Impossible Machinery: On (Not) Coming Out to My Dad as Bisexual

My father and I are walking through Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the dark. The old creaky houses are quiet and sleepy all around us, the streetlights glowing orange-gold through the branches of trees heavy with new leaves. He, a mechanic by profession and by heart, is describing the experience of taking a transmission completely apart, removing every nut, bolt, and cylinder, one by one, laying them on the ground like a neatly ordered explosion.

“It’s easy to take it apart. But then you have to put it back together. And that’s where things get hairy.” He laughs, a dry sound that comes from the back of his chest, and I wonder how something so familiar can still surprise me.

This is the weekend of my college graduation, a harried, hectic mess of dinners and drinks and dressing up, of siblings and parents and grandparents and godparents. Until a few days ago, when he arrived on a plane from Colorado, I have not seen my father in two years. During that time we spoke only twice, once on my birthday, the other time when he called to say, “I want to come see you get that diploma.”

“But can’t you just put it back together the same way you took it apart?” I ask about the transmission.

He laughs again. “Now that’s a good point. You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Ree? Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works.”

At this moment in time, I’m dating a boy, a boy my father has met, a boy my father likes (as far as I can tell). I’m dating a boy but I’ve also dated and fallen for women, some of whom remain stripped screws stuck in the wood of my heart. My father knows nothing of this, knows me and my romantic life only from a distance. There are already so many things he doesn’t know, where am I even to start? The prospect of telling him about my sexuality feels like trying to tear down a wall and build it at the same time.

I’m sixteen and dating a girl for the first time, or whatever counts as dating in high school, mostly making out in my Volkswagen Jetta while listening to Brand New in the precious few minutes before curfew. The first time I see her naked, in the bare bright light of early afternoon, during a free period from school which we use to sneak back to my empty house, I am breathless and exposed and undone.

I come out to my mother during a fight we’re having about how my girl friends never say hello upon immediately entering our house. My mouth, before my argument-rattled brain can stop it, blurts out that I am, in fact, dating one of those friends — so she’d better be nice, regardless of greetings. My mom stops, mid-sentence, and stands there, looking pensive, holding the dish towel she’s been brandishing at me.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of very close friendships with women,” she says finally. “But I just never felt that way about them.” Later, when that first girlfriend’s dad calls our house in an attempt to get the two of us in trouble by outing us to my mom, she tells him gently but sternly: “Your daughter is always welcome here, and I support the two of them one hundred percent. I hope you will do the same.”

At this point, my father had been absent and unreachable for so long that my mother has issued a court order that will allow his social security number to be traced. That way, any reported income that is tied to it will be immediately garnished for outstanding child support payments. It returns nothing for years, but he will resurface to see me graduate high school. By this point, my girlfriend and I have broken up. Even though he will come to the ceremony and related celebrations, there will be no reason to introduce her to him as anything more than a friend. So I don’t.

Then he will disappear again, a fish back into a stream.

I am old enough to have missed my ten year high school reunion, drinking a beer and sitting in old movie chairs out in front of a bar on a chilly April night. I’m talking to a friend who is about to marry a woman after a lifetime of dating men. We are talking about family, about how damn hard it was for her to tell her dad about the love of her life and future spouse, even as much as she wanted to share that part of her life with him, with everyone in the whole world.

“We spent every morning together for two weeks, drinking coffee, talking, and the whole time I didn’t tell him. I waited until the very last day, until he was dropping me off, and he said, ‘What was it you wanted to talk to me about?’ and I said, ‘Dad I’m gay.’ And then I had to get out of the car and he had to go to work. And I missed getting to have that conversation with him about it.”

It had been easy to tell her mother, her sisters, her grandparents. “I don’t know why,” she said. “I don’t know why it was so hard to tell him.”

I tell her about my very same reticence, and she exclaims, “Damn internalized biphobia!” so loud that passersby glance at us.

“But is it more than that,” I wonder out loud. “Is it the cultural expectations around dads being the strong silent type, and that you’re not supposed to talk about things?”

“There was definitely some of that,” she says. “My father and I don’t talk, we go fishing. I was always the one doing the things with him that a son would have.”

