In many families, the holidays are a noisy time, full of chatter and commentary. Living scattered and busy lives as we do, we make up for the distance and reconnect through conversation, remarking over jobs obtained and lost, who got married, who put on weight, who's looking fabulous, or worn out, or worried. But when it comes to gay, trans, or queer relationships, often the conversation hits an invisible wall that everyone knows is there but no one acknowledges. It's as if the family has its very own 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in effect, a pink elephant in the room as big as the Christmas tree.
Here's an example: I have a gay cousin. Everyone knows it. She comes to every holiday party, drops in at Thanksgiving and New Year's. She also has a partner who lives out of town. Everyone knows this too. But no one ever asks how the partner is, how that relationship is going, what plans they may have for the future. Nor does she bring it up. While all the straight couples are getting alternately hosted or interrogated ('We made up the guest room for you!' 'When are you having another baby, already?' 'How's the husband's new job?'), the gay partnerships get relegated to the 'How's your friend?' zone, or worse, don't get noticed at all.
But here's the thing about what gets left unsaid: It always gets expressed in more subversive ways. It comes out in whispers, out of the corners of mouths, and in tense body language. Rumor and hearsay line the walls of many holiday homes.
My uncle Miguel died in 1987. He was 31; I was six. In the 25 years since his death, I've grown up with a particular story about my uncle: a brilliant man. The kind of guy who always managed to charm his way out of trouble, and whose sweetness stopped everyone from wanting to wring his neck. I heard about the time he ran away from home at 15 -- got on a plane, and flew from San Juan to Florida, where he showed up on the doorstep of family friends. How, dreaming of Broadway success, he made his way to New York to study theater. How, still in his twenties, his heart suddenly stopped working, and he became the first Puerto Rican to receive a heart transplant. A short-lived recovery, then death, less than two years later.
But I also heard snatches of another story -- bits of speculation and hearsay recounted with uncertainty and concern. A story running parallel to the 'official' one: Miguel was openly gay. He had a live-in partner, a man named Robert. He wore a wedding ring. And then, when Miguel got sick, his mother came to New York to be by his side. In his final weeks, she devoted herself to her dying son. And as he was dying, she begged him to repent of his homosexuality.
See, my grandmother was not just a loving mother -- she was also a devout, 'by-the-book' Catholic. She was a pillar of her community, a woman of great faith and virtue. She led a prayer group. She had a religious radio program. And to her, Miguel had lost his way. As he was dying, it was up to her to set things right and help him before it was too late.
Since 2008, I've been making a feature-length documentary about my uncle's deathbed repentance entitled Memories of a Penitent Heart. With my mother's help, I've started rooting around in the family archive. Every few months another clue turns up: a newspaper article about Miguel's heart transplant, headshots and production stills of Miguel onstage, letters between Miguel and his mother. I've been asking around, and as I do, the 'other' story is starting to emerge more clearly. I interviewed my mother, who told me that Robert was at the funeral in Puerto Rico, but no one really spoke to him. I found Miguel's cardiologist, who remembered how Robert accompanied Miguel to every doctor's visit, and stuck by him when things got really bad. And I tracked down an old theater friend of Miguel's, who casually mentioned the alternative memorial service that Robert had hosted in New York, and to which my family was not invited. I am stumbling on a whole other world of grief and love, which went completely unrecognized by my family.
Recently my mother confessed to me that the last time my uncle came to visit our family (a few months before he died), she and my dad pulled Miguel aside and told him that they were worried that having a gay uncle might negatively influence my older brother. Miguel's partner did not accompany him on this trip, or any other family visit -- as far as my mother remembers, the idea wasn't even mentioned as a possibility.
As I make progress on the film, I'm trying to track Robert down. I want to know if he's still alive, and if so, what he thinks about all of this. So far it hasn't been easy -- I don't know his last name, or what he did for a living. Everyone says the same thing: "Sure, I met him, but I can't really remember him." It's like he's a ghost, a faint sketch of a life haunting the corners of the film.
Recently I asked my mother what she wants to say to Robert if we find him. She said, "I want to tell him how sorry I am." As I've begun sharing the film publicly, I've started to realize that my uncle's story, while tragic in some respects, represents a real opportunity for families to re-think their positions on same-sex relationships. What will it take for us, as families, to be honest this holiday season? To talk, openly and lovingly, about the issues that scare us? How can we create families where everyone is free to participate fully, to share their loves and losses, and really know each other?
Everyone who knows me will testify that I'm not usually the sort to make holiday wishes. But I have one this year. I wish for all families to pay attention to those silent moments -- those moments when the partner doesn't get invited, or gets called a 'friend,' or doesn't get noticed at all. To recognize that tolerance is no substitute for genuine curiosity or inclusion.
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