There’s one in every family… and it might be you. A glimpse into the art of surviving being queer at your friendly family Thanksgiving.
Thursday is a holiday and that means I have to see my family. I’m already dreading it. I know, it sounds callous, it sounds hard-hearted, I sound like the Grinch that Stole Thanksgiving… and that might be the worst Grinch of all because Thanksgiving isn’t exactly about resentment. I mean, look at the damn title.
Sure, I could say this resentment stems from the fact that this holiday commemorates a bunch of white immigrants taking advantage of the Native Americans’ hospitality…which preluded genocide and colonizing them as a historical ‘thank you’ that we’re meant to re-enact annually (with pie included). I mean, if that doesn’t cause a bit of resentment in you as well, perhaps Thanksgiving can be a day of reflection for you.
But that isn’t where my resentment began or ended. It had a lot to do with the fact that there’s one in every family; that one was me. Yes, I am the Gay Cousin. Worse, I’m the Trans Cousin. But let’s focus on the gay, because whether you like it or not, if you’re a part of this beautiful rainbow at a family Thanksgiving table: you are the gay cousin.
What does it mean to be The Gay Cousin? Well, let me tell you what it meant to me.
It meant being eight years old with my nose in a book while my other cousins tried to play hide and seek. To my tender soul, hide and seek was a profoundly anxiety-inducing experience in which I identified more with the fox in a hunt than a child at play. Of course, the adults took it upon themselves to explain to me that it was ‘normal’ that a child should want to play with their peers. This would be a pattern at every Thanksgiving: I would take shelter in the kitchen or in a corner and the adults would bully me out of my den with instruction on normalcy.
I had to hug people I didn’t want to. I had to play games with my hormonal and sometimes sadistic older cousins when all I wanted to do was eat my face off, steal a glass of wine (Jewish, we start early, that’s my excuse) and enjoy the warmth of the house.
Inevitably, conversations about normalcy would lead to mating habits, because it’s totally appropriate to talk to children under ten about making a life-commitment to a parter and popping out kids. Just think about that. How many of us young queers had to suffer through those cold-sweat inducing talks?
“Ahhh, you say that now,” my most obnoxious aunt would cackle, giving me an elbow in my little ribs. “But let’s face it, you’re gonna get married. You’re GOING to want to and you WILL have kids.” It felt more like an order than a possibility.
I thought about marrying a man and having children of my own for a full half-a-second before I shook my head. I was a very serious child, inquisitive, thoughtful and suspicious. But I knew that this wasn’t just a case of bad timing, this was an impossibility because it would be impossible to have kids if I hated my whole body and it would be impossible to marry someone of the same sex. I’d never even heard of such a thing.
I wanted to tell her, ‘I’ll be like a man when I grow up and I won’t ever have kids and I won’t hate my life like you do and harass children a quarter of my age about having sex.’ But what came out of my mouth at the time was, “No. I don’t think I will. I won’t.” I was calm on the outside, but I still remember my guts churning. It was complete and total repulsion as the others descended.
“Oh, come on, we ALL said that…” was the chorus.
I felt very small, very angry and helpless as I denied it. I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, but I’m not like you.’
I knew it wasn’t the same, I wasn’t a tomboy who was waiting for a man to sweep me away to a castle and make babies. I knew I’d probably fall in love, I knew I would probably like someone a lot, (I already had), but I wasn’t like them. I wasn’t better or worse, I was just different and I couldn’t articulate how, but I knew it in my bones. Instead of saying something, I simply dragged myself out of the room, ashamed and horrified by the image they had of me.
‘Is that their goal?’ I thought. ‘They can’t wait for me to be a pregnant woman?’
Even at that age, I knew that I couldn’t tell them that all my crushes had been on girls and I wanted to be their boyfriend, not anyone’s wife. I believed my feelings were odd, perhaps even invented or insane. I was odd and invalid. That is what I internalized, since that was the resounding theme. I was unacceptable.
When I entered junior high, Thanksgiving would roll around and I would look enviously as my cousin brought her friends to every dinner while I wasn’t allowed any. My absent best friend, a senior in high school, had given me blue streaks to compliment my cropped dark brown hair and it was a part of the process of coming into my own, in retrospect.
I wore dark clothing, I snorted Sour Skittles powder on a dare, I read gruesome comic books and fell asleep to Marilyn Manson’s Golden Age of Grotesque like it was Mother fucking Goose. Yep, I was one of those kids. But I had a heart.
My grandfather had remarried about two years after we lost my beloved grandmother to leukemia and the woman he married was strong. Admirably so. But that strength sometimes twisted into something oppressive and she became known as something of a little dictator during the holidays.
