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The night that I found out my stepfather was arrested seemed like any other back then. I was 13, living on the east side of Cleveland. He was away on yet another business trip, the nature of which was never truly explained to me. While talking to him on the phone that week, I’d followed my mother’s rules and called him my uncle.
For the previous year, I had adjusted to the strange habits my brother and I were encouraged to adopt regarding my stepfather’s whereabouts. There was the month when we spent every weekend shooing away rats with brooms and wiping caked-on dust off the appliances of my stepfather’s new apartment in a ghetto on the west side of Cleveland that had more damaged businesses, abandoned homes, and random men yelling outside than our own neighborhood; the kind of place I’d imagine my mother would usually tell us to never hang out. The only explanation I was given was that he simply “needed an extra place to stay.” Even at school, I was told to rarely mention him.
At the time, I simply chalked it up to another truth that children simply shouldn’t know. In retrospect, it was the way my family had to cope with having an undocumented man as a father.
In the days following his arrest, our family made sure to cover our tracks. Late one night, my mother instructed us to roam through dressers, closets, and the attic for as many items of his as possible. By the time the night ended, most of his belongings were in a storage unit and I knew exactly why, even though my mother didn’t tell me.
We had to remove his presence from our home, act as if he had never really lived there, in case the police suspected we had aided the man who had raised us.
. . .
Days turned to weeks. Eventually, my stepfather was sentenced to four years at a correctional facility in Youngstown, Ohio. I started high school and my body began to change in new ways. I grew facial hair. My voice deepened. When I looked in the mirror, I no longer hated myself. Maybe it was growing up in a family of secrets that had taught me to keep the deepest secret of my own: I was gay and I had no idea how to come out to my family.
My stepfather’s loss was most apparent during family dinners on Sundays. His spot at the table stared back at us, empty. Despite discovering my passion for writing that year, I hated writing him letters, just like I hated the phone calls. After all the secrets about how our family was held together, it made me sick to spout niceties about the shiny parts of my teenage life.
On one hand, I felt selfish for being angry with him. He’d driven me to bookstores as a child, marveled at my art projects, and calmed my mother when her temper flared. I knew that my phone calls, letters, and visits mattered to him because every detail I provided helped him understand the man I was becoming from behind bars.
At the same time, however, I wondered if he’d ever really want to know the real me. No one had helped me prepare for the imploding of our family’s facade, just as no could prepare me for what would happen when my own illusion, my heterosexuality, could no longer hold. I believed any conversation about coping with loss would only add stress to an already stressful situation and be more shallow than what I desperately needed.
. . .
Prison visits took up entire Sundays. We would wear nice clothes, drive to the private prison, and pass through the metal gates. Inside, we had to strip our pockets, show our identification, walk through metal detectors, and appear content with this treatment. I hated the way the prison guards casually handled their jobs as captors. Despite “the talk” that every Black child is given while growing up, seeing the mass of Black and Brown men in orange jumpsuits was the first time this realization hit home: This country jails us so casually.
On one visit in particular, I was the most agitated I’d ever been. My brother was leaving soon for the military. My mother and I had been having horrible arguments for weeks. Instead of being interested and reassuring about what was actually bothering me, my mother chose this visit to encourage my stepfather to tell me to shape up.
But I was reaching my limit with facades.
“You’re gone,” I said as I looked at my stepfather. “Now my brother’s leaving. All I’m gonna have left is…”
My mother’s expression went slack. Neither of them responded.
. . .
I was 15 years old when a teacher assigned us to write a speech about “how the government had affected our lives personally.” I wrote about how kind my stepfather had been to me and what it felt like to stand in the middle of the emptiness he left behind. Apparently, the strength to speak out such loss did not need to be pulled out of me. It had been there all along.
Living with my father’s absence forced me to wage war against all the other shades of shame I’d acquired—mentally rehearsing having to live on the streets if my parents kicked me out for being gay; the future wedding that my mother would choose not to come to, or that my stepfather legally could not; the letters, the phone calls that I hadn’t responded to quickly enough.
I decided then that it was time to no longer be afraid of being gay, of not being the right kind of Black boy for anyone, of being in a family in which such a loss could happen. When I finished my speech, my classmates gazed back at me, tender. Many of them had lost someone to prison or street violence, so what about airing the truth had made me so afraid?
It was because—and Trump’s America proves it—shame is used to silence people, to hold steady an illusion that benefits some but hurts many others.
. . .
Months after that prison visit, my mother woke me up in my room and asked me the question I’d been dreading: “Are you gay?”
Though I felt relief for finally speaking that truth, there was no solace in the fact that I couldn’t control what my mother chose to do with it. The next months at home were even lonelier as my mother’s only acknowledgement of my sexuality was to ask with a grimace, “Are you still having these feelings?”
I wrote and called my father less frequently. By the time college acceptance letters and high school graduation arrived, my father’s release date was set. I’d always suspected that my mother would reject my sexuality, but deep down, I had hope for my father’s open-mindedness.
I spent the summer before university with my stepfather in Kingston, Jamaica. Kingston, the capital, is where, in the documentary Gully Queens, LGBTQ Jamaicans are forced out of their homes, end up living in the storm drains, and sometimes have to fend off knife attacks in the night.
Nerves had eaten me up the entire trip. It was a hot day when I called him into my room.
“I, I have something to tell you and…” I froze and took a breath. “Would you care if I was gay?”
He fiddled with the ring on his finger for a long time and then closed the bedroom door.
“What did you just say?”
“It doesn’t have to change anything. I just… You’re my father and I wanted to tell you.”
The look on his face was grave. For the next hour, I stumbled through trying to answer his offensive questions. The part that stung the most, though, was when he said, “I love you, but I don’t want that to be part of my life.”
The comment haunted me even as I took a shower later that day, as I packed my bags to leave, and as I broke down in the airplane bathroom. The irony was that I’d never asked for an undocumented father, and yet I had embraced him wholly for as long as I could. I’d yearned for him to return the favor; so much so, I’d made the effort to open up to him.
I left Jamaica, never really able to see him the same. But when he calls, I answer. I don’t want to be part of the silence that plagued our family for so long.