Fathers Know Best

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Being a single gay dad with a son who lives miles away isn’t always easy, but this father makes it look that way. What’s his secret?

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“My son is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said David Parson.

Parson, who has received his share of professional plaudits as a creative director at GSD&M, didn’t hesitate when asked what was the most important part of his life. As the proud single father of a 16-year-old, lacrosse-playing son, Parson lives by an ethic of responsibility, a commitment to community involvement and an appreciation of diversity that he wants to pass on to his son.

Having stated that he wants to give him all the things he didn’t have as a child, Parson said he’s not referring to material things but to “self-respect, cultural knowledge and the wisdom and guidance to be able to make his own decisions.” Parson’s upbringing in the small town of Camden, Arkansas (pop. 11,657 in 2007), his family’s deeply religious background and his own late-blooming coming out have presented their share of obstacles, but he remains driven by an overarching optimistic worldview.

“I try to imagine life from his perspective,” Parson said. “I mean, he’s a 16-year old kid, his body is inundated with hormones, he’s exploring his own independence–all the normal things. But add to that the fact that we fly back and forth twice a month to see each other, and you’ve got an even more complicated situation.”

Out of that complexity, Parson has built a strong bond with his son that is remarkable primarily for its ordinariness. Meaning, although having a gay parent is still atypical, what if that gay parent’s interaction with his child isn’t so earth-shatteringly different from that of his straight counterpart? What sits outside of this father-son bond is far more complex in its judgment.

In this instance, Parson, whose workload at GSD&M has only grown in the 13 years he’s been with the advertising agency, has worked to not only support his son in all of his school and extracurricular pursuits, but also to share all of the quirky, uniquely Austin –let’s be honest, this city can feel like a bubble of inclusivity–perspectives and outings. “I work very hard, and always have, to ensure that his needs always come first,” Parson said. “I’ve made sacrifices, but sacrifices are not a bad thing at all.”

“Life is all about the journey.”

As a child of divorced parents whose upbringing was forged amidst the conservative, religious mores of small town-Texas and Arkansas–and with the influences of Methodist and southern Baptist churches–Parson took a little longer than some to find and embrace the truth of his sexual identity. He also worked harder than most to fit in, despite the fact that he felt “like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.” it’s a feeling that many LGBT people can relate to, whether or not they have children: having to fight harder, and longer, for many of life’s taken-for- granted aspects.

“Religion had a lot to do with forming my belief system, and it contradicted, on a daily basis, what I was feeling inside,” said Parson, noting that the only images he saw of gay people in the media were negative. “I didn’t have any positive role models. I didn’t know what gay was, really.”

Among his circle of close gay or lesbian friends from high school and college, Parson said he was the only person to get married. But he’s not hard on himself: “everyone–gay or straight–has a unique path in finding one’s true self.”

His parents’ divorce, which happened when Parson was 11, also reignited his father’s connection to religion, and for years Parson would attend his dad’s megachurch during weekend visits as a father/son bonding experience. Parson’s mother encouraged him to try out for the ArkansasBoys Choir when he was in the fourth grade. He sang the national anthem and was accepted. She’d also take him on various cultural outings, including the symphony. “To this day, I’m so thankful–I love classical music,” said Parson. “It was somehow intuitive for her, she caught on.”

“With my son, I try to get him to branch out and do things he wouldn’t normally do,” said Parson. “Both of my parents did the best they could. They always did what they thought was right and I respect that.”

All the performing as a child was an outlet for the sorrow he felt as a result of the messages he was getting at church. These days, Parson takes a cue from his mother and takes his son to see Broadway shows like rent, live music at one of the city’s many festivals or art openings downtown.

“I was a kid who vied for attention all the time,” he said, noting that although he did well in school, his progress reports would usually say “talks too much.” He buried his nose in books, spending time by himself singing and dancing and just being a cut-up. As a child who put on shows in his bedroom and charged admission, it’s no surprise that Parson was voted “Wittiest” and “Class Clown.”

“Every night in bed I would pray to God, please get this sin out of my body,” Parson admitted. “I never felt that I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

Given what the prevailing societal norms were, it’s not surprising that he did what many people do when they fall in love: he got married. Through mutual best friends, Parson met his future wife on a blind date on New Year’s Eve in his senior year of high school. They stayed connected throughout college, were married when Parson was 25 and stayed together for seven years.”

Parson described his own coming-out process, which was later in life than some, as highly liberating. He felt comfortable in his own skin and was happy with the positive reactions he received. “The two weeks after I came out to my entire family were some of the happiest weeks I’d had in a long time,” Parson said. “It was incredible!”

