What should support look like?

Being a nosy kid had its perks.

My parents always told me that if someone we knew had just announced they were separating I would be the first one to sit down beside them and interrogate them for the details, then pass along the information.

It was this kind of curiosity that led to my mom sitting me down to talk about my auntie Diand being a lesbian. I can’t remember exactly how old I was but I had been asking multiple questions on the drive home after a visit to Edmonton about my auntie’s live-in companion, Lisa.

My mom said she struggled to find the words to break it down for me but remembers that I just understood what she was saying; “You were the easy one to explain it to,” she said.

Open but not open

My sense was that our family was always open to the fact that Diand was a lesbian. On many levels we all accepted it. On the other hand we never actually talked to her about it. I wanted to know more, but it didn’t feel right to me to bring it up despite the fact that she and I were close.

My mom pointed out to me that our family doesn’t openly talk about my auntie Diand’s sexual preference because it’s just not in our nature. We’re not an overly affectionate family and mask discomfort with humour.

“I think bringing it up would make her uneasy,” my mom said. “I just ensured she knew I loved her no matter what, and that it didn’t change how I felt about her.”

My childhood environment: Does place matter?

I grew up in Fort St. John, a rough-and-tough town that felt ‘redneck’ at times. Not to play on the typical stereotypes, but there was a naïve perception of what being ‘gay’ was.

Diand bottom left, is now 43, and proud of her accomplishments and relationships.
Photo courtesy of: Diand Rusk 
I will never forget the day I attended my best friend’s birthday party. Her family was devout Christian – my family was not. We ran a bar on the outskirts of town.

As we all sat around the table waiting for cake to be served, one of the birthday guests, a girl, piped up and said “I hear your auntie is gay…”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well aren’t you worried she will hit on you?” she asked.

I was nine or 10. What was there to say? I explained that just because she preferred women didn’t mean she would be into every girl she sees. Plus, we were auntie and niece.

It was comments like these that led me to believe that people were under-educated on the subject. To them, being gay was not only wrong but a deviant choice.

This narrow view also informed how they viewed my non-Christian family.

I asked the same best friend from the birthday party if she wanted to have a sleepover. As I waited outside her house I knew that she wouldn’t be allowed.

As she slowly reopened the door, she whispered, “No, I can’t come over tonight.” Not completely shocked by her response, I asked, “Why?’ “My parents feel it would be best if I had a sleepover with a Christian girl instead.”

“The gay population is still living in a homophobic world.”
—Jane Oxenbury
Registered psychologist

Her parents were always vocal about how I was being raised in a bar environment, and disagreed with the fact that I had a gay auntie. If I ever spent time at their house, they would insist I read Bible verses with the family, attend church and youth group with the kids then explain to me why they thought being ‘gay’ was immoral.

As strong as my family and I disagree with such views, what I struggle with now, at 22, is that we never reached out to Auntie Diand to simply say, “Who cares what other people think.”

Reaching out

A short time ago, I decided to pick up the phone. Auntie Diand was a bit put off when I asked her if she would be ok with me writing a story on her. She replied, “Ask me questions and I’ll do my best to inform you.”

“I have nothing to hide,” she said. “I don’t ever come out to anyone and say ‘I’m gay.’

“Kind of like you don’t say ‘I’m straight.’”

She’s right, I don’t ever remember parading down a hall yelling that I’m heterosexual, nor does it seem appropriate to do so.

“I’m proud of who I am and my accomplishments,” my auntie said. “I’m not ashamed, but if I won the lottery I wouldn’t tell everyone either. It would just be family and friends that mean a lot to me.

“It wasn’t until I was 21 or 22 and said to my mom, over the phone, that I was gay. She spread the news to the rest of the family. Now they could all say ‘I told you so,’” she jokingly replied.

Not completely out

To this day, my auntie Diand may not be completely vocal about her sexual orientation but that does not hinder her confidence or restrict her ability to get a room full of people roaring with laughter. She has a vibrant sense of humor that’s contagious.