I reflect on this for a long time after the conversation ends. Is it internal or external? Is it us or is it them? Is it the emotional boundaries of proscribed gender and parent roles, all wrapped in a big tangled up, rusted-out engine?

And the question that begs to be asked, the one we perhaps don’t want to consider the answer to, even as it glowers at us from the shadows of our minds: would she have spoken up, would she have been honest about her sexuality, if she didn’t have a reason? If she didn’t have a woman in her life, who she loved endlessly, to do it for? Would I?

Or does the reason why matter less than the fact that we do it anyway.

“I HATE you,” I shout at my mother, all fourteen years of me rife with angst and isolation and devastation about getting rejected from the school play. “I want to go live with Dad because he isn’t CRAZY.”

And for some reason, instead of countering with her usual, “Oh yeah? Do you think he’s going to drive you to school in the morning and pay for your cell phone and make sure you have the right clothes? You’re dreamin’ girl,” she goes to the phone, picks it up, dials, and before I know it I’m sitting in the back seat of our giant ruby Astro Van, my hastily packed backpack on the seat next to me and my Discman on my lap. A soft but persistent snow is tumbling out of the sky, collecting dangerously quick over the ground and roads and trees and houses.

My father is waiting in the parking lot of a Village Inn off the side of the interstate, his cigarette smoke turquoise in the glow of the sign. The snow has accumulated quickly: it will reach blizzard level before we get back to his house, so we drive his 70s Ford pickup colored Super Banana Yellow down the center lane of the highway at a crawl, inch by inch, the heat blasting and the hunched shadows of Rocky Mountain foothills looming up around us like sentinels. We pass only one other pair of headlights in two hours. It’s as if we’re moving through the deep ocean, suspended in space, the last people on earth.

“Your mom can be a pain in the ass,” he says finally. “But she’s trying her best.”

The metal plate embedded in my father’s forearm is from a nasty tumble he took out of the back of a truck when he was a teenager. When I was a child I pressed my fingertips into his skin over and over, searching for the tiny heads of the screws that hold it in place. The other wounds, irregularities embedded in his body are not visible, and for a long time I do not realize that they exist.

The first time he talks openly to me about taking medication to treat his depression, I put an answer to all the questions that had piled up in my mind over the years, the questions I thought simply did not have answers that I would be able to name. This feels nothing like relief.

“It made me foggy,” he says about the pills the VA clinic had prescribed to him. “Like my mind couldn’t catch up.”

Because he always seems to appear during rites of passage, we are at my younger brother’s high school graduation party. We’re standing at the end of the driveway in front of the house I grew up in, the very same driveway I, as a child, hoped and hoped and hoped his banged-up Toyota Corrolla would be sitting in at night when my mother drove us home.

“I couldn’t work on cars,” he continues, and describes how he felt he like couldn’t listen to them right anymore, in a tone both shocked and resigned. “It’s like I was scared of them.”

“You know Ree, more people fall off than stay on,” he adds, making a shrugging motion underneath the worn leather bomber jacket I have rarely seen him without. It’s as if he’s trying to comfort one of us, but whether it’s himself or me I can’t tell.

It paralyzes me, this idea that the parent who has always felt like mine, struggles so deeply with something in himself. I cross my arms and watch the warm-gold sun plunge itself down below the neat lines of the houses across the street. I want to curl up, away from everything he is revealing about who he is, who I am, what I come from, the capacities I hold buried in my blood.

I am post-college and living in New York and I am going to spend Christmas with D, the woman I have been dating for over two years, the first woman I have ever imagined, wanted, a wide and full future with. We are going to the small New England town she grew up in to be with her family, the majority of whom I have already met: her grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins, all warm and lovely, none of whom know about our relationship (or have at least not been expressly told). She justifies her refusal to be open about us with her intensely private nature, her coveted government job, her family’s traditional leanings.

I agonize the most over what to get for her father.

She has already said to me, by this point, that she is not sure she will ever tell her father about her sexuality. “I don’t even know where to begin,” she explains once, in a rare moment when the subject does not reduce us to tears and harshly flung arguments. When I met him, I both understood and didn’t. His was a quiet, unassuming presence. He had her same restless intelligence coiled inside of him. He spoke seldom, loved cooking and motown, stayed up late listening to records. My answers to his questions always felt superfluous, and he seemed to regard me with both amusement and suspicion.

