Dear Uncle, Thanks for Being Gay
I say this tongue and cheek, because that’s how we were together. I know he didn’t choose to be gay. At a young age, he knew. We were close enough to say anything. He was my father’s younger brother—thirteen years younger—and only thirteen years older than me when I was born. He was the cool uncle. The adult who played with me, who was irreverent and had mastered sarcasm and offered to show me the ropes. I loved him because he told me things the other adults wouldn’t. We spent hours listening to records and dancing in the finished room in the basement of my Nana’s home. I’d watch him smoke a joint and we’d have long conversations about life. He’d give me his take on things, prod me with questions and challenge my answers. He wanted to break my naivety. To give me a broader perspective on my white-picket-fence suburban life. All I knew was one flavor—vanilla—and my uncle offered me rainbow sprinkles.
When my family moved from Quincy, I spent weekends at my Nana’s house, visiting old friends and hanging out with my uncle. He played songs from his vinyl record collection—a private DJ with stories to tell. Some of his stories were funny, but others weren’t. He told me about being cornered by a couple of boys and beaten in his garage. Details of being teased, bullied and ignored. The echoes of deafening silence from his father who knew he was gay, but this truth was never to be discussed. His mother was his saving grace, as her love was unconditional. But mostly he felt alone. Even as an adult, when he found his place in the gay club scene in Boston, he frequently faced negative banter heading into a club, and at least once, upon leaving found his car had been keyed. Safety was never a given. The realities of being a homosexual in the seventies and eighties were harsh. Culturally, being sexually different from the societal norms was considered deviant. Religious belief structures rejected and vilified homosexuality. His years of service as an altar boy provided no sanctuary, only confusion. The overall message he received was something was inherently wrong with him. In addition to being misunderstood, his generation faced the AIDS epidemic. Uncertainty and misinformation further fueled an anxious society, widening the gap to empathy, acknowledgement and understanding.
My uncle broke social and familial boundaries and didn’t seem to care who was watching. He was boldly and brazenly demanding. As a teenager I found him shocking and often embarrassing, particularly around my friends. He made me question reality, what I had been taught by my parents and the social norms I had been given by peers. He was insistent, almost desperate, to be seen. As a teenager, I didn’t recognize underneath his unapologetic veneer was a hurt, scared man. When he shared his stories with me, he revealed his bruised and battered heart. I felt his sorrow as he exposed his wounds. I saw his humanness and it called my name.
In my reflection, I saw myself tucked inside the layers of him. The parts of me that had experienced shame, isolation, rejection and emotional pain. Age and maturity brought wisdom and a deeper understanding, and the years we spent together, the years he gifted me his vulnerability, changed me forever. I have advocated for friends, people I love and strangers. I have embraced and supported love and of all of its expressions, because I believe we are all extensions of a greater love. The gift of compassion reached beyond the LGBTQ community and it became bigger than one gay man.
Thank you, dear uncle, for bravely blazing the trail of truth by being the first openly gay man in our family. Whether you knew it or not, you set a precedent. You gave future generations freedom, because by knowing and loving you, I wasn’t afraid to listen, to learn and to honor differences. As I time travel backwards, I see the threads of us, and how you are forever weaved into the tapestry of my life. My heart is full.