Kerry Bashford: Father Figure
Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to the podcast of Queerstories – an LGBTQI stoytelling night hosted at Giant Dwarf in Redfern. This week on Queerstories – writer, editor and Queer daddy Kerry Bashford.
Thank you very much. I’m Kerry Bashford and I’m going to read an excerpt from a one man show I’ve been developing for a few years called ‘Father Figure – My Life as a Daddy Bear’.
People call me Daddy. Often. In fact, every day. So many people have been calling me Daddy for so long, I swear the bastards have forgotten my name.
Every name, every label that I have had in my gay life, I have adopted myself. But this one has been bestowed on me, it has been given to me by other people. I have been invested with it. I have apparently been appointed Daddy Bear by popular demand and frankly, I do feel rather honoured by the acclaim.
But really I thought I would only have one label in my life, at least one that I really mattered. I would be gay. It was a label I felt forced to wear but would have been happy to wear it freely. But little did I realise that gay was just one way to describe me. There would be others: queer, clone, leather bear it goes on. These are just a few of the names I answer to, along with Daddy, Sir and Boss. And I welcome them all as I must admit I like labels, if they’re fair and true and accurate, or at the very least clever. I like labels: perhaps it’s the writer in me but I want more words to describe me not less.
When someone calls me Daddy I feel it, in a way I’ve never experienced any other label I’ve adopted or I’ve been assigned. I’ve come to understand one thing if nothing else. Daddy is a very powerful word to say and to hear. Those two simple, infinitely infantile syllables seem to carry so much weight and meaning at least to me. When someone calls me Daddy I take it seriously, much to my detriment I think. I am that most dreadful thing: a combination of dirty old man and sentimental old fool.
No-one explained to me that as a middle aged gay man, I would make a comeback, hard to do when you are a wannabe that never was. When I was 20, no-one really wanted to know me. When I was 30, people started getting the idea. When I was 40, all fucking hell had broken loose. I was suddenly popular. And I was not at all prepared for it.
I had little experience to draw from but there’s a level at which I fully understand the attraction and fascination with older men. I too was attracted to them when I was younger. Just as well as the younger men where not attracted to me. I consider it one of life’s delicious ironies that the men who are chasing me now are the ones who would have ignored me a quarter of century ago.
When I myself became the older man, I was not at all prepared for the for the role of Daddy and the attention I would receive from all manner of men, who would call me Daddy, irrespective of age. Trust me this is not a story about intergenerational sex. Most of all I was not prepared for the popularity that my Daddy status was to afford me.
It flew in the face of everything I had learned in gay culture and beyond. In most cases ageing wasn’t encouraged but in gay culture it was seen in particularly poor taste. Youth was to be worshipped and if you went through your youth without being worshipped, bad luck, you missed out. Ageing was the process of accepting increasing irrelevancy and encroaching obsolescence. It certainly wasn’t meant to increase your cache. For some reason the older and more ornery I get, the more men I attract.
But I guess I should be used to it by now. People have been calling me Daddy longer than would seem proper, more often than would seem polite, and earlier than it would seem wise to do so. If I truly could claim an adult son at the age I was first described as a father figure, it would have pointed to a youth even more misspent than the one I had.
People started calling me Daddy when I was in my early 30s. It’s true I’ve always looked old for my age, which now that I am of a certain age, frankly I really wish it would plateau. But when I was in my teens, I looked like an adult. When I was in my 20s, I looked like I was in my 30s, and I’m sure when I was in my early 30s, I looked like I had marched into middle age.
I certainly didn’t put up a fight. I helped things along by wearing a beard that made me look even older. The effect was immediate. Overnight I came to be called Daddy, and it stuck. Well it certainly lasted longer than the ginger, anyway.
My young adult life had not been particularly generous. I was hoping that advancing years was more my style. It was the ’90s, there was a movement called bears that celebrated the older, hefty and hirsute. I was older, and hefty, but not really hirsute and I wasn’t going to let something as trivial as a lack of body hair prevent me from taking my place among my brethren.
