LIVING YOUR TRUTH: Giving thanks for acceptance and the new ‘traditional’ American family
“You met my mom before, though, right?” Andrea asks me as we drive out of New York City.
“No, never,” I tell her, but it only leads to more confusion. “I couldn’t have met her. You forget, we’ve only been together for about five months. I only met you last summer.”
“Why does it feel like it’s been so much longer?” she asks.
In the year that I’ve known Andrea, I’ve heard so many stories about her family and growing up in New York. Aunts and uncles, her sister and brother. She’s told me about her dad and the years they spent living in the Dominican Republic. But until this Thanksgiving, they were only stories and pictures on Facebook. Until now, it was never real to me.
The drive into New York City was peaceful, calm. We expected to encounter a large volume of holiday traffic, but the roads were clear. Even getting through the city is quick and easy. It’s eerie, in a way.
As we make our way through the Bronx, Andrea is pointing out places where she used to play, landmarks from her childhood, all the while dishing some of the details of life here and how it’s changed in 30 odd years. I see where she was born; I see where she grew up. But I see more…
From where we are, I see glimpses of Yankee Stadium, and there’s a feeling of being in a whole other world.
Knowing the history of this place, knowing the stories and the celebrities that come from here, “It’s almost like going into Narnia or Middle-Earth,” I say. Places I’ve only read about, heard of, etc. I see what I’ve imagined of these places. I recall their history, the things that happened here, the people whose lives became the stories I know by heart. But we’re actually here. For me, it’s a whole different world; but for her, it’s a flood of memories that fill her senses. “So much has changed,” she says, and I fully understand.
Finally, we arrive at our first stop – her mother’s apartment. I’m eager to meet her for the first time, hoping to make a good impression, wondering how she will accept me. After all, it’s one thing to have a transgender daughter, but to know that your daughter is dating another transgender woman is quite another thing. My mother has welcomed Andrea with open arms; she’s just happy that I’m happy. After being single my entire adult life, I have someone who loves me. I’m sure that Andrea’s mother will be the same. Alas, it’s a meeting that will have to be delayed some, as we find out that her mother is actually working and won’t be home until later. I still get to meet a few of Andrea’s relatives, however.
They converse in Spanish for bit while Andrea wanders around her mother’s apartment. Someone motions to the small sofa in the living room, saying something that I can only assume means “sit” or “have a seat.” The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is on the TV, being broadcast in Spanish. I’m happy that, even if I won’t be at home with my family, watching the end of the parade is one tradition I won’t have to part with this year. And to think, as Santa and his sleigh close out the parade, that all of this is happening only a few miles away.
Before long, we head out to our next stop, one of Andrea’s aunts.
After a short drive into Manhattan, we crowd into an apartment full of religious iconography. There’s even a note on the front door that says something along the lines of, “If you aren’t Catholic, don’t bother knocking,” albeit, in much more polite way. I couldn’t confirm this, though, as I don’t speak Spanish, so I can only go by Andrea’s translation. Further, Andrea’s aunt doesn’t speak English. Regardless, we are treated to a warm reception of open arms. My anxiety fades away as she motions towards the couch and says a word that I still don’t know, but am quickly learning means, “Please sit.” I think…
The apartment is hot and filled with the scent of cakes baking. This aunt is a professional baker, and I can see several of her wares on the table. I smile and watch the post-parade dog show while Andrea talks to her aunt. At one point, her aunt tells me her name and what everyone calls her, and I smile. I say, “Thank you!” And then she hugs me tightly and says something else. “Thank you!” I say again, wondering if it would more or less polite to say “gracias” instead. I turn to Andrea, “I guess this means I’m in the family?”
“You’re family now. Too late to get out.” She laughs.
Eventually, the heat is too much for Andrea and she’s ready to go on to our last stop, her other aunt’s apartment. This is where everyone is getting together.
Again, open arms, warm smiles, and Andrea introduces me. We’re early. For the moment, it’s just her aunt and cousin. Her aunt is preparing food while her cousin gets ready for work. They talk about paintball, as both of them are avid players. I’m not really all that into paintball; I’m just glad they’re each speaking English so I can understand it. Fortunately, we also talk about bicycles, and I’m suddenly very much in the conversation. But as 4 o’clock approaches, her cousin has to be on his way.
