A personal reckoning, and the truth comes out of the closet
I crouched onto the damp grass and picked at the weeds sprouting around my dad’s headstone. I struggled for the words — and the courage — to tell him what I couldn’t in his living years. I had flown thousands of miles to Sacramento to visit my dead father and reveal the secret I have held close for most of my 57 years.
In life, my father wasn’t the type of man who had heart-to-heart talks with his children. And I’m not the type to confide his deepest-held emotions with family, not even with my closest siblings. I held my deepest torments tight inside me.
I stammered as I spoke to his grave. It took a half hour before I could utter a complete sentence as I continued pulling weeds and rearranging the flowers I brought him. “Daddy, I gotta tell you something. I wanted to tell you this for a long time.”
In a halting and hushed voice, in case the breeze carried my secret to eavesdropping ears, I broke the news to my father, dead 24 years:
“Dad, I’m gay.”
I am the eighth of nine children, the bookish one who did well in grade school without trying. We were from a working-class, maybe even impoverished family. My dad milked cows at a corporate dairy on the other side of the Koʻolau Mountains from Diamond Head on Oʻahu. Our house was among about a dozen in an enclave of mostly immigrant families adjacent to cow pastures. My mother worked at hotels in Waikīkī.
I didn’t have many friends outside my dairy farm community. I liked spending time alone, sometimes building tree houses at the foot of the nearby mountain. I often roamed the pastures or hiked alone among the trees, or walked along a creek to scoop out guppies and crayfish.
There are certainly out gay people in my culture. But the visible ones are often jesters to be laughed at. The words I grew up with to describe gay people — “bakla” in Pilipino and “mahu” in Hawaiian — were synonymous to “faggot,” derisive terms that I would never want to be called.
In Asian culture, we have been taught not to shame the family. Being gay, I thought, would have brought embarrassment and ridicule.
I knew I was attracted to other guys when I hit puberty. I tried fooling myself and others into thinking I was attracted to the opposite sex.
I remember fretting about having to get naked with other boys at my school’s communal shower after P.E., worried that somehow I’d be found out. So I would get under the spray of water quickly and towel off as fast as I could. At gatherings, I tried to be the flirtatious life of the party. But whenever a girl showed the slightest interest, I would recoil.
As a young adult, my resume was fragmented, leading some to wonder if I could hold a job. The truth was that I quit jobs I enjoyed because I was running from my sexuality. I once had a crush on another guy — a straight guy — and I quit when it became unbearable. I perpetuated my own big lie.
Coming out seemed so easy for other people, especially today's young. I sometimes wondered how different things would have been had I came out sooner. Perhaps I would have planted roots in a community instead of jumping from job to job, hopscotching from one city to the next.
How orderly my life could have been.
As a journalist, my job is to report the truth. Yet I had been lying all these years, purposely hiding the truth to protect myself. It was an ethical lapse that tortured me.
My journey out of the closet has taken decades. I am still sharing my truth about my sexuality — something that, before my confession to my father, I had shared with only a handful of friends.
The first friend I told took me to a gay bar across the Potomac from Washington, to help ease my coming out. I was still full of shame and awkwardness. I kept myself from making eye contact with other men. While my friend was outside having a smoke, a hand slid across my back.
“Congratulations,” the stranger told me.
“Huh? For what,” I asked.
“For having the courage to come out,” he replied.
I felt violated. How dare my friend out me to a stranger! I had lost control over my secret, even if I knew my friend was trying to be helpful. We failed to realize then that coming out would be far more complicated and onerous.
Four years passed before I told another soul.
Holding in my secret was excruciating. It nearly took my life.
During one of my melancholy days, I took a drive through Glacier National Park in Montana to help lift my mood. I stared down sheer cliffs as my Subaru lurched up the cliff-hugging Going-to-the-Sun Road. I could feel my car drifting closer to the edge. I felt no inclination to steer back on course.
Regret filled my mind. I thought about how much simpler it would be if I started over in the afterlife.
A siren’s wail jarred me back into reality. An ambulance was speeding up the road. I would later learn that a hiker had fallen to his death. The piercing sound might have saved me from a similar fate.
After wandering the country that summer, I resolved to begin stepping out of the closet again.
One of my best friends and his wife were visiting New York City from Paris for the new year in 2018. It was time to tell Kevin, I told myself. But when the first chance came, I couldn’t go through with it.
The next day, I met a couple of buddies for drinks and dinner at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown. I hesitated to tell them, but thought I’d use the experience as practice for when I would tell Kevin.
