Featured in Colorado Review
Published Summer 2015
When I told my uncle Mason that I was gay, my father was back at the house, getting drunk. Earlier that evening I had come out to my parents, and my father didn’t take it well. I knew he wouldn’t, so I had put this off as long as I could, telling friends and strangers, but not my family. I was operating on a theory a friend shared with me: Come out to people only when you think it will make the relationship better. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that coming out to your parents will open up lines of communication long dormant through years spent in the closet. Revelation rarely heals.
But by this time—it was 1996, and I was twenty-eight—I was in a serious relationship with a lovely man named T., and it felt too wrong to keep that a secret. (Never mind that this relationship would end two months later, when T. told me he loved me, and I said, “Thank you.”) To lie about myself was one thing; to pretend that someone I cared about didn’t exist was another kind of wrong entirely. And so on a hot summer evening in South Carolina, I sat with my parents on the patio of their house and told them I was gay. I remember contorted faces, and a long silence. I remember my mother telling me, in a quavering voice, that she didn’t want me to get aids. And I remember what my father said, when my mother finally prodded him to say something: “They shoot horses, don’t they?” At the time, I didn’t know the reference to the film in which Michael Sarrazin shoots Jane Fonda because she’s too weak to kill herself, but I got the gist.
Later that night, at a restaurant, I told my uncle Mason, my mother’s brother. It was just my mother and me, since my father had disappeared into his bedroom, shortly after the scene on the patio. And after some halting commiseration, and awkward pledges of continued love, my uncle asked, “So, is it like The Birdcage?”
I laughed, for the first time that evening. The Birdcage, released a year earlier and based on the fabulously gay La Cage aux Folles, features Robin Williams as the gay owner of a drag club in South Beach and Nathan Lane as his queeny companion and the club’s drag headliner, Starina. The plot involves this gay couple’s straight son bringing home his fiancée, as well as her deeply conservative parents, and for a second I thought my uncle was making a joke about our inverted version of this plot. Well played, I thought. This was something we could work with.
But no, I quickly realized that his reference was less subtle than that. When my uncle thought “gay,” he conjured up the homosexual excess of floats in a gay pride parade, of men in dresses. In his fevered imagination, he was casting me as Starina. I loved drag, but I’d never done it. I didn’t have the shoulders for it. So I tried to explain to my uncle that my gay world was very different from the one he imagined. It was, in fact, quite boring, if South Beach was your only point of comparison. And as I walked him through the banal particulars of my so-called gay life, I was struck by how absurd this conversation had become.
Because here’s the thing about my uncle, my never-married, more-than-a-little-queeny, bachelor uncle: I had long assumed that he was gay, that his name wasn’t the only thing we had in common. And given that, how could he so fail to understand the story I was telling him? How could he think that, after dinner, perhaps, I would put on pancake makeup and a dress and lip-sync to “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”?
Later that night he asked me another question: “So, would you ever want to bring someone home to meet the family?” And it struck me that this question, more accurately than his first, reflected his great distance from my life, and its possibilities. The world of The Birdcage was alien and extreme, but at least he had a reference for it, something that helped him to see it. But a world where I would bring a male partner home to meet my family? That was beyond his ability to imagine. And I wondered: Was there longing in his voice when he asked this question? Was there regret? Was there envy?
When my mother and I got back to the house, we discovered the remnants of my father’s evening: a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the counter, leftover roast beef and rice in the microwave, the microwave door hanging open like an accusation. He had gotten hungry, my father, but rather than face me, he fled back to his bedroom when he heard our car pull into the driveway.
Being named after my uncle was a gift. My older brother had scooped up my father’s name, the perfectly fine, though ultimately forgettable, “Doug.” So I was left with “Mason,” which, in 1967, was still fresh. This was a name that set me apart, and I was happy to have it, not least because my uncle was so much fun. He was game for all the stupid stuff kids want to do, all the stuff that makes parents rethink the whole parenting thing. Amusement parks, arcades, houses that defy gravity, mile-high grizzly bears—my uncle could always be counted on to ferry us away to whatever cheesy attraction the area offered.
He was the life of every party, the big man whose wet laughter announced the center of whatever was happening at the moment. My brother and I competed for his time and attention. On family vacations that required two cars, we’d fight to ride with him, not simply because he had sharper wheels (absent the upkeep of children, he allowed himself a new Cadillac every few years), but because he’d sometimes let us steer, well before the legal age of steering. Whoever didn’t get the front seat would sit in back, ready to supply my uncle with another Budweiser from the cooler (as with the steering, this was well before casual drinking and driving was an unforgivable sin).
