About a month ago, my family received news that my father (who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer in mid-2009) had just a couple weeks to live. His medical team had run out of treatment options. I immediately became a full-time caretaker to my father as he moved into home hospice care and a caretaker to my mother as she faced the immediacy of losing her life partner of more than 30 years. Together, we helped my father to die-surrounded by love. On December 4, my father died-as my mother and I held his hand and each other’s. Helping my father to die is the largest, hardest energy exchange I have ever experienced. I never thought at 27 I would be grieving my father’s death.
Grieving is extremely hard. You experience so many emotions: you move in and out of presence and emotions so quickly, all while planning a homegoing service for your loved one. Like so many other processes, it is impossible to grieve outside of the socio-political framework we live in. Social constructs and internalized forms of oppression don’t just stop because we are grieving a loved one. Oftentimes, these factors affect the validity, form, and space within which you are able to grieve.
Grieving my father’s death has been especially difficult because of the homophobia I experience on the part of my immediate family-things that we have internalized from the dominant culture- but that also feel unique to my family based on our personalities and other family dynamics.
I came out about five years ago. My parents and older brother are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among a long list of things that are condemnable according to the teachings of the church, queerness is at the top of that list. I knew I would pay a huge cost for admitting I was a lesbian, but not coming out and being honest was just not a viable option for me. I truly believed it would be hard at first, but the love that I had always been taught to follow from Christ would make it so that my family would be able to see and love ALL of me. I refused to believe that they would cling to that ridiculous hate-filled mantra “I don’t hate you, I hate what you do.” I continue to pay the price for having the audacity to come out AND to ask for their love.
After I came out, things with my parents, especially my mother, immediately changed. I wasn’t invited to family gatherings anymore; I saw the hurt in her eyes, but when I tried to talk with her, I was shut out; I was often the last to know about important family decisions (I recently learned that I was told my father had cancer a month and a half after he was actually diagnosed). Until they came to visit my dad before he died, I hadn’t talked to my brother or his family in over three years. This is the same brother that, until I was three, I called “daddy”- he was most present in my life because my parents ran a full-time private medical practice. My sister-in-law faced reprimand from the congregation because she often texted or emailed to send me pictures of my nieces and nephews as they grew up and asked for pictures of me in return. It’s as if my right to love my family, be loved by them, and to show that love had been taken away the day I said I was a lesbian. Because, you know, its very Christ-like to stop communicating with a family member who has made decisions you don’t like or agree with……
It makes me so sad and it is so hurtful (all I can do is laugh bitterly) that my family has the audacity to look me in the eye and say they love me. In fact, they’ve told me that my disfellowshipment (that’s what Witnesses call the public and private shaming of us unapologetic sinners) is because they love me and if they talk to me and socialize with me, then how will I end my sinful ways? Can we just clock THAT bullshit??
And yes, this is only exasperated by the grief that we are all managing through with my father’s death. This homophobia not only affects my ability to grieve my father, but I know that it affects my family’s ability to grieve because I have to set boundaries around the time I spend with my family and the ways in which I am available to them. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:
1) In the obituary, my brothers’ wives have names and pictures. There are no pictures nor is my partner Wendi’s name present. She, and thus my full self, are completely invisible.
2) When the family gathers at my parents’ house, first to say goodbye to our father/husband, then in the aftermath of his death, I am not fully present. Why? Because my partner is not even allowed in the house. What does it do to the cohesion of a family when one of its core members cannot be fully present?
3) The expectation that I (as the only child who lives in New Orleans and the girl child) will coordinate and caretake and help my mother and brothers meet their needs around grief, while mine go unexamined and unmet. I am clear that no one’s needs are fully met, but mine are not even on the table.
4) The blaming and lack of responsibility on my family’s part when I have brought up managing this in a different way-because “these are choices I made and why am I mad at them? I should be mad at God because ALL they’re doing is following his rules.” Can you see the manipulation and unwillingness to take responsibility for choices they’ve made about how to treat their sister and daughter?
5) At my dad’s memorial service, Wendi was not allowed to sit on the front row with me. Luckily, we have soo much chosen family that she wasn’t alone. But the fact that I have to navigate this as I grieve my father is just….so heartbreaking. I shouldn’t have to make the decision to spend the memorial service with my family of origin, then the repast with my chosen family at a table in the back of the room.
The bottom line is that my family consistently gets the benefits of the unconditional love, compassion, and support Wendi has provided me since my dad was first diagnosed (I am able to coordinate logistics with the funeral home, my dad’s colleagues, and travel for our extended family, among other things through Wendi’s support), without providing any love, compassion, acknowledgment or support in return. Because of this refusal to even grow just an inch, the ways that my family members manifest homophobia without even knowing what it is and how my family has consciously chosen to treat me, where my father died and where my mom still lives will never be home to me. Home can only be a place where ALL of me is acknowledged and ok. I have already made that home.