Tupelo, Mississippi is famed for two very different things. On the one hand it’s the birthplace of Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll. On the other, it’s the birthplace and home of the American Family Association, a Christian organization that’s so anti-gay it has earned itself a hate group designation by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For the last three years, Tupelo has been my home and the setting for my recent romantic comedy, "Shaking the Sugar Tree," about a gay single father whose deaf son helps him find a boyfriend.
We are very proud of Elvis. Almost everyone in these parts has an Elvis story to tell you. Their great uncle swam with Elvis, only his mother wouldn’t allow him to go swimming so they had to keep it secret. Their great aunt went to church with the Presley family – and my, weren’t they nice! Their grandfather was a foreman at the garment factory where Gladys was working when she became pregnant with Elvis. Myself, I work right around the corner from the Tupelo Hardware Store, where Elvis bought his first guitar. I was also one of the few people who knew that Priscilla Presley visited recently and had a private dinner at Park Heights – I work at a print shop and we printed the exclusive invites.
We’re not so proud of the American Family Association, although it is a large organization and its Christian radio programming is heard by millions. And we are certainly not very proud of Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s Hater in Chief. And when I say “we,” I mean myself and all the people I’ve talked to about the AFA since I landed in these parts three years ago: I have not met a single soul who had anything but contempt for the AFA. Not one. The group must surely have supporters – it pulled in twenty million dollars in donations in 2013, according to a tax return it made public on its website. Someone, somewhere, is supporting this group. But for the life of me, I don’t know who. Certainly no one I know or have met. Their views are so extreme on some issues that many Mississippians find them hard to swallow. No small feat, I can assure you.
Fischer is famed for claiming that gay parenting is a “form of child abuse,” that homosexuality is a “form of domestic terrorism” and that “we can either have religious liberty or homosexuality, but we can’t have both” and other such sound bites.
Here are some of his more colourful assertions, and I've collected even more on my blog:
Fischer believes that an underground railroad should be built to spirit away the children of gay couples and get them to safety. I’m a father – and Fischer apparently believes that an orphanage would be better for my son than being raised by someone who loves him with all his heart and soul.
The more I thought about this, the angrier I became. In fact, I got so angry that I sat down and started writing a novel about a single father raising a deaf child. I wanted to tell the Bryan Fischers of the world a thing or two about gay parents, about what it’s like to raise a child knowing members of your own family feel sorry for that child because his father is a homosexual.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to writing my angry gay novel – I found it impossible to write about a father and a son and not see the wonderful humor and joy involved in such a relationship. As I channeled my own experiences as a father and poured them into the character of Wiley, I was reminded of what a blessing it was to be a father – how much fun that great adventure was and still is, and how absurd people around us could be. I tried to focus on the humor and the very real human love these two people felt for each other.
"Shaking the Sugar Tree" has become a bestseller and I am continually amazed at the heart-warming responses and reviews it has received. As a love story between a parent and a child, it’s universal. The gender and sexuality of a parent is of little interest to a child. What matters most is what has always mattered most: love.
The best way to fight the Bryan Fischers of the world is for us to stand up and tell our stories. "Shaking the Sugar Tree" was my effort to do that.
My son is now twenty-one and a junior in college. He’s a great son – I’ve told him quite frequently that he’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, and I mean it. He’s a very sensible, practical young man with a good, generous heart.
He recently told me something that made me smile. We were at the end of one of his recent visits, sitting in the airport, waiting for his flight to be called. He looked at me and said, “Dad, you know what? I’ve always thought of you as both my mom and my dad. Isn’t that crazy?”
I don’t remember what I said.
I do remember sitting in the airport for a long time after he left, sobbing sad/happy tears, sad to see him go, yet happy to know he turned out all right, that I “did good,” as we say down here in the South. At the end of the day, it wasn’t my sexuality that mattered to him. It was love.
It has always been love that matters, and always will be, no matter how our families are formed or lived or arranged. As long as the love is there, everything else falls into place – and life marches on.
To buy Shaking the Sugar Tree click the image below.
For more books by Nick Wilgus, check out the following titles: