Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Family Gatherings and Gay Family Members: Christmas Reflections

As Christmas day winds down, thinking still of Pope Benedict's insistence that we who are gay are a threat to family. In 2009, Bao Ong reported in the New York Times that "gay and lesbian baby boomers are more likely to be caregivers than their heterosexual contemporaries, including siblings." Ong states that one in four gay baby boomers are likely to be caregivers compared with one in five of the general population in the U.S., citing a 2006 study by MetLife's Mature Market Institute.

And yet, as I say, we who are gay and lesbian are persistently accused by many faith leaders and the political right of being anti-family and corrosive to family values. This is despite the fact that Carl Jung noted quite some time ago that gay and lesbian human beings often appear to function in the human community as altruists and nurturers who frequently put the well-being of family members first in their lives. In his classic groundbreaking theological reflection The Church and the Homosexuality,  Fr. John McNeill argues that the gay gift for caregiving is so pronounced and the gay presence in the caring professions so substantial that, if all gay and lesbian members of the caring professions went on strike, most of our social institutions devoted to caregiving would have to shut down for the duration of such a strike.

And the connection of all of this to Christmas: Christmas is often a time of serious depression and internal turmoil for many of us who are gay, precisely because our families of origin are intent on giving us signals that we don't count as "real" family when the family gathers to celebrate its togetherness. Many of us who are gay don't bother to attend family celebrations because we know that we'll be given that signal of being second-tier family members, and so we shield ourselves from hurt by absenting ourselves from family tables at holiday times.

Some of us are, in fact, overtly excluded from our family tables. What's particularly troubling to many of us, and weighs on us in particular at holiday times, is that when a family member is in need--often, the mother or father whom married siblings have no time or energy to provide care for--we who are gay frequently step up to the plate and offer care . . . only to find that, once we've expended our lives in the caregiving process, the signals from other family members reminding us that we are unimportant, that we occupy a second tier of status when family is defined, don't go away in the least . . . .

Our heterosexual siblings and their children are quite happy to take what we have to offer as long as it's needed, but when the need is over and done with, they seem to go about their own lives as "real" family, and manage to communicate to us that we who are second-tier family aren't needed any longer and should vanish. This is what many of who are gay seem to discover--enough of us discover this that it's a topic of lively conversation among many gay folks I know.

I've been involved with a number of online discussions today with gay or lesbian friends at Facebook who tell me this is their experience. It has certainly been Steve's and my experience. I live in the same city with three nephews who gather with their mother and other family members for family gatherings that they even advertise on Facebook--"The whole family is getting together!"--to which Steve and I are pointedly not invited. 

When these same family members have needed us, we've been there for them. But after we met their needs, we were then expected to vanish, and we have discovered that we're not even invited to their family table.

It does hurt. I can testify to that hurt from first-hand experience. I also want to note, as Bao Ong does in the Times article to which I link above, that it's time our society recognize how much a significant number of us who are gay or lesbian give to our families by way of caregiving, particularly by way of eldercare when our heterosexual and married siblings often find themselves unable to provide hands-on care for aging and infirm parents. 

Because those who are gay and lesbian provide a valuable service to society at large through familial caregiving, it seems to me important that society find ways to offer networks of support to LGBT people engaged in caregiving for family members. And that our society and its religious leaders stop attacking those of us who are gay as anti-family. Particularly at Christmas time, when the signal that we're no-count second-tier family members often already weighs heavily on the shoulders of many of us . . . .

The picture's from our Christmas table today. Steve and I had dinner with my brother and a neighbor whom we invited over to eat with us, who has lost her husband and son in the past several years and has no family nearby.

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