delivery of a baby answered nine months of suspense. “It’s a girl,” said the doctor, “and she’s blond.”
We named her Alison. She became a bright and spritely child, so sensitive and empathetic that teachers would sit new students beside her, knowing that she would help them get adjusted. She stood out in many ways. If she wore green, her light eyes glowed yellow. No surprise she would grow up to be the mother of cats.
Alison was what was called a girly-girl: dolls, dance classes, recitals, school plays, lip-sync competitions, Bon Jovi worship and boyfriends. I didn’t think I would like these young men, but I couldn’t help it. Mostly they were musical, artistic, mellow and respectful. I began to imagine that one day I would walk Alison down the aisle. And I did. Into the arms of Doug, a bright, handsome young man who wanted to design websites, and who had come to my office to ask me for my daughter’s hand. I found it an elegant and charming gesture. “If she’ll have you,” I told him, “you have my blessing.”
They were married in 1999. By 2005, they were divorced.
Then came the phone call that changed so much. As soon as I said “Hello,” I could hear only sobbing on the other end. It’s funny how you can recognize certain sounds, these sobs, as belonging to your child. It turned out to be one of the most important phone calls I ever received, so my memory of it remains sharp. I wasn’t recording it, or taking notes, but it went something like this.
“Alison, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t tell you….” (more sobbing)
“Alison, are you okay?”
“Yes…no….” (sobbing, words but unintelligible)
“Are you in danger? Has something happened to you?”
“Are you sick? Do you have an illness?”
(Sobs, trying to catch her breath) “No, nothing like that.”
“Did somebody hurt you? Have you been assaulted?”
“No, I can’t tell you. You won’t….” (unintelligible)
Panic. My heart beating. Confusion. Nothing left to ask, until:
“Alison, are you gay?”
“Yes…yes…,” she said, and then “Dad, why are you laughing?”
“Because I’m so, so relieved!”
It wasn’t in my plans to raise a gay daughter, my lesbian thespian child who now proudly calls herself “queer.” I didn’t see it coming. Alison, I now have the language to describe it, was on the “fem” end of the lesbian spectrum. Her attractions were to lesbians on the more masculine or butch end of the spectrum. Female masculinity.
When you learn a secret, as I did that day, it may surprise you without shocking you. That’s the way I felt. And although I did not see it coming, my instinct was to act, not only as a dad, but as a writer. I see the world through the lens of story, so I rewound the narrative of Alison’s young life. It turns out, the signs were there, so subtle in some cases that I can forgive myself for missing them.
It might have begun, where else, in Girl Scouts.
Alison’s troop met in an Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg. It was the 1980s, the time when MTV was actually a cable music channel, a time when the culture was beginning to glam itself up, when the boy bands and the girl bands all wore big hair, and when Madonna, Prince, Elton John, Boy George and George Michael were all the gay rage.
I knew several girls in the troop, but Alison would come home seemingly obsessed by just one: a tall, gangly girl with close-cropped dark hair. I will call her Soccer Girl. She was a fabulous player, as an athlete a prototype of Abby Wambach. Alison announced, to our surprise, that she wanted to try out for the soccer team. There were outings and meetings and camping trips, and the news when Alison got home always featured Soccer Girl.
Then there was the case of the Atlanta waitress. Alison and Doug were still married when I paid a visit. By the year 2000, Alison had established herself as one of the best actors in the city of Atlanta. This is not just a proud father speaking. A reader’s poll in Creative Loafing had voted her the best female actor in the city for four consecutive years. It was fun to travel around the city and see how often she was recognized.
It didn’t seem odd to me when a server at a local breakfast restaurant approached us and seemed to ignore me while taking a shine to Ali. She was an attractive woman in her 20s, about the same age as Alison, with short, stylish hair and a welcoming smile. I think I noticed her name tag: Alison.
“Oh, hello, Alison. Let me introduce you to Alison.”
I asked for her middle name.
“I’m Alison Rene.”
“Oh,” I said, “this is Alison Rae.”
Toward the end of the meal, I expressed my curiosity at the server’s demeanor. Finally, I said it, “Ali, was she just hitting on you?”
“It happens all the time,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know, I must give off this weird lesbian vibe.” Yeah, I guess so. I brushed it off as a side effect of gay culture so prominent in the theater. Actors are boundary breakers and mask wearers. The things they did were make-believe.
So yes, I once was blind, but now I see. And, oh, the things I’ve seen and learned in the last 15 years.
• I learned that most gay and lesbian children do not receive the support from their parents that Alison has enjoyed. The day I learned Alison’s secret, I ran into my friend Anne Hull, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who, as a funny and assertive lesbian, became a great resource and comfort to me. A guardian angel. She told me that at Gay Pride parades, the most emotional moment is when the PFLAG float (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) rolls by. “Most gay people look at that float,” she said, “and see the parents they wish they had.”