So I grew a beard, to somewhere down near my already spreading stomach. I say I grew a beard when what I mean is I affected an over-compensatory tuft of ginger splendour sprouting forth fabulously from my otherwise undistinguished chin.
It was the perfect disguise, an elaborate mask that immediately attracted attention though feeling like a shield, perfect for a shy exhibitionist like myself. It was quite a look as you can see, it commanded respect, and guaranteed that nobody sat next to me on public transport. It carried with it heraldic accounts of Norse gods, and bands of bushrangers, and gangs of bikies.
While I was unlikely ever to gain admittance to any of those legendary ranks, I thought it should at least get me in with the bears. Most importantly it made me stand out in crowd of hairy men. I was different from every other fag with facial hair. I was Kerry of the long red beard.
Back when bears began it was a bit like waking up one day and finding your tribe, and discovering you were one of the elders. For someone who never thought he fit in, who had by then come to almost revel in his outsider status, being a bear suddenly felt like I was one of the cool kids. I had somehow become the ideal without doing anything more than surrendering to the passage of time, the ravages of diet and all the forces that would one day ensure that I would do a fair enough facsimile of my own father.
By creating the bear, something any bloke could be, gay men made it possible for generations to grow old gracefully. Think about it only gay men could devise a pension plan based on one’s appearance. And given that being a Daddy ensures admirers well into your dotage, it’s kind of like a sexual superannuation. And I’m hoping to draw dividends well into my decrepitude.
Being a bear has been a brilliant thing in my life. It was like I won the biological bingo. I decided to be an average bloke precisely at the time it would become popular in gay culture. I’d spent my entire life preparing for this moment. I had never much surrendered to fashion and always looked bloody silly when I tried, so I still retained the bogan wardrobe with which I began. I had always retained a strenuous objection to exercise and here was a group that fully endorsed me as an endomorph. To summarise I could be portly, poorly shaven, and be impoverished in my dress and still be treated like a god. Bonus.
From a very young age, I had the best inspiration on how to be a daddy bear, the ultimate father figure really, God the father. Now I’m sure about most of you who had a crush on Christ, but the Holy Father was probably the first hot Daddy I had ever encountered. He taught me that a hairy old bugger and a grumpy old bastard could still carry ultimate authority even when wearing a kaftan. The heavenly Father was robust with dazzling eyes, lightning for thighs and a long flowing beard that was the most magnificent piece of manscaping you could ever imagine.
I spent my adolescence singing his praises, literally. I started my writing career writing songs with the gospel rock group I performed with as a teen. We wrote our own material and I would sing in the church every weekend. Well I guess as I spent the week doing abominable acts in beats and the backs of stranger’s cars, I had a considerable amount to atone and I really was singing for my supper.
You might wonder how I could present myself before the Heavenly Father, prostrate myself before him and praise him, when I was actually an apprentice sex offender who did beats like most people did baked dinners. Well it was easy. The Heavenly Father was hot. God was my first my first bear crush. I had no problem staring into the pictures of him and thinking this was someone I to whom I could surrender.
Actually I think I sublimated my sexuality appearing to be writing gospel music, hymns to the Hot Daddy in the Sky. The advantage about being a young boy writing love songs to God while actually being a prodigious homosexual is the pronouns are entirely in your favour. You could sing the sweetest songs and admit to the deepest desires while singing about ‘Him’ when I wasn’t referring to Him on Most High but the sexy daddy bear at the end of the seventh pew.
I wrote songs with my best friend at school who also turned out to be gay. We even went as far as writing a gospel rock musical together; well it was the ’70s and we were young and gay and gifted, what did you expect. We wrote a musical about The Prodigal Son who you might recall gets naming rights in the Bible whereas I’ve always thought it should be called The Forgiving Father.
