Eight months into my relationship with my boyfriend, Danny, things were better than ever. We were five months out of college with full-time jobs and functional apartments in Boston, we had said the L word to each other, and he didn’t even leave me when I confessed that I’ve seen Taylor Swift thrice in concert. So, naturally, I thought, “Let’s heat things up in this promising relationship with a trip to my hometown, land of heterosexual Catholics and seven different strip malls!”
I never brought a boyfriend home before Danny, so it made my palms sweat just thinking about our visit. I was “out” to my parents and they were supportive, but I knew that actually walking through the front door with another guy, effectively saying, “This is the man I’m having sex with!!!” would still be a lot for them to process, regardless of how accepting they were. For most of my life, I had hidden my sexuality out of fear that I would never be treated the same, building up an image in their minds of a son who would one day introduce them to his girlfriend. It’s one thing to know your son is gay — it’s another to see the proof.
They picked us up at the Philadelphia airport on a crisp Saturday morning in October after a flight I spent wondering, “Is it too early to order wine? Yeah, it’s probably too early to order wine,” and bouncing my leg up and down so hard I thought maybe I was the one causing the turbulence. We walked out of the airport to the car pickup area, where I spotted our white Honda Accord, my parents standing outside of it.
“Hi! We made it!! This is Danny!!!” I practically screamed, hoping my fervor would somehow cut the tension. I calmed down a little once my parents greeted him with wide smiles, looking genuinely excited to have him with us. I also calmed down when there weren’t any dad jokes like, “We’re so gay that you’re here,” which I fully expected.
I looked around at the couples and families scattered across the pumpkin patch and froze, feeling like my high school self again, afraid of standing out, afraid of rejection.
Nothing too embarrassing happened on the ride home either, aside from when the #1 song at the time, “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, came on the radio and my mom asked, “Who is this again? Jimmy Johnson? I love him.” Otherwise, we mostly talked about our jobs, pointed out Philly landmarks as we sped by the city to our outer suburb, and planned activities for the day ahead. It was probably one of the most basic conversations I’ve ever had, but I was beaming as if I were talking with Princess Diana, George Michael, and Adele (the three people, living or dead, I’d like to have dinner with, obviously. I have a thing for the Brits, OK?). I could have never imagined this happening when I was younger and deep in the closet.
About a half hour later, we pulled up to our ranch-style house, red leaves strewn about the front yard. “This is it!!!” I, again, practically screamed. As we walked out of our garage, I wanted to give Danny a kiss because I was so elated that they were hitting it off. Except, suddenly, I hesitated. Are my parents watching? Would they feel weird? Would I feel weird? A quick kiss might seem minor, but when you’re in a same-sex relationship, public displays of affection require much more courage. Each one is like an act of rebellion in a world that labels you “other.” But before I could sort through my momentary crisis, I remembered my dad needed help getting his walker from the trunk of the car. He has multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that has steadily deteriorated his vision and mobility over the years. “Gimme a minute,” I said to Danny, avoiding the situation altogether and cursing straight couples who don’t have to think twice about a simple smooch.
I helped my dad get inside and then began my tour of the house for Danny. We ended with my childhood bedroom, complete with my small twin bed that eliminated the inevitable “Are my parents going to let us sleep in the same bed???” song and dance that can be stressful for all couples, let alone queer ones.
“So, this is where I spent most of my time listening to Fall Out Boy,” I said, gesturing vaguely to my bedroom floor. “Oh, and please note the crucifix above my door.” It was surreal letting him inside a space that, for so long, had been mine and mine alone, where I had spent so much time working through my identity and whispering “I’m gay” to myself under the covers when I had finally reached self-acceptance. How far I had come.
“What’s this surfing poster?” Danny asked. “Wait, do you know how to surf??”
“Oh, god, no. It was just an excuse to have a shirtless man on my wall.”
After touring the house and eating a quick lunch, we left to go pumpkin picking at a nearby farm with my mom, sister, and brother-in-law. We walked among rows and rows of pumpkins of various shapes and sizes, talking to my sister about how her pregnancy was going. When she and her husband stopped to consider a particularly plump pumpkin, Danny and I continued walking, and I felt myself hesitate again — this time before holding his hand. Now, we weren’t just with my family, but in front of dozens of seemingly straight suburbanites whose only experience with gay people, I assumed, was watching Ellen every afternoon at 3. I looked around at the couples and families scattered across the pumpkin patch and froze, feeling like my high school self again, afraid of standing out, afraid of rejection, afraid of a farm full of strangers celebrating the year’s bountiful harvest.
Only, then, another familiar feeling from my closeted high school days crept up: anger. What was the point of bringing him here if you’re just going to hide? Who cares if everyone else feels comfortable? Fuck these people. They’re wearing Crocs. So, I stood tall and I took Danny’s hand, knowing that even if some kind of scene broke out, what better place to make a dramatic exit? I could smash some pumpkins and throw their innards at people on the way out. With that image in my mind, I was actually a little disappointed when no one even flinched, or gasped, or threw holy water. In fact, the rest of the afternoon couldn’t have been more wholesome, filled with apple cider, my mom’s famous lasagna, and a sense of acceptance I thought would only ever exist in my adolescent daydreams.
Feeling triumphant, I decided to drive around town with Danny after dinner and show him the sights — my elementary school, that spot where I fell off my bike, the grocery store where I cashiered, that other spot where I fell off my bike. It was starting to get dark, and I could see the entrance to the local park up ahead. “I have an idea,” I said, as I turned into its tree-lined driveway. “Let’s make out in the parking lot back here.” Like so many queer people, I feel as if I was robbed of my adolescence. Time I should’ve been able to spend asking boys to dances or the movies or the mall, I spent trying to pass as straight to avoid bullying. So, I drove into the park like the carefree teenager I never got to be, hoping to reclaim some of what I had lost. Waiting in the darkness, however, was a cop car, which turned on its headlights as we passed and followed us further into the park, probably thinking we were there to get high. “OH MY GOD,” I actually screamed this time, Danny cackling in the passenger seat. “So much for that steamy makeout sesh,” he said once he caught his breath. I made a U-turn in the lot and drove straight out of the park, leaving the cops in my 15-mile-an-hour dust.
That brief run-in with the police, as it turned out, was the only hiccup the entire weekend we spent in town. I felt my nerves settle as the end of the trip neared without any arguments or deeply uncomfortable moments. Looking back, my nerves weren’t even about introducing my parents to Danny, because I knew they’d get along, but about finally, fully introducing them to me, a man who dates men.
I guess a part of me always knew my parents wouldn’t have a meltdown seeing Danny and I together, because when I think about what they taught me most growing up, it was empathy. My dad was diagnosed with MS shortly before he and my mom got married. People asked her if she knew what she was getting into, if she knew how difficult the road ahead would be, if she really wanted this unconventional relationship. They’ve been married for 34 years now.
Being a same-sex couple is something they could never fully grasp, but they do understand what it’s like to not let convention dictate who you love, which has a lot to do with why they welcomed Danny with such warmth that weekend. They understand that if you find the person you want to build a life with, you don’t listen to anyone who wants to tear it down.
Four years after that visit, Danny and I are still together, and going home with him doesn’t make my palms sweat anymore. We now live in New York and hop on a train to Philly whenever we feel like it (and by “it” I mean my mom’s lasagna). And the baby my sister was pregnant with that day at the pumpkin patch is now a three-and-a-half-year-old boy named Liam, who calls him Uncle Danny.