Changing Times: Unexpected Side Effects
I come from a large extended family. My parents are from one of those religious traditions where people tend to have a lot of kids, so I have more than my fair share of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Until recently I hadn’t seen any of them in over half my lifetime. I did not attend my grandmothers’ funerals, my cousins’ weddings, or any other extended family function for 16 years.
This long absence had a range of causes. Most importantly, I was working on the strength of my immediate family. Things were rough with my parents and siblings when I was a teenager and it took us a very long time to find a way to have strong relationships. We do now, but the complications of dealing with all of these extended family members at the same time would not have been helpful. Another reason is that seeing family was really stressful for me as a kid. Even with an uncountable number of cousins I was still clearly the weird one – the cousin no one wanted to spend time with. I didn’t fit.
But most importantly, this family is deeply religious and had been pretty homophobic when I was growing up. The rejections I’d endured as a lesbian identified teenager were nasty. I heard slurs and insinuations that no one should have to deal with. My mother didn’t think the family could deal with my transition as I became an adult. I wasn’t always sure she was right, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that she often is.
However, this Christmas Mom decided it was time to get some of us together again. She didn’t force me, but it was clear this was important to Mom. She planned a small gathering with a subset of her family (16 people, that’s small in this family) and we planned to meet up.
Mom said some of these folks had gotten better over time, less homophobic. A few cousins had come out as gay. Times are changing, after all. Hopefully the family could deal with my transition now better than they could have 16 years ago. I wasn’t worried about it – I can handle a lot of misinformation and even hate. I’m used to it. There was nothing they could throw at me I couldn’t handle.
We went and met up, my parents, siblings, spouse, two aunts, two uncles, some cousins. Three were new people in the family that I had never met, two marriages and a small child.
Everyone was friendly. This is what people mean when they say times are changing. We live in a world now where some religious families can have a polite meal with a transgender family member and their spouse without saying overtly hateful things. “Things are better now” means that some families can re-connect after years of staying apart, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that things are easy or that people aren’t still clueless.
There are side effects. We’re not yet at a place where microaggressions don’t turn up constantly. The first thing my uncle said to me after all of these years was “You don’t mind if I still call you (old name) right?” Yes. I mind. I told him so. No, no one gets to call me that but my parents because they gave me that name. No, you do not get to disregard my identity because you knew me as a child. I saw how you gender policed your son growing up, Uncle. I heard you tell my brother going to an all boy’s school would make him queer. No, you will respect my identity.
Times are changing, and things are getting better for some of us. But the homophobic uncle who’s learned to love his gay son becomes the transphobic one who can’t even ask how I’ve been before negating my identity and I’m not surprised. The side effects of changing times is that I had to hear that.