I just heard yesterday via Twitter about the LGBT family blogging challenge. This seems like a good time for me to take some time to write about those friends who have become part of my chosen family, both back when I first started exploring my sexual identity (the mid-nineties), and now that I have gotten older and somewhat settled in comparison. I currently identify as genderqueer or bisexual.
Rather than use their real names, I’m going to write about my experiences with LGBT community members in general who have encouraged, supported, and sheltered me at times, as I struggled with understanding my difference from my original family, and learned to celebrate it. I’ll also include my dogs Bodie and Sara, who are the equivalent of children for me now.
My experiences with gender-bending began at an early age. Although I was somewhat curious as a child, the cultural climate of southwestern Virginia in the 1970’s and 1980’s meant that there were no visible role models to look up to. Consequently, expressing gender variation or difference was seen as subversive. For teenagers, rebellion comes naturally, so it never occurred to me that what I was doing was wrong, it just seemed different and therefore cool. My first girlfriend sought me out at age 14; we had a torrid love affair which ended two weeks later with her unceremoniously dumping me to skip school with a friend.
This first experience of rejection from a teenaged woman was hard for me to take. To her credit, she later talked to me about it, and said she was sorry, but by then, I called the whole experience “a mistake” and pretended to be straight, rather than accept her apology gracefully. Although I regret that now, this was a time when being “found out” as lesbian or gay was quite frightening, as you would almost certainly go through the experience alone. No Dan Savage, no “it gets better” videos. You either convinced yourself and everyone else around you that you were straight, or concealed a secret which you were sure would result in social exclusion if found out. It has not been that long ago that this rejection of LGBT people was commonplace in America.
I guess my first LGBT ally was my mother. Whether she ever realized my difference or not, she was a fair-minded person who told me about gays and lesbians she knew while living in Ohio. In the rural South, these experiences were my first exposure to gender difference, and I’ll always be grateful to her for it.
The assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone weren’t on my radar at the time, but Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign in Florida made the local news. The flamboyance of guys like Liberace and Elton John were merely seen as them being “entertainers”. Even Freddie Mercury, who now seems as flaming as a forest fire, kept up a tough guy façade in order to successfully front a 70’s rock band.
I went to my local bookstore at age 15 and special-ordered a copy of the Radclyffe Hall book, “The Well of Loneliness”. The protagonist, a woman named Stephen, is allowed to demonstrate her feelings for her girlfriend, Mary Llewellyn, but she is not allowed to find any happiness with her, she must give the girlfriend up in order to please a biological male. At 15, this was the message I absorbed about lesbianism, that it existed but merely in subordination to straight male needs.
The first friends I made in college who were gay were well-traveled but heavy drinkers. Nevertheless, I got caught up in their circle and hung around for a few years, mostly because they were the only out LGBT people I knew. My friend who had HIV asked me if I thought I was a lesbian. I said “maybe” but my life experience up until that time demonstrated an almost evenly divided interest in both men and women. He basically took me under his wing, and encouraged me to seek out female friends as well.
Later, when I moved to San Francisco in the late nineties, I met a wider circle of LGBT people who had no qualms about being out and proud of it. The social climate there was much more supportive of gender-bending, so much so that it was frowned upon to be closeted. This was a 180-degree shift from the cultural disapproval I was used to. I found that I was more reserved about my sexuality than I had thought.
Part of what has held me back has been original family issues. While I was in San Francisco, my mother fell ill and had a protracted illness for six years. It was difficult to be so far away while this was going on, and I made every effort to come back when I could. This meant less time for any personal journeys, as I was still responding to the needs at home. Later, after the first dot com bust, I thought it would be best to come back to Virginia and help my father, who had gotten sick himself while taking care of my mother. I was worried about his health breaking down as a result of the long caregiving situation he had just been in. He had a few years afterwards in which he was able to go out and meet a new girlfriend, socialize with buddies, and so on. He recently passed away from lung cancer, after a five year battle with the illness. I was directly involved in his care and became his primary caregiver for the last several years.
So over the last 16 years, 11 of them have been spent with either my father or mother suffering from sickness and needing care. Between this reality and the demands of work, I’ve had little time to reflect on what I wanted for myself as a single person and to look for potential partners. I have also struggled with substance use, but moving home has made it easier for me to wean myself off of these crutches. That has been the biggest benefit of moving here, besides being able to help my family from closer by this time.
What role does chosen family play in all of this? Well, quite simply, they give me the hope that my life will get better, that I’ll be able to go on and have a life with a partner of my choosing, and that I won’t be rejected for it. Chosen family are the people who accept my gender difference and actually like me for it. They do not expect me to play a straight role for them, just to make them more comfortable. They join me in the enjoyment of just being different, and together we have built a whole community around the recognition and even celebration of this fact.
Although I’m a strong supporter of marriage equality, sometimes I feel a little weirded out by the eagerness with which the straight community embraces us, almost as if to say, “Hey, I’ve got a gay friend”. I never sought approval for my feelings of gender difference, and I never thought it was wrong despite the disapproval of society and some peers. So it bothers me a bit now that some straight people seem to patronizingly “approve” of us, as if we ever sought that. No, instead we went and made our own communities. We created our own social structure, in which we were diametrically opposed to any attempts to define us or demean us based on gender difference.
The good thing about the marriage equality movement is that it “normalizes” our relationships, states that they are not inferior marriages and that we are able to experience same-sex love in the same way married straight couples do. The concern is that not everyone necessarily wants to get married, and so it creates some pressure within the LGBT community to “blend in” with the straight world, when that may not exactly be on everyone’s dance card. One of the happiest times in my life was when I went about 5 years without socializing in the straight world, living exclusively within the LGBT community. Now we are expected to be “role models” on display for the straight world’s approval. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that yet.
Although I’ve dated some women in the past, I’m currently very single and living in an area with very little LGBT visibility. The younger generations are coming out earlier, but many LGBT people who are my age and older here remain closeted around straight people. Hopefully, this will change with time.
So my LGBT family consists of my two dogs, Bodie and Sara. I dote on them like a devoted mother, and they show me a lot of unconditional love in return. I recently inherited Sara when my father passed away. She’s 14 and Bodie is 7 years old. She has been a great addition to the household. I won’t be able to take her with me when we move, due to issue with rentals and pets, but I’m glad we got to spend this time with her. She has helped mellow out and mature Bodie, who is still very much a teenager. I can’t wait to take him walking on the city streets and in parks. He will be my advance PR department, as he is way cuter than I am at this point :}
Well, that’s all the time I have to write for today. Pride month has a special meaning for me this time, as I prepare to move back near the LGBT community in San Francisco which I remember fondly (for the most part). I’m going to appreciate it a lot more this time. I hope that younger LGBT people will listen to their elders when we say “we haven’t always had it this good”.