While these days it's not uncommon to meet children with gay parents, in the 1970s it was. Alysia Abbott was one of those kids. When her parents met, her father — Steve Abbott — told her mother he was bisexual. But when Alysia was a toddler, her mother died in a car accident and Steve came out as gay. He moved with his daughter to San Francisco, just as the gay liberation movement was gaining strength.
While her father had not initially wanted a child, Abbott says he enjoyed spending time with her when she was a baby. Her mother's death brought the two of them even closer.
"After my mother's death, I think my father felt like he didn't have very much," Abbott tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "His relationship with a young man that he had while he was with my mother had dissolved. And he, in a sense, felt that I was all that he had in the world, and he was all that I had in the world."
In San Francisco, as Abbott describes in her new memoir, Fairyland, her father immersed himself in the city's gay arts scene, becoming a leading literary figure. His daughter also became a part of that community, but as she grew older, Abbott found herself struggling to parse where she fit in.
The scene at the literary events her father attended, for example, began to turn her off. She says: "I was like, 'OK, I've seen that transgressive, weird thing, and it's just a little too weird for me. I'm not interested in that.' "
Fairyland is based largely on her father's journals, which she found after her father's death from AIDS-related complications in 1992, when she was 22. It was reading the journals, she says, that helped her see more clearly the situation they were in together from her father's perspective.
"Unfortunately, he died just as I was becoming an adult," she says. "To be revisiting the journals now ... I have so much more sympathy for his struggles and respect the fact that he was a single father living among roommates, trying to find love as an openly gay man, and also trying to make a name for himself as a writer."
On living with two drag queens in San Francisco as a young child
"My father had already been sometimes wearing dresses in Atlanta. I think for my father, wearing a dress was a political statement. When we were in San Francisco and we were living with two men — one of whom was a drag queen full time and another one who would sort of dress up to go out — I just really saw it as play at the time. I would have been about 4 years old, and I liked to dress up. I liked to put on fancy scarves and the makeup, and it was all something we could do together. I never sensed that what my father or any one of his friends was doing was weird until I became older and became more aware of what 'normal' families looked like, and 'normal' men and 'normal' women did."
On realizing she was an anomaly in the gay community at that time
"I think from a young age I realized I was something different in this community because it was a community of young men, and here I was a little girl, and so I didn't see other little girls around. So I always felt different, but from an early age I sort of liked this difference: It meant I could get all the attention. There was no one like me, and I felt sort of special in a way. But I think on one level, as a straight child of a gay parent, I always felt like a little too straight for the gay community, but also a little too gay for the straight community. So you know, I think I felt a little bit ill at ease in either world."
On her father wanting to go out when he had a child at home
"In some of his writing he wrote about how growing up he felt like, you know, the only gay boy in Nebraska, and now he felt like the only gay father in San Francisco. And so that, you know, it made him feel a little isolated. It didn't give him as much freedom to go out. For a while he had us living with roommates because it was a way for him to get free access to babysitting so he could sometimes go out. ... You can't overestimate how exciting it was to be openly gay in San Francisco in the 1970s. I mean, Stonewall had happened in 1969, gay civil rights legislation was passing in different states, and, you know, for the first time you could love openly and not be considered sick, not be arrested. It was a very exciting, heady time, and naturally my father would want to take part in that."
On spending summers with her maternal grandparents in Illinois
"When I did go to my grandparents, my father was not present, and it wasn't just a matter of him not attending those visits with me. ... He also wasn't pictured anywhere, and he wasn't asked after, and my mother as well, because she died in a tragic car accident when she was only 27. She wasn't pictured, and we didn't talk about her. It seemed there was something in the story of my parents that was a little unpalatable. And I — in terms of learning about my mother — I would do that on my own, digging through drawers and finding pictures, but I felt like there was something from my world in San Francisco that just wasn't talked about, and so that made me a little self-conscious."
On her awareness of the AIDS epidemic
"I got to know a lot of my dad's friends, but this particular friend I became very close with and had a crush on, and he went to my birthday party, and he even bought liquor for my friends and I once when I was a teenager. It hit me when he died. I never got to say goodbye to him. ... Like a lot of young men in the city, he didn't want to share his decline with very many people. He basically went into hiding and didn't tell anyone about it other than his lover and his roommate. And so my father had heard he was sick, and I had suggested we go visit him, but we never did. And time passed, and I really didn't know what was going on until my father got a call that he had died.
"My freshman year at college I wrote an essay about him. You know, just about missing him and as well about the homophobia that I had seen at the time in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic was hitting very hard. Some men would be targeted in the city for violence, and there would be anti-gay graffiti scrawled on walls or on the back of bus seats. ... This affected me, and so I wrote about all of this in this essay about how, because of Sam, I was now going to stand up against homophobia, and I would defend gay men. But in this essay I never even write that my father is gay, and I never even wrote that he might be HIV-positive, which, at the time, he was. So I was aware of what was going on, but I probably had a lot of denial or fear about how the AIDS epidemic was going to hit me at home."