I hunt down an obscure Southern cookbook; he grew up in a coal mining town in Kentucky, and his family owned a barbeque shack. (That’s how my girlfriend describes it, as a shack. She also says that they put crushed up Coco Pebbles in the sauce.) I feel almost more nervous when he picks it from under the tree and opens it, turning it over slowly, than I did when I kissed her for the first time. He sits in the corner with it for a long time, reading. I want to believe he knows the place I occupy in his daughter’s life, what she means to me, but I can not convince myself that he understands.

I feel as if I am filled to the brim, fit to spill, with how much I love her and how much I resent being a secret. It makes me feel invisible and alone but I stand by her. I stand by her until I can’t anymore.

When we break up, I am more determined than ever to come out to my father.

I am sitting at a table in a trendy craft brewery in my hometown, across from my father who I haven’t seen in four years. When I walked in, he got up to hug me and his eyes filled with tears and I felt strange standing before him, tall in new shoes and a post-breakup dress, as if I had been swapped out, replaced with someone completely new, or completely un-new, someone more darkly sketched.

He’s brought a woman along that he’s seeing, and when she smiles I can see all of her gums. My head buzzes with the effort of talking casually, listening, when all I want to do is find a way to fix the fact that I am sitting here a hypocrite. I sip a hefeweizen.

“It used to be that when you put your foot on the brake pedal, it was connected to a break line that engaged the brakes, you know. But now it’s all digital signals. It’s all programming. They’re not actually connected,” he is explaining about cars these days, about how the work he has done all his life seems to be shifting out from under him. “And only the car dealerships have the codes. So they control everything, and can charge up the ass for you to come and get something fixed, even though they just have to press a bunch of button.”

I decide that every time I can, I will say the words My Ex-Girlfriend and I do, all the blood rushing to my face as I try to make the mentions seem off-hand or casual, searching my father’s face for any sign of surprise, or recognition or understanding. At one point, I think he nods. But he does not address it outright, and I cannot bring myself to do so when we say goodbye. After he gets in his car, drives away, I stand outside with my brother as he smokes a cigarette, mentally kicking myself. I feel, incongruously, like I have let D down.

It feels similar to the conundrum presented by a disassembled piece of impossible machinery. By the signals that guide hulking tires over the perils of icy roads. That sometimes the connections need to be reset, and none of us have access to the codes. Do I have to just roll up my sleeves and try, and keep trying, to fit all the smallest parts back into their places? To remember, recreate again, the shape of it whole?

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Maree lives in Berlin and is usually carrying some sort of Tupperware product on her person. She's written for Marie Claire, The Rumpus, and Teen Vogue, but still has not fulfilled her lifelong dream of seeing a real blue-footed booby. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and probably the dance floor.

Maree has written 24 articles for us.


  1. oh, i loved this.
    i’m out to the family i feel close to and kind of transparently not to the rest of them, because sometimes it’s just too complicated to have that discussion and sometimes i just hope i’ll never have to. this hit home.

    • I love this phrase, transparently not. Can that be a post-punk band dedicated to fighting bi invisibility (or not) please?

      • if they haven’t figured it out from a-camp, they’re not going to.
        i told my aunt about autostraddle once and she thought i meant we were a women’s magazine the way redbook is a women’s magazine.

  2. This is really really great to read. Very hard to read–but great. I had a similar “non-coming out” to my dad as well. Wanted to make it a nonissue as much as I possibly could without realizing that I craved having that conversation afterward as well. Thank you for writing this, Maree! <3

  3. holy shit, lovely.

    i feel like even the best dads can be such unreachable, bittersweet, complicated figures sometimes…

    mine has been really sick this year, and it’s been hard to see him so fragile and know that, while there’s such a big part of me he doesn’t have a name for yet or maybe ever, it still seems so small and superfluous in the face of what he’s going through.

