Particularly around the holidays, we are ceaselessly implored to have conversations with our families about our sexual orientation. Ditch that reindeer sweater for a Task Force T-shirt at the family’s Christmas party. If Aunt Pearl asks you to pass the Thanksgiving gravy, ask her to pass a marriage-equality measure. And if any relations announce a wedding engagement, ask them if how they can sleep at night celebrating their joy at our expense.
I never worried much about the push to preach to my family. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. Rather, my family is already progressive. Sure, there’s that one cousin in California who gets a little holier-than-thou with his right-wing rants, but his mother has far more social sway and was vocal in her Prop 8 opposition. My teens-to-20s straight nephews don’t bat an eye at the notion of gay Uncle Will. My little sister is likely peeved that marriage equality may be coming to D.C., as that makes it far less likely I’ll venture to her New Haven, Conn., home to get married. And Mom never hesitates to halt a conversation among her peers that’s taken a homophobic turn with, “My son is gay, and I support him. And his partner.”
So, again, I never worried about banging the gay drum at family gatherings.
Then came a little wake-up call.
Visiting my mother in Port Richey, Fla., a sleepy town of retirees and just a bit of an apparent youthful meth problem, we stopped by Publix, her local grocery store “where shopping is a pleasure.” Everything was going as planned. Indeed, shopping there was a pleasure — till we got outside.
In a Santa cap, ringing her evil bell, a rough-looking woman was clanging away for the Salvation Army. Following my gay training, I averted my gaze and walked away at a brisk pace. But my mother stopped. I heard her trailing voice state something about “just a dollar.” Everything went slow-motion. I turned around to see my mother’s back as she stepped toward the dread ringer. The dollar was out of her purse and zeroing in on that foul bucket.
In what felt like one of those movie scenes where the hero shouts a warning to his sidekick a moment before that sidekick is gobbled by a shark or disintegrated by a death ray, I shouted — or maybe just spoke loudly, but with the same dramatic flair — “Wait! They’re homophobic!”
My mother stopped, seeming a little flustered. The bucket woman looked angry, as though Glinda had just pulled the curtain back for Dorothy and exposed the Salvation Army’s evil crusade, robbing her of her precious greenback. She turned her gaze to a different direction of this particular plaza and went on ringing that damned bell, burying the memory of the one that got away.
“Oh, I didn’t know,” my mother said as she returned her dollar to her bag.
While I certainly wasn’t offended by my sidekick’s near — yet unintentional — betrayal, I was surprised. Even without a gay son, I doubt the Salvation Army is the kind of organization she’d care to support. After all, the one group to which she is a dedicated donor, for years now, is Planned Parenthood. While the Salvation Army certainly does help needy people — including women who have had abortions — it’s not exactly a pro-choice powerhouse. The Salvation Army doctrine can be whatever the group wants, I just doubt my mother would want to support it.
What struck me about this Norman Rockwell-not holiday moment was the role that many of us likely still need to play with our straight family and friends who already wholly accept us. Whether it’s some far-flung family member thinking about a dream vacation to Uganda, a friend thinking about staying at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, or a professional acquaintance trying to sell us on the pleasures of Cracker Barrel, our cautions will be needed for some time to come.