I was born in Berkeley, California in 1954. I have two sisters. Our mother, Evangeline Canonizado-Buell is Filipino and black, and our father, Hank Vilas, was Caucasian of Scots Irish decent. Our father came from a very strict Republican upbringing and was characteristically disowned for about eight years when he married our mother. They married about one year after the law prohibiting interracial marriages was overturned in California.
They found themselves migrating to Berkeley where a community of “misfits” found safe harbor from the bigotry surrounding them at that time. I don't remember much of my parents’ marriage as they divorced when I was about five years old, when my father could no longer deny that he was a homosexual. He tells that story in a documentary called “Before Stonewall,” which speaks to gay life from the early 1900s to 1960. Dad had fallen in love with Bob, who moved in shortly after our parents were divorced. He and Bob, whom I affectionately call “Mom,” were together for 20 years.
My sisters and I grew up in Berkeley and were in our formative years in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. To not be against the Vietnam War, not fight for civil rights, not be a feminist was anti-Berkeley. I sang every Joan Baez song she ever sang, marched in antiwar marches, and would have burned my bra if I could find one that fit a size double A. What we didn't know to fight for were gay rights. From the time I was five we spent every weekend with Dad and Bob. The father always got weekend custody in those times.
For us, Dad and Bob were our safe haven, the fun home. Now I understand that much of what we loved about Dad and Bob is now a stereotype and a cliché.
While Dad was a social welfare worker by trade he was in a little theater group called the Jack London Circle Players. He and Bob played the fathers in “The Fantastics” in the mid-‘60s. To this day I want to play the girl with them in their roles as the fathers. At home, Dad would often play the piano, and we would gather around and sing show tunes at the top of our lungs. To us, this loving home was normal. We did not know otherwise until we were teenagers and realized that it was probably only in Berkeley that we could be truthful about our parents.
In our fathers’ house Dad was always the Dad and Bob, if he had a role, was the mom. He was the better cook and cared about decor and fashion. When I was about 19 I saw a French movie called “La Cage Aux Folles” and was stunned at the similarities in our lives! Later, “Bird Cage” came out, the American version of the French film, and I found it difficult to watch as I kept thinking that Robin Williams, whose role seemed closer to my Dad, was too remorseful and sad, and Nathan Lane, whom I saw as Bob, was too campy and over the top. While Bob was not a drag queen, as is the Nathan Lane character in the film, he would brag about his size 14 feet and say how great his legs looked in a nice pair of stilettos.
Our father had an economics degree from Stanford and went to Cal Berkeley at age 40 where he picked up his masters in Social Welfare. When he retired, he volunteered as a counselor for gay, lesbian and transgender people at the Pacific Center in Berkeley, which upholds alternative lifestyles, health and wellbeing. He belonged to Mensa but bragged that it was the gay Mensa. He raised us to believe that education was critical to our future success. He was a tremendous listener and had moral standards about right and wrong well in advance of the norm at the time. Our father loved us unconditionally.
I remember when he told me he was gay. I was 17. I recall that he hesitated, but when he did tell me I laughed and told him I already knew. I actually had known since I was about 13, when my mother told me, and my older sister confirmed it. I did not know at 13 what homosexuality was. When my mother told me, she and my stepfather were having difficulties, so it was told to me with a negative slant that I did not understand. My father subsequently wrote a beautiful letter to his brother that he shared with us, which mentions the moment when he told me, and what he felt at the time. This is an excerpt from that letter:
“Since I fully accepted myself and therefore rather expected everyone else to accept me, my arrangement with Bob was always pretty open. Since I didn't know what peer group pressures the girls were under, however, I didn't discuss it with them. Bob, who is considerably more tied up than I am, actually made diverting noises. I nevertheless assumed that they knew I was gay. I had a long talk with Nikki last year, however, and found that this wasn’t the case, and they didn't know it until about three years earlier. At that time, their mother, who was very upset by the girls’ premature sexuality (by the standards of our generation) told them all about their father's ‘sexuality problems.’ As is evident, my respect, admiration and love for my three daughters know no bounds. In addition to their obvious individual assets, their beautiful acceptance of me and my lifestyle may help explain my feelings toward them.”
It is interesting growing up in Berkeley. You are, on the one hand enlightened, and on the other, sheltered and naïve. I could tell my friends my parents were gay, but I found myself hiding this truth to those I would meet in the world who I could not trust would understand. While our father was open and honest, Bob had reason to stay in the closet to his coworkers. He asked that we respect his feelings and privacy on the matter as he was subject to a great deal of bigotry and hatred. For years I found myself guarding the “secret” of our family while openly embracing the love and uniqueness of it all. Funny how even those who claim they are open still would remark how our father didn't “act” gay. All I could say was “have you met my mom?”
Our father died of AIDS in 1985. He was 60. I miss him to this day. He never hesitated to tell his friends, and us, how much he loved his daughters. My sisters and I nursed him at a time when people were afraid to breath the air of someone afflicted with this terrible disease. We watched him waste away with a bravery and humor I hope to have when it is my time. He loved us, and we loved him to the end. While Bob and Dad had split up a few years before he died, Bob was his soulmate. He was the first person I called when Dad died, and Bob helped us get through the loss with the same humor he shared with our father.
A very good friend of mine said girls look to marry their fathers. I did end up marrying a gay man by coincidence, but as I was arguing the logic behind that statement I realized I couldn't do half bad if I married someone like my dad. He was funny, smart, loving and nurturing.
I don't know that my dad would have married Bob if he could have back then, but I know that he believed this choice should be available to all individuals and that civil rights extend to us all. He would fight hard for that right today even if he did not exercise that choice. Sitcoms today make our family normal. We believe we have been normal for well over 50 years. Thank you, Dad and Mom for giving us a stable family environment filled with love, laughter, show tunes and high heels that make your legs look fabulous.
Nikki Vilas of Lafayette, California, was an account executive for an insurance service company for the past 26 years. She recently retired to go back to being an 18-year-old with a credit card. She is married with a son, Josh; a daughter-in-law, Kimberly, and a 4-year-old grandson, Zach.