Family Life Lessons Relationships

Does a ‘Month’ Change Minds?

Here in the U.S., June is “Pride Month”. This Community for sure  has cause to celebrate but, also obvious and factual reasons to believe that ‘the work’ hasn’t even really begun, and will not allow much rest. I’m certain that the headlines in my city, reporting ongoing injustice and violence toward human beings whose lifestyles are considered offensive, are not exclusive to where I live. I wonder, however, if a month dedicated to marginalized (and often demonized) human beings is impactful, in increasing awareness and changing minds. I used to include the word ‘tolerance’ — next to awareness (compassion, and love). But tolerance, for me, just isn’t a strong enough “ask”. I even wonder about that word, as though permission is sought, or needed for being true to one’s Self.

When I was just a child, homosexuality was not exceptional. Both of my parents were literary nerds, and Oscar Wilde was a featured favorite in our household. My father had male friends who were gay; and, my parents’ dinner parties drew male and female same-sex couples. I can still recall that, during one such party, a guest had brought Mapplethorpe’s recent coffee table book, which buzzed in the conversation all evening ! I suppose this upbringing was more European than WASP: I didn’t ‘register’ people-in-the-process-of-being-themselves as anything more than ‘different’ from my parents. It was only when I grew older that I realized the pain, the fear, and the legitimate threat experienced by non-heterosexuals.

As I mentioned in one of my previous Posts (“The Legacy of Suicide”), my mother took her own life when I was 10 years old. When I was about to turn 12, my father re-married. I adored my new step-brother Jeff immediately. He was just a year younger than me, an only-child and a bit spoiled by my step-mother. He was brilliant in math and science, and possessed a dry wit before he’d even entered the ‘ironic’ teenage years.

As we grew into those years, we remained very close. It was only when he left California to pursue his first graduate degree did I feel things between us change. When he returned, Jeff had an ‘edge’:  wary, cynical; not just witty, but sarcastic and almost mean. Unhappy. One evening in early September we were all gathered at the family home, celebrating my birthday (I was turning 30, I think). The champagne flowed freely; the house and yard reverberated with laughter. Suddenly, my step-brother shot out of the front door (I was standing on the porch with friends) and announced he was leaving the gathering. He had tears in his eyes. Jeff tried to brush past me but I grabbed him, looked deeply into his eyes and demanded to know what had happened. He told me, “I just came-out to Mother and Daddy!”. It was a punch to the gut (How did I not see this??), but I held on to him – or tried to. He wrenched away and I went inside to search for my parents.

Jeff’s life after that night took him to places – physically (he went to another out-of-state university for his PhD), and emotionally — where I could no longer connect easily with him. To his credit, when he was in town he’d always suggest a get-together. But in our parents’ home, in his mother’s presence, things were pretty horrible. As I later learned, my father had accepted Jeff’s lifestyle, but my step-mother had turned bitter, resentful and vicious. Jeff’s choice, as she saw it, had deprived her of her own anticipated future as a grandmother. It was a terrible, divisive, painful wedge in our lives.

What happened after that I can only describe as Jeff’s slow descent into a kind of ‘hell’. He ultimately married a man he seemed to truly love. But Jeff became a heavy smoker, drinker and drug-user. The only time he seemed in high spirits was while ‘high’. I remained close to him, but my love was not enough. He felt he’d betrayed his mother, and she was doing nothing to convince him otherwise.

When Jeff was in his mid-40’s, he developed an aggressive lung cancer that eventually spread to his liver and brain. He called me on the phone, to tell me when they’d first found it in his lung. He begged me not to tell our parents; he expected even more anger and recriminations from his mother. When he became critically ill, our parents thought it had all happened in less than 6 months. But Jeff had been nurturing deep sadness, confusion, and dis-ease for over 10 years. I know that, in the end, my step-mother realized the mistake she’d made. She herself connected the dots:  Jeff’s despair and decline, with how she’d responded to his sexuality – punishing him, as a profound disappointment — for years. He just wasn’t the kind of person to give his mother ‘the middle finger’ and get on with his life. So he got on with his death.

Pride Month, if it’s the best we can do in the meantime, is “ok” with me. But I know I’m not the only one who’s lost someone I love, because they just couldn’t take the pressure of trying to live and love outside The Mainstream. In my view, a ‘Month’ is just “ok”, but not in any way enough to support our fellow human beings in feeling whole, happy, and cherished.

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