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I thought I knew everything about being LGBTQ. Then my father came out

I was committed to sharing stories of the LGBTQ community. But I've never told one story closest to my heart.
Illustration of writer with his dad with father's day cards in the background
Katty Huertas / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Being a flamboyant, feminine and self-proclaimed fabulous gay man, I thought I knew everything there was to know about being part of the LGBTQ community. Well, I was fabulously wrong.

Yes, that's me, literally waving the Pride flag. I thought I knew everything about the LGBTQ experience, and then....
Yes, that's me, literally waving the Pride flag. I thought I knew everything about the LGBTQ experience, and then....Courtesy Alex Kacala

From a young age I knew I was different, and so did everyone else. When I came out at 16 after the closing night of my high school’s production of “The Laramie Project,” most people weren’t surprised. I mean, I had been lip-syncing “Rent” since I was 10. I soon become the president of my school’s gay-straight alliance, an organization my heterosexual sister had started during her time at school. A classmate of hers was being bullied at the time, and she also had inclinations her younger brother might be part of the community. I became a fierce advocate and ally for other kids who came out after me. I found my footing as someone who was defined by their LGBTQ identity and proud of it.

And then, a year and a half later in 2004, my dad came out as someone who dressed as a woman. At that time, this was simply known as cross-dressing, but when my parents outed my dad as someone who was queer... he was different, and it was weird.

My dad "coming out" rocked me in ways I didn't expect... but it also made parts of my childhood make more sense.
My dad "coming out" rocked me in ways I didn't expect... but it also made parts of my childhood make more sense.Alexander Kacala

I really struggled at first with this bombshell. I made it more about me and my feelings and less about him. It ended up making sense out of a very complicated and traumatic childhood. At first I was very resentful and angry at my father and my mother for not dealing with things better. At first, the unconditional love I had expected all my life was now suddenly harder to give to them.

Years later, I became a journalist focusing on the LGBTQ community. I committed myself to sharing honest stories about people who'd been marginalized. Still, the one story I had been unable to tell was this one.

Me, being anything but totally open and authentic about the LGBTQ experience? Never!! Then I met Diane.
Me, being anything but totally open and authentic about the LGBTQ experience? Never!! Then I met Diane.Courtesy Alex Kacala

Then a stranger approached me at an event in 2015, telling me how much they loved speaking with my mother when they waited on her at dinner. They wanted her to be part of a political movement that was fighting for transgender equality in the workplace. They had Googled her name on her credit card and I came up.

My mom? My mom is a straight cisgender woman. Oh... you must be thinking of my dad.

Now, in a post-Caitlyn Jenner reality, when this person put into context that my dad may be transgender, I started seeing my father's self-expression less as a sexualized fetish and more as my father being trans. I started talking more with my father about Diane, his alter ego, and I started to advocate for my father to accept who he or she is.

But still, after more than a decade of knowing about her, Diane and I had never met. That didn't happen until one night when I surprised my father with tickets to see his favorite singer, Audra McDonald.

He called me back, saying he was already dressed for the day. “Can I come as Diane?”

Something stood still. I was confronted with my own ability to accept my dad. I preached daily a mantra of “be who you want to be” like a walking Home Goods pillow, but now, for the first time, that belief was actually being tested. This was the moment for me to act out on the words I had always tried to live up to with my own queer identity.

Anxious and nervous, I simply responded, “Come the way you want to.”

Hours later, I discovered the first thing about Diane — that punctuality is a virtue of my father’s and not hers. It was awkward seeing my father in a dress for the first time. What I discovered is that as hard as it was for me, it is 100 gazillion times harder for my dad to show up the way he wants to show up. I wouldn’t have traded those moments for anything. For the first time, I was being with my father the actual way he wanted to be in the world. For the first time, I was being the son I was always meant to be. But it took more than ten years to get there.

Father and son eating in a restaurant, father's face is blurred
With my father Diane, who requested privacy. I've learned that we have to give grace on both sides of the "coming out" journey.Courtesy Alexander Kacala

Since that day, I have spent more luncheons and dinners with Diane. I’ve also helped her with some makeup tips, hoping she takes the advice from her new friends at Sephora and goes with a foundation a tad more suited to her skin tone. We spent Father’s Day together in 2019, and I posted about our special day on Facebook. That was a big step.

Today, my family is still transitioning. My father does not currently identify as transgender, though he has not ruled that out as a possibility for the future. He hasn’t embraced any labels, though one could describe him as gender fluid or gender-nonconforming. When he presents as Dan, I use he/him pronouns, and when she presents as Diane, I use she/her. But always, Dan or Diane, they are my dad.

I have the unusual experience of being on both sides of the coming-out journey. I believe in acceptance, but I know that sometimes it’s learned and takes time, and that really is OK. The conditions along the way don't matter, as long as we arrive at unconditional love at some point.

I also understand how difficult things are for people who are gender nonconforming. Social media is riddled with people making aggressive comments at the expense of gender nonconforming people, throwing up emojis or religious verses that they claim justify their ignorance. This just isn’t the way. I come to those discussions not only as a gay man, not only as an advocate for LGBTQ people, but also as a son.

My father says he started feeling like he might be a woman starting at the age of 8. That was 1954. No one is gonna tell me that being gender nonconforming is a trend or a new fad or even a mental illness. We still have so much education to do.

So this Father’s Day and Pride Month, I urge you to accept not only the people who identify as LGBTQ, especially our trans brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but also to the people who are on that journey with them. We all deserve more grace and understanding. So for the next 8-year-old who feels the way my dad did, they won’t have to lie or suppress themselves for someone else’s comfort.

I proudly love my father, may he be Dan or may she be Diane. Of all the things in my life, this love has to be the most fabulous one of all.

During LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of June. For more, head here.