That House is Not My Home: Family and Homophobia

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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
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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.

15 thoughts on “That House is Not My Home: Family and Homophobia”

  1. “Home can only be a place where ALL of me is acknowledged and ok. I have already made that home.”

    YES! It is a common tragedy that those of us who are LGBTQ have to compartmentalize our family structures. Being the child of a lesbian, my REAL family WAS my mother’s “CHOSEN” family. I remember when I watched a documentary about Audre Lorde, she talked about her and her peers having to leave their families when they came out. They found each other and together made a new, chosen family. This is why we call gay people “family” when we are identifying that they are gay. The whole “blood is thicker than water” idea did not apply to me and mines. Seeing Audre Lorde, a highly respected historical person, put words to my lived experience helped me to validate my family structure.

    1. YES!!!

      Audre Lorde really spoke truth to power when she said that. Thank you for reminding me of her words and her truth. And of just how untrue “blood is thicker than water” can really be. I strongly believe love is an action word, so you can say you love all day long, but at the end of the day, its how you back it up with actions that ultimately counts.

    1. Thank you, Isabel. It was very personal and very sacred and very painful to share, so I am so glad people are receiving it and holding it so beautifully.

  2. I hold you close in my heart as I read your essay, Mandisa. You are grappling with difficulties very many of your Lesbian sisters have, or will. I have been through the last days, death, and burial of my momma and my lover’s mother. Thankfully, the issues my Lesbianism brought up for them were largely settled before their death, but many of the difficulties you explore so transparently remained.

    I have come to name those related to me by accident of our birth my “relatives”. Those who are family to me in the way that we all long for are my Family — with no added explanations, like “of choice.” Some few relatives are family — that is, some of my family are also related to me by birth. I feel this language is most truthful and expressive of the reality of my life.

    I, too, heard my momma and another near relative say that they loved my, but hated my sin. That can make you momentarily insane and incensed, can’t it? Over time, I became more articulate in my response to this idiotic statement. I am Lesbian. It is the wholeness of who I am. I am as much Lesbian as Woman, as much Lesbian as Human. Can I love you, Momma, but hate your being a Woman? Just what is it of me that you love, when all of me is Lesbian?

    My and my lover’s names were included in my momma’s obituary by whichever of my relatives wrote it. I’m sure they thought they were somehow being cool or progressive by doing that; I’m equally sure they thought I should appreciate it as something special. I didn’t. I saw it as another way for them to be publicly seen as “inclusive”, while continuing to be personally offensive, rude, and cruel to me and my lover.

    I have also come to refuse to play by the rules that give others cover while they oppress me. For some reason, turning 50 empowered this in me. I became acutely aware of the ways my relatives were confident I would “behave” so as not to make others uncomfortable — how often I made myself uncomfortable and thereby allowed them to look well-behaved while torturing my spirit. One hint that this is happening is the use of the passive voice when we speak or write of such situations. When we say we “were not allowed” the underlying truth may be that we allowed ourselves to be. To be absent from the front row with your relatives, or to require them to physically remove you and your lover from the front row, is to be in the active voice. It is to make yourself comfortable, and require them to suffer the discomfort of their oppressive actions. We can begin to stop making it easy for folks to treat us badly. Doing so is not easy, and not without consequences, but it sure will set you free to refuse to play by the rules that make the wrongdoers comfy.

    My heart hurts for you, for your lover, for Lesbians young and old who must come so intimately face-to-face with the oppressors whom they long to love and be loved by; with those for whose love we long, and who have special powers to hurt and harm us by withholding that love; who make it clear that they value their comfort in their righteousness more than they value loving us; who show themselves unwilling or unable to see, feel, or ease our pain. It is often the case in life that such meetings take place at the most difficult of times, like losing a parent in death.

    And yet, my spirit soars for you, Mandisa, you who write so beautifully and publicly of your pain and anger, who speak your truth to others! We are all lifted up by reading of your experience: we are helped to examine our own lives, and so become more ourselves; we are allowed to consider ourselves in your situation, and consider how we might want to be when it is our own. By these things, you have lessened the oppression of your family by their relatives. Your truth sets us free. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    1. Hi Alda,

      As one of Mandisa’s chosen family members, I want to thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts. Many things that you shared are inspirational…so many people in my life have talked about how liberated they became as they move into their 50th decade…great things to look forward to!! I want to also say that Mandisa has given much thought and care to her choices, both around the language that she uses to describe the dyanmics at play in her familial relationships, as well as how to navigate homophobia through her father’s passing. It is an ever-changing process to figure out how to balance belonging to our cultures, to our family units (blood and chosen), our neighborhoods and to ourselves. Mandisa made a conscious decision to sit in the front row without Wendi. Although your message about not partnering with our own oppression is so real and meaningful, each situation has it’s own unique circumstances and sometimes what we feel is best for us requires us to do what we have to do to be close to who we need to be close to. Perhaps its not necessarily right, but also not wrong. Complicated for sure!

      1. Shana & Mandisa,

        Peace to you both. I did not want to, nor intend to, imply that any of Mandisa’s choices were less than the right thing for her! Please accept my apologies if I failed to be clear about that. Her thoughtful essay leaves me believing that she is indeed thoughtful and intentional in her life.

        I hope that her essay prompts discussions among families and relatives, among the younger and the older among us. I included choices and lessons that I have made in order that others realize that, as you say, there is no right nor wrong path; and to offer more of the great variety of decisions that one might make, of the considerations one might give thought to, of ways of coming to know ourselves and our oppressors.

        Thank you for your reply, and an opportunity to clarify myself. Honor to you each.

        Alda Talley

  3. I want to thank everybody for the tremendous outpouring of affirmations and feedback for the story I shared. I actually wrote this about 3 weeks ago and was fearful to publish it because I know firsthand what can happen when you put your thoughts and feelings out to the world. It means I no longer have control over what it brings up for people about themselves and/or about me. Because I am talking about something as tender and painful as my father’s death and the family I have known all my life, this is a simultaneously scary and liberating thing for me to do. Ultimately, I am glad I published this piece. I just ask that you continue to keep in mind the tenderness with which I share this story-as it is ultimately mine to share, even as I am conscious that I have released a part of it to the world.

    Much love.

  4. Mandisa, I just read this article and really admire your bravery and honesty for writing it! I have felt so similiar in my life and I so appreciate how you put it in words! I am sorry for your loss(es). Havent seen you in awhile, other than a picture of you and Wendi on facebook that is absolutely beautiful, and I wish you both the best always!

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