I come from huge families. My mother was one of seven, and my father’s mother was one of nine. Between them, I have fourteen first cousins, at least five second cousins, eleven first cousins once removed that I know about, and more miscellaneous spouses and siblings than I care to track.
Mom never forgave her siblings for moving away from each other. Most of the brood ended up within driving distance of one another in the Great Northeastern Conurbation, albeit in three different states, but one stayed in Puerto Rico, one followed work to North Carolina, and Mom followed the needs of her husband’s family and moved to Miami. Most of the seven are involved in the US military in some way, and some of my cousins continued that legacy, and that meant being passed around bases and active duty for years at a time, far from their kin.
Dad’s family all ended up in Miami, sooner or later. My grandmother used to visit relatives in Cuba, but she is long gone, and it is likely they are as well. Most of Dad’s side of the family made Miami their first home outside of Cuba, but Dad’s path passed through New Jersey first. I grew up there, getting acquainted with Mom’s nearby relatives first and not really recognizing Dad’s side of the family until they became our frequent reality after the move. Even then, Dad was an only child, so all of the relatives were a generation apart from me, whereas my maternal cousins were close to my age, so Dad’s family and I are not well acquainted.
After picking through the family tree to survey my safety within it, I find this a tragedy.
My paternal grandmother was one of nine. Eight of them, including her, are now mausoleum plaques scattered around the eastern United States, after long, eventful, sometimes tragic lives. The next generation—Dad and his cousins, one set of my first cousins once removed—is fascinating. Dad and his cousins make a set of ten, with all of them having one or no siblings, bringing the family sizes down to modern levels a generation before Mom’s side did. And half of those ten are queer.
My father’s family tormented those five. My homeland tormented those five. Their homeland tormented those five. They grew up being told every horrible thing a patriarchal Catholic culture can tell a queer person, laser-focused on their specific demographic because all five, as far as I know, were men. Only three of them made it out of the AIDS crisis, itself a crime deliberately committed against the queer community. Two of the survivors severed ties with the family over their mistreatment, and became known to me only through the third’s testimony.
I can’t help but wonder whether the tiny family sizes weren’t related to not wanting to bring more people like them into the world.
And I cannot help but resent what this family took from me.
I could have grown up with five people like my godfather, instead of just him. There could have been a whole Queer Contingent at all the big family parties, that I could have grown into, who could have helped me find my way a little earlier. There could have been a whole bloc who knew exactly how to deal with the venom that the rest of Dad’s side of the family passes people like me every chance it gets. I could have been part of the weird, weird process of finding a way to be both Cuban and queer with other people who had done it already, instead of fighting my way through this impossible bind almost entirely on my own, so far away.
This is what they wanted. They drive us out every single time, they’re still trying to drive him out, because they know that the worst thing in their world is for us to find each other. They know that if we find each other, we’ll find our compromises and our joys and our safety in each other’s lives, we will find the next set before they bury them in denial and fear, and we will crumble their lies about how horrible it is to be us.
But when they push us out and make it impossible for us to stay connected to the gigantic, confusing networks of cousins and uncles, they know that every crop of weirdos is starting from scratch, and never feels more alone than when they are around their supposed “family.” They know that this is how they convince us that there’s no one else like us out there, this is how they get us thinking that we have to choose between our heritage and ourselves, this is how they get us certain that being a good scion means living up to an impossibly specific vision that not even someone who wasn’t in almost every demographic they despise could possibly manage. They know that they cannot clean us out of their bloodline, so they make sure that every one of us has the trauma of hand-carving our place in a world that insists we don’t have one, doomed to recognize any help we might have had far too late.
When regular immunity doesn’t protect you from the dreaded LGBTQ, herd immunity will do.
Of Dad’s other four cousins, two are confirmed Trump voters and I have no relationship with the other two. I can’t imagine their estranged kin are eager to reappear. And so, like them, I am forced to choose: be present and visible to the next round so that they, too, can flee if they need to…or keep myself safe.
What my family took from me here is their strangest theft yet: the knowledge that, after all of their railing about my impossible weirdness, I’ve picked up a family tradition I didn’t even know we had, and lived it more fully than anyone ever imagined.