Word to the wise: Thanksgiving is the proper holiday to tell your family that you’re a homosexual. It’s arguably secular, so you’re confronting tradition, not faith. Even though National Coming Out Day is in October, this is the day when gays and lesbians, newly announced or otherwise, are really driving it all home.
This no longer needs to be such a big deal, even if this month’s election somehow emboldens waves of guess-what conversations Thursday night. Awkwardness is predictable, but expect the unexpected. A few years ago, a friend of a friend told his sister that he was going to tell their parents his news at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Seated and fretful, he listened as she spoke up first. Before he even got his throat cleared, she came out ahead of him. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
America is decades past the Very Special Episode phase, when a prime-time discussion of gayness had public-service overtones. Back then, most televised gays were camouflaged as witty warlocks or fastidious professors.
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Thanksgiving coaxes gays to visit their families, but also to revisit who they once were, the kid who tried to be like everyone else at the table. In my past, I was always a faulty heterosexual. Some in my family saw it early, some late.
I could be amusing: When I was barely 3, they used to put on marching music just to watch me stomp around. And I could be solemn: A babysitter swears she came to get me from a nap, and I was standing up in my crib, looking out the window, singing “Mrs. Robinson.” My brothers were captains of every sport, while I was classified as “something else,” stated with a smile and a head shake.
Outsiders tend to see what’s what and who’s who. My sister-in-law wore a knowing expression, back when I would get into some cooking flurry around the holidays. Everything I made was en croute. I was distracting myself and others from the fact that I wasn’t doing what my Irish Catholic family has long done: going forth and multiplying.
At our Thanksgiving table, being solo was not that unusual. There are Irish bachelors and unmarried aunts in my family tree; there was a priest and a few nuns. Not one of them was gay or lesbian. I was noticeably different.
My father had an uncle who was a boisterous police clerk. As a child, he had polio, and it made him devout. One holiday, at my grandmother’s house in West Baltimore, he congratulated me on getting into the Jesuit high school that every male relative had attended. Then he offered me an inducement: Enter the priesthood, and he’d put $1,800 in my bank account.
For my great-uncle, that sum was a generous gesture, meant to protect his cherished nephew’s youngest son. Back then, the diocese rarely mentioned homosexuality with today’s echoing intensity. But as a news-obsessed kid, I was transfixed by the men protesting Cardinal John O’Connor in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the peak of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Without having acted on my impulses, I felt I was down to two options: I could be a priest or a protester.
I passed on the offer. And I am making it sound dramatic, because it was then. Anyone can revisit the intensity in the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or any stagings of “The Normal Heart.”
The AIDS plague complicated my coming out, back when “diagnosis” meant “death sentence.” And I can’t walk around 17th and P now without seeing the sufferers of then — ghostly men slowly walking in sweaters on hot days, assisted in their daily paces by saintly friends.
I was physically healthy, but my friends were helping me, emotionally, with the smallest of steps. It was as if I had a broken limb that had healed wrong.
Fortunately, a straight couple from college let me bend their ears. So, I busted out of the closet, at age 34. Next, they threw a coming-out party for me, inviting lots of gay New Yorkers to speed up a social life I had slowed. Years before, we all lived in the District and that couple was with me on the night, at the long-gone El Azteca, when I first saw two men dancing, up close, in real life — and maybe in real love.
I moved to another side of the room but kept an eye on them. They looked like they were having fun, standing on their own two feet.
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Today, I am going to my uncle’s house, for a 40-person sit-down meal. He’s a Baltimore County judge, married to one of John Waters’s set decorators, who now owns dog-grooming emporiums. (See also: Tyler, Anne.) Uncle Norris has reclaimed his tradition of hosting Thanksgiving, which I violated last year when I cooked for my folks and siblings and neglected to serve sauerkraut, a Baltimore must. That’s a nod to German immigrants, which we’re not, but Charm City ethnicities have kept the peace for centuries, and it’s not going to be disrupted at our table.
So, obviously, I am fine. Don’t even think about me. But do think about others who aren’t fine, without my blessings of birth and luck. Sexual attraction redefines you as different from those who have every other nature-and-nurture similarity. It’s the hardest part.
I’m not going to get all Norman Lear on you, when you’re preparing your Norman Rockwell tableau. If it helps, think of homosexuals as the rightly worried tribe sitting across from the Puritans. I’m just saying the table should be set for them, in the borderless world that is gay America. Gays and lesbians are in every family, somehow. Make them a plate.
I have invitations to spend Thanksgiving with a bunch of gay friends my age who comprise another family of mine. Whenever we can, we hang out and figure out what the coming years are going to look and feel like. We don’t know, because so many direct elders were plague victims. It’s easy to feel lucky in that family, too.
If I accept Thanksgiving invitations to eat at straight friends’ tables, I might get seated among some who struggle to categorize me. As a Washington Post reporter who used to work at Men’s Vogue, doubters test my knowledge of politics, figuring I must cover it like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno would. Some of the actual fashion police think I am hopeless for the opposite reason, calling me “Senator.” It’s meant as a smear, but it has a nice ring to it.
Since playground survival days, all gays have punch lines at the ready. It’s overcompensating, but that’s cool. Repartee meets rapid response. And, sometimes, you need to be Thanksgiving gravy, the tasty extra poured over the annual monotony and daily bread. Sure, my friends tell their children I’m Uncle Ned, although that name makes kids quizzical and makes actual uncles uncomfortable.
Honorary Uncle Ned has a connotation. After every Thanksgiving meal, in full turkey torpor, my siblings and cousins would all watch the “The Sound of Music.” In the movie, there was unattached Uncle Max, meddling and then making them all sing for the Nazis. I know I’m not him, just like I’m not Father Ned. I can forgive, I can forget, but I can’t absolve anyone of anything.
I have six nephews and nieces of my own, and a family who pulled me home when my relatives sensed me running away. I wasn’t, really; it just looked like that to them. The Martels know my sexuality hasn’t torn at the family fabric, and my coming out, somehow, makes us whole. So, sure, I’ll have dinner with the family that raised me, and later, I’ll dance with them that brung me.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Views On Faith.