He was a talented musician, and at the piano his big hands spanned way more than an octave, enabling the kind of boogie-woogie, left-hand work people demanded if there was a piano around. His relationship to the piano seemed entirely organic. He never required sheet music, and you never knew what he was going to play when he sat down, but you knew he was inventing it on the spot. It was new every time. My uncle at the piano, his left foot pounding the floor, setting lamps and vases moving, was the closest thing to excess you could find in my family. He played the role of uncle to the hilt, swooping in for benign subversions of parental authority, swooping out again when the time came to pick up the pieces. Had he ever allowed himself his own Starina moment, it would have been as Auntie Mame.
There were, of course, downsides to being my uncle’s namesake, the chief of which was being called, at least within the family, “Little Mason” until I had reached the unseemly age of thirty-seven, the year “Big Mason” died and cleared the field. But mostly, carrying my uncle’s name was more boon than burden. It created a bond between us, one that was heightened by the other things we shared: an outgoing personality, a slightly ridiculous sense of humor, a musical talent, and something else I lacked a language for: some quiet sense I had that he lived his life outside the laws that governed other people—that he lived outside expectation. This was an example I would need, though I was too young to know it on those summer days at the beach, when I was six, and my parents would find me curled up in a ball outside my uncle’s bedroom door, waiting for him to emerge from his afternoon nap, so that the fun could start again.
The bachelor—especially the bachelor uncle—was a figure in the South, a recognizable type. A bit dandyish, the bachelor was a trickster figure, someone who hovered outside convention, who discovered loopholes of possibility. As a category, bachelor carried within it a seemingly unresolvable contradiction. On the one hand, the bachelor signified a kind of heterosexual excess, the single man unleashed from marriage and babies, freed from the confines of the domestic. The bachelor could roam the world of heterosexual possibility, more often than not sporting an ascot, and never get caught. On the other hand, bachelor was a knowing, if relatively polite, slur, a euphemism for queer, or unsexed. And yet, ironically, it was a slur that saved men like my uncle from the taint of homosexuality. It both named the possibility of sexual deviance and politely cloaked that possibility in the figure of heterosexual excess, thus leading to that oddest of phrases, the “confirmed” bachelor. What would it take, one wonders, to confirm such a thing? What kind of test would someone have to pass? The confirmed bachelor led a double life: someone who would never marry because he was queer, and someone who would never marry because he was too busy having sex with lots of different women.
This tension played out in my own family in quiet ways. I remember discovering a book tucked away on the shelves of my parents’ den with the title Everything I Know About Sex. My uncle’s name appeared on the spine as the author. It was a thick book, but when I opened it, I found nothing but empty page after empty page, a gag gift, presumably, and one that my uncle must not have appreciated, since the book was on our shelves rather than his.
I also remember my father’s many references to a family friend as my uncle’s “girlfriend.” She was, indeed, my uncle’s constant social companion and had been for as long as I could remember. She was with us on holidays and vacations, as much an aunt to me as Mason was an uncle. But there was never, to the extent that I could tell, the slightest romantic spark between the two of them, not a shared room on vacation, never a held hand. Like my uncle, this family friend never married, and as I got older and learned the term beard, I assumed that this was what they had been to each other: social partners who disguised their homosexuality through the social fiction of longtime companions.
But when my father called her my uncle’s girlfriend, did he believe it? Or was this, like the joke book, a not-so-subtle jab at the confirmed bachelor, someone whose “girlfriend” would always be in quotes?
That halting conversation on the patio, and the one with my uncle at the restaurant, turned out to be the only times my family and I would talk about these things until ten years later, after both my mother and uncle had died. And this silence wasn’t our regular kind of silence, the silence of a family that tacitly agrees not to confront difficulty. Rather, it was willed. It was the silence of an explicit prohibition.
Just a couple of months after coming out to my parents, I received a letter, signed by both my mother and father, though written in my father’s hand. I was living in Virginia, where I was teaching. My relationship with T., which had inspired my revelation, had just ended.
The letter seemed oddly familiar to me, since I had seen versions of it in various made-for-TV movies about families torn apart by a son’s homosexuality. And though my parents never actually said what was always said in those movies—“I would rather you were dead”—they did write that they would prefer anything to my being gay. The work of filling in the blank of that “anything” was left to me.