• I watched my daughter come out in public on the cover of Creative Loafing in the arms of her new boyfriend, Scott Turner Schofield, a transgender man — author, performance artist and the first trans actor on an American soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful. “So let me understand this, Alison. You divorced your husband and have come out as a lesbian, but your new boyfriend is going through transition and identifies as a man?”
• Then came Deb. (I have asked permission to use this name at this point in my story.) One Saturday morning, the family gathered at a breakfast restaurant in Atlanta, a part of town known as a haven for lesbians and creative artists of all kinds. I noticed the server behind the counter. A young androgynous person with blue eyes, dark hair piled high in a pompadour reminiscent of the rockabilly stars of the 1950s. Elvis’ younger sibling. But add the tattoos: uncountable along both arms, neck, sideburns and, I assumed, places I could not see.
I would learn later that this human was one of the most creative people on the planet: guitar player, singer, songwriter. But, also, a visual artist: designer, illustrator, children’s book author. Born in Texas into a working-class family, Deborah became Deb, known now as Deeds. How could I know that morning at that restaurant that this splendid person would become my daughter’s partner, my Deeds-in-law.
At the age of 90, my mother, Shirley, met Deeds. “She is a wonderful person,” she said, “but I think she was really meant to be a boy.” We worried that Deeds would take such a thought as a slur, but in 2015 Deeds would confirm Shirley’s reading, announcing to us that he had decided to go through the process of transitioning. Legally changing his name to Deeds, female pronouns replaced by they/their or he/him. (Use of the “singular they,” grammar nerds, goes back to Chaucer.) And, finally, the medical transition. My queer daughter Alison was about to have a spouse who was a trans man.
We think of history as a big, big sweep of time, but it can also be small and intimate. One day the Supreme Court decides gay marriage is a constitutional right. Next thing you know, we find ourselves in a courthouse in Decatur, Georgia, Ali and Deeds determined to make legal for themselves what was now, suddenly, legal for the country.
The building was bustling that late November day in 2016, one wing devoted to civil and criminal trials. We walked through the security checkpoint. Deeds strolled through in a black suit, Alison in a purple dress. Ali handed her bridal bouquet to the guard, who passed it through the metal detector.
We approached a long, narrow corridor, with benches on both sides, 20 couples waiting to be wed. We sat for an uncomfortable hour, chatting with some of the couples. We met two gay grooms. We watched an older couple, maybe in their late 60s, giving love another shot. A young Asian couple astonished us: He was an American citizen; she was on a student visa. They were just friends, but he was willing to marry her so she could stay in the country. What about love? “We’ll see what happens.”
A clerk finally emerged and announced that couples had a choice. If they wanted the longer service, they could move into another room. If they wanted the “express” version, they should hand their paperwork to him. Alison flew up toward the front, waving her paperwork. In a surprisingly touching ceremony, Alison and Deeds were married in a liturgy that lasted about 90 seconds.
They posed for photos outside under a gazebo in the courtyard and on the steps of the courthouse, not far from a Confederate monument.
We heard a deep voice: “Well, what have we here?”
It came from a police officer, a young Black man, fully armed and wearing what looked like an armored vest. He was an imposing presence — a warrior action figure — and we did not know what to expect. “Love will find a way,” he said, and joined in the festivities.
A former student of mine, about my daughter’s age, came out in his senior year of college. His father disowned him, a rejection that destroyed the family and shocked the community. I feel sorry for them all — but especially for the father. He missed the chance to know — and love — a truly remarkable son.
Where were any of these concerns those long evenings in the 1950s watching Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show? How about Leave It to Beaver? I wonder now if Eddie Haskell was gay.
In the decade in which all of this has happened, America has been in the midst of one of the great social transformations of all time. The Stonewall riots occurred when I was in college, but they seem like ancient history now. Before the pandemic, St. Petersburg hosted one of America’s greatest Gay Pride celebrations. People of all ages — gay and straight — gathered under the rainbow flag.
Who knew that my little blond daughter would grow up to be an actor, yoga teacher, counselor and activist, but also a character in a narrative about love, social justice, civil rights and equality? Our love for her, and her sisters Emily and Lauren, came back to us over and over again in good times and bad, in daily phone calls Alison made during the five years her mom was undergoing treatments for breast cancer.
When friends learned that Alison had come out, they approached me with some concern. “How are you feeling about all this?” they asked. Here is how I answered, how I still answer: “I’m very happy. I’m happy not just for Alison, I’m happy for me, too.” I sensed in some of them a skepticism about my sincerity, as if I was determined — whatever my true feelings — to play the role of the progressive parent. “No, I mean it. I’m ecstatic. They say that to love a person, you really have to know them. I loved Alison as a straight daughter. But I didn’t really, fully know her then. Now that I know her truest self, I can love her more deeply. What could make any father happier?”