  4. i feel this sentiment so much when explaining my job or anything LGBT related to my family even though i’m out to them already.”The prospect of telling him about my sexuality feels like trying to tear down a wall and build it at the same time.”

    this was such excellent writing, you expressed so many hard to pinpoint feelings so well. thank you

  5. Wow this means so much to me. I’m trying to decide whether to have the conversation with my dad or not. I recently came out to my mom and I was hoping she would tell him. Although the conversation with her was very short and we never spoke of it again. I hope I have the chance to explain everything to them but at the same time talking about sexuality and relationships is weird. Anyways glad to know I’m not the only one in this boat! Thank you

    • YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN THE BOAT WE ARE ALL IN THE BOAT. You are courageous for talking to your mom, and the thing is that (sometimes) your family gets what you’re trying to say, even when you can’t find the words to say it. <3

  6. This is beautiful. I’m going to join everybody else here and say thank you.

    Though the stories aren’t definitely close to equivalent, your piece really resounds with my own experience coming out to my dad as bi. The strong, silent type type you mentioned is my father, and I also relate to being raised like your friend doing activities a son would. I was always the daughter who’d go backpacking, play hockey and lift weights with him, and we’d talk about politics for hourslong car rides.

    For me, what made it so hard to come out to my father was this otherwise close relationship combined with his casual homophobia. I didn’t want his assumptions about my sexual orientation to ruin how he saw me.

    When I finally did come out this Christmas after three years of waffling (when snowshoeing!) he was callous, distant and tried to change the subject, after telling me blankly, “It is what it is.”

    I think with some fathers they try not to address things that make them feel uncomfortable outright. Maybe a lifelong focus on being hypermasculine makes it hard to sort out emotions because in theory they aren’t supposed to have them. That’s simplistic, yes, but I’m just spitballing.

    • I think this is an incredibly astute and true point you make — and it’s not simplistic. And actually, you never know what’s going on inside that dad-head, he could be reflecting on his own casual homophobia and feeling guilty for it. Also, while snowshoeing! You are a badass.

  7. I have all the chills from your poetic writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Although I struggled to come out as a lesbian to my father, I still felt this so hard in regards to my situation: “And the question that begs to be asked, the one we perhaps don’t want to consider the answer to, even as it glowers at us from the shadows of our minds: would she have spoken up, would she have been honest about her sexuality, if she didn’t have a reason? If she didn’t have a woman in her life, who she loved endlessly, to do it for? Would I?”

    I put off coming out to my dad five years after I told my mom. I waited until I had met someone that I love endlessly, and still love endlessly. It didn’t go over so well, but I understand the compulsion to do it when you’ve found a person worth coming out for.

  8. This hit me right in the feels. Because my dad and I aren’t close, but we’re so close to the same person–outdoorsy, rather quiet and reticent to speak, but with intensely high standards for ourselves and others. He is–we are–hard people to get close to because we’d rather not talk about ourselves or about feelings, and struggle to lead conversations in the way that non-awkward extroverts don’t. Coming out felt both superfluous–because it wouldn’t change anything and he would not care–and extraordinarily necessary. I wrote a letter because I couldn’t make the words happen right whenever we were speaking, and he responded in a letter, and that’s all we’ve spoken about me being queer and trans, except for one conversation about the logistics of my medical transition.

    But I also know that if I weren’t trans and hadn’t changed my name and pronouns, I don’t think I would have come out to my dad (or any of my family honestly) and I worry about the reactions of many family members if I were to bring a girl home as a significant other–I don’t think it would be a positive reaction, to say the least.

    • It’s amazing how much more dealable exchanging letters can make things, isn’t it? I can only imagine how much physical/legal changes push all of these vulnerabilities out in front, and you are incredible and brave for being open with your family about it. And even though I don’t know your situation, exactly, or your family I would say, if you ever do bring a girl home, leave space in your heart and the encounter for your family to surprise you.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I related a lot to it. While I’m out to my family, I let my mom have the conversation with him instead of me, so we never had it. I hope that one that I have the courage to ask him how he feels about it, but I don’t have that yet. I hope all of us that need it, have it eventually.

    • I did this too, told my mother everything in a car ride while we were alone. I couldn’t bring it up to him, but somehow she must have told my father, because he asked about how my ‘friend’ was doing before dropping me off at the airport. My brother is gay and is out to my family, so I don’t know why this is such a struggle for me. I also hope that one day I will have the courage to talk to him about it.