They asked me never to speak to them again about my romantic life. I wasn’t to mention T., nor was I to speak about any of this to my brother or anyone else in the family. I would always be welcome in their home, they wrote, but only if I came alone, and only if I played by the rules concerning what could and couldn’t be said.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. By refusing to hear any news of T., they missed the biggest news of all: that we were no longer a couple. Had I been able to tell them that I had broken T.’s heart on a beach in Oregon, perhaps they could have escaped whatever depraved visions troubled their sleep.
I kept this letter for almost a decade. I was angry, and whenever I felt the anger fading, I would retrieve the letter from the box on the top shelf of my closet and feed the anger that had become as essential to me as my name. I imagined the letter as a kind of eternal flame, threatening to engulf the closet that hid it, the house, my life. When the house was quiet, I could almost hear the letter crackle and pop, its flicker dancing in the darkness. Fires eventually burn themselves out, people say. They run out of fuel. I wasn’t so sure.
My mother died two years after sending that letter. In the aftermath, communication with my father was even more strained, since my mother was the oil that kept a barely functioning machine going. And when my uncle died, six years later, this left just my father and me, with so much to talk about, but no ability to do so. Wanting a smaller house, he sold his and bought my uncle’s, so on my rare trips home to see him, I found myself in what had been Uncle Mason’s house, choking on the silence.
As a diversion, I spent a fair amount of time snooping through my uncle’s things. Silence breeds a longing to know, and in an effort to fill in the missing pieces, I had already constructed a story for him, a tragic account of missed opportunities. He was, in this fantasy, the gay man born fifty years too soon, a man whose desires found no home in the world. That thing inside him that made him want the things he shouldn’t want: that was sickness. That was the work of the Devil. And it could be resisted only through discipline, denial, and a surrender to God. In shaping his story this way, I was able to cast myself as its hero, the man who had the opportunities my uncle lacked, who could live his gay life—his real life—for him. I would dedicate every kiss, every grope, every exchange of fluids to my uncle’s queer memory.
The first thing I discovered in my snooping was a painful reminder of the distance between us. I had hoped to find, of course, a diary, something that laid out, in dishy detail, the love that dare not speak its name. I had come to expect such things of figures from the queer past, who were, according to my research, obsessive diary-keepers. I knew that Arthur Benson, for example, English writer and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, had filled 180 volumes with over four million words, almost all of them an attempt to understand the unseemly things he felt for the undergraduates in his charge.
My uncle, it turned out, was no Arthur Benson. He left behind no “Dear Diary” recounting of things that couldn’t be spoken. He did keep, however, a rather sporadic log, less a diary than a kind of short-hand remembrance of the day’s events. There were no secrets here, no revelations. I scanned for any mention of me, but found only one, from the day I had told the truth about myself: “Distressing news from Mason today.” There it was, in his beautiful if prissy hand—he had studied calligraphy—proof that I had been the cause of distress. In those five words I learned more about how he truly felt than I had in any conversation. I had hurt him in ways he never let me know.
The transition from this log entry to a photo of my uncle, probably in his seventies, posing in front of the Liberace Museum was both jarring and hopeful. I knew this museum well, having spent a delightful afternoon there once with a boyfriend, both of us eager to escape the Vegas Strip. We marveled at the mirrored piano, the capes, the sequins, the chandeliers, the pink-feathered boas. But mostly we marveled at our fellow visitors, a bimodal mix of queens and grandparents, thirty-something gay men seeking their idol and senior citizens seeking theirs. How to read my uncle’s presence there? A whole generation would go to their graves certain that Liberace was the most heterosexual of men. Another would find in him the flamboyance and camp they needed to survive. What did Liberace mean, when he meant so many very different things at once?
In a separate folder I discovered an honorable discharge from the army, evidence of a thing I had never quite believed: that my uncle served in World War ii. I had heard his stories of raucous nights in the Officer’s Club in London, where he played the piano, but I could never square those stories with my very nonmilitary sense of my uncle. But here it was, dated 20 December 1945, a “testimonial of honest and faithful service to this country.” My uncle was twenty-one years old, not even finished growing, since the paper listed his height at 5’9”, and I knew that he had six feet in his future. His weight was a scrawny 132 pounds. Under “Battles and Campaigns,” the document listed “Northern France FO 105 WD 45,” which, for all its gibberish, sounded a far cry from the drunken hijinks of that Officer’s Club in London. Under “Wounds Received in Action,” thankfully, “none.”
