My Grandpa Was Gay (NEH Magazine)

The following piece was published in the October “His” Issue of NEH Magazine.

My grandfather passed away earlier this year. My employment contract in Korea wouldn’t allow me to make it back for the service. Writing this helped me deal with the loss.

My Grandpa Was Gay

I never had much of a grandfather in my life, which was something that bothered me as a child. My mother’s father, Harold, passed away before I was born. He’d had a heart attack in his 50s. Harold was an Army drill sergeant and ultra-conservative Christian man, with a persona much different than mine; I often wonder what our relationship would have been like. My father’s father, Herbert (”Grandpa”), lived in Florida most of my life. He would visit occasionally, and we spoke on the phone during holidays, but I never got to know him well. He moved back to the Pacific Northwest a few weeks before I moved to Arizona for a new job opportunity. I was a young man in my mid-twenties when I moved back to Portland, and I take the blame for not choosing to spend more time with him during this period in our lives. I now live in Korea.

Making matters worse, a giant bomb was dropped on me during an unplanned visit to my grandma’s condo one Sunday afternoon. Sitting on her balcony overlooking the majestic Colombia River, my grandmother, my sister and I watched the planes land and take off at PDX, the same thing we had done all those years of my youth. Grandma broke out her old photo albums and the three of us shared memories and reminisced about the past. I was known for breaking everything in sight, including knocking the Mother Mary statue from wall and kicking the ceramic Christmas tree off the balcony. My brother and his mischievous tendencies as a youth. My sister as the happy go lucky wonderful person that she is.

However when the topic turned to my grandpa, who divorced my grandma just before my parents tied the knot, everything got….well, it got queer. I don’t remember how it was brought into the conversation, but my grandma said that my grandpa went through a time in his life when he was confused. According to her, “He thought for a while that he might be gay.”

A million thoughts immediately ran through my head. You can’t be serious! How do you think you might be gay? Are you saying he grew out of it? I don’t think that’s even possible. If my grandpa was gay, than his relationship with you was forced. This forced relationship resulted in three children. Had he stayed true to himself, he likely would not have married. No marriage, no children, no grandchildren. NO ME!


My aunt, this same grandfather’s daughter, has been openly homosexual my entire life. To quote the popular phrase from Seinfeld, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” For me growing up, it was normal to my family that her female “friends” wore their hair short and looked like men. Everything was out in the open. I was taught that some people are born one way, some another, and I can’t recall having witnessed any negativity from my family because of my aunt’s sexuality.

That said, this is my grandpa we’re talking about. Most of my friends speak fondly of their grandfathers as the staunch, patriarchal figure in their families. A wise, rough, strong old man with morals and values from long ago, before our relaxed versions of those ideals were set into motion today. Because of this, you could say the romanticized version of my ideal grandfather would be the rebel like Johnny Cash or the tough guy like John Wayne. These ideas of a grandfather are certainly not gay.

Once I let those thoughts subside, it all began to make sense.

Where did he live during my entire childhood? Florida. Have you ever seen The Birdcage?

What did his “friend” do for a living? He sold shoes at Buster Brown. This is the same man that refused to drink anything other than Pepsi when he would come for a visit.
Nothing but Pepsi, and I think I recall copious amounts of Red Vines.

What branch of the military did he serve in as young man, fighting bravely for his country in WWII? The Navy. According to Wikipedia, the United States Navy actually considered using the notoriously gay anthem, “In the Navy” by The Village People for recruiting and advertising campaigns. It’s kind of funny to think about the use of a stereotypical gay fantasy for military recruiting, given the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies that were later implemented, only recently to be repealed.

Last, there was the way he would refer to his feisty Irish mom. I can still hear it, “Oh Mother!”

Most males hold their grandfathers in the highest regard. When you’re a boy, he is supposed to teach you right from wrong and encourage you to do your best. As a young man, you realize this was person who molded your father into the man he is today. A grandfather can play many roles in the development of a man. Perhaps he is an authority figure. He is a friend, an advisor, a confidant. Most of all, he is someone you can look up to and learn from.

This is most certainly who my grandpa was. He was a veteran who bravely served his country. I frequently hear him referred to as the nicest man that ever lived. There was always a smile on his face and a giant hug to accompany it. He made the time to listen to whatever I wanted to talk about and encouraged me in my many endeavors as I grew up.

My grandpa died earlier this year. Not having the freedom to leave Korea on a whim, I was unable to make it back for the memorial service. Easing my disappointment was the time I was able to spend with him during my vacation home a few months prior to his passing. I’m told that in my absence, our family discussed the comparisons between his character and mine. For this I’m eternally grateful and proud to be his grandson. The character of a strong man has nothing to do with his sexuality.

My grandpa was gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

~ by ripcitytoseoul on November 8, 2011.

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