Sunday, October 21, 2001

Some Reflections on Being a Gay Uncle

At times, my friends get carried away talking about their children. And sometimes they hesitate, almost as if they wanted to say, "I'm sorry. It must bore you to hear us 'breeders' go on like this about our children." "Don't stop," I want to say. "I love it that you have this passion. I love it that you can be so unbalanced. That you reveal to me how much something matters to you outside of yourself and your work and passing interests. Something wonderful happens when people talk of their children. There is an atmosphere of love and security. You're safe when you're with people who love their children, and you know you are looking at their best side.

Gay people, at least in the United States, are now having children in ever greater numbers. I read the news and the academic studies of gay families with interest. Unlike some, I find it not at all surprising that gay people, once they have children of their own, often comment that they then come to feel they have more in common with straight people with children than they do with gay people. Certainly, for most, the "gay scene" recedes in importance. They learn that raising children takes a village, as Hillary put it, and it must be not only that the children raise the quality of their lives, but that there is value in finding connectedness with people you might otherwise avoid.

Gay men and lesbians have always been around as a part of larger families. That is what makes the "Save the Family" wagon-circling by the frightened right so grotesque. The family is coming to be understood differently as our society slowly evolves into a more democratic and inclusive one. Gay people are anything but a threat to the family. Just as San Francisco and other cities came to appreciate how gay men with wealth could spruce up a neighborhood and engender civic pride, people who welcome gay siblings and friends into their lives often find a surprising bonus of love and attention for their children in return. Gay men and women fill in some of the blank spaces in families, and add a dimension to healthy ones as well.

Sociobiological explanations of homosexuality (why do we constantly have to explain the human condition to death) have included the notion that it provides a natural buffer between the family as a vulnerable institution and the outer world. Gay men and women are supposedly designed that way by nature so that they will not have children and thus be around to lend a hand, financially and in other ways, to their siblings' children, providing more resources to the family than a lone set of male and female parents might.

This notion has always struck me as dumb. First off, it doesn't consider the cultural variation in patterning. The whole world is not structured like the American family in the first place. But far more importantly, it draws a line between reproduction and sexuality where it shouldn't, and misses an important point. One "reproduces" on both sides of the gay/straight line, in other words, and reproduction does not come in a package necessarily with family. Many gay men - and far more gay women - produce children of their own. And the fact that the number of gay adoptions is rising further challenges this functional theory of evolution, along with the idea that nature has a purpose in the first place.

But while the explanation doesn't fly, the phenomenon is real. My view of family is not the orthodox one. For me, who includes my biological sister in my chosen family, it is not that the biological relations create the "real brothers and sisters" and the close friends are brothers and sisters only in a metaphorical sense, but the other way around. Real family is as family does, and if you're lucky, the biologicals will be true brothers or sisters as well.

I have a large family. It includes more than a few nieces and nephews (far more nieces than nephews for some reason). Right up there second to none is Amy, the daughter of my longest longterm sister- and brother-by-choice, Harriet and Craig. She's fully grown, making her way in the world, and when I talk of her I hear the sound in my voice I hear in the voices of my friends with children—a pride and an inclination to overdo the praise.

Amy's mother and father died and left her to her own devices at much too young an age. But not without resources. Besides the certain knowledge that she was a much loved child of loving parents, Amy also has a large collection of aunts and uncles, some "natural," and some members of her parents' chosen family. Included in these are a number of gay uncles. At her mother's funeral service, her Aunt Jane (a natural aunt) presented Amy with a key to her house, a real key, one she could use any time. All she needed to do was come and she would be "at home," Jane told her. It was a touching moment, and some time later, at a dinner with Amy and her several gay uncles, we decided we'd make it explicit what we hoped she understood anyway — that we all wanted to match and extend the offer.

Anthony, for example, used to take Amy shopping. An annual splurge. I was never so good at largesse, but I felt a pride of connection nonetheless with Anthony for playing that particular avuncular role. My idea of how to play it is to fly to Paris, where she has been the past few years, and take her to dinner. (Obviously, we each have our own way to play.)

I have several other chosen nieces. Elizabeth, for example, who sends me videos of West Wing, and lots of meat-on-the-bone ideas to chew on. I'm not going to tell you so much about her, because I couldn't do that without mentioning her sister, Rachel, and then I'd want to talk about watching Paz and Sol grow up, and more recently the awareness that I will have a lifetime connection with two little girls named Anna and Ziva. And I haven't begun to tell you about my Japanese nephew and niece, Stuart and Leslie (and now their spouses, Juli and Simon) and their children, Jessica and Aston and Graeme and Olivia and Connor. But I didn't start this to go there. I started this reflection on being a gay uncle because my thoughts are now with my good friend, Bill. Let me tell you about Bill, instead.

Bill is the closest thing I've got these days to a soulmate, somebody I can talk to without having to finish my sentences. He lives in Indiana and we talk by phone once a week. Last summer, after many years of hearing about his nephew, Kevin, I finally got to meet him. Kevin suffered from cystic fibrosis and moved around only with the aid of an oxygen tank and a long hose. Twice a day, Kevin would have to go into his room and cough until the blood came, to clear his lungs. He would then need to sleep to recover the strength it took till the next time.

