We were in Indiana at my Dad’s house the morning of the Orlando massacre.
We spent the weekend with my Dad, my sister and brother and their families. C’s mom and dad, with his brother and sister-in-law, passed through to pick us up on their way from North Carolina to a family gathering in Wisconsin. Our two families spent Sunday evening together, and then Monday morning we joined C’s family in their RV and continued up to join C’s father’s siblings and their families at C’s aunt and uncle’s cottage on a small lake in farm country a few hours west of Milwaukee.
This morning, a week later, we’re waiting in the Indianapolis airport, on our way home after a week jam-packed with reunions of various branches of both sides of the family. Families within families within families.
I remember the first time I heard the word “family” used to note that someone was gay. My ex-boyfriend, the man I lived with for six years in my twenties, and I, along with a lesbian couple, close friends, were on a weekend getaway in the Poconos at a rustic gay retreat in the mountains. There was a small lodge, a few log cabins, a pool. The place had seen better days, and the other guests were mostly older than us. I think it was called Rainbow Ranch. Even at that time, the late 1980s, this place felt like traveling to a time when gay people had to hide in the woods. I was eavesdropping on a conversation among a group of women sitting by the pool, discussing, I think, a co-worker, and one of them, smiling slyly, said something like, “I think he’s family.”
This was during my strident Queer Nation days, when a quaint code word for gay felt like a slightly embarrassing relic. Around this time, gay and lesbian organizations were starting to put the words “gay” and “lesbian” in their names, rather than the more coded “lavender” or “rainbow” or “lambda.” But we, in our 20s, full of indignation and full of ourselves, were OUT. We didn’t need code. We were not only out of the closet, we had blown up that closet and we were blowing up other people’s closets while we were at it. Looking back, I think our chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” was directed not just at the straight world but at that older, more timid generation of queer people. Our elders. Family.
I am sad and deeply ashamed to think now of how I sneered.
I don’t know if younger queers use the expression “acquired family” still like we did. Since we are born into families that, to some extent, reject us, we make our pilgrimages to cities, to gayborhoods, to gay bars, clubs, bowling leagues, where we make friends with people who share our experience, and those friends have, historically, been more reliable in times of crisis, times of celebration, sickness, fear. They are the ones we truly share our lives with when our biological families hold us at a distance. It's not everyone's story, but it's the story.
Gay marriage, the argument goes, allows us to be integrated into our biological families in a way that lessens the need to go off somewhere and create a new family. By emulating heterosexual family arrangements, we become recognizable as normal members of traditional families. And I’m married, so I know that that is to some extent true. To experience that has been a deeply moving surprise. Yet, despite the completely unforced outpouring of love and support I have felt from C’s family, I still take a deep breath every time he introduces me to a new member of that family. “This is my husband, Steven.” The word husband feels like driving fast up a big hill not knowing what’s on the other side.
When I read Sunday morning that 20 people had been shot to death by a man with an assault rifle in a gay dance club in Florida, I felt like I couldn’t breath. And then it was 50. (I still can’t figure out if the media is saying 49 now instead of 50 because they decided the gunman doesn’t count as a victim.) And then I was having breakfast, and then C’s family was there and we all ate pizza and played croquet and in a house of very mixed political leanings you don’t talk about current events, especially not one that simultaneously brings up the topics of terrorism, gun control, and homophobia, and then we were in a big RV headed to Wisconsin to spend a week on a lake with a house full of Catholic Republicans.
The only place -- besides the odd stolen private moment with my husband --where I felt like I could relax and be honest about what I was feeling was on Facebook, and even that forum became fraught with danger when a family member started posting snarky NRA memes mocking calls for stricter gun control laws, which drew me into an argument about gun violence statistics, which is not how I want to mourn.
I hope I don't sound ungrateful for the generosity, the company, the love of my in-laws. C's aunt and uncle's Midwestern hospitality is a wonder. His aunt, who is in her 70s, rarely stops moving, cooking, serving, fetching something you need, something you might need, something she thinks you should have. And they all have the accent of my mother's people who are also from that part of Wisconsin and Illinois. Deep inside somewhere I feel at home there, with family. And the lakeside practically begged you to sit in a lawn chair with a book, and I was moved by the Sherman Alexie stories I was reading, so I cried a little. And then you know how it is: once you start, your brain looks for other things to cry about.
Queer people of my generation and older talk about the death of gay culture, a casualty of online hookups, increased visibility and acceptance, civil rights victories, integration into our biological families, gentrification, new ways of seeing ourselves that make things like drag and park cruising “problematic” for some younger queers. As we become folded into mainstream culture, we lose urgency to make our own. Gay bars and bookstores and bathhouses keep closing and closing.
Ironically, sadly, I take heart knowing that, though it might transform, gay culture will not die. I’m bad at math, but I feel pretty confident, even with more and more queers raising children, most of us will continue to be born into families who don’t understand us, don’t recognize us, don’t want us, we will always have the need to grope our way to those who do, people who share our experience of being different, misunderstood, dismissed, unsafe.
Our biological families may, over the great expanse of time, come to be less freaked out, love us more, but right now, even families like mine and C’s, who love us without condition and welcome our marriage don’t understand what it feels like to listen to our right to live in safety and dignity debated in the media every day, what it feels like to grow up knowing that we are still considered by the people and the laws of vast swaths of the U.S. to be unworthy of equal rights, knowing that there are a good number of people in nearly every crowd who find us disgusting, knowing that there are places here and all over the world we can’t visit for fear of being shouted at, beaten, shot, or thrown off the top of buildings. Most of Africa, the Middle East, and Mississippi are not safe for us to visit.
In the late 80s and early 90s, my friends and I would survey the crowd at Pride events, the old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets, the aging disco queens drinking Bud Lite, and say, “This is the gay community? What do I have in common with these people?” But all week and right now, I am depleted of the energy it takes to act like I feel safe because I don’t want my whole life to revolve around the drama of my persecution. I’m tired of listening to people who don’t understand. What I wouldn’t give for a couple of old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets to cry with. I want to be with my family.