“He doesn’t care that I’m gay.”

Logistics, smart planning and buying plane tickets way in advance are a big part of Parson’s success. He shrugged off any suggestion that his situation–as a single parent with a son who lives in North Carolina–is a burden. “Whether I’m flying to North Carolina or not, it doesn’t make a difference for me,” Parson said. “That’s the priority–everything else comes second.”

For his son, who has had a stepdad for the past 12 years since his mother remarried, the unique characteristics of his family don’t seem to weigh on him. However, a number of factors add to the complexity of his life–a gay father, a mother and stepfather who live many miles away from his father–plus the standard teenage angst, growing pains and peer pressure.

“While my son is mature in many respects, he is still just 16 years old and not yet an adult,” said Parson, explaining the decision to alter the images that appear with this profile. “I’m very respectful and protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to telling our story.”

His son’s feelings are akin to to what it feels like for a gay person coming out of the closet, according to Parson. “He’s scared that his friends will treat him differently once they find out his truth,” Parson said. “Yes, he loves me and he’s proud of all the work we’ve done to make our lives work. But having a gay dad is different–and anything different in a 16-year-old’s world is a scary thing indeed.”

The standard concerns of a 16-year-old are well known: dating, self-image, the changes of puberty, athletics, school work and a heightened sensitivity to what everyone else is saying or thinking about you. “He doesn’t care that I’m gay,” Parson said, adding that his son lives in a conservative environment. “He wants to be accepted and he’s sensitive about it. But he also knows, because I’ve made it clear, I’m not going back into the closet.”

He’s forged bonds with his son’s friends and lacrosse teammates and their families in Texas and North Carolina. Each year, Parson and his son take a trip out to California for the adrenaline Challenge lacrosse tournament in sonoma, usually making an extended vacation out of it. They maintain a healthy, open line of communication about any issues that might come up.

“To say that the bond they have together is tight would be an understatement,” said Will Chau, a partner at GSD&M and friend of Parson’s for almost six years. “It’s the kind of relationship most boys would love to have with their fathers.”

Dinners out in Austin or hanging out on Lake LBJ with Parson’s friends are standard. During one such trip to Lake LBJ, Parson and his son met Steve Kubenka, a local architect who’s been a friend since 2001. “His son is a sweet, observant teenager,” Kubenka said. “His love of his dad is obvious and I think he enjoys his dad’s friends. There’s nothing in this world more important than his son to David.”

Kubenka added, “He’s a teenager, which is one of the most complicated situations any of us have ever navigated. There’s absolutely nothing David wouldn’t do for his son. And his son knows this.”

“When one’s parent lives a thousand miles away, it’s a little different and he has to navigate his own network of friends,” said Parson. “We help each other. He educates me on what it’s like from his perspective and I help him understand mine.”

His love for his father, and his embrace of Parson’s truth, is clear. One day, when his son was first starting high school, he excitedly told his father that there was a gay/lesbian organization at school. “It was out of the blue and he was wanting to tell me because he knew that I’d be excited about it,” Parson said, grinning at the memory. “That told me that things were working just fine.

“I used that crying room a few times.”

After receiving his advertising degree from UT, Parson worked at The Richards Group in Dallas, learning the fundamentals of the business. Although he’d interned for GSD&M for a year while he was at UT, it wasn’t until he moved back to Austin –right around the time that he came out–that Parson reached out to GSD&M. he described the company as supportive and respectful of his circumstances. He also opened his colleagues’ eyes to the diverse families that exist.

Over the course of the next 13 years, he worked his way up from senior writer to associate creative director and, ultimately, to creative director. In his tenure, Parson has worked on a number of iconic, successful campaigns for companies such as Southwest Airlines, BMW and Kohler. He described advertising as an ideal way to combine his creative impulses with an honest living. However, Parson is definitely very passionate about his work as a fiction writer.

Every morning, without fail, Parson gets up at 5:30 and writes for the next two hours–for himself–at his desk at home in a book- filled room. That kind of discipline can only be born out of deep passion, which Parson nourished when he decided to pursue his master of fine arts degree at Antioch University in Los Angeles. A professor in UT’s English department had encouraged Parson to get his MFA, and he wanted to immerse himself in a formal, supportive environment. After being rejected in his first round of applications, he tried again six months later.

“It wasn’t easy, for sure, but what an amazing experience,” Parson said. He used his vacation time to attend classes in la twice a year for one-month stints on Antioch’s campus; the remaining work was completed long-distance and online. “I’m fortunate to have an employer who saw the value in the journey. It’s one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done.”