That’s the hero of the story. Not the parasitic offspring back home for another slice of fatted cow. Not the belligerent brother who had spent years suckling at its teat. It was the father who threw a celebration of the return of his long-lost son while the rest of the world celebrated in his ruin. And that’s what Father, what Daddy has come to mean to me, the place you could call home when the rest of the world would send you to hell.
The one thing I do regret is that when I was young gay man I didn’t have a Daddy or a father figure, a mentor or even an older, wiser member. Frankly an older sober member would have helped. Don’t get me wrong, I had been instilled with a keen sense of social justice and had extensive schooling in the ways of the flesh. But although I had been sufficiently politicised and sexualised, I had not been properly socialised. I didn’t know how to behave as a gay man among gay men, and I had no-one to show me the way.
My younger years weren’t entirely bereft of instruction from any elders. I did have mentors in the gay movement when I joined in the early ’80s and their ideas have shaped me more than any other influences in my life. I feel quite blessed to have come out at this moment in our history. I was there just in time to receive the lessons from the gay liberation movement of the ’70s that would work as a conduit to the ages before it.
This was crucial as very soon a plague would tear through our community and not only lives would be lost but all those lessons, all that instruction all those teachings. I’ve witnessed a kind of social, cultural amnesia since then, not to mention my own. We’re so numbed now we don’t even know what we’ve lost. And what we lost was a generation of mentors, truth-tellers, sages, the very architects of this lifestyle we now enjoy.
But back then I had no-one to show me the ropes or show me how to enjoy this lifestyle. I must have made such a lousy homosexual in my 20s, it’s a wonder I was allowed to the next level.
Despite being sexually active with class mates from the age of 12, politically active from the age of 17, I didn’t have any gay male friends, anything that approached peers until my early 20s and anything that resembled a partner til my late 20s. In many ways I spent my young years fighting for my right to express a love that never felt was fully reciprocated.
Back then I would have loved to have had someone fatherly in my life to put a hand on my shoulder or any other part of my anatomy he saw fit and tell me that not only was I alright, in fact future would in fact be fabulous. I would have thrived on the encouragement of someone who had been there before me. Maybe that’s why I now extend that hand of welcome, that shrug of reassurance, that occasionally kind word. I know what it’s like to feel like the stranger at a party, even one you’ve helped organise.
I was to find that kindness I was looking for but not where I expected.
It was at this time that I benefitted not from the instruction of older men but older women. It was the lesbians who welcomed me into the fold, into the family, not the gay men who hadn’t yet decided I was desirable enough for inclusion. But the lesbians liked me and took me in. And it’s a kindness I’ve never forgotten. They didn’t care that I didn’t have the right connections or clothes or cock that I was yet to discover personal style or perhaps even personal freshness.
In some ways this experience shaped me as a man, a gay man, indeed a Daddy more than any other. In the end it wasn’t my own father, or any of those men who followed under whose influence I fell. It was these women who taught me many of the qualities that I believe makes a Daddy worthy of the name, who showed me support and taught me tenderness, who shared hospitality and gave me hope. It’s probably made me more nurturing than I’d like to be but it also showed me the power you have to help shape someone else’s experience, and trust me you don’t have to be a Daddy to do it.
I’m often reminded of this time if I’m ever called upon to counsel a baby poof or dyke or someone who is just beginning their journey. I hear them tell of how they can’t find their place in the LGBTIQ community or culture nor find the acceptance they desire. And when I stand their experience against mine, they always seem much further down the road than I was at their age. What they rarely realize is that they are not only more extraordinary than they could possibly imagine, that they are doing better than they could ever realize and they will go further than they could ever dream. I’m living proof.
Now that I am a man, even one that could be occasionally mistaken as distinguished, I am still that little boy trying find his family and that young man trying to find his home. I just never imagined I might occasionally be allowed to be seated at the head of this family and that being a Daddy is where I would find love, and acceptance, and appreciation and above all a purpose and a place I have been searching for all my life. All as result of one word – Daddy. Thank you.