“I’m just like you”: My queer dad’s legacy

Following the death of their father, Beatriz Verneaux pens a personal essay on finding connection and healing through their shared queerness.

WORDS Beatriz Verneaux

In hindsight, I knew he was going to die that week. 

For six months, I had ongoing dreams featuring my dad and my siblings. And the setting was always the same: the beach town I often visited as a child, to which my dad escaped for a life of self-pity and isolation after his and mom’s divorce.

These dreams were filled with memories of my childhood, and were as convoluted as a foggy morning by the sea. The kind of morning in which you have this vague sense of a horizon, but the thick and dense mist prevents you from seeing anything but air. But I do remember the scents that hung in this air: ocean water, algae, and old wood.

After my father died, I never dreamed of this place again.

He saw beauty in beauty itself, and he couldn’t care less about someone’s gender when it came to witnessing said beauty.

My early childhood is filled with my dad’s perfume. I’d sit on his lap and find comfort pressed against his hairy chest – hair so thick it poked through his cotton shirts – as he sang songs which only he knew. This isn’t an exaggeration. As an important researcher of Brazilian popular music, my dad’s collection was so valuable that he was often the main consultant for any books on early Brazilian music history. Some of the songs he sang to my siblings and I had been recorded maybe one time, by songwriters long forgotten. He could – and often would – recite the entire historical background behind any piece of music. He would describe in excruciating detail the impact of the oppressive military dictatorship in Brazil on politics, human rights, and on artists like himself and my mother. I listened to it all with utter fascination. His wealth of knowledge seemed endless.

Yet, he always saw himself as inferior to his siblings, especially Mauricio.

Mauricio was my dad’s older brother. He died very young, and my dad talked about him every day, reminiscing and missing him. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how he always compared himself to Mauricio. I remember thinking that it must be hard competing against a ghost – someone who isn’t physically there to hold accountable for their flaws or qualities, And so they perpetually sit on a flimsy pedestal, full of gaps like our memories.

Here’s how I fill in these gaps: Mauricio was a man’s man. He was masculine, powerful, athletic, and intense. My dad wanted to be a man’s man, too. However, that wasn’t exactly in his nature. My dad was unique. He was an actor. A writer. A director. His life was his stage whenever he wasn’t on stage, and his personality was histrionic and bold. He loved to imitate his favourite female singers, like Carmem Miranda and Elis Regina, the same way he loved to imitate their male counterparts. He saw beauty in beauty itself, and he couldn’t care less about someone’s gender when it came to witnessing said beauty.

I knew my dad was queer way before he ever came out to me.

Looking back, I remember the point at which I realised my dad – in my eyes – wasn’t just a man. At least, he wasn’t like the men in my family. He always had female friends, and he detested sports, business conversations, and masculine culture. It’s probably why he and my brother struggled to relate. Even though my brother was also thoughtful, sweet, and loving, my dad couldn’t see past his perceived masculinity. He became so disconnected that he never went to any of my brother’s competitions, and barely acknowledged anything my brother did that he deemed as “macho”. And because of that, they fought. A lot.

My dad would often say my brother reminded him of Mauricio. Sometimes I’d think to myself: “What if Mauricio never existed? What if he’s an alter ego that lives within my dad, a personification of the masculinity from which he works so hard to dissociate himself.”

But Mauricio was, from all accounts, pictures, and birth certificate, real. And so was my grandfather. And so were the other many men in my dad’s life who unknowingly instilled decades of self-hatred and queer panic by either verbally or physically abusing him due to his “eccentric” personality. 

I knew my dad was queer way before he ever came out to me. It was obvious in the way we understood one another’s views on love. We seemed to be the only ones in our family who fully grasped the irony of gender roles, of the gender binary, and we’d talk often about how little we identified as men or women. Neither of us had a specific vocabulary for it, but we’d talk about feeling what today we’d call “genderqueer”. My dad was rarely vulnerable enough to speak openly about anything without a sprinkle of deflection, but when it came to gender identity, we both agreed early on that we didn’t fit the norm. Back then, as a child, I thought that my dad and I were truly the same.

Trauma is insidious, and it replicates between generations when left untouched.

But as I grew up, violence became my dad’s default mode, and he’d spend his days away from the house or locked in his office. It was a violence that always felt misplaced, unjustified, and random. It was a violence that felt deep and inwards, even though it was often targeted toward me and the rest of our household. I grew into a 16-year-old suffering from severe depression and anxiety, unable to truly understand myself. And it’s no surprise that when my parents divorced, I internalised this violence and believed that my mental illnesses had driven them apart.

Trauma is insidious, and it replicates between generations when left untouched. If my dad had accepted my parents’ divorce as a wake-up call to face his trauma, he’d have to own up to the fact that he was an inadequate father who didn’t contribute enough to the finances of the household and perpetuated his trauma on his children. If he faced reality, he would be forced to admit that  his severe mood swings led him to act violently – which was something he associated with the people who had abused him in his childhood and whom he wanted to be nothing alike. If he faced reality, he’d have to admit that he lived a double life filled with porn, escapades to engage in risky sex, and ultimately, a series of sexually transmitted diseases that ruined his health at an early age. 

If he admitted to these things, he’d have to admit that he failed as a man – in the traditional sense, that is. But he also would have been genuinely happy. Because only through tracing the paths of trauma and how it breaks us, we can be completely free.

My dad’s deceit left wounds in all of us. In the process of lying to himself about his identity, he hurt his wife and children’s sense of self and the stability of our household.

My siblings and I were angry when we found out what he was doing behind my mom’s back, but he interpreted our anger as a rejection of his sexuality and his gender identity. He couldn’t comprehend that the fact that we felt betrayed by his actions had nothing to do with whom he had engaged sexually, but how and when, and with who’s money and resources.

