Talking Sense

‘This is who Robynne is’: A father’s struggle to accept his daughter is gay

A person flips a paper while another plays harmonica
John Curlee plays his song “Changes” with his daughter, Robynne Curlee, at his house in Eagan on June 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

For Pride Month, MPR News is interviewing people about how the experience of coming out created a family rift — and how it was resolved. These conversations are part of our Talking Sense project, which helps Minnesotans have hard conversations, better.

On New Year’s Eve of 2008, Robynne Curlee made a promise to the woman she was dating. Curlee was out to her mother and sister, but had been keeping her relationship a secret from her father, a conservative Christian. For her New Year’s resolution, Curlee, now 44, vowed to tell her dad she was gay. 

“It was just this sense of like, ‘I’m holding something back from my dad. It can’t continue being that way,’” she said.

She dashed off a short email to her dad before she lost her courage. 

“I wrote a two-sentence email to my dad, saying, ‘I need you to know that I’m gay,’” she said. “And I hit send before I could second guess myself, and I slammed the laptop shut.”

Curlee and her partner were in the wilderness for several days thereafter with no internet access. When she finally checked her email again, she found a terse message from her father. 

“Call me when you’re back in town so that we can discuss,” the message said. 

A person sits and listens
Robynne Curlee listens to her father, John Curlee, recount the story of her coming out to him in 2008.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The moment marked the start of a period of discord for this father and daughter who had long had a harmonious relationship, one literally defined by their mutual love of music.

“When I got that email, I was deeply hurt,” said John Curlee, who is 77 and lives in Eagan. “I went through all of the periods of grief. There was denial, bargaining, anger. I remember taking a long walk down the river and just crying out and crying bitterly over this.”

John Curlee thought that his daughter’s budding liberal politics had something to do with her coming out. He believed it was a choice she had made. 

“I did not accept the fact that that’s the way Robynne was created,” he said. 

Eventually, the father and daughter met in person to talk about the situation. They drove to a spot at the end of Summit Avenue in St. Paul. It was a place of significance: John Curlee had proposed to his wife there.

The Curlees had picked up Thai food to eat during their conversation. The food sat uneaten on the dashboard, as the two engaged in an anguished dialogue.

“It was just this searing emotional, intense, tearful conversation that went well into the night,” said Robynne Curlee. 

But she left it with a glimmer of hope that she wouldn’t lose her dad altogether. 

“Even though Dad wasn’t saying ‘I’m going to support you no matter what,’ he was trying to understand,” she said. “He was sharing but he was also asking questions. He was approaching that conversation with me with a sense of curiosity.”

A man smiles
John Curlee laughs as he talks with his daughter, Robynne Curlee, at his house.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

According to John Curlee, accepting who his daughter truly was took time, a great deal of prayer and a reassessment of the Biblical scriptures that had informed so much of his life and still do today. 

He recalled a pivotal moment when his perspective had changed. John Curlee is a member of Rotary International, a service organization. He said it was a tradition at Rotary meetings for members to share a “happy fine.” It’s a proud or happy moment. But they can also share a struggle.

In 2013 he stood up to share his experience of his daughter coming out, fearing it would lead his peers to vote him “off the island.”

“Here’s the deal,” he told the group, “My daughter Robynne is gay. And initially, I did not accept that. It was a tragic thing for me to be confronted with that, and I rejected it. But over time, working through this with Robynne, not only did I come to accept it, I came to embrace it, that this is who Robynne is.”

Much to John Curlee’s surprise, he got a standing ovation. 

Today, Robynne and John Curlee’s relationship is stronger than ever. They play music, enjoy fishing and watching professional basketball together.

Robynne Curlee said she’s grateful her father’s views evolved. She said she evolved, too, letting go of some of the anger and resentment she had toward the church she grew up in and accepting that her father’s spirituality was important to him.

“Where would we be if we didn’t have each other?” she asked, “What else is the point of this whole thing that we’re doing?”