My Uncle Daniel is gay.
He’s married to my Uncle James…who is also gay.
No revelations there.
They’ve been together almost precisely as long as I’ve been breathing on my own.
That’s 40-plus years.
I’ve been breaking bread with them since before my Mom married my Step-Dad in 1984.
That’s 30-plus years.
Easter. Thanksgiving. Christmas.
The big three of family meals around my parts. These holidays meant a calling to the family feast…and secular pseudo-hymns sung by Barbara Streisand.
The only reason I still feel pangs of nostalgia when I hear Babs is because my uncles brought her into the fold of my life. She’s also a spirit who further endeared my Grandmother to James and, I’ll argue, helped her accept the entire endeavor unfolding before her. (My step-father’s family is rooted deeply in primitive Methodism. Fire and brimstone. Old testament stuff. Gay was not a thing…but Ms. Streisand provided the lyrical and musical medicine which allowed my Grandmother to breathe. And relax.)
From my earliest memories of those meals, and that funny lady, I see Uncle Daniel and Uncle James. Except then it was Uncle Daniel and James. James was simply…there. As ubiquitous as the dulcet tones of that iconic vocalist who serenaded the unwavering and adoring throngs of Jews, Gays, and Senior Citizens…
…that was James.
Daniel’s “friend.” But even that didn’t come up until much later, until my teen years. Before then? It was a holiday. It was dinner. It was my Grandparents, my parents, Daniel, and James. And Babs, of course. Always Babs.
And then came the year. I believe it was Thanksgiving…because I can see turkey on the table. (Easter and Christmas were ham. Which is scripturally ironic that we’d be consuming brined swine on the very days Christians celebrate the birth and the resurrection of the Jewish king of kings. But I digress…) Turkey on the table meant Thanksgiving. And perhaps it was just after James passed the cranberry jelly (…do you remember that stuff? Not the high-brow cranberry concoctions that would eventually populate my gay uncles’, and probably your gay uncles’ Thanksgiving tables. Ours was straight out of the can, sliced lovingly along the fossilized indentations…), or maybe it was after, “The Way We Were.” Regardless, there I sat…thinking about absolutely nothing. And then….out of nowhere…in my brain emerged this question, “Are they gay?”
I don’t even think I asked my Mom later that night. I had the thought, I answered it (…yes, they’re gay…) and I shoved an overflowing spoonful of mashed potatoes in my mouth.
And that’s it.
Everything occurring around me was treated as “normal.” As I said before…It was dinner. Just another holiday feast. And so when I realized what “friend” meant, I just continued on with my life.
As it should be.
That consistent and otherwise unremarkable exposure to my uncles proved extremely important. Particularly in the light of the ever-present, ever-progressive, unconditionally loving influence of my Mom. She used to tell me, “I don’t care what you do with your life. You can be a doctor or a garbage man…as long as you’re happy and as long as you’re the best garbage man you can be…that’s all that matters.” I remember learning the term unconditional positive regard in a psychology class. That’s what my Mom gave me. Love…with no strings attached. Well, maybe one string…she also used to say, “I just want you to be a good person.” A good person. And I understood what that meant. Why? Because of her examples. Be kind, be courteous, be open, offer smiles, stand up for what’s right, treat others the way you’d prefer to be treated. You know…be…a good…person.
And so, with that exposure, those experiences and examples, I went forth into the world.
Many years later, as a young professional attending a conference, among new friends and acquaintances, I found myself poolside with a cluster of other aspiring educators and activists whom I would come to learn were gay. I found myself in deep, meaningful conversation with one of the group. Unexpectedly, he leaned in, “Are you part of the family?” I paused, clear on his meaning. I considered lying because for years I lived in constant fear of not fitting in, of not being liked, of being perceived as something I deeply hoped I was not…but I immediately turned toward honesty. In relationship. This man, this conversation, this environment…were all safe. “No. I’m not.” He didn’t react harshly, didn’t judge, didn’t turn and swim away. Rather, he immediately said, “But you’re down.”
(You see, he knew. He didn’t ask me. It was a statement. An invitation. An embrace and a welcoming. Nonetheless, I answered.)
“Yes. I am.”
And that was that.
Is it possible to NOT be a member of a group with whom you don’t (…in fact can’t…) identify BUT remain an ally?
Is it possible to connect with “the other?”
For the sake of humanity, it is essential. Because there is no other.
There can be no justice until there is just…us.
So I ask you, are you down?