On Becoming the Only Queer in the Family

“It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew.”

― Nella LarsenPassing

Sexuality was a conversation I never imagined having with my mother. I saw the way she rolled her eyes at the flamboyantly gay Kurt on Glee. I felt her silence when the very feminine Santana fell in love with the very girly Brittany (Ryan Murphy was my only source for queer content/community in 2008-2010). The more I watched, the more I knew I was watching myself (and watching my mother watch me) on TV. My mother once believed that we stood on one side of a line (not gay), and those characters stood on the other (gay). And because she assumed we stood on the same side of that line–rather, because she’d accusingly parry “Sometimes I think you’re gay” (she spit that out like a disgusting, shameful morsel)–I was forced to deny myself, remaining on her side, looking across the line into the TV screen, the land of make believe where every vestige of queer desire and life resided, fictionally–or at least for other people (not us, certainly). How could I tell her I was 99.99% sure (denial was a powerful drug) I was gay when she couldn’t even utter the word (and god forbid we use “lesbian”–she hated that word) without shuddering?

Not a single member of my family had ever outwardly identified themselves as part of the LGBTQ community. If I crossed that line, I’d be crossing it alone. I’d stand (perhaps in the rain) on the other side, calling attention to my difference, but to what end? What was the point in inviting more criticism into my overly-scrutinized existence (my clothes weren’t right, I wasn’t devoutly religious, did I really deserve to be on top of my class?)? But I couldn’t go on living like I had, forcing myself to date atrocious men to make my mother happy.

“Sweet mother, I cannot weave — slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.”

–Sappho, 102

I was the lonesome rainbow leaf on an otherwise heteronormative tree. Or was I?

The family secret I was about to learn would make things infinitely easier–but also infinitely more difficult. Every time I think about this revelation, I always go back to a specific moment in time.

I remember sitting in seventh grade science, learning about different types of cancer. I stared into a bookshelf that was oddly placed in the center of the room, like an artificial wall as my friend yammered on. This friend (who told me I was a lesbian before I knew that the word could apply to me) mentioned that her family member had melanoma. Overcome by a wave of sadness, I one-upped her: my uncle had died of it. She expressed her condolences, asked if we’d been close. I almost felt idiotic when I admitted that he’d died five years before I was born.

I didn’t know why I felt the need to speak him into existence, or why I felt such a deep sense of loss and scorn and anger at the fact that I never met him. I didn’t know him beyond the fact that he was the eldest Roedel child, that he shared a name with my grandfather. I’d never heard his voice in any home movies. I’d only ever seen one or two pictures of him in my lifetime. He was literally nothing to me, yet I walked around with him on my mind, my heart–like his death was something I had to personally avenge. My friend might not have understood why I’d brought him up, but my heart did.

My uncle, John William Roedel, Jr. about 1966-1968

So imagine my surprise when my mother told me my uncle was gay–that she and my father didn’t find out until after he’d died when my father was cleaning out his belongings (“Don’t you dare tell anyone,” my mom insisted: only a few of my father’s six surviving siblings knew). He had lived a “normal” life: he married (and divorced) a woman. He knew how to have fun. He had the greatest sense of humor of all his siblings. So I wasn’t the only queer in the family, not the only one on that side of the line. But I would be the only out queer. And now I wasn’t just carrying my secret around but his, too.

This posed a conundrum. My parents couldn’t disown me because they had loved my uncle so dearly. He’d even lived with my parents when he was really sick at the end of his life. But this didn’t make them immediately accepting, either. When I asked my mother (never my father–he’s never part of difficult conversations) if they would’ve cut ties with him, she’d always shrug. It was an irrelevant question about a hypothetical situation that never came to pass. Yet another instance of queer encounters in the fictional realm, beyond the line, beyond this life, even.

I’m well aware of the fact that I am outing my uncle by writing this, though it’s doubtful anyone who knew him will read this. I would hope he’d forgive me–in fact, I feel his forgiveness as I write. The fact of his queerness being a “family secret” is both a problem and the result of his closeted life. I’m not saying that he speaks to me from beyond the grave, nor am I saying that I am him. But I feel him here. And I want to cry for him.

I want to cry thinking about the years he spent hiding, even though he lived through gay liberation. For the (secret) friends, lovers he might have lost during the AIDS epidemic. For the life cut too short (36 years old, a cursed age in my family). For the lovers he (never) had. Did he ever find love? Or was he forced into hiding, never to come out of that shell? Certainly he must have reached out to someone. Certainly he broke his silence–other hushed whispers say his discharge from the Navy wasn’t what he made it seem. I cry for the lonely man, who grew up in a conventional Catholic family, and who could never speak his truth to the ones he loved while he was alive.

I came out for me. But I came out for him, too.

It had been rapturous. For the first time in my life, I loved life and myself. I felt like myself–felt happy. It had been the Kristen Renaissance for many years. We were moving forward, I thought–I’d been practically disowned by my mother’s family, but I still had my father’s (which I was perfectly content with). I’d been so happy for so long until, believe it or not, I joined Twitter and learned that not every gay kid grew up entirely alone. And then I became incredibly bitter.

I’d been convinced for so long that a dead gay relative was better than none that I didn’t know what I’d been missing in being the only queer in the family. I met all kinds of LGBTQ writers–ones with (found) families and children of their own; ones with biological queer family members; ones who “created [their own] tribe[s].” These connections are very precious to me, but they have also stirred such sadness. They called into focus a whole history of queer existence that I’d been robbed of. How much easier would it have been navigating my lesbian identity had I been born into a queer family? How many years would I saved had a queer family member recognized my struggle and guided me through? I never would’ve questioned my right to love if someone had walked that path before me.

Much of my family is wonderfully supportive, but they don’t understand what it’s like to be related to a whole room of people and still feel so alone, so alien. How could they? They replicate themselves in their children, in each other. They pass their heteronormativity from generation to generation at their ladies-only bridal showers. They gender-code their babies pink-blue-pink-blue. They don’t question their duplicates, the receptacles for desire and identity. But when I look into my mother’s eyes, I know she’d rather not see what she sees in me.

I know I can’t be the only queer in my family. It’s statistically impossible. Yet when I look around the room, I’m entirely alone. I look backward to my Uncle Johnny and understand why he hid. I get not wanting to come out–I lived almost two years after coming out to myself in hiding, but I was outed when I spoke at my college graduation ceremony, and they announced me as the President of the LGBTQIA club in front of my entire family. But I’m glad I’m out, even if it means I sit across the line at family parties–at once a part of and apart from my family.

I know I’m not the only queer person in my family. They’re just on the other side of the line, and I’m over here, waiting. I might’ve been holding up my side of the line alone all these years, but at least they won’t be alone if or when they decide to cross the line.

An image of two headstones in a cemetery. The left headstone is a landscape-oriented rectangle reading "Roedel: John W. and Emma L.". The second is a portrait-oriented rectangle reading "ROEDEL, John W."
North Babylon Cemetery — Babylon, NY

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