Not long ago, I was home in Chicago performing at a beloved local treasure called The Hideout Inn. The Hideout’s owner, a guy named Tim with enough Chicago soul to fuel a thousand Bluesmobiles, brought me out with a beautiful introduction—he spoke of my grind coming up in that city and claimed me as a Chicagoan forever. I walked out to some serious hometown applause. Familiar faces dotted the crowd—friends from childhood, former students of mine, and in the front row, my parents.
We’d had dinner together that night—my parents, my sister, and me—but my folks had planned to drive back home before my late night show. Instead, they decided to stick around and listen to me do an hour of jokes about vests and periods and things dudes have yelled at me on the street. An hour of jokes in which I would be very open about being a lesbian.
I began coming out 13 years ago. April 1 is my gayversary—the date I first told someone I had feelings for women. The someone I told was the woman I had just kissed, so she probably figured as much. It still felt huge to say it and I celebrate that date every year. It was the beginning of a multi-year, multi-city process that began while I attended conservative Catholic college and ended when I found stand-up.
In the years between, things were not great within my family. My folks were both raised in conservative Italian Catholic families, and I’d always known them as supportive, involved, and a bit strict. After I came out, they worried about my future so openly that I feared the best years of my life were behind me. I was 20.
It took me years to stop trying to date men, years to come out to my entire circle of friends, years to get a good night’s sleep. My dad had an especially difficult time adjusting to this new information and our relationship suffered because of it. He sometimes cried when we spoke on the phone, or was distant. For the first time in my life, we just weren’t close. My strained relationship with my father quickly became the worst part about being gay.
It’s stand-up that helped me feel comfortable in my super gay skin, and it’s stand-up that gave me a way to come out to a group of people and get a positive response. Stand-up took away the worry about who knew or who didn’t, or how to broach the subject in conversation. My friends, family, and co-workers were in the audience for those first shows years ago and a lot of the people I meet now have seen me perform. Stand-up allowed me to come out all the way. Stand-up gave me back my life, and my relationship with my dad.
I moved back home to Chicago from Boston in 2006, and shortly thereafter, something changed for my dad. He had the largest possible change of heart about me and my sexuality. He apologized. He took a new interest in my partners and my life. He began to come to shows. He became a warrior on my behalf. We’ve spoken of this shift, but it still astounds me, particularly because I understand just how large an ideological shift he made. It’s a shift I made myself.
I am no longer a practicing Catholic—and most days I don’t believe in God—but for a long time Catholicism was a huge part of my life. I still consider myself to be ethnically Catholic, whatever that means. I was an altar server (priest assistant) as a kid, and a Eucharistic minister (one of the people who distributes those little wafers at church) in high school and college. I studied comparative theology in Rome and attended daily Mass. I thought I might want to be a priest because I loved talking to people about what matters in the world and what makes us human (women can’t be Catholic priests, but I figured maybe the Pope would make an exception).
Before I had even realized I was gay, I began to pull away from the church. It doesn’t require too close a study of Catholic doctrine to realize women get a raw deal in the church, and it was systemic inequality between the sexes that first made me think, “Some of this seems like made-up nonsense.” That didn’t make coming out any easier. I attended a conservative Catholic college that—at the time—refused to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy. Essentially: I could have been kicked out of school for being gay. Over a decade later, the guilt and shame around my sexual orientation is still with me. I use jokes to help process the pain for myself and to help connect with others. Stand-up is how I speak about what matters in the world and what makes us human. In many ways, stand-up is now where I put my faith.
I have often wondered how my dad was able to get through his confusion about my sexuality. He had the same Catholic upbringing I did, only decades earlier, when I’m fairly certain the church wasn’t more progressive. I had the irrefutable evidence of my feelings. He basically learned to take my word for it. I hold this as some of the greatest hope for all gay folks—I’ve seen a straight parent struggling with my coming out learn to take my word for it. I know that change is possible. My dad is still a committed Catholic, though he attends Mass far less often—he fights with himself over whether to attend out of allegiance to me. The way I figure it, my dad’s evolution is a road map for how straight, religious parents can accept and advocate for their gay children.
So, A.V. Club, and readers everywhere, I decided to ask him about it.
Cameron Esposito: Hi Dad. Thanks for agreeing to do this. Let’s start at the beginning. What do you remember about me coming out to you?
