Read more about Shared Targets and Shared Bad Identifications

Man to Man

by Proof Schuber Reed

By the time I was 6, I habitually pushed people when joking around, and used my tiny fists to solve my problems. At 12, I loved guns, and gun-related games, or at least I thought I did. Then, when I turned 18, my father and mother sent me and my new Buick off, with a firm gaze and bittersweet smiles. Internally, I was conflicted, but externally, I was resolute, strong, and manly. I had a couple of serious girlfriends, and eventually got married — I loved all the women, but only in the way that my father had taught me to. I was still that small, scared and pressured boy, stuck in a middle-aged body, and, due to the heteronormativity that was so forcefully promoted in my household, I never changed.

Now I’m 56. Past my glory days, or whatever. In the last few years, my once strong, intimidating father has been slowly declining, mentally and physically. His abilities to think logically have almost entirely deteriorated. He speaks senselessly, latching on to and trying to grapple with fabricated or long-forgotten issues for days. His once strong and huge hands are now weak, small, and smell of mayonnaise, laxatives and ginger beer. Honestly, it’s frightening for the both of us. But for me, the scariest thing about his dementia is the fact that so many truths that he has hidden in the past have been unveiled in his disorientation, even when his words don’t make sense. At the top of that list is his homosexuality.

About a year ago, we were sitting down for dinner with some family friends. My 3-year old son sat in a high chair next to me, short stubby legs and arms flailing, and pea-stained cherry mouth laughing with glee. My father sat on my other side, his back hunched over, eyes closed, telling a story to the dog under the table quietly, so only he could hear. Across from us sat the two men who had just moved in next door and with whom we wanted to acquaint ourselves. I don’t remember every little detail, but I do remember one of the men making a comment about his homosexuality. My father snapped up from his dazed hunch, and his small, always-closed eyes opened wide in a stare at nothing at all. He then made a provocative, sexual gesture towards the man, who was startled but understanding at the same time. Everyone laughed it off, but my father sat next to me, brow crinkled, like a small child who didn’t understand why everyone was laughing. He had always loved to be provocative, but this time, it was different. I realized that he was not making a joke. He was being sincere.

My strong, manly, heterosexual father is gay. He married a woman, whom he loved very much, but still — he’s gay. I was brought up the same way he was. But in the face of his homosexuality, I am left confused, disoriented, and a little bit scared — of my father’s future, and of my own: if my doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree father is gay, then where does that leave me? Where does that leave my own son? What am I supposed to do now?

Commentary by Bernice Arricale

Who are the shared targets in Man to Man? (Gays? Women?) How did the author seem to interpret the exaggerated “manliness” promoted by his father and why do you think he felt particulary pressured to conform?

Can a Shared Bad Identification be implicit, like what is sometimes called a “dog whistle?” What was the implied message that the author received, even though it may never have been explicitly stated and might even have been denied?

Confusion in the face of a new reality leaves the son feeling unmoored and frightened, but not everything has changed, has it? What remains to help with the future?