Permed Hair, Fedoras, and Pink Bicycles

Permed Hair, Fedoras, and Pink Bicycles

[May 7, 2017]

I don’t think that I was ever quite what my father expected me to be. When I was a boy, he assumed I would want to play sports like my two big brothers did. Every season my father would ask me what sport I would like to play, and every season I would tell him that all I wanted to do was draw pictures. I think my dad thought it was his duty to make sure his son was enrolled in some type of sport, so he dismissed my protests and insisted that I pick one to play. To please my father I reluctantly tried everything that he suggested: T-ball, softball, hockey, lacrosse, and even tennis but, to his dismay, discovered that I hated them all. By mid season, with every sport, I would sheepishly ask if I could quit but dad would insist that I stick it out. He probably hoped that I would change my mind and grow to love sports as much as my brothers did. But, by the end of every season, he would come to realize that his youngest son’s heart just wasn’t in it. It must have been hard, in the beginning, for dad to relate to me. I saw him bond over sports with my two brothers but I denied him the opportunity to do that with me.

By the time I reached high school my father had given up trying to instill in me a love of sports. Instead - to his credit- he watched proudly as his son developed a passion for the arts. To him, I am sure my interest in theatre, ceramics and visual art were as alien as sports were to me but my dad never missed a chance to cheer me on. During my adolescence I went from being a very shy lonely teenager to an extremely vocal theatre kid. My father, for the most part, was a quiet man who never wanted to be singled out, so I am sure it wasn’t easy when his son decided to really put himself out there and actively seek the spotlight.

It was during this time, though, that my father and I often didn’t see eye-to-eye. My father was a worrier. He worried about his health, money, his job; but most of all he worried about his kids. To my father, being different meant that you opened yourself up to being bullied or disliked, so when I came home one night with my long hair permed he didn’t know what to do. My long hair, to start with, had been bad enough— but why on earth would I want to draw attention to myself by curling my hair? Looking back, I can see why my dad was upset: my hair was horrible! But at the time my hair was my identity and I wanted so much to be noticed. So I wore that hair-do, the one my best friend Toni did for me in her kitchen, with immense pride. That hair-do could not be ignored and so I soon developed the personality that was capable of pulling it off.

Every opportunity that my dad had to bring up the state of my hair he did. He pleaded with me to get it cut, or to at least get it styled, but that hair was my armour, and I refused to give in to his demands. Locked in this struggle, neither of us tried to see the other’s point of view but both of us knew that it wasn’t really anything worth getting upset about.

However, and perhaps fueled by our ongoing disagreement, a new conflict soon reared its ugly head. One night, after pilfering my friend Tom’s fedora, I decided that I was going to wear it to the high school dance. My father, learning of my new fashion accessory, decided to put his foot down and forbade me from leaving the house with it on my head. To my bewilderment, he seemed genuinely angry with me that I wanted to wear the hat to the dance. I, of course, smuggled the hat out of the house when he wasn’t paying attention. At the time I truly didn’t understand why he was getting so angry with me. For some reason, that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time, he was afraid for me to wear that fedora out in public.

Back then I never internalized my father’s fears. I was brave and bold and apologized for nothing.

Although dismissive of my father’s fears and objections our relationship, nevertheless, proceeded quite smoothly until the summer before my senior year of high school. That summer I decided that I wanted to fix up my bike and repaint it. Announcing my plans to my father I asked him if he could take me to Canadian Tire so that I could buy some spray paint. Taking an interest in my project my dad asked me what colour I was planning on painting my bike. Without hesitation, I told him that I was planning to paint the first half black and the second half pink. At that moment my normally perpetually calm dad lost it. There was no way that his son was going to paint his bike pink. The anger that I witnessed when I wanted to wear the fedora to the dance returned and tripled in intensity. At that moment, I knew what I had unintentionally triggered. Pink meant something altogether different. Pink changed the game. He wasn’t afraid that I was going to be bullied for being different. He was afraid that I was giving him a sign that I was gay.

I never did paint my bike pink. And even though at the time I didn’t identify as being gay—nor do I believe that liking pink has anything to do with being gay— I got a pretty clear message that my dad wouldn’t be okay with that. I suppose that incident was part of the reason that I never did get the courage to tell him when I finally came out to myself.

I have often wondered how my dad would have reacted if I had told him that I was gay. I wonder if he would have accepted me and loved me even though I wasn’t exactly what he expected. After thinking long and hard about this question, I found my answer to it in yet another memory about my father.

You see, when my dad had embraced my artistic side he worried about how I was going to make a living as an artist. Though he didn’t know much about the path I was choosing, he did know that it was going to be a struggle. One day he went to his foreman at Domtar, the paper plant he worked at in Cornwall, and asked him if there was any way that they could reinstate the sign-painter job. Apparently, when my dad started at Domtar, they had a man who went around the plant painting signs and he thought that job would be perfect for his youngest son.

When my dad first told me about this job in high school, I thought it was another example of how he just didn’t get me. How could he possibly equate painting signs at a factory with being a %real% artist? In retrospect, I now see things very differently. Yes, my dad and I saw the world through different lenses but he never stopped trying to fit me into his world. Finding me a job at the paper plant was his way of trying to understand me, and what I wanted to do. I know in my heart, given this pattern, that he would have found a way to accept that I was gay. I may not have been what he expected but he spent his whole life adjusting his world in order to fit me in to it.
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