My Parents Made Me Gay

I’ve always been a major dyke. My friend is writing a podcast, and her producer, within minutes of hearing about me, nicknamed me “Maj Dyke” just to be super clear about my role in the show as an aspirational lesbian figure. So it’s no surprise that when I examine my childhood, it’s laden with all of the usual clichés: my early penchant for vests, my massive rock collection, years and years of soccer in the 90s, my vocabulary-enhancing addiction to Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, my love of all the ocean foods that have ever been compared to vaginas. How many kids did you know begging their parents for more raw hamachi from their high chairs? Which really makes you wonder, what were my parents doing feeding sashimi to a two year old? “You always wanted more,” my mom reports with a shrug, as if that addresses the question.

The thing is, I had no idea growing up, that I was in training to become a radical dyke, and already far down the path to becoming a lesbian. Which is not the same thing as saying, “I didn’t know that I was obsessed with women,” because I did know, and I most certainly was. What I am saying is that I was oblivious to the fully formed gay identity I’d been cultivating until I stepped foot on my college campus — and suddenly, in a new light, against the backdrop of queers doing cartwheels in the grass at Oberlin College, it was obvious that I’d always been a major dyke.

There are ubiquitous reasons for disbelieving one’s own queer identity, in the same way you don’t recognize, as a child, that racial epithets are meant for you, until somebody explains to you why and how you’re connected. It’s unavoidable, of course, that I intuited from the world, a sense that being queer, gay, a dyke, a lesbian, was associated with difference at best and powerlessness at worst, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I learned I might just be a faggy dyke princess. But my family wasn’t anything like the rest of the world, and my parents have always been open to the new, the strange. So how did my family manage to both give me my “major dyke” status, while also obscuring that fact from all of us? What was going on in the culture of our family that this key fact managed to escape all of our attention?

To this day, I’m baffled by my parents’ reaction when I told them I thought I might be queer. I was nineteen and working an internship with one of my mom’s mentees, a gay Filipino poet named Joel, who had, sensing my major dyke vibes, invited me to write a piece for a queer erotica anthology he was editing.

“You know that anthology is only for queer people,” my mom began. “Who are sure they’re queer,” she added.

My dad hopped in too. “You know, just because all of your friends are gay, doesn’t mean you have to be too,” he said. “Being gay isn’t the only way to be cool.”

It was good to know that my mom was already defending the queer community from exploitative interlopers, and that my dad already saw queerness as the ultimate social climbing tool. But their reaction stood in stark contrast to my best friends from high school, who hadn’t even bothered to pause between passing the joint and chewing on burritos. “Yeah, dude, we know,” said my friend Maggie, patting my shoulder. “Would you like to revisit the essay you wrote about Erin in 10th grade English class?” she asked. “It’s a whole essay, there’s a full page about her ass.”

While I unfortunately don’t have that essay, I did recently stumble upon an old journal, when I was digging through my desk at my parents’ house. “Oh, let’s see what kind of juicy gossip you were spilling in 7th grade,” said my friend. Aside from the rants on girls I couldn’t stand because they were insecure, and a short list of unconvincing crushes I had on boys with “really awesome” older sisters, the journal was primarily pages devoted to my obsessions.

May 5, 1997

One of my biggest obsessions is Alicia Silverstone. She’s such a babe, a great actress, the most perfect Cher, plus from what I’ve read in her biography she is so sweet and wonderful. Did you know she’s a vegetarian in real life because she loves animals? I love her! I read her biography and now I’m obsessed. I feel like I know her. I sleep with her book under my pillow. I want more than anything to meet her.

 June 15, 1997

I LOVE Lisa Kudrow! She always plays such hilarious characters and she’s so good at it. Plus she’s really pretty too! Her character Phoebe on Friends is so zany and always makes me laugh, I love her. I could watch Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion 20 times in a row and not get sick of it. I’m also absolutely crazy about Jennifer Aniston. She’s so beautiful, sometimes I just sit staring at her picture, wishing I could touch her hair.

As it turns out, the only hot gossip in my journal was that at 13, I had already committed the sin of confusing conventional white hotness with personality. Otherwise, unbeknownst to me, my journal was proof that I was just another oblivious preteen girl, with the totally unselfconscious desire to catalog my deep-rooted fixation on women.

But honestly, being focused on women never seemed remarkable to me. I grew up in a household with my mom, my younger sister, and my dad, so even if we were just being fair, 75% of our time was focused on women. And we were not fair. “What does dad know,” my sister would scoff as we walked down the aisle of the grocery store, picking up the Cinnamon Toast Crunch our dad had proclaimed was too unhealthy to take home. Which was just a variation on my mom’s light-hearted, “Your dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” After which she’d go get tacos from the truck on International Boulevard, a place my dad found iffy, or take us to ride on BART, which my dad found too chaotic and noisy, or buy me new set of taiko drumsticks, even though my dad said playing would ruin my hearing.

If I’m choosing a parent who ushered in a dyke spirit early in my life, it was my mom. She was the one who started a feminist club in high school with her sister. She’s the one who taught me at age 3 that I wasn’t half of my ethnic backgrounds so much as my own whole. She was the one who volunteered at the Asian Women’s Shelter and explained to me why women and children had to hide from violent men in their own family. She also went to Oberlin College in the 70s, where upon arrival, she promptly stopped shaving and wearing a bra, joined the crunchiest co-op on campus, and became their head tofu maker — a position that became Harkness royalty.

When my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom would only pick us up if we paged her first, and then waited an hour and a half, even though she only worked 15 minutes away.

“How does everybody else know when to come pick up their kids?” I stupidly inquired one day.

