Like Phillip Schofield, My Dad Came Out As Gay

When Maggy van Eijk's father finally came out, she felt sad and angry - but eventually, happy too...

Phillip Schofield with his family

by Maggy van Eijk |
Updated on

Whenever there is a story about a parent coming out to their family, either in fiction (Hannah Horvath’s dad in Girls) or in the real world, I’ll get a message from a friend saying: ‘Oh, isn’t this what happened with your dad?’ So, whenPhillip Schofield announced he was coming out as gay on his Instagram, and minutes later live on This Morning, those are exactly the kind of texts I received.

My dad, who is the same age as Schofield, had the fortune of not being famous or having to distil his experience into a polished statement for public consumption, but that didn’t mean it was easier. His coming out wasn’t a singular moment or a big sit-down chat. It was drawn out over years. Looking back, it felt like my dad was coming out in small stages, testing the water to see if it were possible – and I don’t blame him for that. His generation (and still much of today’s generation, depending on your experience) grew up when public discourse around homosexuality emphasised how wrong and shameful it was.

Having said that, there was still pain. It started when, as a teenager, I read a letter that had been ripped up (but not enough) and left in our bin. The letter, containing secrets and accusations, was addressedto my dad and written by my mum. Over a decade on, I don’t remember the full details but I 4 do remember discovering an undeniable fact that day: my dad was gay.

I decided to keep the letter and its contents to myself, burying it deep down in my belly, but with every day that went by, with every day that my dad wasn’t being honest, I felt like I was losing him. He was stepping into another life, a secret life, and he didn’t want me in it. He seemed to have new interests, he dressed differently and had new friends. He’d come home in time for dinner and then quickly head out again.

A couple of years after I read that letter, when I was 20 and my siblings were 12 and 14, it all came to a head. I was on my way to America for work experience and the timing couldn’t have been worse. I wanted to be physically near Dad, to hug him and hug my mum and my siblings but all we had was a crackly phone connection. The suddenness of it all was brought about by a man my dad was seeing at the time. It was something my mum was aware of, she told me later. This man wanted more of my dad, more than my dad could give him, and he sent cruel messages to my mum on Facebook. Both my parents decided that now was the time to separate.

Maggy van Eijk
©Maggy van Eijk

Dad phoned me saying he’d known he was gay for a long time and Mum had known, too – but that they wanted to wait before telling us, to make the best choice for the family. I remember being incredibly relieved; finally the secret was out in the open. My dad could be who he wanted to be in full. I also learned that while being happy, you can feel sad and angry.

I was sad for my mum, for the years she spent with someone who loved her but not in the full way she deserved. My parents were never particularly affectionate. I remember my mum came into the living room once when I was a teenager. She was showing us a new dress she’d brought to wear for a night out. My siblings and I wolf-whistled and told her she looked amazing and all my dad did was make a comment about the shoes not being right. As I got older this struck me as particularly heartbreaking; he didn’t really see her in the way we want to be seen by our partners.

The whole experience also taught me about the complexity of human sexuality.

My dad’s relationship with the man who was the catalyst for his coming out to his kids didn’t last long. Dad has had new partners, some we’ve met and others we haven’t. What’s been more important to me is his new friendship group of predominantly LGBTQ+ men and women who I initially viewed as a threat. My dad carved out a second family of his own, and while they initially felt in competition with me, we now blend together.

Meanwhile, my mum has moved on and has a partner I playfully refer to as ‘the straightest man alive’ – he likes Formula 1 and football. In the movie of my life, my dad would be played by Rupert Everett and this man would be Jason Statham. We try to still do things as a family but we don’t force it in the way that we did in the beginning. On birthdays and at Christmas, we’ll all be in one room and I’m so proud and grateful we’ve achieved that, but it’s also important to acknowledge things can be awkward and weird and even painful at times. We don’t have to play the ‘happy family’; we can play ‘we’re doing our best and that’s fine’ family.

The whole experience also taught me about the complexity of human sexuality. While I can find myself wishing my dad had come out when he was younger, I’m also insanely grateful my siblings exist. You can be a gay man but still make three children with a woman. Maybe that means you’re bi, maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. Sexuality doesn’t need to make sense. I don’t feel like my own makes sense either – and I’m wonderfully OK with that.

My friends all reacted positively, I’ve had the privilege of growing up among open-minded peers. I had more trouble with older people who’d pry and ask dumb things like, ‘Does he wear a lot of pink?’

Radical, albeit uncomfortable, honesty is what’s kept our family close, even though it took a bloody long time to get there. If I had to give advice to Schofield’s daughters, I’d say that it’s OK to be angry, it doesn’t mean you’re a homophobe or a terrible daughter. In fact, the quicker you let out some of the anger, hurt and betrayal, the less it will follow you around later. Hug your mum tight because she’s going to need you more than ever. Lastly, it’s important not to see your dad’s new life as a substitute for his old one. You have a place in it, even if it takes a while for that place to take shape.

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