I believe in the family: the solidarity, tradition, support, joy, and unconditional love that some of us associate with the family concept. As a child, I watched the Waltons, Andy Griffith, Leave it to Beaver, and the Brady Bunch. I had a “Hollywood” idea of how a family should fit together. But my own family never, ever fit these molds – not even close! And the older I get, the longer the family is around, the farther my family tumbles away from the ideal.
Some single member of my family is always on the hot seat, the topic of gossip and rumor, and the scapegoat for all the ills in their worlds. The black sheep of the week or month receives whispered phone calls from other family members, repeating vicious statements intended to harm relationships. Feelings are hurt and anger is passed around freely. I have spent my fair share of time inside of this imperfect wool and I have always hated that place. And it now seems that I am there, once again, perhaps for a very long time, but on this occasion I have done nothing to deserve this role other than openly share the truth about my life with the rest of my family.
I am a fifty year old woman, and I decided, finally, with the support of my partner and her family, that I would not hide for the remainder of my life. Fifty years is long enough for that act to continue any longer. When my father passed away, two years ago, I realized that he had lived his entire life without ever really knowing me. He knew nothing about the things in my life that were most important to me. I never shared real, complete honesty with him and I would never have the opportunity to truly be close to my own father. What a tragic ending for that father-daughter relationship!
Earlier this year, my loving partner was diagnosed with a fast progressing, terminal disease. She and I have been a part of one another’s lives for over sixteen years, and now we face a situation we had hoped to avoid for many years to come – death and separation. Neither of us had ever discussed our relationship with family members, except for two special, young people who thought to ask about it. We had correctly assumed that little needed to be said, that after sixteen years anyone with half a brain would have figured out our relationship. Yes, this was the case. What we hadn’t expected, however, was the reaction of my family members to the news that my partner and I planned to openly celebrate our relationship during a commitment ceremony. It seems that, as far as my family was concerned, my homosexuality was not an issue for them unless I chose to speak of it aloud.
My partner and I always hoped to legally bond to one another in marriage, one day, but with the death sentence pronounced by the oncologist, we could no longer wait for our country to come to its senses. If we were ever going to celebrate our lives together, we had to do it before my partner was completely overcome by the disease. So, we set about the task of preparing for the ceremony and informing our families of our intentions. The in-law side of the family, for the most part, was thrilled to hear about our upcoming commitment ceremony. My partner’s siblings, nieces, and nephews completely supported the idea and wished to formally welcome me into their family. Her parents were a little less enthusiastic, yet neither verbally objected to the idea. But my family, with the exception of a sister, a brother and their respective family units, opposed the idea with fervor.
Why the opposition? Was my partner or I unfit for one another? No, we are both responsible members in our society and we both hold professional, salaried positions; we are both sane and financially fit. Were we rushing into a commitment without knowing one another well enough to feel trusted? No, we had already lived together and shared our lives for sixteen years. We knew one another quite well and had the experience necessary to justify trust. What reason, then, had these family members for objecting to our ceremony? Of course, it is their religious fundamentalist views and their opinion that our way of life is sinful.
I received an e-mail from my younger sister, a person I felt knew me quite well, and a person I enjoyed being around. Her message was something like: I love you, I support you, but I cannot attend this celebration because homosexuality is a sin, god doesn’t like it and I can’t step inside a church that would permit a ceremony like this. I spoke with my mother and she simply said that she couldn’t attend because of her religious beliefs, and then changed the subject. My oldest brother, the most self-righteous of all my family members despite his many failings, never bothered to respond at all. That was expected and I was able to shrug it off. All in all, a few family members who could not, or would not attend, returned their reply cards. A few family members sent congratulatory and supportive messages. A few family members showed up to celebrate with us. And everyone else in my family completely ignored us on our special day.
My partner’s family, on the other hand, showed up en masse. They went the extra mile to make our ceremony and reception events to remember and cherish. There were siblings, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Even the strictest religious adherents in her family showed up to support us as a couple. Some of them failed to understand our relationship, but still they were there because they cared a great deal about my partner and wished to celebrate an important event with her.
And there was my own family: two loving siblings, a sister-in-law, and a niece. Am I bitter about my family’s representation? Yes, I suppose I am, despite my wish to set my anger aside. Am I hurt? Certainly! I can’t help but compare the two families: one family fully supportive and loving, and the other, for the most part, embarrassed and disgusted. Only a few of my family members cared enough to show that they loved me unconditionally; the rest had found conditions that they were unwilling to overlook, conditions that happen to represent the very essence of my life.
I have chosen to deal with my family members separately, not as a family unit. Those who have embraced and accepted me, those who support my life, will be my family focus from this point forward. I will attempt to tolerate the remainder of the family. I will try my best to remember that unconditional love is part of the package and work hard at overlooking their views of my life. But I will never seek friendship with these individuals. That is a thing of the past. I can love them, but I don’t have to like them. My partner’s entire family welcomed me with open arms many years ago, and I will continue to look to them for solidarity, tradition, support, joy, and unconditional love.
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