Wednesday, April 12, 2017

we're here, we're queer, we're not yet used to it: s-town and my uncle bob

Like all my favorite novels, the podcast Shit Town is about a lot of things: the tension between home and the larger world; the many sides to every story; what it means to care for another person; the curse of genius; depression; time; clocks. Like all my favorite novels, it's a mystery whose answers are both bigger and heartbreakingly smaller than the questions initially posed. It is a work of art, and you should listen if you haven't already.

But today I'm blogging about Chapter VI: "Since everyone around here thinks I’m a queer anyway." Our protagonist, John B. McLemore, embodies many paradoxes (worldly hick, tender asshole), but he especially straddles a generational and regional divide between Out Gay/Bi Man and Shadow-Dwelling Pervert. I listened to Chapter VI with a growing recognition that was one part empathy, one part dread. 


Uncle Bob was a redhead too.
My Uncle Bob wasn't a suicidal mad genius. He didn't have gold buried on his property. He was an accountant who lived in a tract home in Torrance. But he was born in 1943 and died in 2013, and those decades encompassed a sea change in how America views gayness. I have to imagine that trying to contain such radically different messages in one lifetime could make a person a little neurotic.

Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob had a tendency to rant ad nauseam about topics in a way that made me wonder, Is that really what you're mad about? Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob was obsessive about his cultural passions: ancient Egypt and British comedies. He spoke about the latter as if we'd all caught the last episode of [insert random Britcom here] because it must be as popular as American Idol (which I also didn't watch). I believe the stories we consume can save and sustain us, and that both high and low art forms are as important to our culture as most elections. Yet hearing Uncle Bob prattle on about TV shows always made me cringe a little; it seemed not just nerdy, but like a painfully transparent substitute for a life. And to consider that he was lonely is to face the fact that loneliness was the only semi-acceptable option for queer people until incredibly recently. 


"Did you see that one Bucket Woman where...."
Uncle Bob wasn't my biological uncle. He was my dad's best friend from childhood, and they both hung out with the funny, eccentric lady who lived up the hill from Bob, who I know as my Grandma Jac. It's a credit to my parents that they both accepted Uncle Bob when he came out to Grandma Jac's crew in the '70s, and were candid with me about the fact that he was gay, and didn't pass judgement. That shouldn't be a lot to ask, but in the '70s and '80s it was.

Uncle Bob brought various "friends" to holidays at Grandma Jac's. Some must have been his boyfriends, but I don't think they all were. I think gay men back in the day defined relationships in terms I wouldn't completely understand. Take John B.'s relationships with Tyler and Mike--he never acted sexually or inappropriately with them, and yet it doesn't seem like a coincidence that they were both young, good-looking men who needed him, loved him and ultimately rejected him. My parents talked in vague terms about men who'd taken advantage of Uncle Bob's generosity. In his latter years, Uncle Bob lived with a younger man named Dean. Everyone in our family liked Dean, but none of us quite knew whether he was a boyfriend, a friend, a roommate or a sugar baby. Maybe because he was none and all of the above. 

When I was first inching toward coming out, I decided Uncle Bob was super interesting, and I wanted to talk about all the musicals under the sun with him. Later, when he struck me as painfully old school, when his conservative politics got under my skin, I cooled my affection in a way I'm not proud of. Part of my internalized homophobia was not wanting to see the ways that earlier, deeper homophobia shaped who he was. It's easier to love and accept John B., because I'm not John B.'s niece.


All good stories are a maze.
In my Parenting for Social Justice Facebook group, which I recently left (on friendly terms), I often got frustrated with how the recognition of oppression seemed to follow trends. Currently race and transgender issues seem to get the spotlight and the benefit of the doubt. If a comment contained the faintest shadow of a racial micro-aggression, the admins were all over that commenter. But I--and some of the other queer women in the group--were often left with the vague feeling that the group was like "Sure, yeah, of course we're all pro-LGB here, but we wrapped that up in 2015 with that one Supreme Court decision, right?" It's not that anyone would say that (and it's not that I think racial micro-aggressions aren't real; I strive not to participate in the Oppression Olympics), but most people didn't seem interested in considering the deep, insidious ways that, even for someone like me--born in 1977 to accepting parents--the message that "Your desire is disgusting at best, evil at worst" still lingers. Slavery still lingers in major ways--in DNA itself, according to epigenetics--so why wouldn't widespread systemic and cultural oppression against queer people?

My friend Nicole runs a social media/storytelling campaign called #StillBisexual that sort of speaks to this. I admit to going back and forth over the years as to how much of a thing biphobia (as distinct from homophobia) actually is. But the underlying message of the campaign's title, as I read it, is "Look, you can change the term to 'pansexual' and change the laws every five minutes, but there is a group of people who have always loved both men and women and dealt with the consequences of it. We are here and our stories are particular and worth telling." Maybe John B. McLemore was one of them.

I guess my point is It wasn't that long ago. And one of Shit Town's many beauties is how it conveys this point, not in social justice lingo with pointed fingers and manifestos, but in an intricately woven personal story. 

A long time ago I read a profile of an elite swimmer who'd had a serious and poorly treated injury early in her career. Eventually she got a new coach and the treatment she needed, but you could see how the muscles in her back had grown around the injury to compensate. Her back was her story. I think we are all like that.

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