“Do you know what feminism is?” my mom snapped. “I’ll tell you! It means women don’t have to stop being who they are because they’ve become mothers. It means I do things outside of our home that are more important to me, and I don’t have to stop working because you need a ride home from school. That’s your problem, not mine.”

She wasn’t wrong. And soon my dad had arranged to pick us up, or to sign us up for ceramics and cooking classes we could walk to. “Your mom was always a little stubborn and cold,” my Auntie Anne, my mom’s only sister, likes to recount to me. “She’ll always hold her ground.” And if that isn’t a solid foundation for a radical dyke ethos, I don’t know what is.

But we can’t leave my dad out of this either. He’s where I get my soft, dainty side. When people first meet me, they’re generally surprised to learn that despite my short hair, I scream hysterically when bugs fly at me, and that I don’t like to get dirty unless I’m in the right clothes.

My dad was very early to the idea that traditional masculinity is a sham, and he was vocal about it throughout my childhood. I’m not quite sure exactly how he came to this conclusion himself, but I have a feeling he was just smart enough to see the contradictions in people like his own father, like the men in the Navy where he did his medical training, like the jock bullies who gave him a hard time in school — that he noticed their fragility, the extreme lengths required to maintain the façade of masculine power. And he decided he could not care less.

My dad wears women’s sunglasses because he likes the greater variety of shapes available than for men. He does pilates because he’s looking to tone his muscles, and because my mom was annoyed when he took an exercise class that woke her up at 6 am. My dad has been pushing moisturizing, skin care and sun protection on me and my sister since we were kids — “especially on your face, hands, and neck,” I can still hear him saying, “that’s where aging shows the most.” And I’ve never met anyone, with such a fondness for gay resort towns, like Palm Springs and Provincetown.

In all the ways that my mom is stubborn and cold, my dad is sensitive, sentimental even. This is a man who wouldn’t let me watch The Simpson’s or read the Berenstein Bears when I was little, because he didn’t want me to get the idea that dads are not quality, trustworthy people. When I was born, he bought an expensive bottle of Port that was meant to age, so we could open it together on my 21st birthday. And after I graduated from college — the one where he and my mom met, that he convinced me to attend so we’d always have our coming of age in common — he stood in my doorway and cried because he was filled with the very real fear that he’d given me everything he knew how, and now I’d have to figure the rest out myself.

Don’t get me wrong, my dad still had to be told to stop making comments on women’s appearances, and his assumption that any of my friends have a remote interest in hearing him talk about sports is pure hetero-patriarchy. But seriously, my model for manhood was my dad in women’s sunglasses and a printed designer cardigan, sipping a coconut rum cocktail, while excitedly watching the women’s world cup. These were the things he taught me to enjoy.

Taken in context, I can’t even take credit for the kind of dyke I grew up to become. To this day, my mom is on queer trends faster than many people my own age. She asked me last week if assuming a person uses “they” as a pronoun is more or less inclusive than just asking. And my dad is the one who insisted I get a Subaru, when my last car was on its way out — it’s reliable and fun to drive! Who else could I have possibly become?

Looking back, I can see now, how we all missed it. Because unlike so many of the queers I know, who have been rejected or alienated by their families, who have to move miles away to learn to who they are, and who dread the indignity of going home, I followed so closely in my parents footsteps — we still have most things in common. It strikes me every time I see them, but especially around the holidays, that despite our myriad differences, we’re still so much of the same stuff rearranged. “She used a store-bought pie crust,” my sister reports about a party she attended, and everyone shudders in unison.

This evening my mom gave me a pair of metal glasses frames she bought, but then decided were too weird for her. As we looked at them on my face in the bathroom mirror, I understood for the first time that I’m truly an iteration of her, the softer, bolder evolution. “These are the glasses of the person I want to be someday,” I heard someone say at my favorite fancy optical boutique. And I wondered if that was what my mom had been giving me all along. Which leaves me with the inevitable conclusion that I’m a major dyke, just like my parents, who simply happen to be straight.

Kamala Puligandla lives in LA and is the writer of various autobiographical fictions. She is the distinguished recipient of her parents' leftovers and hair compliments from strangers on the street. Her first novel is forthcoming from Not A Cult. Find her work at kamalapuligandla.com.

Kamala has written 39 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. This article truly makes me feel heard. As much as I empathize with those in the community who have been hurt by their family, through physical, mental, emotional abuse, I’ve had a purely positive relationship with mine. Our relationship has perhaps even improved since my coming out. So, thank you for writing this, I feel really connected to it :)

    • Hey, fellow Michigander! I too feel closer to my parents after coming out than I have since I was a little kid. They struggled a little with “what causes trans, is it our fault” but never rejected me. Almost none of the friends I’ve made since moving to Utah have a good relationship with both parents, and I wish I could share mine with everyone.

  2. So much yes! As a teenager I started calling my mom by her first name after she forgot to pick me up twice in one week as a way of separating the societal expectations from the reality of my mom as her own person who was doing so much for so many people. She’s happily married to my dad, but definitely more butch than I am.

    My dad always did the grocery shopping and laundry, and both my parents made were active parents. As an adult I get together almost every weekend for coffee with my dad.

    Now that I’m parenting I try to find some balance of not accepting all of the pressure and guilt placed on women as mothers, while wholeheartedly embracing parenting as the responsible adult for my kiddos.

  3. I relate to this so hard. I was raised by a mom who didn’t shave, didn’t change her last name when she got married, and bought me books of feminist fairy tales. My dad fixes cars, loves women’s sports, definitely has more conservative tendencies but above all wanted to raise my sister and I as strong women who would never be dependent on men. And my sister and I both turned out to be queer, so…

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