Coming Out as an Ally
“How did you come out as an ally?”
We were sitting around a Shabbat dinner table with funny little colored squares around the white butcher paper like a game board. Two little stuffed mice were our “pieces,” one black and one white, and we were playing a game to open us up and teach us how to be advocates for the LGBTQ community. It was a personal question for me in a room of strangers; until tonight, except for one or two people at the table, I had never met any of them.
It was a dinner sponsored by JQ International, a Jewish organization for the LGBTQ community and their straight allies. Up until a few days previous to this, I didn’t know this organization existed. In fact, before this point I was concerned as I watched some of my dearest friends come out over the years, worrying about protecting them from judgmental people.
I was as scared for them as I was for my Uncle B. He was the reason I was sitting at this table as an ally. He would be the reason why I would always sit at this table.
In my big-mouthed nature, I began telling the story of my favorite uncle. My recent days of hanging out in West Hollywood reminded me of him: The apartment on Cynthia Street with mirrored living room and the four-poster bed that my sister and I were allowed to jump on to our hearts’ content as children. There was his Mickey Mouse collection, which we oohed and aahed over that made him the best grown-up little kid in the world. He bought us frilly dresses and cuddly teddy bears, spoiled us rotten because we were his only nieces.
Words can’t capture his playful grin with pearly white teeth, his light jester-style vocal tone or the smell of patchouli oil and cigarette smoke that let me know he was close for a big hug. To this day, those smells still comfort me. But then came the question at seven years old to my mother: “Mom, Uncle B is so great. Why isn’t he married?”
At seven, Uncle B’s sexuality couldn’t be explained. But I got the point later, during a phone conversation between my father and his middle brother after my sister got her first boyfriend.
“We’re going to plan a big, big wedding,” Uncle B said.
“Now now,” my father said, “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”
“Well so do I!”
My dad yelled back at him incredulously, but I knew what gay was well enough; I was 14 at the time. I didn’t care, because Uncle B was family and he loved us.
It was this same age that I was in high school that guys were trying to prove their machismo. There were the football players who marched down the halls in their blue jerseys, who scolded guys by calling them “queer,” “homo” or by saying “that’s so gay.” People regularly used the f-word (the other one) to dismiss others. Growing up in a conservative Christian town in Southern California, everyone seemed to look the other way. I couldn’t. When everyone said, “That’s just an expression,” I knew it was wrong. Not when there were boys like Matthew Shepard hanging dead from fences.
Around 16, one of my dear high school friends came out. He didn’t have a lot of friends who would listen, so we would talk on the phone for hours until my ear would sweat against the plastic headset. There was no one else patient enough to talk to him about what he was feeling at that moment. After all, coming out in our high school was risky, and this is speaking as someone who was in the choir program. I remember how huge the prayer circles were around the green grass of the flagpoles before school in the morning, not to mention the constant church culture that made this Jew feel like an ethnic minority.
In the late ‘90s, being gay was like a disease in our town. Guys who were even rumored to be gay were whispered about in the back of classrooms and stigmatized. Most kids had to wait until high school was over and they finally got out of their parents’ houses to be who they were. It was a cookie-cutter life and one I hated on account that people were just… backwards. How could people treat one another this way?
As I grew up, I also began to see my Uncle B for everything that a child couldn’t even think to look for: the depression, excessive spending and the never-ending disease that is addiction. In youth, you couldn’t care less; as long as they were fun and good to you, it was worth it. But as you face the real world, you see the problems always living in your midst, sometimes in stark colors.
My Uncle B’s health deteriorated from years of this bodily and mental abuse, his teeth falling out and his hair graying quickly. He shifted living from place to place, only getting back on his feet in recent years, although still not as well off he was when we were young. Despite it all, I wanted to still see my uncle as that awesome playmate, the one who was fun and gave us the liberty to be kids because he was a great big one himself. Despite every flaw, I would never abandon him.
At one point, I sat down my father and asked why my Uncle B was the way he was. He sighed and crossed his arms the way he does when he’s thinking, his brow furrowed.
“I think my parents made so many mistakes when it came to him and his sexuality,” he said. “Your grandfather, G-d bless his soul, couldn’t understand the concept of being gay, living life differently. I loved your grandfather, but he was of a different time. Your grandmother ignored it, called it a phase. I don’t think either of them really accepted him for who he is, and that is as a gay man.”
My father, so pragmatic as always, made me look at my uncle differently. He was a broken man for so many reasons, but part of it was because he couldn’t be who he needed to be openly. Uncle B lived in a time where gay men like him were hidden in the shadows throughout the city of Los Angeles, whether it was masculine facades like Rock Hudson or as houseboys and secret lovers, never able to reveal the truth about their lives and identities and tossed aside as age took over. It wasn’t until the 1970s where the tides slowly began to turn. Yet it was probably too late for Uncle B by that point. The damage of not having people understand who you are became part of his undoing. And he is still paying the price.
In my lifetime, I have been fortunate enough to watch the chastising almost disappear from my daily sight, transforming into gay couples openly holding hands as they’re walking on the sidewalk, smiling at each other lovingly in a bookstore and publicly proposing marriage to each other. When I see them, I feel blessed at the amount of love and at the same time wonder in amazement how this could happen so quickly in my lifetime.
Yet it’s not over. There are still battles to be fought, especially when states are still passing anti-gay legislation. We need to wage war, right down religious communities where people can’t come out on account that they would be ostracized from their families and communities that are supposed to protect them (including in the Jewish community — we are not innocent). As much as I love all my gay and transgendered friends, I recognize there is the potential for more Uncle Bs out there in the world that deal with non-acceptance by letting it take a toll on their bodies and minds.
I never officially came out as an ally. I was just born this way, fostering love and then letting the love my Uncle gave me grow so I could give it back to the world. And I sat at that Shabbat table, looking at these faces who were drawn into this random straight girl who ended up there, wondering why she was anywhere with the LGBTQ community.
And I thought of my uncle, his cigarette-smelling clothes and patchouli oil, his great big smile, his jokes and his laughter. I thought of how, now that I was older, we had an adult friendship where were could gossip about boys and dating — something just as comforting to a single young woman as his Mickey Mouse collection was to a little girl. He may be hurting still, and I can’t do much to make that go away. But I am going to take every bit of sweetness he gave me and create a shield for others, making sure that if I could prevent the pain of not being able to live as you want, I would.
“I am an ally because I love my Uncle B,” I said quietly, the room silent and my eyes began to tear up. “To not be an ally is to not love him. And I love him with all my heart.”