In the living room, Andrea and I snack on chips and salsa while watching an old black and white movie. Again, everything is in Spanish, and since neither of us want to watch the Lions play the Vikings, we watch the movie. It stars an actor Andrea instantly recognizes – Mario Moreno Cantinflas. He’s basically Mexico’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, having starred in dozens of movies and becoming iconic within the world of comedy. For people in the States, his most famous role is probably co-starring with David Niven in “Around the World in 80 Days.” However, even having seen this classic film, I still have no idea who Cantinflas is. Another reminder that I’m in a whole other world.
We play dominoes to pass the time. My temper flares as I repeatedly lose, and I accuse Andrea of “counting cards.” Of course, I’m not actually angry, but I am getting hangry – the condition of being angry because you are hungry. And then, finally, guests arrive. Cue the music, cue the drinks, the party has now begun!
There’s dancing, there’s laughing, people are sharing memories and having such a wonderful time together. My mind wanders to all those tense moments to be found at a typical “white” Thanksgiving.
I saw Facebook posts from people who had nowhere to go, survival guides on how to get through a conversation about politics with extended family. The awkward questions my friends were bemoaning: “When are you getting married?” “When are you having kids?” And then the questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. The racist stuff, the bigoted stuff, the religious stuff. Being the black sheep of the family – I simultaneously fulfill the role of the gay cousin, the transgender aunt, niece, and sister, one of the few who is both unmarried and doesn’t have kids, also being the strict liberal who voted for Hillary Clinton – doesn’t really get me invited to as many family gatherings as I used to before I came out. Thanksgiving was at my mom’s house last year, but that was long before the dreaded 2016 election. Christmas Eve was spent at a friend’s house while my entire immediate family went off to do their own things.
My family is drifting further and further apart, and it’s nobody’s fault, really. I contemplate this as I mention it to Andrea. It’s something that began when my grandmother died years ago. Without the matriarch to bring everyone home, there’s no home to go to. We’ve become much more lonely over the last two decades. Add to it the tension between people who can no longer see past their differences to strengthen the common bonds and no one bothers to go home anymore, even when there is one. And that’s as much on me, as I struggle with my political opposition to my family’s views, as it is on them. At the very least, we did get an invite. But, by then, it was already decided that we would go to New York. I insisted.
It was important to me that Andrea introduces her true self to her family. For them to get to know her, and to understand that she’s still the same person, even if she’s walking a different path from the rest, was something I wanted to happen. Further, I wanted to meet these people. I wanted to see where she came from. I wanted to put faces to the names of people I’d only heard of. If this is to be my extended family someday, I desperately wanted to know them. And then I finally got to meet Andrea’s mother.
At long last, the moment had arrived. Andrea’s mother walked into the room. She was somewhat different from what I expected but had the kind look of a mother who loves her children. Andrea introduced me, and we hugged. I smiled and tried to explain how happy I was to meet her and that I truly appreciated this moment. Despite my anxieties, she fully accepted me. It went as perfectly smooth as possible.
In the end, we had to leave far earlier than either of us wanted to. We were full of Dominican lasagna, turkey, fried chicken, salsa and chips, delicious cake, and flan. There was also beer and wine to accompany the dancing and conversation. We were extremely tired and faced a three-hour drive back to Wilkes-Barre. And with both of us having to get up early for work the next morning, there was no choice but to go home.
This was a Thanksgiving like no other for me. As my life continues to change and evolve, it means so much for me to make these new bonds. As I wrote several months ago, the American family is not, and has not, been what we have been told is “traditional.” A white, transgender woman of Italian-German descent with her Dominican transgender girlfriend in a room full of mostly Spanish-speaking people celebrating Thanksgiving together – this is what family looks like to me.
We’re heading out of the city, leaving Manhattan Island for the mainland, back to home, back to familiar surroundings for me.
“Why do I feel like it’s been so much longer?” she asks. “Probably because of who I am, and who I get to be with you. Being out, being allowed to be myself. I didn’t have that before, and now I do. It just feels like we’ve always been together, we’ve always known each other,” she says. I totally agree. It’s good to be out of the closet and live as the person you truly are with someone who loves you for being that person. And to know that their family accepts them, as well as you, is the most wonderful feeling in the world.
by Dee Culp
Dee Culp is a transgender woman, which means she often has to order herself to get in the kitchen to make her a sandwich. She enjoys long bike rides, smashing the patriarchy and breaking down gender barriers. She loves thinking about the big questions, such as, "Do I open this door for myself, or do I wait for a man to do it for me?"