Family Values

In the wake of the SCOTUS’s landmark ruling on gay marriage, I’m sharing an old piece. It’s funny because despite my protestations here, I actually DID get married in January, but I think the rest of it is a reminder that there are many ways to make a family:

Someday, when I write a memoir, it’s going to be called: Fucked Up Family.

I don’t mean this in the conventional sense. No one in my family is an alcoholic or an abuser, unless you count my mother’s repeated assertions that she was going to string us up by our toenails if we didn’t shut up and eat our dinner.

It’s just that my family is… unusual.

The chapter on my fathers alone … that’s fathers plural, but not in a gay way, although when I came out to one he told me that he’s had sex with over 500 women and that one had turned out not to be a woman in the way he was expecting… I think this was his way of reassuring me of something, though I still haven’t figured out what, because I was so traumatized by the idea of anyone sleeping with 500 women that my brain stopped listening right then and there. When I came out to my other father, my Dad, the one who actually raised me, he furrowed his brow in a scholarly way, cleared his throat, and said Well, Coyita… from an anthropological perspective I’d find it odd if you didn’t experiment with same sex relationships. In fact, the Matses in Peru regularly… blah blah blah… I stopped listening as soon as he said Matses, which is the Amazonian tribe he used to live with. I get that a lot of people would probably find talking about the Matses totally fascinating, but I’m not one of them, possibly because my whole life my Dad has been not-so-subtly hinting that if my love life didn’t work out here, I could always move to Peru to help him keep his promise of giving his first-born daughter’s hand in marriage to the son of somebody important over there. I would remind him that, technically speaking, I am not his first-born daughter, just his first acquired daughter and therefore if anyone is getting shipped to the Amazon all eyes should be on my younger sister Seth. My Dad is always forgetting he adopted me, a trait I find both endearing and reassuring, because when I was little I was scared my Dad might just give up on me one day. He never gave me any reason to believe this –even now, when I am fully grown, in my 30’s, with a family of my own, he still calls me several times a week to chat, and on the rare occasion I happen to mention talking with my biological father he always gets very confused. Who? You know… Michael, my biological father? Oh, THAT guy… is HE still around?

He is, and for a guy who’s had 7 kids (that we know of) with 3 different women (that we know of) he’s been a pretty decent father too. I am the result of a one-night stand back in the drug-fueled 70’s. My mom was married to someone else, and trying to get back at him for cheating on her, which backfired when she ended up pregnant with a lot of explaining to do. I was really obviously not her husband’s child – both my mom and her first husband are olive skinned, dark haired people who first bonded over their shared Native American ancestry. I was blonde, blue eyed, and incredibly pale. Indeed, I look exactly like my biological father, down to the weird mole growing on my face. Earlier in our relationship, Michael would occasionally issue a casual challenge to paternity claims by saying things like, you know, your Mom says I knocked her up at the Salsedo Press party, but that’s in August every year and you were conceived in winter so…. Insert here a long awkward pause where I gaze at him with practiced impassivity until he remembers Oh yeah, there was that one year they did it in December. You know, your mama was a foxy lady. I remember she blah blah blah. I can’t tell you what he said because as I mentioned before, I have mastered the art of tuning Michael out when he talks about sex, especially sex with my mother. Anyway, the whole conversation is ridiculous. We are so obviously related. Not only do we look alike, we act alike, which is a perfect science experiment because he didn’t raise me. We have the same temperament, the same handwriting, and the same personality, minus the tendency towards promiscuity.

Each of my parents has been married twice, which results in a complicated family tree by which I have two Dads, four Moms, and nine brothers and sisters, some of whom are related to me via blood and some of whom are related to me via the shared trauma of Michael’s belief that it is perfectly acceptable to wear sandals to every formal occasion. Our collective parents are all aging hippie radicals who have produced relatively conservative children. I don’t mean any of us are politically conservative, but when your parents tell stories about experimenting with anything and everything in the 60’s, your only avenue of youthful rebellion is to be clean cut, mostly drug-free, and really excited about monogamy.

One my older brothers is also gay, and we both live pretty boring lives. We’re both in long term relationships, we both have a child, we both drive SUVs, we both stay up late to watch reality tv on the DVR, and we both complain that our relationships would be a lot better if we could just see eye to eye with our partners about how much sex is reasonable to expect: every day? Every week? Every month? Every year? Like I said… pretty boring.

So the debates about gay marriage and defending the American family always confuse me. To begin with, they assume a kind of family that I’ve never known and never needed. Sure. My family is nuts. I haven’t even begun to talk about my aunts and uncles, 50 cousins, or my three sets of grandparents, or our roots in many different countries. But I grew up loved, surrounded by people whose idea of family is so flexible that sometimes it seems everyone is welcome, regardless of race, nationality, or whether or not they are actually even related to us. When a new person shows up at a holiday table, we’re never really sure whether this is a long lost cousin, a brother’s sister’s brother, or just a friend who needs a place to stay for awhile – and it doesn’t really matter. I grew up believing that love was the most important family value, that helping children feel safe and accepted as they are is a community effort. I’ll insert a caveat here on behalf of my oldest brother, who has decidedly unfond memories of searching the sofa cushions for change to buy dinner while his parents were off organizing the revolution. It’s possible he would have preferred to grow up in that anchor of the heteronormative capitalist patriarchy known as the nuclear family, but it hasn’t exactly turned him into a sitcom family man. He’s 45, straight and still a bachelor. At a recent family dinner I overheard his mother telling him: Jesus, … It’s not like you have to get married to have a kid. I’d just like to be a grandmother by now! To be fair, she has 4 other grandchildren from 2 other sons, but the pressure to procreate is strong in my family. My own mother started giving me lectures about aging ovaries when I was 19, and told me regularly that the earlier I had a child the better. Nevermind if I was in college or, you know, gay…. It was easy enough to pick someone up for a night and then leave a baby at home with her while I went off to live my life.

So yeah… the straight people that raised me have little in common with the portrait of family values put forth by pundits on Fox news. I know, like we all know, that defending the American family is a dumb political position – there are a million ways to be a family and straight people can be as raunchy and promiscuous as anything we queers have ever been accused of. Still – I’m not that in to gay marriage either. It’s not a queer-oh-I-don’t-want-to-emulate-a-straight-model thing. Like I said, my straight models are all over the map. But even though my partner and I have a house, a kid, a car, a bank account, and a monogamous relationship, I just am not rushing to the County Clerk’s office for a civil union. Growing up, it never occurred to me that I would ever get married. I had an imaginary boyfriend named Butch who would regularly propose to me in my daydreams, and I always turned him down. Let’s go to Baja instead, I’d say at the age of nine, cranking up the Joni Mitchell: we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tried and true. What can I say? I am my family’s daughter after all.