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What A World: A Birthday Surprise

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Just when you think you’ve finished coming out…

NancyFord at desk
Nancy Ford

By Nancy Ford

I recently took a quick trip back to Ohio for my father’s 80th birthday. My mother decided to throw a surprise party for him at their church, inviting friends, relatives, church members, neighbors, hunting and motorcycle-riding buddies, former co-workers–anyone, it seemed, who ever touched their lives.

A surprise party for an 80-year-old man with a heart condition? Great idea, Mom! Why not jump out from behind that baptismal font and scream SURPRIIIIIIIISE!

My trips home are occurring more frequently these days. Mind you, I love my family, but I don’t return to Ohio for “a good time.” But now, duty calls. Life is short, none of us is getting any younger, blahblahblah. I can go to (fill in gay vacation destination) some other time.

Walking down the linoleum steps into the sanctum of the church’s Fellowship Hall, I recognized a familiar aroma. Why is it that all church basements, regardless of denomination, smell of that heady combination of covered dish dinners, Aqua Net, and moral superiority? Burns the nose.

I scoped the perimeter of the hall, feeling a bit like a stranger in a strange land. Stacked neatly on a display table were pamphlets warning why someone as radically liberal as Barack Obama is a threat to this Christian nation. Accompanying tracts focused on protecting the sanctity of life, contradictorily alongside posters requesting prayers for young men and women in military dress. My oldest sister disgustedly pointed to a pile of flyers from James Dobson’s American Family Association.

Truly, I was in a Strange Land.

But it wasn’t a day to debate equal rights or free will or the immorality of war, I’d reminded myself on the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Houston. It was my dad’s birthday, and there were candles to blow out. Besides, almost three decades of activism have taught me to choose my battles, and this was one I had withdrawn (cut-and-run?) from decades ago.

I smiled through the church’s emotional assault, greeting old friends and relatives, my glucose level rising with each styro cupful of sherbet punch.

At the appointed time, my mother escorted my father into the hall. He was duly surprised, all five of his bypasses holding up just fine under the outburst, thank you.

Soon his group of well-wishers grew to a crowd of 150 or so, folks whom I remember seeming much taller 45 years ago. Now they’re just regular size, though all of our faces appear as though we had spent some time in a fruit dehydrator.

While making my daughter-cum-hostess rounds, I sat down at one of the taupe metal folding chairs to chat with Miss Catherine, my across-the-street neighbor for the first four years of my life. Now approaching 90, she asked if I had any children.

“None that I know of,” the Lea DeLaria retort automatically spilled from my mouth.

“I mean, no, I’m not married,” I quickly interjected before she could decipher my inference. No need to go into the whole Well, yes, I was married briefly before realizing that I’m a lesbian, and while I’ve had a rich and abundant personal life that has included two long-term committed relationships, neither church nor state was interested in officially recognizing them thing.

It’s a skill I learned by necessity years ago when returning to this Strange Land: Stay away from discussions about politics, sex, and religion with my deeply conservative, heterosexual, and evangelical tribe of origin. Given my chosen career path, this pretty much leaves the weather or their offspring as appropriate topics of conversation.

“And you live in Texas now?”

“Yes, I live in Houston. I’ve been there for over 26 years. I love it,” I said.

“What do you do in Houston?”

“Oh, I’m a writer. I work for a magazine. I’m very happy.”

I then quickly commented about how hot it is in Houston, steering the conversation back to an easier path.

Soon Laura and Cliff McG arrived. Of course, the McG’s were in attendance for the surprise. They were also neighbors, with their four now-grown children.

Laura, always beautifully coiffed with a smile as big as Ohio, is my mother’s BFF. And if Cliff lived south of the Mason-Dixon line he’d be the quintessential good ol’ boy: Full of life and bull, he laughs a little too loud, slaps your back a little too hard, hugs a little too tight. Good people, do anything for you.

“Nancy! How are you?” Cliff boomed. “Still in Texas?”

“Yes, still in Houston. I’ve been there for over 26 years. I love it,” I recited.  

Cliff already knew my marital status, he and Laura being among the few who were informed by my parents of the drama of my ’70s-era coming out and subsequent divorce. We skipped the children question.

“What do you do in Houston?”

“Oh, I’m a writer. I work for a magazine. I’m very happy,” I stuck to script. “And how are all of your kids?”

Brian runs an air conditioning and heating company near Cleveland. Michael is a podiatrist in Florida. Kevin is somewhere in California, doing something respectable. Daughter Lureen has lived in Florida for more than 20 years and, coincidentally, also works for a magazine.

“It’s a lifestyle magazine,” Lureen’s dad said, the word “lifestyle” spilling from his tongue as though he, too, had rehearsed it. “She runs the place.”

Then something really Strange happened in this Strange Land.

“What kind of magazine do you write for?” he asked.

Red lights began flashing like the intro on Cops .

“It’s a monthly,” I hedged.

“What’s it called?”

More warning lights. Inappropriate content ahead. Please use alternate route flashed across my frontal lobe.

“It’s called OutSmart ,” I said, unaccustomed to even this shallow depth of inquiry. I began scoping the Fellowship Hall for some other neighbor from the last century who could rescue me from this course of conversation before it slammed into the Fellowship Wall.

“What’s the focus?” Cliff pressed, steering our talk off the main thoroughfare and into the gravel.

  “We focus…on news and entertainment…for the alternative…” I stammered, looking at the colorful felt crusade banners and tracts and then at the birthday cake, all reminding me whose day it was.

“Nancy,” he interrupted, his hand on my shoulder, coaxing the words out of me. “It’s OK. You don’t have to choose your words so carefully. Tell me about what you do.”

It was truly a PFLAG moment.

“It’s a monthly magazine for Houston’s gay community,” I surrendered as though the word gay had never before formed on my tongue.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of who I am or what I do or those who do it with me. Quite the opposite.

I then tried to crystallize into sound bites a 20-plus-year career in the GLBT press that had witnessed victories like the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v Texas decision, and marriage equality in Massachusetts. And Melissa Etheridge. And the gay dude on Brothers & Sisters .

Cliff listened, nodding here and there, eventually asking if “things” weren’t getting better.

“I mean, there have been a lot of advances for gays,” he offered.

Our conversation–a real conversation–continued, encompassing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and AIDS, and Mark Foley, and attempts by the current administration to write marriage discrimination into the U.S. Constitution. You know–real stuff. Politics, sex, religion.

And the Fellowship Hall ceiling didn’t cave in.

Cliff finished our conversation with a joke. Thank God.

“You know, Nancy,” he twinkled, firmly slapping my back, “I’ve always considered myself something of a lesbian.”

So cornball. Yet so loving.

“Who knew we had so much in common?” I responded. We hugged, and I thanked him for the conversation. He winked at me like we shared a secret.

As the party ended, my father gathered up the basketful of birthday cards. My mother doled out the remaining cake on paper plates to nieces and nephews. As she left the church, my oldest sister smiled at me, protectively sweeping up a stack of Dobson pamphlets and stuffing them into her purse.

My dad had a great birthday. Surprisingly, a good time was had by all.

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