By Chris Dixon, July 2001
My dad was different. Sure, he and I played catch and wrestled, watched sports and enjoyed Star Wars together. But he also talked about feelings, cooked dinner regularly, and encouraged me to play with dolls and action figures alike. He didn’t even flinch when my mom began painting my toenails pink. Although I wouldn’t realize it until later, my father was the first pro-feminist man to touch my life. Growing up, I knew him as a man uncomfortable with ‘manhood.’ I saw him openly struggle with his own entrenched sexist and homophobic socialization. I watched him try to break down rigid gender roles, with mixed success, in his relationship with my mother. And in the process, I learned a lot about patriarchy and heterosexism, not the least of which is their frustrating resilience.
These kinds of experiences are uncommon. Most of the men that I know don’t have much praise for their fathers, particularly when it comes to sexism. Indeed, more than a few define their anti-sexism in deliberate opposition to their dads. Even as that demonstrates, though, fathers are so often central to our formative experiences as men around gender and sexuality. Many of us have our first run-ins with patriarchy through the older men in our lives, frequently our dads. Consciously and unconsciously, lovingly and punitively, they teach and model ‘being male’ for children who are expected to identify as boys and unquestioningly accept prevailing notions of ‘masculinity.’
In order to understand this perpetuation of patriarchy, we have to look first to those who most embody it–men, fathers and sons. As well, we have to try to grasp how we came to wear and display its indelible imprint. And yet we must also locate the unlikely chinks in its formidable armor: the sites of refusal and struggle in which men, often hesitantly, have challenged patriarchal privilege. Thus I think it’s useful, perhaps crucial, to revisit our dads with both sincere compassion and unflinching criticism.
Here I’ll start with my late father. I want to pay tribute to him. And I don’t mean that in any kind of simple, celebratory way. Rather, this is a tribute worthy of him, one that brings together the good and the bad. In the real world, where domination and oppression intertwine with all aspects of our lives, there are no easy, uncomplicated sources of inspiration. But there are lessons. I look to my dad, then, for lessons about how to struggle against sexism and homophobia, as well as for lessons about the structures of patriarchy and heterosexism that lurked inside him and continue to lurk inside me. In his example, I find both inspiration and warning, inseparably tied.
My dad was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934, right in the middle of the Great Depression. His mother was young, seventeen-years-old at the time, and she had just married his father. Six months later they moved to California, where he would spend the rest of his childhood.
My dad grew up white, male, and working-class, an only child in a family constantly struggling to make ends meet. Along the way, he also inherited a healthy distrust of wealth and power, largely through his own troubled father, a self-identified socialist as well as an outright racist. Tellingly, his parents gave him the middle name “Eugene” for Eugene Debs, the turn-of-the-century radical labor leader. And though my dad came of age during the deeply conservative 1950s, he never lost his gut sense of egalitarian ethics. Decades later as I was becoming politicized, he would confess that, at heart, he was forever a socialist, convinced that the staggering inequalities of our society were fundamentally wrong. I suspect that this core ethic contributed to his acceptance of feminism.
Poverty and hard work framed my father’s young adulthood. High school offered very little, so he skimmed through while also working as a gas station attendant. After graduating, he took a stint in the army, narrowly missing the Korean War. And finding nothing redeeming about military life, he then entered college, working his way through. During this time, he also entered his first marriage, which lasted just long enough to bear four children, my half-siblings. By the 1960s he was a pursuing a career with the State of California.
At first glance, my dad’s story looks deceptively like a ‘bootstraps’ tale of hard-won success and class mobility. But it isn’t; his opportunities and identity were clearly shaped by his access to white, male, and straight privilege, in particular. Without those, he would have likely followed a markedly different path. To some extent, my father realized this. He wasn’t oblivious to the social movements of sixties and seventies or the openings that they created. Specifically, he would later recount, civil rights struggles forced him to clarify his values and consider his own position as a white person. Likewise, the women’s liberation movement, burgeoning as he met my feminist mother in the early seventies, challenged him to rethink his manhood and, to a limited degree, his sexuality.
My parents married in 1973, on the cusp of a major shift in gender roles and relations that would come to alter kinship, parenting, sex, work, socialization, and much more. For sure, it was an incomplete shift, but a significant one nonetheless. And I sometimes wonder how my dad took it: as the patriarchal landscape around him shook, as some of his privileges as a straight man were called into question, what did it mean to him? How did he learn to change?
