Alison Wearing’s 12-year-old son had a friend over recently. He saw a mock-up cover of Wearing’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad. “Yeah, my grandfather’s gay,” her son told his friend. “Do you want some chips?” It wasn’t as easy for Wearing when her father came out in the ’70s, in the small city of Peterborough, Ont. He’d always been different from other dads, baking croissants, wearing silk pyjamas, skipping while singing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. “There wasn’t even the word ‘gay’ in those days. It didn’t really exist. It was like hearing a different language,” she says, of finding out. Her mother, equally in shock, divorced her husband.
Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter was originally a one-woman show that Wearing performed all over the world. When she saw the reaction she knew she could delve a lot deeper than her 25-page script. “When I tell people that my father is gay, no one has ever said, ‘That sounds boring. Let’s talk about something else.’ It’s actually a great party trick,” laughs Wearing, 45. The book also started with a box her father handed her which, she says, “was a window into his heart.” In it, she not only found newspaper clippings about the gay scene in the ’70s, but her father’s journal, and letters to friends and family. One diary entry contained this bombshell: “Last night I made it with a Roman Catholic priest.” When she read it aloud to him, her father didn’t tear the page away, she writes. “He melted into a coy posture and cooed, ‘Oooh, I remember him. He was so cute.’ ”
At first, Joe Wearing didn’t like the idea of his daughter writing about him. He has not yet read her book. “I have a certain distance from it,” he said in a telephone interview. Now in his late 70s, he has been in a relationship with the same man for 30 years. Asked how he didn’t know he was gay, he says, “When I look back, I realize that, ‘Oh yes, I was struggling with admitting it.’ In the 1950s it was just out of the question.” He led a Dr. Jekyll straight life in Peterborough, where he was a political studies professor, eventually spending four days a week in Toronto. In a letter featured in the book, he writes of his then-wife, “How much she is aware of I just don’t know, though I would have thought that, if anything, my sexual performance at home ought to have aroused suspicions. In the end I don’t know whether she will be prepared to accept a gay husband (I have been amazed to find out that some do.)”
Alison’s mother learned the news after finding a letter he had written. “It was that, ‘Now what? Who do I tell? How big will the shame be?’ ” recalls Alison. He came out to the rest of his family gradually, just before he turned 40. Alison thinks it was harder on her than her brothers because girls are more interested in details. “My girlfriends would want to know things like, why does he wear silk shirts?” Until she was in her 20s, she told only one friend. She writes about going to a gay father’s group with her dad. The gatherings saved Joe’s sanity. “They were virtually all very fond of their wives and children,” he says. “There are still people in Canada who get married and then decide they made the wrong decision. There are still huge pressures to lead a ‘normal’ married life.” As for the priest, Joe laughs. “I certainly can still picture him in the bar. He had just been on holiday and he had this blond curly hair. It didn’t come up till later that he was a priest.”
Alison found herself teary at times going through the box, because it was so “raw.” “I cannot say at what point having a gay father became as normal to me as having tea in the morning instead of coffee, only that it did,” she writes. “And just as I cannot imagine starting the day with anything other than tea, it is quite impossible for me to imagine my father any other way than gay.”
As for her dad, “I don’t walk around saying, ‘Hi, I’m Joe and I’m a gay father,’ ” he says. He has a close relationship with his three children and a fond one with his ex-wife. Asked if he’d have done things differently, he says, “I do wonder how my life would have turned out. Maybe I’d just be a bachelor. Or maybe I would have married someone I didn’t like as much as I did.”