I showed up in something respectable yet suitably darkly colored, all of my little secrets tucked away safely; especially the ones in which I had dated a girl for two years that just broke up with me, the ones where my best friend and I had started ‘experimenting’ with one another at the beginning of a three year relationship, the ones where I came out to my parents as gay and quickly recanted and called myself ‘bisexual’ when I saw the listless disappointment in my mother’s face.
This little woman who was accepted into our family with initially open arms looked me over with a tight smile and said, “Come here, sweetheart, come here,” in her pleasant Polish accent. I smiled and shyly made my way over, suspecting she just wanted to say hello properly and give me a hug. Instead, she sat with me on the steps and looked me over.
“You’re such a lovely girl,” she said with a sigh and my heart dropped into my stomach, a stony, terrified smile on my face. Then she reached out and grabbed a lock of my hair. “Why do you do this to yourself? This is ugly. Why do you do such ugly things to your hair?”
I sat in silence for a few moments, dissociating slowly and feeling myself float up and away past the ceiling into the black night where none of this mattered. Where my short hair did matter and it was handsome. Where I could hold girls’ hands and they could tease me about my boyishness and I could feel pride at that, where I told myself I might really be in love with this one. I just said, “Um. I don’t know. I like it.” And I stood up and wandered away, feeling like an eyesore and a blemish on this Rockwell painting.
At sixteen, I was a bit of a fuck-up. Who wasn’t? I spent most of my time getting high with my friends and making out with all of them to dull the pain of being bullied, even the ‘straight’ ones. Mostly the ‘straight’ ones. That was kind of the only option at a Christian private school.
I liked to slink around in suits and reveled in comparisons to Shane McCutcheon, though I also kind of hated myself for it. I also had to go to Thanksgiving again, like I did every year.
My cousins were now dating people, some were fucking them and I sat there quietly, stirring my yams with brown sugar and thinking bitterly that I’d probably fucked more people than they’d ever dreamed of in the past year… but I couldn’t say anything.
It was better to be a prude than gay. It was better to pretend to be unloved than gay. It was better not to talk about the fact that I’d just gotten out of a three year relationship with my best friend because we started talking about college and I told her I couldn’t leave everything behind and travel the world with her or that I was in an abusive long-distance relationship. I couldn’t laugh with them or lower my head and tell a story that would humanize me; to tell the truth would instantly dehumanize me. I would become The Gay Cousin.
I especially couldn’t tell them about the fact that I’d come out to my parents as transgender and they refused to use the proper pronouns for me or talk to the family.
I missed my real family: the shadow cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch where my identity was respected and celebrated for the first time; where I felt attractive, alive, powerful and a part of something. Those people were the family I needed, a bunch of queer gothic misfits who told me I wasn’t wrong if I was weird. The people I could love. The people who would help me survive this fucked-up gender mess at all costs.
I am now in my early twenties. I have come out to my family as transsexual, though I have not given them a solid answer as to my orientation, partially because it’s so sticky on its own. I had been fucking men in grimy places and enjoyed the way they smelled, the way they would leer at me over the table and tell me their boyfriend was out of town so they needed a man to keep them company for the night. I have a partner of five and a half years and they’re genderqueer, though at the time they were presenting as female. We don’t explicitly tell them we’re together.
They never ask, either.
My older cousin and his girlfriend are treated like newlyweds every time the family congregates and my single-but-dating cousins are asked about their plans. No one asks about us or the love of my life. My obnoxious aunt, however, does stop her work over the cranberry sauce to gleefully comment on how ‘masculine’ my haircut looks, how it’s ‘better’ and congratulates me on that.
I feel good for a minute before I realize that she thought I looked feminine with the medium-length, shaggy hair I was completely comfortable with. This was a compliment based on gender essentialism, that a boy should look like a boy and that is ‘better’. That if I am to be a boy, I should be masculine. That masculinity is praiseworthy in a trans boy, even though I’m actually quite femme and ill-at-ease with traditional masculinity. The compliment didn’t feel so great going down.
Nor did the other ‘compliment’ about how ‘normal’ my room looked. She was surprised and beamed as she affirmed that ‘this was the room of an average kid’ over and over, as if this incantation would break the spell that had been over me all these years. As if there was a self I had been holding hostage, some parallel universe where my innermost secret desire was to have a mowed lawn with a white picket fence. I think she’d probably just confused me with a memory of watching Somewhere That’s Green from Little Shop of Horrors, honestly.
I heard that word a lot that night. ‘Normal’. ‘Masculine’.