My heart pumped. My nerves jittered to my fingertips. My knees bounced with nervousness. Looks of concern came over my friends’ faces as I tried to tell them. I could not use the word gay, and they wondered why I was in such distress.
"It's about my sexuality.”
“That’s a relief,” one friend said. “I thought you were going tell us you had cancer.”
The next morning, I sat down with Kevin, my best friend, and told him I had something important to say.
“Remember when you asked me to be your best man?” I said. “I really wanted to tell you then, so you could change your mind.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
Again, I couldn’t use the word gay. Again, my knees bounced. I was sweating. My eyes turned glassy.
I saw worry in his wife's eyes. “What’s wrong?” Kevin asked. He started guessing.
I gave him a clue.
“You’re gay?” he finally asked.
I nodded. He chuckled in relief.
“I’m sorry. It’s not funny — but is that all?”
He told me: He would have asked me to be his best man anyway.
Most of my life, I had suffered from migraines. With my truth finally coming out, that pain has mostly disappeared.
But I still couldn’t share my secret with my siblings.
During a visit to California, I had taken a nephew aside. All these years, I had wanted to tell his mother that I was gay. But I hadn’t mustered the courage. Just days before, I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown in her car trying to tell her; I dismissed my fraying nerves to stress at work.
Upon hearing what I had to share, he asked why I hadn’t told anyone sooner. “Uncle Bobby, you could have been so much happier.”
Many months later, I would tell a younger nephew. I recalled how after a football game — he was the star quarterback — he quizzed me about my love life, or the lack thereof. He noted he never saw me introduce any women to the family, that he didn’t know me to have been dating. He wanted to know why.
So did a sister, who would later confide: “I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
When I told her my secret just months ago, she shrugged. “I kind of figured,” she said.
I was more apprehensive about telling my two oldest sisters, twins, who were devout Roman Catholics.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started to share my secret with one of them. I was practiced and calm. I spoke to her about my depression and the medication that had helped lift me. As a nurse, she quizzed me about how I was feeling.
Then I told her the source of my many years of depression. I recounted how, not too many years before, I nearly drifted off the road to my death.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “Don’t worry about those things. God still loves you.”
Then she recommended that I hold back in telling more of my siblings. They had too many worries of their own, she said, to handle such news.
I’ve been told I look a lot like my father. When I’m feeling sociable, I take on his personality — a backslapper, a schmoozer, a happy-go-lucky guy.
In truth, I’m more like my mother — someone who can be comfortable around others but who couldn’t always get along with them. Moody. Sometimes gruff.
I was closer to my mom than I was to my dad. Both were fiercely proud of me, even if I hadn’t achieved the dream they had for me — a family, fancy cars and wealth. I never aspired to have any of those. But they found prestige in my college education and, eventually, the profession I pursued.
My father loved reading the newspaper, watching the evening news and following politics. How proud he would have been to know that I stood just feet from a U.S. president or that I covered Congress.
Weeks before I would depart to cover the war in Iraq, we gathered in our hometown in the Philippines to fete my mother for her 80th birthday. Neither she nor any of my siblings knew I was heading into a war zone. I thought about telling her my secret — should something go awry during my assignment.
As I bid her goodbye in the Philippines, little did I know: That chance would never come again.
My mother died on Thanksgiving 2007, barely two months after her birthday, just as I was preparing to join troops in Iraq for wartime holiday celebrations.
When I told my father at his grave about my secret, I made a request: Don’t tell my mother. I wanted to retain ownership of my secret until I chose to share it with her.
My mother and I had a turbulent relationship. She thought I was too free and wayward. Little did she know that I had built a cage around me — one that grew more constricting as I aged. So there I was at her grave, hoping to break through.
I waited until the final day of my trip, even as it gnawed at me. Surely she must have known; there must be such a thing as mother’s intuition. Maybe my father had already shared my secret. No matter. I needed to go through the exercise of telling her, as if she were still alive.
At her grave, I lingered. I peeled away hardened pools of candle wax. As I sweltered under a fierce sun, I hoped to let the truth uncage itself. I hoped to marshal the same courage I had mustered months earlier while standing before my dead father.
But I found no words to break my uncomfortable silence. I simply could not say what I wanted to — not here, not now.
I turned back and returned home full of regret. My journey was — is — not yet over.
Bobby Caina Calvan is a reporter in the New York City bureau of The Associated Press.