But when I discovered an envelope marked “Army Pictures, World War 2,” I found a version of my uncle that made more sense to me. The first photo captures a military version of the Island of Misfit Toys, six young men in full dress uniform, my uncle among them, all six radiating an awkwardness—let’s put it plainly—a queerness, that I find immediately endearing. Having lived most of my life among boys and men like these, I recognize them immediately. These were not “the guys”; these were, rather, “those guys,” men of questionable masculinity who found solace in their collective otherness. Their facial expressions range from pinched to goofy, their height from my uncle’s 5’9” to something more like the 5’2” of a man in the first row, who, according to my uncle’s writing on the back, went by the nickname “Short Boy.” My uncle is the most striking of the pack, his eyes meeting the camera with a quiet confidence. He’s beautiful, in his way, and I’m unsettled by my attraction to him. But I’m particularly drawn to a man in the front row, the most misfitted of this misfit group. Bad hair, cheeks with more than a memory of baby fat, an attempt at manly seriousness that doesn’t convince. He’s adorable, like a teddy bear. His name is included in the caption on the back (I’ll call him J. P.), and I wonder what he’s thinking, what it feels like for him to be among these men.
Next I find a photo that looks like an outtake from the Gomer Pyle show, my uncle and two other men posed with helmets and rifles. They’re holding the rifles at a forty-five-degree angle, and the middle man’s helmet is askew. Their uniforms are too large, the pants bunching at the ankles. There’s an attempt at masculine bravado, but it fails. These men should not have guns. They’re not the gun type. There’s another of my uncle with three men on a beach, either France or England. They’re in bathing suits, shirtless, huddled together for the camera. My uncle’s hand rests lightly on the shoulder of the homely man in front of him. There’s a woman in the far background, half-clad in a towel. The caption on the back reads, in my uncle’s writing, “Beautiful, aren’t we? Note the lady undressing behind us.” And the thing is, they are beautiful, all pale, gangly limbs, exposed and vulnerable. And again, the thought hits me that these are my people. If I saw any of them on the street, I would look twice. I would risk a knowing glance.
And then I find the photo I’m looking for: my uncle, embracing another man. It’s J. P. from the first picture, tucked under my uncle’s arm, and he’s wrapped my uncle in a teddy bear hug. My uncle’s left arm draws J. P. to him, his right hand clasping J. P.’s wrist. There’s no way to describe this other than romantic. This isn’t the kind of physical contact that straight men love to perform, their heterosexuality assured and thus unimpeachable. There’s no irony here, no self-consciousness. There’s only the comfort of the embrace, and a refusal to let go. I turn the picture over, hoping for a caption, but find only my uncle’s last name.
The last picture I discover is different. It’s of my uncle, shirtless, with another shirtless man in the background. A military tent stands behind them. I’m struck by my uncle’s body language, and his facial expression. His head is cocked to the side, like a puzzled dog. And there’s something in his face that’s not visible in the other pictures, something resistant, something unwelcoming. It’s as if he wonders why he’s being looked at, and wishes he weren’t. I feel him looking back at me, wondering why I have him in my lens. And he’s asking, What do you want from me? What is it you hope to find? I turn the photo over and find only the word “CENSORED” and some illegible scrawl.
We often think of the military as a bastion of anti-gay hostility, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, as Allan Bérubé documents in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, the war offered gay men and lesbians both a visibility and a community they lacked in civilian life. As Bérubé writes, “the massive mobilization for World War ii relaxed social constraints of peacetime that had kept gay men and women unaware of themselves and each other, ‘bringing out’ many in the process.” William Menninger, a psychiatric consultant to the military, called the wartime army “fundamentally a homosexual society,” where men were thrown into close and intimate contact with one another in a space almost completely devoid of women. And while the military worked hard, through psychological profiling, to weed out gay enlistees, both the urgency of the need and the crudeness of their instruments led to a massive failure to ensure the military’s heterosexuality. In fact, something of the opposite happened. An alertness to homosexual stereotypes led in many cases not to dismissal, but to a sort of segregation, where gay men were channeled into so-called “appropriate” occupations: the steno pool, clerical jobs, and, to a significant extent, musical and entertainment corps. This gender-inverted typecasting had the effect of creating, where none had existed, gay work cultures and communities. One begins to understand those pictures of my uncle with his posse of the slightly “off,” men who had found each other, and were relieved to have done so.