  10. This was lovely, and so incredibly relatable. My dad knows, but not because I told him myself, and we never evereverever talk about it. It makes me feel like a coward sometimes.

    • I completely understand that feeling — but you know what? You’re not a coward. You will do what you need to do (or not) when you’re ready, or when you need to, and that is fine and that is life. <3

  11. Thank you for writing this I love it! I don’t know if I want to come out or not to my dad. A defiant part of me thinks, he is so closed off and we’ve never talked about relationships at all, why should I explain that I’m attracted to women? And there are so many other things he doesn’t know about me anyways. I feel that way about coming out in general…. Anyone who I talk to about sex/relationships knows I’m bi, and I don’t feel secretive about it at all but I just hate the idea of telling people who I don’t talk about that stuff with. But that means a lot of people in my life don’t know. Which sort of makes me feel like it’s a secret or bigger deal than it is? Ugh I dunno

    • This is the conundrum isn’t it! It’s not a big deal at all, until it is, and then it feels like the biggest deal. And I think you don’t have to talk to anyone about it until/unless you feel like it, period. You’re doing GREAT.

  12. Thank you so much for this! I only started coming out at bi to friends at 29 and eventually told two of my three brothers. I don’t even really know how to try coming out to my dad. While he’s always been in my life, I would say 99% of our conversations over the years have been about superficial things. Part of that is because I’m not much of a sharer (and probably won’t actually come out to my parents until I have someone to come out for), and the other part is that he’s not much of a talker either. When we spent one-on-one time together, we were usually either fishing or at military/aircraft museums. I just hope that he’ll react at least somewhat positively when I do come out.

    • I swear this is a theme, queer women fishing with their dads ! I recognise myself in a lot of what you all are writing. Why is it so hard to tell our dads stuff ?

      When I do come out (same as you, I’ve felt like not doing it until I had someone to come out for) I basically plan to tell my mom and rely on her to pass the message to my dad. It doesn’t help that I live in a different country and he hates Skype / the phone. When I call home he just waves hello/goodbye at the camera most of the time, and seems to be happy to get whatever news he can get from mom…

    • I think there is so much that gets shared just through spending time together (at a military museum or otherwise!). And I wouldn’t worry too much about the if or the when — parents have this funny way of guessing things before you tell them anyway, or at least surprising you.

  13. This is so beautifully written and I can feel the emotional tug-of-war you seem to experience with it.

    I went through something similar with my grandpa (my surrogate dad). Although we were extremely close, my identity and sexuality just weren’t topics we had ever discussed, even though we had talked about practically every other topic under the sun. I actually avoided telling him altogether and instead let my grandma fill him in. Even though we never had that talk that explained what exactly everything meant, from that day forward he was the first person who would try to relate any LGBT news he came across and he even acted as a sounding board when I was having trouble with my mom not understanding or being accepting. He passed away in April and even when he was really sick he would manage an enthusiastic wave and a smile whenever my partner came to visit him. I miss having that family member that just gets me to that degree.

    Anyway, not that I intended to coopt this into a story about myself. Basically, what I think I’m trying to say is that this was really poignant for me and I can empathize with your struggle and despite all of the touching things I’ve read on this site, this is what has brought me to tears.

    • THIS THIS COMMENT BROUGHT ME TO TEARS. Oh my, this about him sharing the news with you, and waving at your partner, my heart! COOPT AWAY, ANYTIME! It sounds like you’ve got some poignant and touching stories to tell yourself. And thank you thank you.

  14. “I want to curl up, away from everything he is revealing about who he is, who I am, what I come from, the capacities I hold buried in my blood.”

    This line is everything. <3

    • Err this looks like a weird comment. Not trying to rub it in people’s face or anything. This piece just made me reflect a lot on the kind of relationship I have with my dad and while it’s complicated and unspoken and very little is shared (except yes fishing together and staying silent next to each other) this piece has reminded me how lucky I am.

      • NO NOT WEIRD. Hug away! HUG HIM ALL THE HUGS. I feel similarly about my relationship with my mother — she has always been supportive and welcoming of me and all my partners, and has never tried to obscure it, no matter how many weird questions she gets from people in my hometown. We have got to celebrate these parents sometimes too, because they are, I believe, an imprint for what so much of our generation is going to look like as family-makers.