And of course, I was a good, upstanding trans person and not the awful, dirty sort that flaunt their lifestyle in others’ faces: sexless. Loveless. A virgin atoning for my sins, a person who had to earn my humanity back after all these years by adopting normalcy as a personal credo, by building a shrine to it in my room.
I sigh and laugh helplessly as my partner and I help ourselves to Jack and coke so the laughs come out smoother and less like jagged knives.
Thanksgiving is coming this year. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ll have to face questions about what I’m doing with my life and tell them that I’m no longer teaching at the acting studio. I’ll have to explain that going off hormones for my health has dramatically affected my prospects in my acting career and that my manager doesn’t know what to do with me, that the industry wants nothing to do with a truly androgynous boy who doesn’t fit comfortably in a binary presentation. I will have to endure their suspicious gazes, as if they know better regarding what I’m talking about than I do, as if this wasn’t my lifelong dream and goal for the past seventeen years of my life. I will squeeze my partner’s hand while I do this and I will take out my e-cigarette and smoke like a chimney if I don’t excuse myself for a toke first.
They will not ask about our relationship and will treat us like we’re room mates and very good friends with a lease together when we tell them that we’ve moved into married housing at UCLA. My cousins with their vanilla jobs, degrees (some more useless than others) and heterosexual, cisgender relationships will be questioned with a more positive, affirming tone. They will be asked how things are going and coyly teased about their sex-lives. My uncle will likely say something racist and I’ll hold my tongue so we don’t get into a screaming match about how he built his company on the backs of the immigrants he wants to degrade, though he is an immigrant himself.
Who knows whether I’ll be praised for acting normal or not this year?
I’m the Gay Cousin. I always have been and I always will be. I’ll be informed of every special about trans people featured on talk shows within the past year and asked my opinion of it and bite my tongue or pay the price when I have to listen to how ‘respectful’ Katie Couric was when she asked Carmen Carrera about her genitals instead of her career. After all, I’m the odd one out and by doing something so ‘drastic’, I must expect ‘curiosity’.
I don’t own a television. Televisions are something I can’t afford since I’ve been too busy taking my clothes off for money after watching my acting career fall by the wayside. I will be asked why I haven’t gone back to school or gotten a real job (I’d die before they found out about this one) and I won’t be able to say, “Because I’ve had to make enough to support myself, am healing from a series of traumatic set-backs and don’t have the emotional fortitude to do so.”
I’ll listen to my cousin use the word ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ to call my other cousins ‘stupid’ and I’ll feel my fingers twitch with the urge to sock them in the mouth. Don’t they see me sitting here? Don’t they know that I’m a fag and I’m doing my best? Do they give a shit about how I feel outside of policing my presentation and lifestyle?
But I’ll go to Thanksgiving this year and eat their food while exchanging absolutely filthy glances with my genderqueer masculine-identified/presenting partner. I’ll hang out with my stoner aunt who makes paintings and pottery, the one who treats me like I’m queer but also human. The one who sees me and knows the depths and possibilities of my heart. I’ll be thankful for my parents coming around and loving me deeply, even while we were at risk for estrangement. I’ll be thankful for my artistic aunt who takes no shit and has a heart as big as the sunflowers in bloom that she paints (credit william). I’ll be thankful for my partner and the way their hand feels in mine, the way they can calm me, the way they rub my belly and lament that it’s not sticking out to their satisfaction, the way I love them so complexly and so purely that I could spend my every waking moment with them and never tire of their presence.
And one day, the rest of the family will receive an announcement from the Gay Cousin that says, “Just Married.” I’ll be the first Gay-but-Married Cousin in the brood and I hope it stings just a little. I hope they realize that because of all of my weirdness, my queerness, my struggles, my quiet perspicaciousness, somebody loved the hell out of me. I was never loved despite any of those things, rather, my partner loves the components that make me up, even if I had to be glued back together at times.
This year, I am the Gay Cousin again and you might be too. Just remember that your blood doesn’t always determine who your family really is. ‘Family’ is the people who love you, the people who encourage you, the people who know that you are intrinsic to this world and you have so much to offer because of your experiences, no matter what they are. ‘Family’ is the people who appreciate what you bring to the table and the unique way you do it.
‘Family’ is where you can be the Gay Cousin and so much more than that, because you are a fascinating, irreplaceable human being in somebody else’s life.
So, eat up, be gay and don’t ever let this holiday make you feel bad about what you need to do to survive, who you are and who you love. Give thanks for yourself and the love you make. You are not too complicated to deserve that and your secrets are not your shame; they are the shame of everyone else who refuses to open their heart to you.
Happy Thanksgiving, homos. I’m Kennedy Levi and I’m thankful for being in the mighty league of Gay Cousins.