My Father's Secret Life

Death, Sex & Money

By WNYC Studios

My Father's Secret Life

Wednesday, 8 October

Whitney Joiner was 13 when her father Joe told her he was HIV-positive. He said he hoped to see her graduate from high school. Five months later, he was dead. It was rural Kentucky in 1992, and Whitney and her family thought it was best to keep quiet.  

Whitney never learned how her father contracted the disease. After his funeral, her mother heard from a mutual friend that he’d secretly gone to gay clubs. As a teenager, Whitney had wondered if he were gay. She'd even asked him, but he denied it. His denial was a relief at the time. Now, she wishes she had more answers.

That’s part of what led her to co-found The Recollectors, a site to collect stories from children about their parents who died of AIDS. In this episode, Whitney talked to me about the shame and anger that kept her family from talking about her father for years, meeting other people who had a parent die of AIDS, and reconciling her memories of her father with details she’s only learning now.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Remembering the Early, Mysterious Signs

The only thing I knew was wrong with him was we would go to the hospital in Lexington and see this doctor. And he would get his blood drawn...It was kind of like, oh we’re going to the mall. And the movies. And just stopping off at the doctor. And he explained that he had a blood problem, and I said at one point, like, oh, Leukemia? And he was like yeah, something like that.

Whitney keeps this photo of her late father on her refrigerator. (Whitney Joiner)

Finally Meeting Someone Else Whose Father Died of AIDS

It felt like, so shocking there was someone else out there with the same story. And we just started talking about—it was so weird that we don’t know more people, there have to be more people. Not everyone who died of AIDS is a gay man with no children!

The Conversation She Wishes She Could Have Again

I said, I asked mom once if you were gay...And he said, I’m not gay. In this kind of like scoffing way, like what, I’m not gay, obviously. And I said, Oh. Oh, okay. He was like no, I got it from a woman. You can get it from women too, you know. Oh, okay. Part of me at the time was relieved, honestly. Because I was still so young, I didn’t want to have to deal with the gay dad. At 13, in rural Kentucky….It felt like a relief, but just in that, ugh, we don’t have to have that conversation. But really, we should have that conversation. Because that’s the important one. And we both know that’s really what’s happening here.

Whitney now, with her mom and brother. (Whitney Joiner)

When Her Family Was Afraid to Accept His Sexuality

My family was very angry at him for lying about his sexuality. To me it felt like our family was almost glad that he was gone. Like I would bring him up, I just felt like any time I brought him up, there was this eye-rolling on the part of my family. So I felt like I just shouldn’t talk about him. And I would feel ashamed of loving him, you know, even though he’s my father. And why would anybody have to feel ashamed of loving your father?

You can read a full transcript of the interview, and read Whitney's essay about her father on Slate.

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