These newly formed gay cultures spilled into the cities surrounding army bases, where places like the Pepsi-Cola Servicemen’s Canteen dormitory in San Francisco and the Seven Seas Locker Club in San Diego, along with YMCA hotels, became hotbeds of gay cruising and only slightly covert sex. Given such opportunities, civilian life began to look much less attractive. As one gi said, “If I go home . . . how can I stay out all night or promote a serious affair? My parents would simply consider me something perverted and keep me in the house.”
Of course, all this new freedom would lead to an inevitable backlash. With the return to civilian life of a newly visible gay culture, the genie had to be put back in the bottle. The decade after the war witnessed an increasing focus on sex perverts and deviants, orchestrated through the federal government, the church, and the media. Returning to their small towns, their families, the eyes of their neighbors, what would happen to men like J. P.? What would happen to my uncle?
But then I remembered that my uncle didn’t return to South Carolina after the war, but went to Miami instead, to attend college. Had his time in the war taught him the value of port cities with large military populations? Was he looking for a civilian version of the community he had found in the army? A small book of snapshots, dated 1949 and inscribed to my uncle, poked a few holes in this theory. Though there’s the occasional photo of an extremely hunky undergrad, in most of these shots my uncle is surrounded by palm trees and bikinied women. The arms that had held J. P. only a year or two before now linger happily over female shoulders, sometimes two and three at a time. Tucked away at the very back, separated from the other photos by several blank sleeves, as though hidden, is a particularly incriminating shot. It’s of my uncle and a girl. He has his arm around her shoulder, and he’s holding her hand while he looks into her eyes. One wonders if this is the woman who sent him the snapshots, who wrote in the back, “I won’t send you the rest of the pictures until I hear from you! So there.”
Removed from the all-male context of those war photos, my uncle, in these Miami days, looks decidedly more manly, more heterosexual. If the war photos reveal one face of the confirmed bachelor, these college shots reveal the other: the bachelor as a happy figure of heterosexual excess and possibility.
And I’m reminded of similar photographic evidence from my own past, a picture that once made my parents very happy. I spent my junior year of college abroad, near London, and I was lucky to discover that a second or third cousin by marriage had a five-bedroom condo in Paris. He needed a house sitter for a few weeks around Christmas, and I leapt at the opportunity. Word soon got out that I had commodious digs in the City of Lights, and friends of mine from home and abroad descended, resulting in a Christmas feast of cheap wine and overcooked duck. My guests—some eight or ten—were all female, and when a photo of that Christmas dinner reached my parents, they must have celebrated. And I was happy to let them celebrate. I was still deeply in the closet—scared to death, in fact, of what I knew to be true about myself—and this picture of the promiscuous bachelor abroad was just what I needed to buttress an increasingly shaky heterosexual façade. It was also just what my parents were looking for. They captioned it “Mason and his Harem” and circulated it throughout the neighborhood.
We see in photographs what we want to see. When is a harem—on a beach or in a Parisian condo—the truth? And when is it a cover for a secret that’s hiding in plain sight?
I knew my uncle as a deeply religious man. In this he resembled my mother, whose attempts to get me to go to church were heroic, if ultimately doomed to failure. I’ve never been a believer, and this was the source of great and increasing stress in my family. At some point my mother gave up on getting me to church, having grown tired, I imagine, of my post-sermon critiques (I once caught the minister in a misquotation of James Joyce). But the concern for my everlasting soul lingered, emerging in quiet, if indirect, ways.
Only a few years before he died, my uncle mailed me a copy of Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, the first in the blockbuster series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins documenting the rapture—that moment when Jesus returns and the saved ascend with him to Heaven, leaving nonbelievers, Jews, and Muslims behind to fight various end-time skirmishes. This gift was astute on my uncle’s part. He knew that I always had my head in a book, and what better way to save an intellectual’s soul than through a novel? I read it immediately. It was fascinating, in the same way that the white supremacist literature I had made the subject of my first scholarly book was fascinating. It was a window into a mindset that was repugnant to me but that I wanted to understand. Of course, it didn’t have the effect my uncle had intended. Instead of pondering the state of my soul, I wondered why, when the believers were raptured, they left their outer garments behind but took their underwear with them. I wondered what it meant for my uncle to believe that, when the rapture came, good people of other faiths would suffer the same fate as atheists. That, say, Gandhi and I, were we contemporaries, would both be doomed to Hell.