One way or another my father embraced some of it, for I grew up with and learned from a surprisingly nontraditional man. His contributions to household work, for instance, stretched far beyond occasionally barbequing hamburgers or fixing broken appliances. And contrary to TV sitcoms, these weren’t begrudging duties at the behest of my mother. My dad consistently prepared meals, he washed his share of dishes, and when it was time to clean house, he chipped in just like the rest of us. As well, he changed plenty of dirty diapers, cared for me when I was sick, and carted my brother and me around as my mom worked. Throughout–indeed even after my parents separated in 1994–my father was emphatically dedicated to what he called “co-parenting”: working together with my mother on equal terms in all parenting decisions. Thus, as American pop culture was ambivalently and belatedly coming to terms with “Mr. Mom,” my parents were figuring out–not always so easily–how to share chores, responsibilities, and decisions. Although seemingly inconsequential at the time, their innovations shaped how I’ve come to understand gender, work, and authority, among many other things.
More than once, I asked my father, “are you a feminist?” His reply was always the same: “yes.” For him, that choice transcended our home and his relationship with my mother; it also posed a more general challenge to ‘masculinity’ and men, himself included. In the late 1980s, his search for answers took him to the budding “men’s movement,” a broad (and often contradictory) conglomeration of men’s initiatives and organizations. His main participation was with a fairly progressive men’s group, including both queers and straights, which met weekly to discuss issues like gender socialization, male role expectations, pornography, and homophobia.
This last topic was especially weighty for my dad, judging from the stories that he shared. When I was 9 or 10, for example, he told me about a meeting in which pairs of men in his group had taken turns holding each others’ hands while walking around the block outside. Some of them simply couldn’t. Their fear of touching other men–their internalized homophobia–was too deep-rooted. But my father said that he had been able to hold hands the whole way. I saw how scared he had been, and I was proud of him.
Some years later, when I was in my early teens, my dad invited me to attend a local men’s conference with him. To this day, I still vividly remember the workshops. In the morning, we joined a discussion with lesbian activist and musician Libby Rodrick, who provided an historical overview of the feminist movement, pulling out lessons for us men to grapple with. “You all,” she offered conclusively, “have a lot of work to do among yourselves.” In the afternoon, we participated in a lively multigenerational “dialogue between gay and straight men.” For me, still exploring my own sexuality, this was an eye-opening, exciting encounter. And our presence as a father-son duo was especially significant: for the dialogue, because we represented a tangible bridge between generations, and for me, because we momentarily moved outside the assumed heterosexuality that so often pervaded my family and my experience. As I look back, I realize that it took a lot of courage for my dad to participate.
Truth be told, many of my most inspirational moments with my father weren’t during these major events, but throughout our daily experiences. I treasure memories of the time he explained homophobia to me or, later, our rich ongoing conversations about gender wherever we went. At the airport with him, for instance, I remember watching and talking about gender roles in greetings and goodbyes: while men were expected to be ‘calm and collected,’ women were frequently tearful and openly affectionate. Of course, we couldn’t, by ourselves, do away with such role limitations, but we found solace in one another as we looked and pushed at them. Altogether, these were enlightening, memorable times. In them, my dad, along with my mother, taught me a way of critically eyeing the world–a way that he carried courageously unto his last days.
There was also a flipside to my dad. That is, he was far from untouched by patriarchy or heterosexism. In fact, some of the more poignant lessons I take from him have to do with his failings. Mostly, they center on his worst demons, inextricably linked to the workings of our social order. At best, my father determinedly pushed at the boundaries of ‘masculinity.’ Yet for all of his critical self-awareness, he was still a man at times drowning in his own toxic socialization and entrenched in his privilege.
In the late nineties, for instance, my dad finally admitted to his lifelong battle with alcoholism. And I have no doubt that this struggle was tied to his larger battles with ‘manhood’ itself. For most of my life he was largely dry due to my mom’s prodding, though he still had his moments of slurred sentimentalities as well as sheer ferocity. For him, alcohol was a coping tool. Depending on the circumstances, it was a means for ‘male bonding,’ isolated withdrawal, emotional avoidance, and/or playful oblivion. In short, it was a copout, and a predictably masculine one at that.