The fruits of that two-and-a-half year journey, completed in 2007, have included getting five of his short stories published; Parson is also on track to complete his novel this year. Even though he was surrounded by this newfound support system and community of writers, tapping into the emotions necessary to produce good work wasn’t easy. When he heard about the program’s “crying room,” he wondered what he’d gotten himself into.

“You’re in this moment and you’re so present with whatever emotion or learning that you’re doing–it’s an emotional art form– you’re putting yourself on that page,” Parson said. “It’s a character, it’s a scene, it’s you.”

The “crying room” was there for students to utilize for breaks, when they needed to emotionally purge. “After being in such an intense emotional space for so long, you need a break,” he added.

“I wanted to know my history.”

Paul Bowles, Raymond Carver and William Faulkner are a few of Parson’s favorite authors. “I believe nothing improves the human condition more than the very act of reading literature,” said Parson. For him, inspiration for his fiction is everywhere and can come at any moment, whether in a dream or a sly observation of family antics at the holiday dinner table. He eschews the “gay writer” label, adding that most of the characters in his short stories are not gay–with the exception of the protagonist of his novel.

“My stories are relationship-oriented stories–it’s all based on places in the heart,” Parson said. “I’m intuitive to people’s emotions.”

When Parson came out, he pointedly devoured every book about LGBT history and culture he could get his hands on, whether it was edmund White, James Baldwin, the HIV/AIDS epidemic or the modern-day public struggle for equality. “I read about Stonewall, about Oscar Wilde,” he said. “I wanted to know my history. I was discovering my own family tree.”

Parson and his son are as comfortable on the lacrosse field as they are attending a Gay Pride event or participating in the AIDS Walk. Their easy rapport with one another, observed in father/ son banter and playful moments throughout the photo shoot, is clear. Noah has grown up with Parson’s diverse group of friends, whether at baseball games, amusement parks or jaunts around town. If what many people say about sports being one of the last bastions of homophobia is true, it hasn’t made a visible dent in his self-esteem or changed his feelings about his father. His son’s schedule, which has become more, demanding since he’s involved with two traveling lacrosse teams (one in North Carolina and one in Austin), is something they’ve managed to navigate.

Part of Parson’s coming-out process also involved connecting with organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT civil rights organization; the Hill Country Ride for AIDS, one of the largest fundraisers of its kind in Texas (his first year doing the HCRA, his team was called the thigh Masters); and Equality Texas, the only statewide LGBT lobbying organization. “I wanted to get involved because I was thirsty for knowledge,” he said. “Having come out late in life, I felt like I’d missed so much.”

For many, even among the self-proclaimed enlightened types, the journey toward full self-actualization is lifelong. For Parson, it comes down to surrounding himself with support network of friends and coworkers so that he can flourish and grow creatively and professionally.

“I think in some ways, because of being gay, I am more self- actualized,” he said. “Because I’ve worked my ass off to try to understand it all. By working hard, it has made me appreciate things more.”

With all that he has accomplished, as a father and a writer, Parson boiled down his philosophy this way: “I want to help gay people erase shame and embrace pride. That goes for parents and children of gay people,” he said, adding that his son’s self-confidence far exceeds his own at that age. “Parents of gay children need to let things go and let their child be who they are. That’s one of the most important lessons I hope I’ve taught him: Be yourself.”

Beyond looking forward to the completion of his novel, Parson makes time for fun, whether it’s a trip to Zilker Park or getting his creative juices flowing at favorite coffee shops like Spiderhouse or Progress Coffee. Inspired by Austin ’s place as an “idea center,” Parson has always appreciated the can-do, genuine spirit of LGBT residents–who are striving, in typically organic Austin fashion, to make this growing young city a better place.

Even so, Parson said that society as a whole–and the LGBT community in particular–have a lot of work ahead in terms of acceptance and opening minds. “I try to be respectful of where other people come from, while not compromising my own beliefs,” said Parson. “I think organizations like PflaG (Parents, families and friends of lesbians and Gays) are more important than ever. The more that friends and families of gay people speak out, the more we can bridge that cultural gap.”

“I sent my son a link to the It Gets Better Project–I thought maybe there’s something in there that can help him getting through the fear. To me, it’s a website everyone should read,” Parson said. “He’s a very mature, responsible young man. I know that I had a hand in that. At the end of the day, the most important thing for any child is a loving household–no matter what that household looks like.”

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