Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Where are our families? Don't Ask--Don't Tell

This month is Gay History Month, and yesterday was National Coming Out Day. As always, this leaves me thinking of life in general, family and where "we" stand with those that mean--or should mean--something to us.

I read an article today about a man who died in an automobile accident in 1959 at the age of 24 and unbeknownst to his family, he was gay. After his death, a young man approached one of the young man's sisters and shared a truth that would become the family's dirty little secret.

As I poured through the words, I began to ask myself if things are all that much different 58 years later here and now in 2016? 

How many of our families don't "know" us? How many don't try or want to or are afraid to? 

I made a reference to this the last night when I spoke at our local Coming Out Day Stories event that some families, mine included, are quite expert at practicing something the military did for 20 years.... Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Some families do not try. Worse, some gay family members are excised from their families when acceptance is nowhere to be found. One of my former students came out to his parents a few years back and in the aftermath, his parents have virtually cut him out of their lives. 

You have probably heard the phrase "it's complicated" yet when it concerns families, why must this be the case?

The title of this article "The Uncle I Never Met" hit me rather hard. I often think my nieces and nephews--even my brothers and sisters--merely know me as their brother, their uncle, a long-time bachelor, the guy who visits during the holidays but know little else about my life. 

I often think I'm the man my family has never met. 

I once mentioned (a few years back) in a conversation with my brother Scott that not once in the 30 years + since I came out has the family ever asked, "hey, you seeing anyone?" or anything else that remotely approaches a personal question.

And it is not that I have ever felt unwelcome. Far from it, but what I have felt is not included or that we put on the white gloves when we talk. I have always felt family members only ask what they want to know, pulling pack just shy of anything important... you know, it's the usual "how's work? how's your car running?" That sort of thing. 

If my family feels uncomfortable inquiring about my life, they've, in turn, given me little cause to feel comfortable sharing in kind. I suppose this is the proverbial quandary "which came first? The chicken or the egg?" 

Some members of my family have not once visited my home where I have lived for 20 years. Surprisingly--at least to me--I do not feel anger about this, just some sort of detached reticence about it all. Oddly enough, I don't feel that my family and I have a poor relationship. Instead, I feel that we barely have one at all.

I guess I don't feel anything, which in all honesty if I let myself dwell upon it, makes me sad. 

My son and my friends here in South Bend (and my Uncle Garry and his wife Martina) are the only ones who I feel a familial connection, but I do have to wonder: Is this unusual? Is this how other families live their lives? I know I would certainly like it to be more than it is. 

My son Wes often jokes with me about an event that happened close to 20 years ago when my brother Bryan, on a number of occasions, asked me to move back to Rochester (our hometown) to teach and to be closer to the family. I've always said no, that I didn't wish to live in a small community where prying, judgmental eyes are too privy to my life, where everybody knows everything about you whether you want them to--or not. 

Gay people, born and raised in small towns, for decades, know the hows and the whys they flee their hometowns for larger communities. 

Yesterday at the Coming Out Stories night, roughly a dozen people (myself included) recounted their recollections of coming out. It struck me that even after all the inroads the gay community has made since I came out in 1982, people today still experience a great deal of trepidation when seeking their family's love and acceptance. Why is it we find acceptance from our friends far easier than we do our families? 

For the author of this moving piece (this article can be found at yesterday's The Huffington Post), broaching the subject just was not possible in 1959, so why is it so hard for some families to do in 2016? 

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