My Dad’s Suicide 50 Years Ago Is My Own Private Stonewall

Pictured above: My father, Maynard Norman Toussaint, in an undated photo.

The summer of 1969 seemed like the season that everything transformed. We were a country in shock by the Manson Murders, but were also given heavenly hope when a man walked on the moon, when Woodstock ushered in a summer of love, and queer rights took center stage at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

It’s also the summer that my own life changed, for better, for worse, for forever.

On the morning of August 18, my 37-year-old father drove to the Benicia Bridge in northern California, parked his car, and jumped off into the cement blue waters below. He was, supposedly, on his way to visit my mother and his five young children in nearby Pleasant Hill. Instead of hearing his car approach, she got a phone call from the police.

This was 50 years ago, and as the queer world celebrates the half-century anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, my reflections are of a personal kind. I’ll be 55 years old when August 18 hits, and I’m less saddened by my own loss of a father than I am by the losses he suffered from a harsher world. Had my straight dad received some of the same advantages his gay son did, he might have stuck around long enough to tell his own story.

Unlike his son, my father was masculinity personified. He grew up in a household where accomplishment equaled worth, and he excelled every step of the way. Dad was extremely popular and known for his classic good looks; he was class president in college, president of Sigma Chi, captain of the football team, an avid basketball and baseball player, a skier and golfer, and an a cappella singer who was savvy enough to marry the woman who sang behind him: my mother, the head cheerleader and homecoming queen. He then moved on to MIT and into a life with a beautiful wife, geniuses, and future world leaders. He did everything right in the 1950s world of Marilyn and Joe.

As for me, after my father died, I was left to my own devices and rejected anything boys were supposed to like—no Little League or Cub Scouts for this kid. The only gay child in the family—overweight and effeminate—I performed in theater, wrote for the elementary school newspaper—later, the county’s largest—and spent hot summer afternoons at the movies. I knew I was gay the first time I saw lifeguards at the local swimming pool.

If friends and relatives warned my mother that my “nonconformist” activities might turn me into a sexual deviant, she was too busy worrying about putting food on the table, Vietnam, and loose nukes to pay much mind to my long hair and love of Helen Reddy records. She also had one rule to pass on to her children: Be happy. My parents were divorced by the time I was two, so there was never a father figure around to point me in the “proper” direction. My eldest brothers lived in their own world of rock music and girls, and when I pleaded to spend time with them it was generally because I had crushes on their male friends.

Did I lose out because Dad was MIA? Probably. Had he stuck around, I might have learned how to play sports, to stay fit, to have male friends. I might have developed more trust and less fear of abandonment. Growing up, the only thing I knew about men was that I desperately wanted one to rescue me. Nicky Arnstein was my Jesus and I needed to be saved.

But there’s no proof my life would have been easier had Dad survived. Some years ago, I asked Mom if my father would have approved of a gay son. She said, “I honestly have no idea. Maybe not.” His parents were country club elitists who openly disparaged black people, Catholics, and my mother when they came to visit post-Dad. Suicide was so untidy in their world they didn’t even attend their son’s funeral. His mother once suggested that my mom pushed Dad off the bridge.

Had my father moved in their direction, perhaps—like so many of my gay peers—I would have been forced to stay in the closet for longer than 16 years, to pretend I was molded in my father’s image, the way his parents tried to mold him in his older brother’s (and the preferred son’s) image. I might have grown up resenting the man I still look upon as a giant, the father who used to pick me up with the grip of a god and swing me around the front yard until every care dropped and there were only open highways of fresh green grass below.

For all the surface disparities between my father and myself, we also have a lot in common. I inherited his quarterback-like build, his receding hairline, his ambitious streak, at least some of his brains, and his mental illness. Both of us became sick at a very young age, at the height of our need to achieve. While Dad’s disease was never properly detected—he was paranoid, depressed, violent—I was finally diagnosed with intrusive thoughts, a severe branch of OCD, in 1998. I’ve been successfully receiving medical treatment for more than 20 years.