  15. “I had been swapped out, replaced with someone completely new, or completely un-new, someone more darkly sketched.”

    Such a great sentence. That metaphor! It a little bit took my breath away. Overall the piece was fantastic and you’re fantastic.

    Also, I relate to this struggle–especially the “would you do it if you didn’t have someone to do it for” part. I don’t know if I would have. For me the hardest part was my uncles.

    • I think it can be a beautiful thing when someone we love gives us the courage to do something we may think we’re not capable of doing on our own. YOU’RE fantastic, and brave. I have never had to come out to any uncles! And I’m honestly not sure I would come out to certain extended family members unless, like, there was a wedding situation that required it.

  16. This was amazing and makes me want to try harder to have that conversation with my own father before I can’t.

  17. This was wonderful. Relationships with fathers can be so complicated. I came out to mine when I was 17 and it did not go well at all. We had been so close and since then can only talk about business or light things. I want to have a conversation with him so badly but all my attempts (in 15+ years since coming out) have resulted in his homophobia and telling me he doesn’t want to talk. It sucks because I know our relationship could be better if he was, well, different. But he’s not and I have learned to accept that this is how it is, because the pain of wishing for something else is too much. I wanted to be accepted by him but have come to a place of accepting him for who he is, and the disappointment that goes with that.

    • I think this experience speaks a lot to all the reasons people decide not to come out sometimes. And it’s sucks that you have to do so much work towards acceptance and letting go and understanding while its seems like he is not willing to take the same strides. But you are awesome — for being honest, and for dealing with your disappointment in the way he’s handled it over the years in a way that is most healthy for you. We need to hear all of these stories. Many many hugs. <3

  18. Thank you, thank you for this.

    While the situations aren’t remotely similar, this resonated with me a lot due to the fact that I’m currently struggling with the idea of coming out to my mother. I’m out to everyone in my life but family; I’m pretty distant from all the rest and wouldn’t care about their reaction, but I’m terrified of ever telling my mom. Part of me wants to and part of me wants to curl into a ball and never speak of it. I hate feeling like I’m hiding something so important to who I am, but I also hate the idea of my mother leaving my life.

    • I hope that you don’t have to choose between hiding and your mother leaving your life — I would say that sometimes, mothers can be the slightly more flexible ones, when it comes to accepting things about their children that they may not understand. But either way, know that your life is worthy of honesty and openness, and know that no matter what happens, you have a community of people who cares about you and are here for you. (And get it, at least to some extent.)

  19. I don’t normally comment on any article but I this article made me cry. I am 17 and bisexual and you capture perfectly my disappointment in my inability to come out to my liberal, middle class, British family. Thank you for this article

    • That means so much to me to hear! DO NOT FEEL DISAPPOINTED IN YOURSELF. This stuff is HARD. Older bisexuals than you struggle with the same things, all the time. Feel incredibly grateful that you’re getting to start this journey early, and give yourself all the time you need to find the words to be open about it. You are AWESOME. Keep on keepin’ on.

  20. This was beautiful. I didn’t get the chance to come out to my dad and I don’t know how it would have gone. Much like your experience, I expect.

    • I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to come out to your dad. And not to sound like a total hippie dippie, but I do (personally) believe that our parents often do see us, deeper than we know. If there is any comfort in that. <3

  21. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

    I never got to come out to my dad. He died a few months ago. I miss him so much. I want to think it would have been fine but I don’t know and I’ll never know.

    • Oh sweet bean, I’m so sorry. That is such a lot to struggle with, on top of losing him. I can’t say I know how we come to reconcile these things, regrets or whatever they should be called. I imagine a good place to start is by honoring all the things you did get to share, and honoring the fact that sometimes our parents have a way of knowing exactly what it is we want them to, on some level. <3

  22. Thank you for this. It’s helping to think about my own complex feelings in dealing with the same thing. Truly beautiful writing.

  23. This so much. I had the hardest time coming out to my dad. I decided I would do it in person when he visited, and even though it was staring him in the face (I’m trans and had already changed my presentation significantly) it took until the second day of his visit for either of us to bring up the topic.

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