How the death of my gay aunt taught me to forever leave stereotypes behind
Since I was in high school, my gay Aunt Judy told me that she would love to take me to a Pride Parade one day. But she died last May from lung cancer, and this year I’m reminded that going to a Pride Parade is one of the many things we’ll never be able to experience together, along with going to a Dodgers game and cutting off her stupid rat-tail at my hypothetical wedding.
All I have now are memories of my Aunt Judy, a very real Madonna appreciation, and the life lesson that all people are multi-faceted, no matter their sexual orientation.
That lesson began around the time I learned that Judy, a close family friend, was gay. I was 7 years old. According to my mother, the learning experience began when I told her I wanted Auntie Judy to find a husband so she could have babies and I could have cousins to play with.
She began to explain to me that Judy probably wasn’t going to have any babies in the traditional sense, because as I was taught, both a man and woman’s parts were required to create life. Judy didn’t love men in the baby-making way and back then it wasn’t as easy for same-sex couples to adopt.
I remember thinking that it was kind of hilarious. I understood that my religion at the time considered marriage and love to be between a man and a woman—that homosexuality was an aberration. But Judy didn’t seem like an aberration. A quirky, neurotic, even flawed person, sure, but definitely not an aberration.
Why was being gay seen as being a bad thing when Judy wasn’t a bad person?
It was a significant lesson in the many dimensions and intersections of humanity.
Judy became a family member by way of my aunt, when the two were stationed together at an army base in Maryland. There was a period of time where my parents, my sister and I, my aunt, and Judy all lived in a tiny town home. Apparently, I cried all the time and the only way I would stop was when Judy would take my baby arms and legs and sing (in one of the worst singing voices known to man) Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.” (Or if she gave me jelly beans.)
There was always Judy. There was always the smell of her perfume in my nose as I played with the clunky jewels on her fingers.
And there was always Judy insisting we take a family photo to mark the occasion, especially after the advent of Facebook (plus, she exchanged cigarettes for frequent timeline posts).
When I was in elementary school in a small town, many students had their own ideas of what a gay woman was: A lesbian was a girl who liked sports and being outside. A lesbian had short hair and didn’t wear makeup. A lesbian was severe and hardened from years of being misunderstood. If you thought about kissing girls, you were still a person, but definitely a tarnished one.
I’m not going to act like I didn’t try to put Judy into that box during my childhood. I’m certain that I assumed if a teacher wasn’t married, and was “mean,” she was either a failed nun or a lesbian. It really wasn’t until I made it to middle school, and knew Judy as more of a human than a novelty family member, that I realized that Judy defied stereotypes and expectations.
She did what she wanted and lived how she wanted — not as this lesbian stereotype, but as a person.
Judy was passionate about a lot of things, including her adopted family, her actual family, and her many, many friends. But her other passions didn’t exist because she happened to also be attracted to girls. It’s not like Judy liked to watch sports and action movies because she was gay, or rocked a rat-tail and no bra because she was gay. She did those things because she was a human being with a lot of interests and a need to wear socks that promoted her beloved sports teams.
Today, I look at the way I thought and don’t understand how I didn’t grasp that the “L” in LGBTQ doesn’t actually make one different from any other humans. I’m inclined to blame it on my small-town upbringing, but that doesn’t seem like a great excuse since lesbians literally helped raise me.
Sometimes it’s easier to stereotype people than it is to actually get to know them.
It means we get to keep up the illusions we have of ourselves.
My sister shared with me that she was recently brought to tears when her 5-year-old daughter was listening to a 1972 tape our parents introduced us to when were growing up: Free To Be… You and Me. This artistic project featured poems, songs, and sketches that preached that anyone, anywhere could be whatever and whoever they wanted.
I’m pretty sure if I listened to any part of that tape today I would begin to sob. At least, I did the last time I tried to read the book version to my niece. She became immediately frustrated with me (“Mama, why does Auntie Jo cry all the time?”) and moved on to playing with her “princesses.” But for my sister, the specific waterworks-inducing part was a piece by Billy de Wolfe, Bob Morse, and Marlo Thomas called “Don’t Dress Your Cat In An Apron.”
The poem reads,
If anyone was that cat refusing to be inappropriately dressed in an apron, it was Judy. She couldn’t actually cook so the metaphor is a little mixed (a famous family story involves everyone dumping their “spaghetti casserole” in the dog’s bowl who also wouldn’t eat it), but she did once win a chili bake-off with my sister’s recipe. And she did love every last one of her overweight orange cats.
I miss going out to dinner as a family, usually to one of her favorite chain restaurants or an Italian joint. After getting exceedingly friendly with the server, we would always end up being the loudest table — Judy had us, and usually also the server, laughing so hard tears streamed down my face.
That’s the other thing that unifies us all — grief. This phenomenon is most noticeable in Judy’s friendships. She was friends with a vast array of people from all walks of life — sporty lesbians, army buddies, Grandmas, young moms, Republicans, Democrats, restaurant workers, coworkers.
When we lost Judy, we all grieved as one. We are all still grieving.
I don’t know if my heart will ever feel full again.
Judy marched to the beat of her own drum. Because of her, I learned that people aren’t defined by who they love, or even what they love. Humanity has no real definition and people are always surprising you.
I just wish I could tell her that.