While my 30s were, in some respects, the true beginning of my healthy adult life, in his early 30s my dad went for a stay at a psychiatric hospital. While I was learning how to deal with my illness with the help of doctors, my father was in the midst of turning his pain outward by hitting his wife. In Boston, on the lovely MIT campus, my mother would show up to fashionable parties with black eyes. No one said a word. She’d already quit her career as a synchronized swimmer at her husband’s demands, and she spent most days hearing how she ruined his life.

I didn’t grow up in a world of denial or unrealistic expectations. My family was, for the most part, supportive when I came out as gay, and if anyone wasn’t, I knew it was their problem to deal with. Despite early psychiatrists and psychologists who told me that I chose my illness, I was smart enough to know that that idea was rubbish and lucky enough to benefit from an upcoming, more understanding generation of thinkers, both professional and personal. No one picked out my profession but me, no one told me where to live but me, no one told me whom to love but me. My choices, good and bad, were of my own creation. They still are.

And I learned, because of my mother, that abuse or suppression of any kind is intolerable. After I moved in with my first partner in 1987 in New York City, it became clear he wanted a “male wife,” not an equal. I was introduced to everyone as his boyfriend—never by my first name—and told to skip any thoughts of acting or writing, and put all my attention into supporting his theater career. After all, as he made clear, I possessed no talent. He lasted about as long as the TV show Cop/Rock before I kicked him out and kept the cat.

Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images

My father died in a world that was already suffocating around him. In photos, at the ripe young age of 30, he already looks old, bloated, defeated, like so many men from that time. He’s a Mad Men supporting character, doomed from the dawn. He drank too much, had an affair, and discounted the advice from his wife to seek help. Women weren’t meant for leadership past maternal demands. Even in the divorce proceedings, he falsely accused my mother of infidelity because that’s what “real men did” to get a better settlement. He wasn’t just his parents’ child, he was Eisenhower’s child.

It’s never occurred to me to hate my father for all he did; I’d rather regret, and learn from, this time. Our current faux macho-redux era notwithstanding, my upbringing is defined by love and rebellion, by personal victories outshining social mores, by a feminine touch. That first summer I was gawking at men in bathing suits, grown men had already rioted to help ensure I had a better future. We knew not to trust politicians post-Nixon; we believed that promoting peace, not war, was the true sign of masculinity. And that what disease kills your friends makes you stronger. Every decade of my own existence has been forward-thinking in morality, even now when I see gay characters on TV, film, in politics, on paper. Unlike my father’s hidden, inner-life, mine is mirrored in color.

Had my father lived to today—what would be his 88th year—he’d have witnessed all of this and so much more. He’d have learned that research says most bridge-jumper survivors regret the decision as soon as the rug is pulled out from underneath, and that it’s a sign of strength to admit you need help. Most of all, he’d have watched the rise of women who no longer submit to their husbands’ hands. Dad’s suicide note included an apology. My mother is still in charge of her five children and she’ll pontificate over her ex-husband’s wonderful singing voice and sense of humor. She loves to tell me how much, when they met, she was enamored of his red-brown hair. It’s my mother’s desire, not her place, to keep the best of Dad alive.

This weekend, in a global celebration, all of us will be channeling our heritage, our strength and visibility, our pride. I will also be celebrating my own survival in a world that, with all its flaws, in so many ways is much richer than before. I grew up at just the right time.

To the best of my recollection, the last time I saw my father was at his apartment, post-divorce, where we kids stayed with him on alternate weekends. I had a tantrum because I couldn’t untie my shoes and demanded he drive me the 25 minutes home so my mother could help. He yelled at me in the car—I still remember the open-window freeway noise—and said I’d never be invited back. I was a true sissy and he was a true man, and he was correct about us going our separate ways.

Little did I know that, for one of us, it would be a permanent departure.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.

@DRToussaint


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