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Loving tribute to gay dad touching coming-of-age story

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Alison Wearing's story is especially relevant given recent events in Manitoba.

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Alison Wearing's story is especially relevant given recent events in Manitoba.

Alison Wearing's memoir about growing up in 1970s and '80s Ontario with an openly gay father is a loving tribute to her dad and a touching coming-of-age story in and of itself.

Wearing, a playwright and performance artist as well as a writer, is best known for her 2001 memoir Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, an account of her 1995 trip though Iran with a male friend posing as her newlywed husband.

After reading Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, one might argue that Wearing's experience growing up with an openly gay father in middle-class Canada was just as exotic as travelling in the Middle East.

Wearing's narrative takes place largely during her childhood and early adolescence in Peterborough, Ont., a sleepy city 100 kilometres east of Toronto. She calls her childhood "dimly normal," growing up with a stay-at-home mom, two younger brothers, and her father, a professor of political studies at Trent University.

Wearing's father, Joe, did stand out from other fathers in the neighbourhood. Wearing recounts without irony how he liked to bake, wore raw silk pyjamas and often skipped down the sidewalk singing choruses from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas while snapping his fingers. But she attributed his flamboyant tendencies to being the natural side-effects of his being academic. She called them "excusable eccentricities resulting from excessive intelligence."

So it came as a surprise to her when she was 12 that her father moved to Toronto to live as an openly gay man, while intending to remain an active and loving father.

"As a Canadian child of the 1970s, no more did I suspect my father of being a closeted dandy than I harboured secret suspicions of my rice-enamoured mother being secretly Chinese," recalls Wearing.

Wearing takes us through the early years of her father's new life, knitting together a tenderly honest and notably humorous account of the fallout surrounding her father's announcement and the years to come.

She supplements her reflections with excerpts from her father's diaries, giving additional insight into her father's struggle to come out. Readers may be surprised at the honesty of some of Joe's writings -- especially given that he shared such intimate material so readily with his own daughter.

She also includes excerpts from articles from 1980s newspapers citing studies on homosexuality, gay fathers and articles written by other openly gay fathers, reminding readers that society was not as accepting of homosexual parents as it might be today.

"In 1981 being out of the closet was still a major risk, even in Toronto," she writes. "It was still legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and being a fag could mean losing your job without recourse, risking the love of family and friends, being ostracized, being beaten up in the street."

Readers might be surprised by Wearing's casual use of such terms as "fairy," "dandy," and even the cringe-inducing "fag," but Wearing's variously affectionate and satirical tone makes it clear that she is using these words with, as she puts it, "playful acceptance."

One disappointing aspect of the memoir is the short shrift Wearing pays to her mother's reaction to her father's news. In the prologue, Wearing cites her mother's private nature as the reason for this oversight, but one can't help but feel that a vital part of the story is missing.

Wearing's story is especially relevant given recent events in Manitoba, such as the controversy surrounding the introduction of Bill 18 and the closing of a restaurant owned by a gay couple due to alleged homophobia.

It's a reminder that despite difficulties that still exist for gay individuals, things have still come a long, long way.

Kathryne Cardwell is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J9

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