The massacre at Pulse Orlando feels to me like some outsider shot up a family picnic, murdering 50 of my kin and cutting down 50 more.
Sure, they were a branch of the family that I had never met, but they were family, and if I was ever in the neighbourhood, I know I would be welcome there.
There is a reason that Mike Nichols’ “The Birdcage” starts with Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family” while the camera sweeps over the ocean to find the bar in Miami Beach where family gathers. And when the senator played by Gene Hackman comes under attack by press and such, only his new family can save him, using the skills of camouflage and misdirection most of us had to learn very early.
I have been thinking about family this week.
A Scout troop visited TBB’s ship and I commented on the photograph of them in uniform, noting that the crew gets younger every year. Her comment, though, was to the point: “It’s fun being a MOM!”
And on the southern fringe of Puget Sound, the brilliant Erin is painting her new home beautiful colours while building bridges with the real owner, a cat named Milo. She is feeling the urge to nest, so building a relationship with a “fur baby” seems a natural step.
A trans activist drenched in “social justice” thinking once stopped me when I started with “In some ways, it is easier to be black than trans…” telling me that it was immoral to rank oppression.
Today, we know that using the cover of “intersectionality” social justice followers are doing just that ranking, but the joke I was telling still has a powerful point.
In some ways, it is easier to be black than trans because no black person every had to go to their mother and say “Mom, I think I might be black.”
Queer people are different than their family of origin. The social stigma we face isn’t shared by our family, which is why they rarely have the skills to help us negotiate the world. We need to find others who share the same experience we do.
I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the definition of “family.” We humans come together in so many ways — teams, communities, companies, tribes, cohorts and so on — that the easy labelling of “family” seems to not acknowledge that range.
Still, we learn how to be social humans in a family, though that family isn’t simply bounded by blood.
I’m enjoying a show where a single mother has the playwright next door to dinner every night because she wants her boys to grow up with a man at the table, even if he is much more uncle than father.
Kids understand the network of human relationships in a family context, aunts and cousins and grandparents, their own virtual village of connections. Since they don’t come with expectations of how things should be, they learn how things are and get on with their own work of growing up and finding their own agency & power.
The family I grew up in, though, was deeply constrained by my mother’s inability to create emotional connection with anyone. My father grew up in a wider family, different people at the table, because his mother learned how to make a rich family tapestry to support and connect her children. He wanted to be able to invite people home, like he did in his mother’s house, but quickly found out that behaviour was unwelcome.
The sound of children playing in the street sometimes comes through the casement windows. I marvel at the ease and freedom with which they laugh. Like so many others with a narcissistic mother, I was never that young, never that loose and trusting. By the time I could walk I had learned to tiptoe, knowing that the mines of my mother’s unhappiness could blow at any time.
When TBB was up here, she got caught in some of the stresses of my family. She asked to go to a gay bar and I took her, sitting beside her as she enjoyed raucous conversations and free flowing libations.
“The bartender knows that I belong here,” she told me. “He just isn’t sure about you.”
I knew this was a place for family, valued and safe, but I had no idea how to loosen up and approach the place without my habitual, protective and identifying layer of cerebral analysis. I was scanning the party, not joining into it.
I am in a place where I don’t have the resources to take care of anyone who isn’t going to take care of me. A decade of my parents and two and a half years of abject scarcity used up any reserves I might have had. The family I have, so small and hurting with the history of tension, just can’t be there.
How do we learn to grow our family when we never learned to be safe and engaged in family when it was around us? What happens when we have no basic, safe, early training to go back and tap into?
Having strained family, though, doesn’t mean that we don’t need family. Abused kids are often more affirming of their abusing parent because they need to keep that connection to feel safe. Who wants to be alone, even if you have been alone on some deep level all your life?
I felt the shock to my queer family that Orlando was. I understand why we had to have the discussion of why, had to wonder if it was really a broken, hurting and twisted brother who finally snapped, or if it was just the fundamentalist abuse that casts us as demons so they can spread fear.
What I have trouble feeling, though, is the safety of family, the comfort of feeling seen, understood and valued for my unique gifts. Lesbians and gays form a network of lovers, feeling connection and affirmation though relationships, but trans is such an individual journey that we don’t get that family feeling. We aren’t wired in as closely, don’t have the experience of intimacy that “the army of ex-lovers” have.
I have gone though a tortured and twisted path to keep connected with my birth family, one that is incomprehensible to most people. They hear the stories, blanch and turn away, not wanting to talk about the costs, the price of death and analysis.
Without grounding, though, I have never been able to create a family of choice, taking my role and feeling the love connections. I stay the prickly scapegoat, telling the truth in a caring and witty way that offers healing informed by deep wounds, but who isn’t all that easy to simply love and value.
I’m not unique in this. Transpeople challenge families because we seem so different, so challenging, so confronting. Trying to hold onto family twists us into knots (2006), but letting go of family leaves us bereft, without the connection needed to grow confident, mature and healthy.
We need to be a member of the family, not feeling like we have to be someone we are not just to have the simple human needs of love and caring offered to us. Our gifts need to feel not just tolerated, but accepted and valued.
It hurts me when I feel my family massacred, feeling the same tear that everyone who understands the loss of easy family and deeply understands the precious value of families of convenience and choice to save us from despair, isolation and negation.
For me, though, the inability to create family that can value me, being present, is always shredding my soul. I don’t have the history and I don’t have the skills. I know that even as I am scapegoated and dismissed, what I bring is still rooted in the gifts of my creator, polished and prettied, no matter how much they are messages that most would rather not hear. There is only so much perfume you can put on a pig; pretty is nice, but truth is powerful.
The discussion around Aspergers is full of mothers wanting their children fixed, wanting to know what broke them in the first place. They see these kids who don’t act in nice ways and wonder if they even care about family.
Ask any spectrum person, though, and they will tell you how much they need and value that connection, even if they don’t respond to it as others think they “should.” In the end, it is that connection which can help and save them.
I knew this from my earliest days, all the way to the moments when I watched each of my parents die. I knew they needed family to be there, to help, to care, to train, to negotiate, to translate, to fight, to value, to love. I was there to do that.
How, though, do I find the family which can now be there for me, as I am, and not as they are?
That’s the challenge for someone who tells stories that no one else seems to get.