I never spoke with my uncle about this novel, and he never brought it up. This was the way with our family. We preferred indirection, anything that allowed us to avoid confrontation: a letter mailed rather than a phone called, a novel that appears with no accompanying message, or, in a more dramatic example, a message from the grave.
Just such a message came three days after my uncle’s death—at his funeral service, in fact. I was seated down front in my uncle’s church—a country church, farther out of town than the one I had stopped attending so many years back. I was there with my father, my brother and sister-in-law, perhaps my niece and nephew. Halfway through the preacher’s sermon, I realized that his words were aimed at me—literally. He had found me in the second row and was looking directly at me. He made eye contact, and held it, as he talked about the tragic fate of the nonbeliever, and how easily that fate could be avoided, if only he surrendered his arrogance, his belief that he could think his way through the world. My uncle had spoken in his last days, the preacher said, of his faith in God, of his certainty of the life everlasting that awaited him. But he had also spoken of a heaviness of heart. He was worried, the preacher said, about those who lacked such certainty. He was distraught over the fate of people who weren’t saved, the hellfire that awaited them.
Although the preacher never mentioned my name, I’m sure that my uncle did, that my uncle’s last wish was for this man of God to accomplish what all others had failed at: the salvation of his nephew, whom he loved.
And as the preacher was doing this work, his eyes on me and only me, I became angrier and angrier. How dare he use the occasion of my uncle’s funeral to proselytize. How dare he intrude upon my grief to alert me to the dire state of my soul. And I worried, in the days that followed, that this anger would seep onto my uncle, that I would always resent him for such a cheap trick, the hijacking of his own funeral for one last attempt at my salvation.
But instead of anger toward my uncle, I felt sorrow, and this was much worse. For the first time, I tried to put myself in my uncle’s place. I tried to imagine what it would feel like if you knew—knew, not merely believed—that someone you truly loved was doomed to the worst fate imaginable, everlasting torment. Because that’s what my uncle knew, that someone he had known and loved since his first cry was damned. And knowing this must have killed him, in much crueler fashion than the congestive heart failure that merely took his life.
I looked for solace anywhere I could find it. I latched on to the fact that my uncle had never once said or implied that I was damned because I was gay. I was damned because I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. And while this may appear to be a distinction without a difference—I was damned either way—perhaps it meant that, in my uncle’s eyes, my homosexuality wouldn’t keep me from Heaven. Maybe, then, he knew this about himself as well, that, whatever he may once have felt for J. P., this feeling could sit alongside his faith and not trouble it. Maybe he could be himself before the Lord, if not before the rest of us.
Or maybe there was no solace to be found. Maybe he was so worried about my soul because he still worried about his own. Did he carry with him, like a cancer, what he had once felt for that baby-faced soldier? Did my uncle worry that he too had committed crimes that would keep him from the kingdom of God?
In the years since my uncle’s death, my life has come, more and more, to resemble his. And yet, the commonality I now feel most urgently isn’t the name we share, or even the presumed if unacknowledged bond of our homosexuality. Rather, it’s our experience of being single. Like him, I’m a bachelor, and with the birth of my nephew, and then my niece, I became a bachelor uncle as well.
And what I’ve found is that history repeats itself. The silence of one generation carries over too easily to the next. I finally came out to my brother and sister-in-law ten years after my parents had asked me not to, but the topic has rarely come up again. In an email, my brother wrote that he doesn’t approve of my “lifestyle,” but he understands it. My sister-in-law has been better, inquiring once or twice over the years about my romantic life. As for my niece and nephew, we’ve never officially had “the conversation,” though surely they know. How could they not, when the signs are so much more legible than they were in my uncle’s day?
My niece and I, in particular, seem to have a tacit understanding. In a recent exchange of texts, she mentioned how much she liked Chick-fil-A. I told her I loved their chicken, but hated their politics. She wrote, “Oh yeah, the whole homophobic thing. I’m weak, and eat there anyway. The fact that they’re closed on Sundays is a bummer. I boycott them on Sundays.” She continued, “My gay friends eat there too. I’ll just assume it’s okay.” This casual reference to her gay friends from a girl raised in the same religious climate I fled so long ago—that’s the most promising bit of indirection my family has ever produced.