Dad: I remember being frightened for you and feeling helpless. I worried about how you might be treated. I worried about your future and well-being.
CE: Were any family members particularly helpful to you in your processing of my coming out?
Dad: Your mom and your older sister and younger sister. I have always advocated that the three of you sisters stick together and be there for each other. What’s the expression? “Watch what you ask for; you might get it?” During the time that I was working through your coming out, both were relentlessly supportive of you. They wanted me to quickly get to the place where they were and would get frustrated with me. The youngest yelled at me, and the oldest socked me in the arm—which actually hurt—ouch. Their passion on your behalf helped me take small steps and slowly start testing the waters with friends.
CE: When did you start telling people that I was gay? How did your friends react?
Dad: I wasn’t sure whether my friends would understand, and worried they might be critical of you. There were two male friends who I told first, both of whom you know well. The first was the kind of guy who wouldn’t have told gay jokes; the other probably would have. I needed to reach out to a friend. The reaction of the first guy didn’t surprise me: “Cameron is a great person. How is she doing with this and how are you doing?” I told him about my struggle. He was very understanding and supportive. But I could not answer about how you were. For the first time in my life with kids, I didn’t know the answer. [Pause.] That felt just so awful. The second guy shocked me. He said, “Really? That’s great. I know a lot of great gay people. And Cameron is such a great person. How are you handling it? I told him, “Not well.” He said, “She is still just Cameron, right?” That was an ice-cold bucket of water right in the old face.
CE: When I was 25, I moved back to Chicago from Boston. Not long after I moved back, you apologized to me for the years you’d struggled with my coming out. What had changed for you that made you apologize?
Dad: One day I woke up and remembered holding you the moment you were born. I remembered feeding you, changing your diapers, singing to you, playing with trains, teaching you how to make a bow and arrow, cooking together, and many other wonderful moments. I remember it like it was today. I had a lightening-bolt thought—she is still my baby, my daughter, whom I love so much. And I thought, “WHAT CAN I DO TO SHOW HER THAT I LOVE HER?” I called you and asked your forgiveness, and I told you how much I love you. You paused; you were quiet. Then you courageously said, “Thanks Dad. I love you too. I forgive you.”
CE: You and I were both raised Catholic and we both went to Catholic grade school, high school, and college. What did the church teach you about gay people?
Dad: The Catholic schools I attended did not directly teach me anything about gay people except to dictate that same-sex attraction was a choice.
CE: I was also taught that being gay is a choice. Sometimes I get mad at the church for making it so difficult for me to accept my sexuality. Do you ever feel angry with the church for what it taught you about same sex attraction?
Dad: Most certainly. Until your early 20s, you were the most devoutly Catholic person I knew. I feel that your church—my church—let you down. I believe there is a God. I believe Jesus loved/loves every type of person. You are special and I believe—no, I know—that you are loved by God no matter what any man-made religion says. And my sword and my shield will always be out for you. I have your back, your side mullet, and the whole package that is you. Period.
CE: When DOMA was overturned, you were the first person to call and congratulate me and Rhea, my then girlfriend/now fiancée. What was that moment like for you?
Dad: I was driving to meet a business associate and heard about it on the radio. It was early in Los Angeles, but I knew I had to call you. You answered. I shouted congratulations and you yelped and whooped like you did on Christmas morning running downstairs to see what Santa left under the tree. My business associate entered my car only to find me with a smile and tears in my eyes. He heard us talk; he became teary-eyed himself and got back out of the car to leave us alone to quickly finish our conversation. When we hung up, I sat in silent awe that you allowed me to share that moment with you.
CE: What advice do you have for other parents struggling to process their kids’ coming out?
Dad: Love your child. Be happy for their happiness. Gays and lesbians can be moms, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, judges, truck drivers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, actors, senators, and comedians. Be proud and show your pride. I am very proud of my daughter, of her bravery, and I’m happy for her happiness.
CE: What advice would you have for kids who haven’t gotten an open or positive response after coming out to their parents?
Dad: Don’t be afraid of your parents. Give it to them straight. Tell them if you are scared, unsure, intimidated, lonely, or whatever fits. And then ask them for help. And ask them for their love. You may not get any or all of this, but if you don’t tell them how you feel or ask them for their help, they may never try to understand. Please don’t give up on them.
Thanks, Dad. See you at the next show.