The performance hall in my hometown is smaller than I remember it, but most things back there are. It’s been at least 10 years since I went inside Memorial Auditorium, an art deco structure where many of the big events in Burlington, Iowa, take place.
But I found myself spending a recent Saturday evening there, perched on a cold metal folding chair, watching anxiously as my 17-year-old niece, Tara, presented herself to an audience as Contestant #1 in the Miss Burlington pageant.
It was an incredibly un-lesbian place to be.
Still, there I sat, evaluating the competition, making excuses in my mind in case she did not win, refusing to let my cynicism overtake the moment. I watched her walk up to a microphone and say her name; I saw her sing and dance to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" in the evening’s only nod to a nation at war; I winced as she botched one interview question and I grinned as she aced the next.
I yelled loudly, trying to compete with the larger groups there to support other contestants. My brother scolded me for vocalizing support during the "physical fitness" portion of the evening, wherein the young ladies display their physiques in swimwear. (Tara calls it "parading half-naked across a stage for prizes," and it is not a part of the process she enjoys.)
But she was Contestant #1, and our polite applause earlier in the evening had been put to shame by the howling support for the competition; I wasn’t about to let that happen again. After Mike’s reproach, I had a moment of lesbian panic, worrying that my cheers were tacky and unintentionally lecherous, until the hoots for the next contestant filled the air.
At the end of the night, Tara didn’t win, or place as a runner-up. But this was her first year competing in Miss Burlington, and she’ll be back. I know who deserved the glittery tiara and, more importantly, the college scholarship. Best of all, my time with Tara didn’t end there — I brought her and her boyfriend back to Maryland with me for our new tradition of a two-week visit during the summer.
During this time, I get to watch my niece enjoy the heterosexual teenage experience I never had. I see Dan, the boyfriend, hold the hand that I used to hold when we’d walk to the park to play. I hear the voice, still high and sweet, that used to ask for "more jinkies" when she was thirsty, now telling Dan that she loves him. And she does love him, this much I can tell — and he loves her, and treats her like a princess, his eyes wide and bright at any mention of their future together. Protective of her as I am, I think that boy is great, and I’m happy to see him at Tara’s side.
Months before she was born, news of Tara’s existence hit hard, and I wasn’t sure what to think at first. My older brother, the father-to-be, was in high school, and I figured this pregnancy meant trouble. My mother and father had also become parents when they were in high school, and the continual admonitions from my mother that we’d better not follow her lead were, I thought, pretty clear. Mike fell victim to his heterosexual lust; I ended up running as far as I could in the other direction.
But I’ve loved my niece from the moment the idea of her sank in. I looked out for Tara when she was small and the odds were stacked against her. She had parents who never married and broke up when she was still learning to walk and talk, and a financial situation that didn’t permit the years of dance lessons and pageant training that her competitors in Miss Burlington had. I’ve tried to give her opportunities that she wouldn’t otherwise have, and I like to think that her conviction that she will go to college has something to do with me, so far the only member of my family to complete a bachelor’s degree. I would never delude myself into thinking that I am responsible for who she is; I’m grateful to her mother and to her maternal grandparents, who played a huge role in Tara’s upbringing.
I came out to Tara when she was 11, although her mother had already deduced the information and shared it with her, and Tara’s reaction to me was priceless: "Why would I care?" She was wise beyond her years, accepting whatever life threw at her.
But I used to wonder whether my gender-neutral presents for her when she was little, and my decided inability to provide her with an uncle-in-law, might influence her dating decisions one day.
As it turns out, so far she’s unequivocally heterosexual, but she still looks to me for guidance on some things — not long ago I even found myself trying to answer some of her questions about sex in the male-female context.
Last week I ordered her a subscription to Cosmopolitan, a magazine she apparently can’t live without. I may find myself in some atypical situations for a lesbian, but I’m already planning to be in the audience for next year’s Miss Burlington, and I’m not about to hold back on the cheering.
Kristina "Auntie" Campbell, whose column appears bi-weekly, lives in Takoma Park, Md. She can be reached at email@example.com.