But this indirection is possible only because I occupy the same position as my uncle: the mysteriously single adult. Absent the provocation of a shunned partner, why spoil Thanksgiving dinner with explicit declarations, with demands for respect? I dated off and on (more off than on), but I was never very good at it. Maybe I got too late a start, having been closeted in the years when you get your first practice in merging and compromise. Maybe my independence had become too entrenched, my autonomy too comfortable. Or maybe I simply never met the right guy in the right moment. Whatever the reason, the most I was able to muster with someone would be a few weeks, or, in a handful of cases, a few months.
Eventually, though, I came to appreciate the freedom and opportunity that a single life afforded. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. I loved not being responsible to another person. I came to cherish, even to hoard, my time alone. A friend might ask what I was going to do on the weekend. “Sit quietly,” I would say.
And then, just when I had everything figured out, I met R., and everything changed. My much-cherished private time felt like a waste of time. My quiet nights at home felt suddenly lonely. I fell quickly in love with R., and, remarkably, he fell in love with me. We made it almost three years, until a job took him to New York, and our attempts at a commuting relationship failed. He understood this failure sooner than I did, and when he ended things, I was devastated. And in the aftermath, I was adrift. I had forgotten how to be single. I had forgotten how to appreciate the advantages of an uncoupled life, the freedom, the comfort, the ease. And in those difficult days, I turned once again to my uncle’s memory.
I remembered that question he had asked: Would you ever want to bring someone home to meet the family? And I heard again the longing in his voice, but now I was sure that the longing was on my behalf. Whatever he had missed, whatever he had given up, this was what he wanted for me. And I had failed him, had squandered the opportunities my proudly gay life afforded. Yes, I had met the person I wanted to bring home. I had met the person I wanted my family to know. But these things never happened, first because of my parents’ prohibition against speech and proximity, and my cowardly submission to it, and then simply because lost opportunities are lost forever.
After my mother died, and as my father was, some ten years later, making the moves I’m sure he wished he could have made earlier, he said, “Tell me about R.” He knew of him only because I had stopped spending Christmas with my family. If R. wasn’t welcome, I said, then neither was I. But after a couple of years of this, my father worked up his courage, and he broke his own rule. “Tell me about R.” Not exactly an invitation to a homestay, but perhaps a prelude to it. Of course, R. and I had broken up not long before this, and, my heart broken, this was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Doors open, and then they shut again.
But in the years that followed, my father would occasionally summon his courage and ask me if I was seeing anybody. I appreciated his efforts—they had cost him a great deal, and were motivated only by love—but the answer was always no. I had settled back into my singledom, learned again to value its rhythms. I had created a life that felt full, one that could fairly be described as promiscuous, though the promiscuity was more social than sexual. There are the friends I dine with, the friends I vacation with, and, yes, the friends I sleep with. And there are also those friends—a smaller number, surely—who provide that thing we hope to find in a life-long partner: the ability to be my truest self, with no fear of abandonment. Call it a division of labor if you will, but that makes it sound like more work than it is. Maybe it’s a division of love. It’s what can happen in that space outside, the space my uncle inhabited.
In that respect, and despite whatever differences he felt between us, my life looks not unlike my uncle’s. I’ve never been to war, and he never marched in a gay-pride parade, but we’ve both been bachelors. In those days after his death, snooping through his photographs, I tried to turn my bachelor uncle into my gay uncle. At the time, that was what I needed: an antecedent, a version of myself that sat securely at the heart of our family. And there’s a good chance I found it. I still think that photo of my uncle with J. P. tells the truth—or, at least, a truth. And I can’t help but mourn the life he couldn’t bring himself to live. I mourn his lost opportunities, his lost loves.
But then I catch myself. Would he want my pity any more than I want it from those who view my single life as half a life? Would he even recognize himself in the story I’ve made for him, the story of a gay man who kept his heart a secret? Would he reach across the silence, and the years, to claim me as one of his own, a queer misfit on that Island of Misfit Toys?
I’ll never have the answers to these questions. So, not knowing in what ways he might claim me, I choose to claim him. For however much I needed a gay-pride uncle, it was the closeted uncle whose example still guides me—the uncle who had, for over fifty years, and at whatever cost, carved out a space of possibility, carved out a life. In a world where the social pressures toward coupling can feel even greater than the pressures toward heterosexuality, I need his example, and his name, now more than ever.
Mason Stokes is associate professor of English at Skidmore College, where he teaches courses on African American literature and queer fiction. He has written widely on race and sexuality in American culture, and his first novel, Saving Julian, came out earlier this year.