Not unconnected was my father’s volatile temper. In chilling detail, my mother sometimes tells horrendous stories of his most controlling, explosive states. By her accounts, his care and sensitivity were real, but they also concealed a capacity for intense rage and characteristically masculine entitlement. I definitely experienced pieces of this, but not the full brunt that my mom endured. And as she points out, even as he tried to mend and reconcile in his last years, he never took authentic responsibility for it.
Certainly my dad should be understood within the larger context of a society founded upon structural inequalities, like patriarchy. Single lives cannot easily bypass institutional realities. However, in some areas of his life, my father worked to challenge this context. So, why the incongruity? I suspect that his failure to deal with his behavior stemmed, in part, from his difficulty reaching out and finding support. Despite his encouraging efforts with men’s groups, he still relied heavily on the woman in his life–my mom–for emotional care-taking, a dynamic that many men are quick to fall back on. The gendered roles and expectations of the nuclear family–breadwinning father and nurturing mother–don’t die so easily.
And while my dad generally frowned on such limited and limiting gender roles, he still sought a fixed ‘masculinity,’ essential, timeless, and natural. Indeed, he was bothered by my playfulness around gender and worked to police my incursions against gender boundaries. At fifteen, for example, I recall his hostility while explaining to my confused younger brother that my beautifully French-braided hair perhaps signaled that I was “gay, or even transsexual.” My brother didn’t understand that explanation too well; it was obviously directed at me and, consequently, devastating. The labels didn’t bother me, but the contempt was biting. From then on, I was careful to keep my more ‘transgressive’ explorations of gender and sexuality safely away from my father.
Undergirding all of this was the basic fact that my dad’s understanding of sexism and homophobia was regrettably shallow. He largely saw feminism as granting women ‘rights’ in a very public sense and deploring individual ‘prejudicial’ sexist acts. He saw ‘gay rights’ similarly. Yet he neglected many of the patriarchal and heterosexist structures and patterns inscribed in his own heart. Consequently, his approach to the men’s movement, like that of many other men, focused mainly on the obstacles and suffering among us, not the privileges that we enjoy. Sadly, he never quite grasped the whole picture.
My father’s story has a natural conclusion: on a wintry day in December of 1999, he collapsed and died, stunning my whole family. But for me, this was less an end than a startling beginning. Since that fateful day, I’ve come to reflect on my dad in all of his flesh-and-blood complexity, strengthening my connection with him while also creating my own sense of closure and farewell. The process is tricky, for he was full of pointed contradictions: a pro-feminist who angrily vented upon my mother, a gender role skeptic who nonetheless reinforced gender boundaries, an anti-sexist who failed to confront some of his most sexist patterns, a sensitive, reflective man who fled from his own feelings, long using alcohol to aid his flight. Only in recognizing these can I piece him together.
On one hand, then, I acknowledge his successes and the inspirational role he has played in my life. Simply put, I would not be the person that I am today without him. He helped equip me with some essential reflective tools for challenging systems of oppression. He embodied a (not entirely) different way of ‘being a man.’ And he taught me basic things: to confront my own homophobia, to contribute equally in household responsibilities, to never forget how to cry. In this sense, I carry him with me.
On the other hand, I acknowledge my dad’s failings. I love him, and the most sincere way I know of expressing my love (particularly in his absence) is by learning from his mistakes and accepting the responsibility of not repeating them. As a (mostly) straight man, the son of my father, I too have the capacity to dwell in my rage and entitlement, to sink myself into emotional avoidance and isolated withdrawal, to rely exclusively on the women in my life for my emotional care-taking. I too can choose to ignore my privilege. To forget any of this would be the greatest disrespect to my dad. In this sense as well, I carry him with me.
Somewhat optimistically, bell hooks recently noted, “we have for the first time a generation of men coming to adulthood who were not born into a world automatically submerged with sexist socialization that says that women are not the intellectual or work equals of men.” I am of this generation of men. But for all the tremendous social shifts and major feminist successes, I, like others, haven’t wholly escaped sexist or heterosexist socialization. This struggle will be a long one. I’m fortunate, though, because my father has left me with some inspiring tools and difficult lessons to help me along the way.
This essay was first published in Men Against Sexism II zine. More recently, it was included in both editions of the collection Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power edited by Shira Tarrant (New York: Routledge, 2008 & 2013).