Ask any Gay man—hell, almost any man for that matter—about his relationship with his father, and surely the most common response you will hear is “It’s complicated.” (A close second might be “Relationship? What relationship?”) Even now, after a generation or two of expanding gender roles, changing expectations of fatherhood, and increased visibility of Gay men, the relationships between men and their fathers continues to be a fraught minefield, and for Gay men exponentially so.
Into this emotional landscape Tim Clausen offers, not a map exactly, but a guide from those who have traveled it and survived. In Not the Son He Expected, Clausen presents twenty-six stories of Gay men and their relationships with their fathers, beginning with his own. He selected the additional twenty-five stories from eighty-two interviews that he conducted between 2015 and 2017. Included at the beginning of his book is the 28-question questionnaire Clausen asked each man; however, each chapter reads as a stream of consciousness narrative rather than a strict question and answer interview.
The interviewees demonstrate a wide diversity in race, age (from early twenties to late seventies), location across North America (from both rural and urban areas), educational backgrounds, and career paths. Although he strove for a wide range of stories, Clausen notes in his introduction that he purposely chose stories that included men coming out to their fathers, specifically since coming out is such a milestone event in the lives of Gay men. The reactions of each man’s father span the gamut from unconditional acceptance to disowning; and the interviewees did not always experience the reaction they expected (whether positive or negative) from their fathers when they came out.
Although each story is unique, certain themes emerge: the kind of relationships these men have/had with their fathers often depends on the kind of relationships that their fathers had with their own fathers. Several of the men are now fathers themselves, either biologically, through surrogacy, or adoption; some would like to become fathers. Another important theme that runs through most of the stories is that the relationships between Gay men and their fathers is never static, but is rather dynamic: this is especially true of men who end up caring for their sick or dying fathers at the end of their lives—flipping the role of caretaker. Also, even men who had bad coming out experiences with their fathers might still find that their relationships improve over time. (Or not. There are no guarantees.)
Perhaps the most unusual—and unexpected—story is Justin’s, whose father transitioned and is now living as a woman. Justin’s coming out eventually led to his father gaining the courage to live life as honestly as possible, and their relationship has changed immeasurably. Indeed, it is worth stressing that each man’s “father” is not strictly his birth father, but may refer to a step-father, uncle, or other father figure; several stories narrate the disappearance of (biological) fathers in the early lives of the interviewee through either death or desertion. One individual (George Morris) states explicitly that when he was thirty, and newly out, he had many male friends, all older men, men he wanted to impress and have respect him—an attempt on his part to gain the approval he never received from an absent father while growing up.
Certainly for any boy, his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father has a profound effect on his development: many of the men herein state not only how they take after their fathers physically, but also in terms of temperament and character. And while not necessarily a how-to guide for Gay men to improve their relationships with their fathers, many of these stories provide common sense advice and examples of how to do so; regardless of the kind of relationship you might have/had with your father, you will no doubt see yourself in these pages.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske