The Mormon frontman for rock group Neon Trees tells how he came out to his conservative father—and shares a note for his dad.
My father and I had always had a fascinating relationship. For a long time growing up, I didn’t know what he did for a living. I knew he made a reasonably high amount of money a year; during my teen years, we went from eating chicken casseroles at home to going out every meal. I would raid his drawer for loose change, steal his favorite socks and always use his cologne. I never thought twice about not asking—he was my dad. But he wasn’t necessarily someone I really wanted to be friends with. One evening, we got into a heated fight over something trivial (most likely how I dressed) and we both said things we didn’t mean but couldn’t take back: He told me I was “disappointing” and I followed up with, “All you are to me is money.” I still feel a chill go down my spine when I think of that spat.
Things distinctly changed for the better when I decided to go on a post-high school graduation business trip to the northwest with my dad. On that trip, I became a full-blown vegetarian in protest of my father and his coworkers’ bloated steak dinners (I haven’t eaten meat since). And he accidentally saw a journal entry of mine that confessed how much I didn’t like him. Both broken-hearted, we pulled off at a truck stop to use the facilities and ended up talking for hours outside on a picnic table. There, he confessed he just wanted to understand me. And I confessed I didn’t hate him, I just felt that I didn’t know him.
A few months later, I left on a two-year mission for the LDS church, and for a life where communication with family was reduced to letters and weekly emails. When my family said their goodbyes, my father broke down sobbing and began to tell me how sorry he was that he wasn’t the father I needed. Over the two years I served as a missionary, my father and I got to know each other through letter-writing. I learned of his rebellious streak, of how hard he worked to build a career to provide for all of us. I learned how much he loved my mom. I learned we had built a wall between us out of ignorance.
When I decided to come out as gay to my friends and family, my dad was the only person I was scared to tell. With everyone else, I only had the natural anxiety or curiosity of declaring such an important part of who I was. But with my dad, there was so much uncertainty. My dad had never been overly vocal with disdain for homosexuals, nor was he ever outwardly disrespectful. In fact, I can’t remember talking about homosexuality at home. It never even really came up at church, despite what so many have said we Mormons preach on Sundays. The uncertainty came from not knowing if my relationship with my dad would suddenly change, or simply break apart because of my confession.
My mother’s reaction was loving amidst a few questions. She wanted me to tell my dad because she “couldn’t lie to him for too long.” I don’t think she actually was concerned about the lying part—I think she simply wanted to talk about it with someone, and would probably tell if I didn’t.
So, I called him. He was driving to a meeting, and I was in New York City preparing for a photo shoot. I sat in my hotel room, turned a on video camera and pressed “record,” just in case he reacted in a crazy way and I could have the evidence to show later. I felt relatively calm, but I also wondered if telling my dad that his second-born son liked boys was a good idea while he was at the wheel. Once I had him on speakerphone, I began the conversation as normally as possible.
“Dad, I have to tell you something…”
The concern in his reply made it worse. What if this was the last time he would ever sound concerned about me? What if, after I told him, he wouldn’t talk to me anymore?
There was genuine shock in his voice. I began to overshare, telling him I had known since I was three years old. That I didn’t have a boyfriend but had had experiences. That I still loved the church, but didn’t feel like I really fit in the last few years. He said he still loved me, “of course,” but didn’t understand how someone would come to the conclusion they were gay. I let it slide, because that ignorant response was coupled with love.
Before we hung up, I welled up with tears and told him I needed his acceptance because we had worked so hard on maintaining a father/son relationship. He was the only person I cried in front of while coming out. He made a joke that if I was kidding, I could just hang up and call him back and say so. We laughed.
Weeks passed, and I saw my parents. Nothing felt different, and nothing was different. Christmas. New Years. All incredibly normal and uneventful. When I came out to the world a few months ago in Rolling Stone, my dad was his typical undramatic self. I thought it would have been nice if he called and asked how I was handling everything—something parental. A few days passed, and that’s exactly what happened. He told me that he had heard from various coworkers giving support and love. I think it helped him realize that it shouldn’t be a big deal to him, because it wasn’t a big deal to them.
Today, he’s one of my favorite people in all the world. He has an odd sense of humor, and he always makes me laugh with his outlandish jokes. And I have a note for him here.
I’m starting to look like you more and more, and it freaks me out. I am doing everything I can to keep my hair and not get a belly like you. But it may just be inevitable. I am so happy I inherited your calm nature, though. As I’ve gotten a little bit older and wiser, it’s come in handy. I also inherited your work ethic and drive. I know we don’t share the same passions, but I think we both had to build something from nothing.
Dad, thank you for marrying mom and being so great to her. You deserve more time away from your cellphone and office desk. You and Mom succeeded in raising four fairly well-adjusted kids, and I hope I see you in more Hawaiian shirts, smiling and enjoying the rest of your life. We, your kids, think you’re the funniest guy ever. (That counts for something because we’re pretty snobby and don’t laugh at everything.) My favorite memory of you will probably always be the passion you have at my band’s shows. You sing and dance louder and harder than the 14-year-olds in the front row. You don’t have to do that, but you do.
Dad, thank you for accepting me every time I threw something new at you. My latest weird hairstyle… The times I took your money and socks and cologne.. And accepting that I like guys. You should know I sincerely have faith. I don’t have it all figured out, but I do have that. Thank you for showing me the importance of family and telling me about Jesus Christ. I should have been the guy that turned my back years ago, but I can’t because I feel his teachings are true.
Dad, I love you.
Oh and, Dad, please be kind to the guy I bring home someday. I know that will be weird for you, but I promise that if I love him, you will too. Let’s cross that bridge—together—when we come to it.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.