Positive Living: What is family?

By : Greg Stemm
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I am honored to be the chairman of the new Equality Florida Family Values Potluck Picnic on Sunday, October 15 from 2 to 6 pm at Pavilion Seven on Gulfport Beach. The event is on the last day of Come Out St. Pete, our big new LGBTQ celebration in the Sunshine City that not only coincides with National Coming Out Day on October 11, but also is running in collaboration with the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival that week.

Working on this event has me thinking about my own coming out experience and how that traumatic event for me contributed to my own perspectives about family. While I was sitting in the heat and the dark in the six-day power outage after Irma, I had a lot of time to think about things. I asked myself the question…what does family mean to a 56-year-old single only child with a slightly homophobic 82-year-old father in Ohio and very little else in the way of blood kin, living the life of a Quaker gay activist in St. Petersburg, Florida?

I was born in the corn fields surrounding Columbus, Ohio. People up there take green bean casseroles to everything, get drunk on hayrides and have an uncle who cooks meth in his basement. But our household was akin to Leave it to Beaver. My parents had a great relationship and were both at every event I was part of in school. As far as parents and children go, we had an amazing relationship. By the time I was in high school I thought of them as friends as well as parents. Like many gay men, I had a special relationship with my mother.

My family was Quaker. Equality is one of their big things. The entire time I was growing up my parents preached to me that we judge people by what’s in their hearts not the color of their skin. They taught me everyone was equal under the eyes of God. They taught me not to judge.

Repeatedly my parents told me there was nothing I couldn’t bring to them that we wouldn’t deal with together as a family. Yet from a pretty early age I knew I was “different” and I would think, “Yeah, except for the one thing I really need to talk to you about.” Fear kept me in the closet until my 25th birthday when I came out to them in a hotel room on Clearwater Beach.

Suddenly these beautiful wonderful folks who had raised me so well turned into absolute monsters. They said every possible stereotypical thing parents of an only child (the male namesake) who have just found out that child is gay could say. In the span of 25 minutes they took a sledgehammer to a relationship that had taken 25 years to build. Honestly, if my mother had not been battling breast cancer at the time, I would have completely written them off and never spoken to either of them again. She passed away just a couple of years later…going to her grave (according to my father) thinking that me being gay was some sort of “phase” I was going through. Over the years since then my Dad has come to a grudging acceptance of me being gay. But he has flat out told me that he would never validate any relationship I have with a man.

Fortunately there are much better coming out stories than mine, full of love and acceptance instead of judgment and betrayal. I’ve come to believe that my father does love me. But he loves me in spite of who I am and not because of who I am. That for me has become an important benchmark about who I really think of as family.

I have many families of choice who fit that bill nicely. I recently told an 80-year-old straight Quaker woman friend of mine that it occurred to me if I do ever get married I wouldn’t have any family at the ceremony. With all earnest in her heart, she looked me square in the eyes and said “What are you talking about, Friend? You have us.” Indeed I am blessed that my spiritual fellowship is a loving and supportive family who has seen me through some of the most challenging times in my life. Members of AA, my Gulfport community and in fact, you, gentle reader, have all become families of choice for me…loving me because and not in spite of who I am.

In some ways I’m grateful to my parents. If they hadn’t reacted so dreadfully to me being gay I probably would not have become such an outspoken activist. I might not have had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of starting a gay pride celebration and I might not even be sharing my writing with you. When I think of that poor lonely teenager in a closed-minded household wondering if he is all alone, I just want to reach out and hug him and tell him he is among “family” whether he knows it or not. When I work on a project tackling the issue of homelessness among LGBTQ youth, I have to wonder if my parents might have thrown me out of the house if I had come out to them before I was on my own, and I start to think of those kids as little brothers and sisters of my own.

Whatever and whomever you consider family in your life I hope you’ll come out to celebrate them here in Gulfport on October 15. Love is what makes a family, not social constructs!

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