Ray Triggs, my father, was a sexy guy -- in a fish camp, Jack Daniels kind of way. Even at seventy-five years old, crippled from several strokes, breathing raspy from a three pack a day habit, he was sexier than I was on my best day. He just had that air about him.
I think it was probably because my Dad was controlled by sex in a way that I never have been. That might be because I am smarter than he was or it could be that he was more secure than I am. At any rate, his record and his actions speak for themselves. By the time he was forty he had eight children, six his, two step, with four different women. I have a brother that I have never met and one that I didn't meet until I was almost thirty.
So, my Dad had two children that he all but abandoned. Learning that helped explain why he was comfortable with our relationship. It wasn't perfect, but we were living in the same house. That was something, right? He was doing better by me than he had done by two of his other sons. For my Dad, sex was more about power and getting off than it was about love or consequence.
Sometimes you learn things like that about people because of how they treat you in regards to the same subject. That was made obvious when I came out to my parents about ten years ago. I sat them down in our living room in Wisconsin - the epicenter of style in my hometown of Madison. Mom was on the inherited plaid couch and Dad was sitting in his Lazy Boy recliner when I dropped the news. There was an inevitable silence and then my father said: "How many other people know about your sex life?" That was the first thing he thought of. This man who had been unfaithful, this man who had illegitimate children, this man who had been arrested and thrown in jail was worrying about what other people might think. That's funny. That's the power of sex.
In hindsight, he provided a powerful lesson about how many straight people look at us. They think it is just about the sex. The minute my Dad knew I was gay, he visualized some sweaty boy toy plowing the back forty.
Let's look at this behavior from our point of view shall we? Imagine every time you met some woman and found out she was married to a man. "Oh, MRS. Milbauer, is it?" Immediately you start seeing her, prim and proper, living up to the stereotype of a heterosexual woman we grew up with. Her flannel nightgown is pushed up around her hips, with Mr. Milbauer on top of her in the traditional missionary position. He thinking only of his own gratification while Mrs. Milbauer plans dinner menus and grocery lists for the next week.
It would be foolish, limiting and downright unfair to define the Milbauer's marriage that way. But I honestly think that is what a lot of straight people do to gay people everyday. I think that's what my Dad was doing.
But every once in a while God gives you the right words. I've never forgotten what I said that night when my Dad asked me, "Who else knows about your sex life?"
I said, "I haven't told you anything about my sex life. I told you that when I meet someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with, it's going to be a man. That's all you know. The rest is none of your business."
By that time, my Dad was very sick and I wasn't sure I would ever see him again. So I tried to make our time together meaningful and profound, in that way too earnest way that borders on annoying. He wasn't interested. He was distant and more isolated than he had been in years. But on that trip home, I finally figured out that he was the parent. Not me. It was his job to fix this.
So, I left. I didn't call. I didn't write. And then one day the phone rang. It was my Dad. I didn't even know that he knew how to use a phone. He had never called me before. We chatted, there was a pause, and then he said, "So tell me about this guy you've been seeing…"
Raymond and I were closer until he died about five years later. I am thankful for that. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of my coming out to him. Maybe he figured out we were more alike than either of us had realized. We both chose, good or bad, to live life on our own terms and that gave us unlikely but common ground.