'When dad came out, it was like a renaissance'

The travel writer Alison Wearing, 32, was born and brought up in Ontario, Canada, with her two brothers. When Alison was 12 her father Joseph Wearing, 64, declared he was gay, left his wife and moved to Toronto. Alison remained at home but visited her father, a professor of political studies at Trent University, regularly. For the past 19 years Joseph has been living with his partner, Michael, in Toronto
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Alison

Alison

I think anyone would be shocked to be told their father was gay. But as it turned out the difficulty wasn't with him or us but the rest of society. We were living in a small parochial town and the hardest part was facing the people there - they were so full of judgement and so specific in their ideas of the way families should be. There were certain people who wouldn't associate with our family any more, and at school it was very clear who we could be upfront with and who we couldn't. I never got teased too badly but that was only because I didn't let myself be vulnerable to it.

When we look back on family videos and see my father dancing round like a fairy, it's hard to believe how we didn't see it coming. It was so clear. He's not effeminate as such, just very flamboyant. He loves to tell long stories accompanied by great histrionics. You can be like that and still be straight, but looking back on those videos - although he played the straight guy very well - you can see very visibly what a struggle it was.When he came out it was like watching someone have a renaissance. It was a real pleasure seeing him come into his own, being how he should be.

I really liked his first serious guy and was really rooting for them; when they split up I was terribly upset. But he's been with Michael now for 19 years. I remember when I met him I thought he was one of the funniest people I've ever known. He's got a wicked sense of humour and just became part of the family very quickly. It was an easy transition and always has been - we just all liked him, it wasn't an effort

The whole thing taught me from an early age to question societal norms. I don't think I ever really aspired to be a normal person: I never wanted to get married, get a house, have children and do everything normally. I think ultimately I was inspired by it. I don't want to whitewash it because it was a very difficult time, but 20 years on I can look back and say I'm honestly grateful it happened. If he had kept it a secret we would have been one of those horribly repressed dysfunctional families trying desperately to be happy and wondering why we weren't.

Joseph

I realised I was gay a year or two before I moved out of our family home. It was difficult because there are no accepted guidelines as to how to do it - I don't think I handled it as well as I could. If you're not fond of the person you're leaving then it's probably quite easy, but I was and I still am. My wife was really upset.

I had been wondering if I was gay for a while, then I saw an article in the Globe and Mail about a man who was a gay father. I remember being really astonished and thought, there is someone in a similar situation as me. So I got in touch, and we talked and he reassured me that if I was gay, it wasn't such a bad thing.

He had just been involved in setting up a gay father's group in Toronto. I went to one and found I had a lot in common with the other people there. It's generally assumed that people who are gay are childless, single and carefree, but gay bars did very little for me. While I was in the process of coming out, the fact of being a father was always very important to me. At the gay fathers group, they were more my age, very settled in their professions and very fond of their children. Many were fond of their wives and many, in fact, wanted to stay married. As did I initially.

At first the children were polite when I introduced them to someone. My sons especially were a little bit distant initially. Gradually they relaxed, and now they chat as readily on the phone to Michael as they do with me.

There was a very unhappy period when my former wife and I found we weren't getting invited to any parties. I think people felt very awkward - but my colleagues at the university were very good and I never noticed even a trace of hostility there. It was very emotionally challenging; for a while my world and my family's world was turned upside down. My sister has not been able to cope with having a gay brother. While the other members of my family are fine, she just stopped communicating with me and we haven't spoken to this day. That was tremendously upsetting.

One thing that constantly amazes me is how young people today are so comfortable about being gay. They don't seem to have gone through the trauma that I did, coming out in my early forties. But on the other hand, they have no kids, so I just feel tremendously fortunate in having three. If I'd have been born in 1970 rather than the 1930s I might have come out when I was at university, never married, never had any children. And that to me is unthinkable.

'Honeymoon in Purdah', Alison Wearing's account of her travels in Iran, is published by Macmillan at £14.99

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