My dad came out at my 12th birthday party.
He and my mother had not yet officially separated, but my father had been "on the road" with his "traveling salesman" job an awful lot. He arrived to the party late, shoulder to shoulder with a man he introduced to everyone as his partner, Manny. I took this to mean that my dad had started a new company, and immediately started bragging to all my friends and family about how good at business my dad was.
Days would pass before my mother would decode "partner" for me and I would come to understand that Manny was now a permanent fixture in my life—my stepdad.
Before coming out, my father's adult years were spent in an interracial marriage, raising two mixed-race daughters, making us more of a minority than we already were. To that point, we were versed in anti-racist activism, and we became similarly entrenched in LGBTQ+ causes after my dad came out. Once he found his new community, my dad quickly became one of its most deeply invested stewards, offering his businesses as LGBTQIA+ community centers/safe spaces, himself as an advocate for the most disenfranchised community members, and funneling his business profits right back into resources like health care and housing.
Thirty years later, my dad remains committed to social justice, though at age 70, in the midst of a global health crisis, he's having to make some adjustments. At this particularly explosive moment in history, I asked my dad to reflect on what Pride means to him now, and how he's navigating being an active community member during a pandemic, as well as a stalwart ally to his biracial children.
WW: You grew up in Northeast Portland, in what is now the King Neighborhood, the youngest child of a single mother. What was the neighborhood like back then?
Tom Wheeler: Well, we were one of the diminishing few white families. That was evidenced by the ratio of black to white at the schools I attended. My first girlfriend was black, most of my friends were black. But this was abhorrent to my stepfather. His appliance store, which catered to the black community, enabled his racially discriminatory behavior. He began accumulating real estate in our neighborhood, but he would not rent to anyone of color.
And you've seen what that behavior results in: The neighborhood began falling into a state of disrepair and abandonment. Rentals went vacant. One of my first entrepreneurial endeavors was raiding abandoned houses for metal to sell to recyclers. Soon this neighborhood became not the neighborhood in which I grew up, and it was through the actions of my new stepfather and many others like him. We ended up moving to San Diego, Calif., in 1964.
How did your family react to the news that you were engaged to a black woman?
My parents accepted my relationship with your mother with mixed emotions. My stepfather cornered me and tried to convince me against the marriage. He was still extremely bigoted, now as an apartment-building owner in San Diego County. He still would not rent to anyone of color. I don't remember my mother making any sort of a negative remark toward or about your mother until our extended family came to visit. I wasn't allowed to bring Sharon around, and my mother's reasoning was that Sharon would not be welcomed because she was black.
Eventually, though, my stepfather changed his feeling toward people of color because of his relationship with your mother. For that, among other things, I will always be grateful to her.
You came out in 1990. Did your parents react any better or worse to this announcement, or did someone else corner you and tell you off?
Oh, there were already a number of gay members of my family. My brother, Terry, is seven years older than me, and he was the first to come out. He did so quietly, in the early 1960s, when he was discharged out of the Air Force. My younger cousin Rob was also gay. My nephew Pete is also gay. Shoot, there may be more that I don't know about. Somehow, my family has always been very accepting of the homosexual lifestyle—well, my stepfather might've been the exception but he never said anything, he kept those prejudices to himself. I wasn't surprised at the way that my family accepted my sexuality. I was, however, disappointed with myself, in that I didn't come out in such a way to your mother's family. I simply left Sharon to pick up the pieces. I've only felt guilty about leaving my straight life behind because of the wreckage your mother was left with.
After your big gay debut, you almost immediately became an LGBTQIA community leader. What compelled you to seek those positions?
Once I had come out, everything changed for me. All the possibilities that I dreamed of in my youth I saw becoming realities. Initially, it was rather tough, in that it's tough to wait until the middle of your life to find yourself. I was an entrepreneur since I was a kid, and I always knew I was going to be in business for myself. I started with buying a tiny restaurant and from there joined a gay community business network. I stuck around long enough to be president, and then it was a no-brainer to become involved with the Pride festivals, join the board of directors at the community center, and use our businesses for HIV and AIDS outreach and service work. I was on a police oversight committee to combat gay-bashing. And I was on the city council committee to legalize gay marriage. You know, it's weird you ask, because I never thought of myself as a community leader. I was simply happy to be accepted into a group where I felt comfortable and productive.
Your north star has always been mentorship, community support, and forever adding otherwise disenfranchised queers to your chosen family. How do you navigate those goals in the age of the coronavirus?
I guess I've always felt myself a mentor. And yes, I often found myself surrounded by a diverse cabal of hapless and needy gay men. Today, in the time of the pandemic, those endeavors have been altered. Social media outreach has been something of a comfort, but being gay and alone in a world where it's not only illegal but punishable by death in some countries is a tough reality to deal with, even when you have people to look up to and reach out to.
What did Pride mean to you when you first came out, and what does it mean now?
Of course, Pride Month and its celebrations have been a very big influence in our lives. It's more than an opportunity to let down your hair. There is a sense of safety and a community bond found only at a gay celebration like Pride festivals and parades. You know how many other kids with gay parents you met during Pride festivities? Those moments are just as important.
Today, I see Pride as being a celebration for those young queers to be free and open even for just a couple days. There's nothing like walking through a crowd and seeing yourself joyfully reflected in so many different ways, especially if you've spent your life until that point feeling completely isolated.
Do you have any advice or words of comfort to share with kids who might be stuck isolating with intolerant families or in otherwise homophobic or transphobic environments?
Don't think this will last forever. Please believe that the rejection, isolation and hurt you feel will in time be replaced with self-confidence and a clearer understanding of the world around us. There are ongoing battles for equality and acceptance, and we have to be true to ourselves to overcome them. Your community exists and is waiting to embrace you.