When my parents sold our house, my dad bought a small apartment in a beach town as far away from us as possible – and here he stayed from 2008 until he died in 2022.  His choice of a one-bedroom apartment in the middle of nowhere told us that he didn’t want to be involved in our lives anymore. My mom and I moved to the US shortly after.

My dad’s deceit left wounds in all of us. In the process of lying to himself about his identity, he hurt his wife and children’s sense of self and the stability of our household. My mom resented that he knowingly put her at risk of catching his sexually transmitted illnesses, especially after she had witnessed several of her best friends die during the terrifying AIDS epidemic. It was also the moment I started to reject my bisexuality and lean into the self-hatred modelled by my dad.

Since I was already dating a guy, it was easy at first to pretend. Slowly, and without consciously realising it, I developed the same deceitful patterns as my dad. From 16 until 24, I lived a double life, lying to my boyfriend for seven long years, only acting on my sexuality during drunken stupors, and often behind his back. I broke my boyfriend’s heart countless times, and I was never once able to be one hundred percent myself with him because of the deep shame I felt about not feeling like enough of a girl, enough of a girlfriend. At that time, I had no concept of ethical non-monogamy or that I identify as non-binary. 

Throughout this time – 2008 until 2014, when I broke up with my ex – my dad and I barely talked. I resented him deeply because I saw him in myself.  I could see all the mistakes I was making, all the toxic behaviours I was replicating, all the denial in which I had submerged myself. I looked at him and I thought: “I’m gonna end up just like him. Alone, in a random beach town in the middle of nowhere, with no close friends, with no family around me, just me and my delusions.”

I told him over and over again: “I will never be like you.” 

But then something amazing happened. I did move to a small town by the beach in the middle of nowhere. But, funnily enough, it was there that I finally connected with myself. Instead of coming face-to-face with isolation and despair, I met other LGBTQIA+ artists. And I felt as if everything prior to that moment had been a trial run.

My life in California wasn’t perfect by any means – but it was exactly what I needed. I finally had room to be completely myself, and I discovered that the toxicity I was capable of could be countered by openly addressing my wounds. Instead of lying about feeling confused and unsure of my gender and my sexuality, I had room to discuss it with others who felt just as confused as me. And through community, I finally had some peace of mind.

Looking through my dad’s memories, I realised that he had a similar experience back in the 70s when he first moved to Rio de Janeiro to become a professional actor. He and my mom met in an environment in which queerness was known and accepted. But there was a significant turning point. The AIDS epidemic.

Traumatised by the loss of countless friends, my dad did everything he could to repress his sexuality and gender. And while he had the opportunity to live by his standards when he and my mom divorced, five decades of repression had grown to become the norm for him.

The fact that I can now, in retrospect, look at my dad’s life with compassion and love for who he was is a privilege in a world that kills trans women disproportionately, in a world where homosexuality can lead to a death sentence.

He isolated himself not only from his family, but also from the possibility of developing close relationships that reflected his truth. He existed for years in this twisted dichotomy of saying he loved being free from everyone’s judgement, but constantly fighting with us because he was lonely.

What would have happened if my parents had never lived through the AIDS epidemic? Who would have they grown to become if queerness wasn’t associated with death and panic? Where would we be if people had room to experience their gender and sexuality fluidly and openly, instead of hiding to the point that they terrorize themselves and others around them?

We can’t reduce Pride to a carefree, happy-go-lucky, colourful parade that happens once a year. We often leave behind the sorrow and grey shades that permeated the lives of every LGBTQ+ person who couldn’t live their truth. And we often forget that this is still a reality in most parts of the world. The fact that I can now, in retrospect, look at my dad’s life with compassion and love for who he was is a privilege in a world that kills trans women disproportionately, in a world where homosexuality can lead to a death sentence.

My dad died in February 2022 on my sister’s 41st birthday.

He died before I could look into his eyes and tell him: “I am just like you. And I’m proud of it.”

I had made plans to visit him in March of the same year, after two years of separation due to the pandemic. Frankly, I barely remembered the last time he held me or the last time we looked into each other’s eyes.

But I do remember thinking that the next time I visited him, I’d talk to him openly about his queerness. I wanted to remind him that he could be himself around me, whatever shape that took, in whatever expression of gender he most related. I wanted to tell him about my own experience with finding myself. I wanted to tell him that if it wasn’t for his own beautiful, if convoluted, way of accepting others when it came to who and how they loved, I wouldn’t have the guts to do the same. And I wanted to thank him for the fact that he was starting to own up to his mistakes in a transparent way that was finally leading us to a place of healing.

We got so close to being able to speak truths to each other again, just like we had done when I was a child. But none of that happened. He died before I could look into his eyes and tell him: “I am just like you. And I’m proud of it.”

He died without knowing I feel this way.

Representation isn’t about seeing someone who looks like you for a stroke of your ego. It’s about knowing others like you exist, and that they’re as real and as complex.

When I think of my dad, I think of a man. But I also think of a child. I think of an opera actress belting on stage. I think of Liza Minelli in Cabaret. I think of intellectual philosophising about the role of culture in this world. I think of the pasta he’d cook for us, with pork on the side. Of how he’d always order pizza on Sundays.

I think of his tenderness, his harshness, the anger he failed to hide, and the shame that corrupted him and ultimately led to his isolation. I think of other people like my dad, who had no language, resources, or ability to love themselves regardless of how the world saw them, and who were forced to live buried deep in lies and pain.

Representation isn’t about seeing someone who looks like you for a stroke of your Ego. It’s about knowing others like you exist, and that they’re as real and as complex. And so I think of queer liberation. And with that I vow to him and myself that I’ll be unapologetically, politically, and honestly me through all the nuanced and bold ways in which I exist. Whether it’s Pride Month or not.

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