Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My one outing

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I'm going to share what happened with one branch of my family when they found out I was gay.

Twenty-six years ago, I lived in Houston, Texas, and was planning a trip to see my sister in San Diego. I mentioned it to my aunt, my mother's sister, during a phone call and she asked me to come up to visit them, first. I already had my plane tickets, but this was back when you could change them without penalties. So I did and flew up to Pennsylvania, planning to stay for 3 days then head across to San Diego and back to Houston.

Now, I'd always felt very close to my aunt's side of the family. My uncle was a Tech Sergeant in the Air Force while she was an RN, and they had 7 children who were far more adventurous than I could even think of being. I'd visited them many times, as a kid and even into my 20s, and I felt safe around them. Like family. The closest I ever came to learning how to swim was thanks to them all being like fish in the water. I even jumped off the high-dive at a pool in Clovis, NM because they were doing it, over and over, and I damn near drowned before I made it back to the pool's edge. Had a blinding headache and felt nauseous, but also exhilarated I'd had the nerve to do it.

Well, I got up there and was met at the airport and everything seemed great, but then my oldest cousin took me to a bar and we had a beer and he finally asked me, after a lot of hesitation, if I had AIDS. Apparently, they'd been told I was gay and were shocked and more than a little afraid of me. So it turned out the whole purpose of inviting me up to visit was to find out if it was true and whether or not I was dying.

I'd taken an HIV test that had recently come out, and it was negative, and I told him this (I did another one a year later, with the same result). He seemed to accept it and I thought that was the end of it. Except it wasn't. Everything changed. I'd been invited to go fishing, to which I'd agreed, for some reason; I was uninvited. My youngest cousins didn't really want to be around me. There was fear I might cut myself and bleed on someone and give them AIDS, even if I was making a salad. Then one's wife cast me such looks of hate, I nearly left, right then, to call a cab and go to the airport.

A couple of cousins were fine around me and we went to a local carnival and took a trip into a coal mine...but I was so shaken, I did it all by rote. I'd finally realized I'd been fooling myself to think I was part of the family. I was just a blood relative. I think one cousin noticed and she tried to be attentive, but I wasn't open to kindness; it felt too much like duty.

What made things worse was, I noticed most of them were en route to being alcoholics. They spent their weekends together, working on each others' houses. They couldn't do anything without a beer in their hand...and that included driving, with their children in the car. Yet they had the nerve to act like I was the danger.

As for my aunt, who'd asked me to come up? I got to see her for a total of 6 hours over those three days, even though I was staying in her house. I don't know if that was by design or happenstance, but it emphasized in me that I was not welcome.

I went on to San Diego and came home and went back to work. But I was ripped apart. Up until then, I'd remembered birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas for them. I stopped. I made certain, any time I moved, my aunt knew how to get hold of me, but there were no cards. No letters. No phone calls. Nothing from them...except to announce a funeral, when necessary...though my aunt and uncle did visit me, once, in Houston while en route to San Antonio. We had dinner. They stayed at a motel near the Galleria. Then they headed on. It was just a courtesy call. A year later, I moved to LA.

After my mother died, a couple years ago, I drove down to my aunt's, more from duty than anything. I had pictures to give her and details to share of mom's last days. There had been minimal attempts by my cousins to reconnect via the internet, only I wasn't very responsive, but they still invited themselves over and we had homemade pizza and talked about one's daughter's wedding and another son's plans for going into the Air Force and such...while the cousin who'd asked me about having AIDS reeked of whiskey and his wife tried to be nice as possible to me. I nursed my one beer as they polished off a case. Then I left.

What saddens me about this is, I felt nothing around them except a sense of discomfort. I was with people I had to be with. That's all. Like at an office party. We were no longer connected. I don't excuse myself in this; I justify the disconnect by saying I did not cut off contact, I merely stopped maintaining it. They always knew how to get hold of me.

But the truth is, I was glad they left me alone. It was such a deep, deep wound, it has yet to completely heal. It may never scar over...and the possibility of it happening again has colored my relationships ever since. So I began to keep a slight distance...a reserve...for when friends and acquaintances accidentally...or deliberately...cut me. It may be part of the reason my characters are more important to me than anything else; they have replaced the family I lost.

So I left my aunt and cousins and I drove home, that night, and not one thought entered my mind...except, dear God, how I wish it had been different.


MAC said...

I have heard several coming out stories over the years and there never seems to be a middle ground. The experience was either inspiring or heart wrenching (such as yours).

Thanks for sharing your story.


JamTheCat said...

Thanks, Mac.

RB said...

Thanks for sharing was definitely a heartfelt post and obviously it really hurt you. I'd like to think things are better on 2013, and they are, but still not perfect. For every coming out story where there is a hug and a "it makes no difference, we still love you," there is one that is ugly.

JamTheCat said...

Thank you, RB. It is better, in a lot of ways.