Queering Family: On Gratitude for Grandparents

It has been far too long since we’ve posted about our journey. Since Elizabeth’s last post, we’ve left Vermont, traveled to Rehoboth Beach to visit Riah’s birth grandmother, gave a lecture at Wesley Seminary in D.C. on the exact same dates the pope was in town, and resettled in the Jefferson National Forest in southern Virginia. After nearly 10 days of non-stop rain, the sun is shining and the trees are changing into their feisty red and orange outfits for the season.

While in Vermont and traveling to Virginia, we’ve had some tremendous opportunities to share time with all eight of Riah’s grandparents. That’s right. Riah has eight grandparents. In our list of Guiding Principles, we include the broad category of “family,” and the past three months have affirmed this decision. In Vermont, six of Riah’s grandparents visited at different times…

Riah and papa paddle in Silver Lake

First came papa, who was headed to Canada on his motorcycle, laden with cans of organic beans, a tent, and about 13,000 varieties of flashlights. Amidst the rain and mosquitoes that filled our first few weeks in Vermont, papa pitched his bright red tent near our camper. Every morning, when Riah rose before 6am, papa would be waiting to take him on an adventure so that Riah’s road-weary moms could sleep in. Together Riah and papa hiked, climbed, canoed, and explored. Mama and mommy got to go for a long hike, watch the sunset, sleep in, and go on a date night: things we cannot do without help.

Next arrived Deeno and Gamma, laden with more flashlights, Diet Dr. Pepper for mommy, and hotel reservations. Specifically, they made hotel reservations for us! After a month with no running water, Deeno and Gamma surprised us by treating us to, not one, but two nights in a hotel. Hot showers, splashing in the pool, working out in the fitness area, and watching television accompanied our visit, as did delicious meals in Middlebury. Oh, and they got up early to watch Riah one morning so we could sleep past 6am! These are all things we cannot do without help.

mimi vtIn time to celebrate Mimi’s and mama’s birthday came Mimi and Auntie Margaret, laden with at least eight new outfits for Riah, bags of birthday goodies for mama, trail mix and vegan marshmallows. After beautiful hikes, waterfalls, covered bridges, and blueberry pancakes, Mimi treated us to a hotel in town, as well. Mimi and Auntie Margaret watched Riah so his moms could work out, do laundry, and rest. These are all things we cannot do without help.

The final grandparents to visit Vermont were Grammy and Papa Steve, laden with local candies grammy vtand cookies and yet another hotel reservation in our name. It’s possible that all the grandparents were beginning to spoil us with the luxuries of running water and wifi…either that or they didn’t want to deal with how badly we smelled after living in the woods! Together we relished every moment in Middlebury and at Silver Lake, hiking, canoeing, and picking blueberries. Grammy and Papa Steve treated us to meals, a beer tasting, a hotel stay, and watched Riah so we could get work done. Again, these are all things we cannot do without help.

page and kristin vtBefore leaving, one more set of visitors arrived. They aren’t officially family, but they might as well be! Page and Kristin, our beloved friends from Winston-Salem, drove up the east coast, laden with more vegan marshmallows, books for Riah, and soy milk from Costco. They know the keys to our hearts: books, treats, and sugar-free non-dairy milk for our child. Together we hiked, played, roasted those vegan marshmallows, and watched the sunset. They watched Riah so we could have a date night, making it a blessed two times the moms got to escape for a date while on our adventure thus far! These are things we cannot do without help.

As we left the Green Mountains and made our way south, we stopped to visit Riah’s remaining grandma colleengrandparents at their fabulous beach condo in Rehoboth Beach. Birth Grandma Colleen and her wife Jeanine welcomed us with abundant hospitality. Slippers waited by our beds, wine flowed, the refrigerator was stocked with vegan food, delicious meals were shared, and they treated Riah to quite a shopping spree. These are things we cannot do without help.

Between adoption, divorce, and remarriage, Riah has lucked into having eight lovingly fabulous grandparents, three fun uncles (and a soon-to-be aunt-in-law), two absolutely amazing birth parents, and a slew of awesome friends who are like family. We have the great privilege of having family by both choice and blood. We know this is a luxury most queer families do not have. Both experience and statistics remind us that the love and acceptance our extended family has shown is the exception and not the norm. As a pastor, I cannot tell you the number of queer congregants I know who have had parents kick them out of the house upon coming out, or who have beaten them and told them they are no longer a part of the family, or who shame them and tell them they’re destined for hell. In the LGBTQ community, family is often a tenuous, even volatile notion. Being disowned by family happens all the time. Physical violence is often a reality or concern. Sometimes parents go decades without knowing their child is queer because the fear of violence, revulsion, or exclusion is so real. Sometimes parents never know. Sometimes families are “ok,” but still shame, exclude, undercut, and treat the queer person as thought their identity and/or relationship is less worthy, less real. Lying, blaming, tricking, excluding, disowning. These are often the ways queer people are treated by their “families.”

I recently read Janet Mock’s stunning memoir, Redefining Realness, and I think her statement sums up perfectly the reality for so many queer people who struggle with the notion of family: “I think of the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ youth who are flung from intolerant homes, from families who reject them when they reveal themselves. Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless and runaway American youth, as many as 40 percent are LGBTQ [when LGBTQ folks actually only comprise about 10% of the overall population]. These young people are kicked out of their homes or are left with no choice but to leave because they can’t be themselves (109).”

These realities make us acutely aware that what we have and what we have created as family is unique; it is something we must never take for granted. Are our families perfect? No way. Do we always agree on everything? Nope. Have there been times when our queerness has been a struggle for some of our parents? Absolutely. But here they are, making the trip to Vermont from Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida, welcoming us into their home in Delaware. Here they are with flashlights, hotel stays, babysitting, vegan marshmallows, and house slippers.

Being queer is a beautiful, revolutionary, life-changing gift. My queerness helped my father and I become closer. Our queerness has helped both of us open our eyes to the ways in which others are excluded and marginalized in society. Our queerness led an absolutely brilliant, thoughtful pregnant woman to choose us to parent her child, not in spite of our difference, but because of it. And now we are a big, loving, expanding, queer family. Queerness is often used within the LGBTQ community to mean “to transgress, to act differently than the status quo.” I can think of few better ways to parent and to be a family than by transgressing the exclusionary patterns posited by society and acting differently than the status quo.

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