Family Tradition: a Gay Evolution
by David Nelms
No one ever told me that Grandma Rose was a lesbian. She was my father’s paternal grandmother. And since her divorce in the late 1920’s had been living with Olive. I remember spending many weekends with them in their apartment. Assigned to the guest room, I never ventured into the room at the end of the hall. I feel foolish now for not considering the possibilities of their relationship. Did the rest of the family succeed in never knowing the truth? With Grandma Rose looking like such a typical grandmother, her hair wrapped in a braided bun, it’s feasible that no one knew. But olive, with her jet black hair cut so short, ivory complexion always without make up, and men’s suit and ties, was the epitome of lesbianism. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, and they both had died, that I began to question their relationship. When I look back, I wonder how identifying with them could have assisted me in my own struggle for self-acceptance and development as a gay man.
While I was in high school I might have been able to sit through the evening news with my parents. Every night I dreaded there would be another story about the new gay cancer. I tried to check on dinner or hide in the bathroom so I could avoid the horrible picture that would flash on the screen. The picture I was sure, would be my fate. The image of emaciated dying men with purple spots and no hair. Gay men and women don’t live productive lives or have meaningful relationships, and certainly aren’t anybody’s great-grandparents.
Not much later, when I was still a teenager, I was able to get into the bars and clubs. I thought I had found nirvana, dancing the night away with my shirt off, the gay night life of San Francisco, the ultimate. But, I’d yet to have a real conversation with anyone, let alone in the daylight. What’s the new club on Thursdays? Who has an after-hours tonight? Where can I get the best ecstasy? What did all these people do when they weren’t at the clubs?
About the same time, Rob, a dear friend event today, had the insight to come out to me. We had grown up just two blocks away from each other and were both ecstatic to have found friendship. A gay comrade with whom I could tackle society’s ideas of who I was and how I should live. We decided that we would attend our first gay pride parade together, we even arrived early, ensuring a good vantage point. I was blown away watching the entries march past: Dykes on Bikes, employee groups, AIDS volunteers, civic leaders, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The gay community was doing incredible things; the diversity of the crowd was astonishing. Thousands of gay men and women marching uo Market Street, each with his/her own story, for unity as well as independence. Being gay wasn’t limited to young white men dancing. In such a short time, I had seen too much. But half way through the parade, Rob and I jumped over the police barricade and joined a group that was passing by. We marched the rest of the way to the Civic Center.
Intermittently, we stopped to throw ourselves down on the street in protest to Reagan’s lack of AIDS policy or to shout anthems of gay pride. This was the beginning for me. Afterwards, I thrust myself into gay politics and AIDS activism of the mid-eighties. Routinely, I went to protests ranging from Act Up demonstrations to picket lines callingg for a boycott of Safeway due to their veal policy. I probably cam out to anyone and everyone, wearing my queerness and HIV status as a badge of honor.
During the emergence of self I met Ed on a trip to Los Angeles. After many weekly trips up and down the state we moved in together. While living together for the last five years we have created a caring and supportive relationship. We have a dog. Together, we spend holidays with various mixtures of family and friends. We attend family functions as a couple. Three years ago Ed’s brother and his wife had a child, Paige. We were there for the birth, Ed in the delivery room. The recently spent the weekend with us. On Sunday morning Ed and I lay in bed watching the U.S. open and Paige ran into the room and joined us. Together the three of us spent the morning playing games and watching tennis.