I was horrified at the sight of this oxygen tank, and at having to live with the noise of a pump going 24-hours a day. And listening to the coughing was almost unbearable. Bill went about the house keeping his normal routine. He had lived with this burden for some time. The other thing about Kevin that caught your attention was his full-body tattoos. I have an unabashed loathing of tattoos, for their associations with the yakuza and other thugs. But here, suddenly, was the great object of my best friend's affection, challenging me to come at this from another direction.

Within five minutes of meeting Kevin, we were talking about death. Kevin was barely into his twenties, but he knew death. It was coming soon for him. He talked about death as the framework to his life. Cystic fibrosis used to kill kids long before they reached their twenties. With current medications they can go much longer, and the medications give hope there will be a cure found eventually. That first evening, while Bill cooked dinner, and for the rest of the days I spent with them, we moved from death and the meaning of life, through the existentialist literature he was reading, to films, sex, and the nature of friendship at a level I had never imagined discussing with someone his age. Kevin was obviously wasting no time with trivial pursuits. He was squeezing it all in, and he was a fascinating conversationalist. I saw Bill's reflection in this man and could trace the ideas in many cases to their source. They had, however, been sifted and filtered through his own quick mind. Bill beamed with parental pride as over and over again he would read the look of surprise on my face at discovering so much wisdom in someone so young, and at learning once again the paradox of how embracing the dark side could bring light, how touching death could make evident the joy of life.

Being with Kevin took me out of my own life almost completely. It was the highlight of the summer for me, and it held much of my attention for weeks afterward. Kevin gave such pleasure. He had the insight to make talk meaningful, and he had not lost the freshness of youth, even with the burden he was carrying. The only incongruity in the picture was the tattoos.

In time, I came to see what was going on. Nature had ravaged Kevin's body and rendered him powerless. Nothing he could do could reclaim it. At his age one expects he would drive too fast, maybe jump off bridges on a bungee cord, certainly experiment with sex and relationships and possibly drugs, and quite likely turn up the music until the walls shook as the beat came through his feet and up his legs—all in the firm conviction that the body is invincible and mighty and something to be used to bring pleasure. Kevin had no body of his own to speak of. He was thin and pale and not in charge. The tattoos gave him what little decision-making power over his own body he could muster. He could determine what his body would say, and he used to ponder up to a year just what markings he would have put where, and who he would have do it.

Kevin came to stay with Bill again this summer. Each of these journeys from Pennsylvania to Indiana involved renting a van big enough to transport the oxygen tanks and arranging for their replacement locally. It involved seeing the medication is there, the preparations are made in case a sudden trip to the hospital is required. It is a life-consuming process. Bill lived for those summers when Kevin would come to stay, and regularly made the trek back to his sister's home when he couldn't.

If you have access to a good library, have a look at the American Arts Quarterly, the Summer/Fall edition of 2000. On page 29 of that journal you will see a picture of Bill and Kevin in a review by Karen L. Mulder of the portrait made of them by Catherine Prescott. With luck, you may find the portrait itself, although I believe it is not on public display at the moment. Mulder's review captures, I think, what the portrait artist's eye saw in their relationship:

In Body and Mind: Kevin with Uncle Bill (68in. by 68 in., oil on canvas), Prescott puts a name to a complicated relationship fostered by tragic circumstances. An ascetic young man, slightly larger than life, co-inhabits his space with a man crowned by an aureole of white hair. The relationship is not immediately apparent, but a dynamic between them virtually hums with layered possibilities. Their postures and expression may initially seem adversarial, as one leans away from the other, yet both glance toward each other with gazes that barely miss in flight. What may seem an expression of sullen rebelliousness or disaffection in the youth matches, in intensity, the older man's hunched pose of concern, and patient submission.
The avuncular Bill is a university English professor from Indiana; the terse Kevin is a 22-year-old in the midst of a losing battle with cystic fibrosis. Neither one, according to Prescott, fits their world. Bill is set apart because he is the sole intellectual and the only gay man in a family of pragmatists. Kevin is also separated from the rudimentary associations with life that most of us take for granted by his disease, which alternatively forces him to face the unwanted pity of others, or to grapple with a mounting set of limitations, or to weather exclusion from his peers. Kevin's slumped posture reveals the weight of his trajectory.
Losing physical stamina forces Kevin to travel with his mind. Like Dante's Virgil, Bill feeds the journey with Plato and the classics, humor, satire, and studies in aesthetics. The book Kevin leans upon is emblematic of his fundamental reliance on reading at this stage; it is actually one of David Sedaris's witty commentaries, Naked. The first time Prescott saw the two together she intuited the deep bond between them; they were simultaneously conjoined and self-contained. Both sat in ways that immediately struck Prescott as iconic, so fixed in memory that she was driven to capture each man's presence. "I liked it so much that they had each other," she says. "It became such a stunning image; I had to remark on it, not preserve it, because what I made is not more real than what I saw. I had to make it mine."

There is more, which you can find if you're interested. I just wanted to demonstrate that I am not alone in recognizing the relationship between this uncle and his nephew and the meaning it gave to both their lives. Bill and I talked a long time this week about his fear that he would not be there for Kevin when he goes, and that he would not be able to bear the grief.

Kevin died last night. His Uncle Bill was there. Now comes the test of Bill's ability to bear the grief.

Oiso, Japan
October 20, 2001

No comments: