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The Modern Family of the 70s: Growing Up With A Gay Dad
Caleb Pershan | Photo: Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. | June 18, 2013
Writer Alysia Abbott recalls her upbringing with a single gay father in San Francisco
In the era before gay parenting manuals and the push for LGBT couples to have access to marriage and adoption, Alysia Abbott was raised by her gay father in San Francisco. Her father's interest in men didn't stop him from marrying a woman and having Alysia. But he was left to raise her alone when her mother died in a car accident while Alysia was still a toddler. Soon after, father and daughter moved to the then queer and bohemian Haight-Ashbury district, where he worked as a writer, editor, and poet. Her childhood and her father are the subjects of Abbott’s recent memoir, Fairyland (compiled in part from her father's journals, poetry and cartooons) from which she reads Wednesday at 7 pm at City Lights Books.
You write that your story is a queer history, even though you yourself identify as straight. Does coming from a queer family make you a queer writer?
I live a much straighter life now than I did then, but I do identify as a queer writer. But I’m more of the queer world than in it. I grew up in a gender-fluid environment so I’m more open to gender-fluid people and not as into rigid gender roles in the family. I certainly can’t be as bohemian as my dad was when I was growing up, but I do feel that who I am is shaped by my upbringing, which was queer, and I feel that [queer issues] are my issues. But as the straight child of a gay parent, I always felt a little too gay for the straight community and a little too straight for the gay community. Because there were so few gay parents that we knew, my presence reminded people of the traditional family structure and the responsibility that some people were trying to escape from.
How do you think being raised by a gay parent or couple today compares to your upbringing in the 70s and 80s?
Most children from my era were the product of straight marriages, often with a closeted parent who did or didn’t come out. My situation was different because my mother died, and so I was living in an exclusively gay-headed household from as early as I can remember. Today, children of gay couples are often the products of adoption or artificial insemination. I was also raised by a large community. My father and I often had roommates who would babysit— and from a young age I realized I was a little girl in a community of men. I always felt different, but in this difference I felt special.
The Haight, when you were growing up, was a queer neighborhood. Now that you live in Cambridge, what's it like to return to the Haight?
It's like a Fisherman's Wharf version of what it used to be: now there are Haight-Ashbury mugs and T-shirts. It’s sort of like the hippie era as a Disney ride, with big murals of old icons devoid of their original history and character. After the AIDS epidemic, the gay community eventually settled more in the Castro than in the Haight. My favorite thing about the Haight's character when I knew it was that I knew all the people who worked at the stores and they were relatable: you’d know the owners, whereas with chains, it's much less relationship-based.
You thoughtfully recall some of San Francisco’s public transportation in Fairyland. What did you enjoy so much about the oft-maligned Muni?
Some of the sights and sounds I liked were being able to sense when the train was going to come, the sound of the electric current under the ground, the N Judah. It’s all very familiar. I loved the smell, even. I loved getting around on my own from a young age, paying my fare, and knowing which buses to take and which were bad bets. Muni is very tied up with San Francisco for me.
Alysia Abbot reads at City Lights at 7pm on Wednesday, June 19th. It's a familiar location for her—her father was a friend to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She will answer question and discuss her work with Gerard Koskovich, curator at the GLBT Historical Society, an event cosponsor.