Diand comes from a supportive family, even though her sexual preference is not openly talked about.
Photo courtesy of: Diand Rusk
Even though she lived in Edmonton, a six-hour drive away from my family home, I wanted to mimic her. If she cut her hair and played sports, I did the same. My mom insisted I wore dresses as a kid; I insisted on ruining them to maintain my rugged tomboy appeal. I noticed that people fed off of Auntie Diand’s personality and I wanted the same kind of attention. I always admired that anytime there was confrontation she could crack a joke to lighten the mood. She always came across as optimistic.

“For the most part, my life has been easy,” my auntie said. “I have had to hide who I am and I guess I still do today. I don’t consider it hiding; I just don’t advertise.

“My employees, co-workers and bosses other than one don’t know I’m gay. I am 43 now and they have known me for 13 years and never to have a boyfriend so I am sure it won’t be shocking.”

My auntie has been with her partner Katherine for just over eight years now. This is someone she views as her soul mate and I consider a member of the family.

“I feel if anyone is up in arms regarding anyone being gay, it is partially due to them not being totally comfortable with their own sexuality,” my auntie Diand said.

“I have had a few friends leave their husbands after several years of marriage and a few kids. They are much happier now. If you are gay, you know it, and it just takes the courage to be who you are.

“My being gay is not spoken of in the family, which is fine with me. I don’t speak of their sexual preference so why speak of mine.”

“I think he took the blame for it as he thought he took me fishing too much, or that by doing that he had passed the ‘gay gene’ to me.”
—Diand Rusk

Though my aunt says the family doesn’t speak of her sexual preference, we have and we do.

I’ve had a few instances growing up where members of my family have pulled me aside to talk about their thoughts on my auntie. In fact, some of those conversations have turned to questions of my own sexual orientation.

At a Boxing Day party when I was 14, my Grandpa took me aside after a few beverages and began a long-winded speech about acceptance. He said that if I or anyone else in my family was gay, that he would be completely OK with it and that he loved me no matter what I decide.

I then replied, “Grandpa, I like boys… a lot.” His response quickly turned skeptical coming back at me with, “OK now Andrea; let’s not get too carried away.”

I always felt these conversations were completely out of left field, but as I look back, I realize this may have been his way of coping. Since he hadn’t been openly supportive with my auntie it seemed he tried to compensate with me.

It would take decades before my grandpa would openly talk about his acceptance with his daughter being gay.

“It was only about five years ago, my dad said he was accepting of it,” my auntie confirmed. “I think he always had been but felt relieved to say it out loud.

“I think he took the blame for it as he thought he took me fishing too much, or that by doing that he had passed the ‘gay gene’ to me.”

How families react: A professional perspective

I feel that families are probably more accepting now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But, I wanted to know from a professional’s perspective — What happens when someone comes out to family and friends who while not critical, don’t say much at all?

Jane Oxenbury, a registered psychologist who commonly works with people who question their sexual orientation and gender identity, said “There could be things they want to share and don’t know if they can approach that person. [Not saying much at all] puts a lot of secrets in place and creates walls among the family and misunderstanding.

“The gay population is still living in a homophobic world,” she said.

Auntie Diand and I at the “A Taste of Edmonton” festival last summer.
Photo by: Sarah Elson
There are resources available to the families of those who come out, to help them understand and cope with the emotions that may arise when a loved one opens up to them about being gay.

“When families attend such groups as PFLAG, it helps them make sense of things and normalize the situation,” Oxenbury said.

PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians & Gays, is Canada’s only national organization that helps all Canadians who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It educates and provides resources to parents, families, friends and colleagues with questions and concerns.

While my family never accessed resources offered by organizations like PFLAG, I’m glad I finally connected with my auntie about this.

As I get older, I think I am just like anyone else and having this conversation with my auntie helped put it into perspective for me. She’s right — I will never understand what goes through her mind as compared to mine, but now I know it doesn’t hurt to pick up the phone and ask.

adion@cjournal.ca