A lot of my friends are talking about Robin Williams today. They’re all talking about the sadness, the loss,the iconic man that he was, a man who made others happy but couldn’t do so for himself. Many of us are commenting on how this celebrity passing is touching us in a way others haven’t. Sure, Michael Jackson was a major influence that we all grew up with too; but there’s something about Robin Williams, the depth and breadth of his work and talent that has made us all feel like we’ve lost a family member.
I feel it too, though quite likely for reasons that very few of my friends would understand, and one that I don’t really ever talk about. Sure, Dead Poets’ Society is one of my favorite movies, a huge reason why I ended up becoming a teacher (the idea that I could change one, even just one students’ life in the way Mr. Keating did….). But it wasn’t that movie in Robin Williams’ filmography that made the most impact on me and my life. It wasn’t Good Will Hunting or Patch Adams or Good Morning Vietnam, although I loved all of those movies.
It was The Birdcage.
I know, right? How could that be the most impactful of his entire body of work? The hilarious comedy about a gay couple and their son and the frantic antics they engage in to pull off the son’s marriage into a conservative family.
I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the child of a gay man.
That’s right. I don’t say it out loud that much. It’s not that I am ashamed of it. It is just that we never, ever really talked about it when I was growing up. My parents got divorced in 1977. I was seven. I found out later it was because my mother, who had long suspected my father was having an affair, had her suspicions confirmed. He was indeed sleeping with someone else. Only it wasn’t another woman. It was a man.
The world was very, very different in 1977. My parents never told us that my father was gay. When my father moved in with another man we were told it was because they were going to be roommates. They maintained separate bedrooms. I actually found out about my father from my sister, who let it slip one day while she was talking to a girlfriend within my earshot. I think I was 12.
There were no gay people on TV then. People weren’t talking about gay pride back then (at least not that I knew about). Gay people were stigmatized. My father and his partner maintained separate bedrooms all throughout my teens, and while it eventually became clear to my father that we all knew about him and Steve, it was something we simply did not discuss. They were not “obvious” and Steve hardly ever came to any family functions. They were both firmly in the closet at their respective jobs. I didn’t tell anyone but my very closest friends about my father. It was like a shameful secret.
The Birdcage came out in 1996, the same year I got married. And in it, for the first time, I saw so much of my life depicted. The awkwardness of having to explain your father and his “friend”. The impulse to lie because it just is easier. The anger and frustration that you feel when you realize people can really just be jerks. That being a kid of a gay person does not mean you are destined to be gay yourself. And the slow realization that these two people, these are just people in love just like anyone else. My father and his partner are more married than many heterosexual couples I know, even though they are not legally allowed to marry.
The Birdcage took all of the crazy stereotypes that people have about gay couples and truly just turned them on their ears. Through Robin Williams wit and comedy, that movie made even truly conservative people stop and think about their prejudices about gay people. By going to the most crazy level of stereotypes about gays and transgenders, he showed that in the end, there are a lot more similarities than differences. That moment when Calista Flockheart says in a choked voice, “I really would have loved to have been part of your family.” Because gay or straight, at the end of the day, that three person unit was just that. A family. Something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
And now, nearly 20 years later, the world is a very different place. In 1996, my father’s partner wouldn’t attend my wedding, no matter how much I begged, because he didn’t want to be a spectacle. Last year, he attended my son’s wedding and my father proudly introduced him as his partner. The world is changing, for the better. We still have a long way to go. But we’re headed in the right direction.
So when I think of Robin Williams and his direct influence on my life, I think of the Birdcage. And I thank him for finally showing me and the world that being the child of a gay person isn’t something to keep a secret. My family may look different than yours, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different. And if someone can’t accept that?
To quote Armand Coleman: “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”
Rest In Peace Robin Williams. I hope you find some measure of the peace you were able to give me through your gifts.