My great-grandmother was an etiquette teacher for much of her life, holding classes for rough-and-tumble farmers' sons and daughters out of her Southern Living living room -- and though I grew up a hundred miles from her house, secure in the Millennial haze of flickering television screens and microwavable dinners on wicker trays, the rare occasions when our family did sit down to dinner was always accompanied by my mother's brief tutorial on setting the table the proper way.
That there was a proper way to set the table always astonished me. Even the word 'set' brought to the surface an old way of living, as though placing a knife and fork in a certain order had the power to superimpose my great-grandmother's outsized antebellum beauty onto the modest portrait our family gathering made: a rosy tint around the edges, a trick of light that left us perfectly exposed.
But isn't this the power of custom, of tradition -- of my great-grandmother's etiquette? To displace the alien present with the familiar security of the past, hard-wire our barely recognizable 21st-Century selves to the lives of our ancestors? The prospect is exhilarating, once you have a taste for it. As writer and critic Maud Newton writes in her ancestry piece for Harper's, the thrill of connecting to the past can be an addicting one, especially if you come from a family that "stressed the importance of blood."
Just the other day, my mother lamented the fact that my great-grandmother's punchbowl had been left to "rot" in a church sink filled to the brim with cloudy water -- "They could've ruined it! People don't know how to keep nice things anymore!" -- and in my mother's cry I heard a yearning for something I'd also yearned for on each trip back home: a kind of etiquette that had the power to once again unite our nuclear family with the ancestors who, if living today, would certainly disapprove of what they'd call my "lifestyle," and who certainly must be turning in their graves at a rapid RPM even as I write this.
But our family has a way of keeping these ancestral ghosts fat and happy, and it involves leaving certain things unsaid at the dinner table. Southern queer etiquette rule no. 2, after setting the table the proper way: shy away from push-button topics. This is much harder than it sounds, since push-button topics seem to be all we know. In fact, if someone were to choose a family to best represent the current state of our U.S. culture wars, mine would no doubt make it on the short list: my father, a Missionary Baptist preacher whose stance against homosexuality has been the price of his ministry; my mother, a preacher's wife struggling to come to grips with her sudden liberal bent; and I, an openly gay man who once attended "ex-gay" therapy to please both of them.
In a house divided against itself, who gets the family silver? I know plenty of Southern families who never tire of decrying their degenerates -- black sheep, prodigal sons and daughters, drunks, crooks, snake-oil salesmen -- but being queer in a Southern family seems to carry its own brand of private shame. As Jim Toevs writes in his article "Why Our Experience of Prejudice is Uniquely Hurtful," being LGBTQ often cuts us off from our family histories in a way that being a drunk or a thief doesn't. We become the greatest aberration, the gnarliest of gnarled roots in the family tree:
Very often, our biological families are the source of our deepest hurt and pain. There are numerous reasons for this, but the fact that the heterosexual members of our families have different life experience is one of the main ones. When we seem to defy convention, and trample on our parent's expectations of providing them grandchildren, it can be perceived as arrogant and selfish. There are also social consequences: if the son is supposed to be a chip off of the old block and the son is gay, what does that say about the old block?
The easiest way to avoid upsetting the "old block" is to say nothing at all. My little family nucleus carries a debilitating genetic mutation that seems to express itself with greater frequency the more we talk about it: the more success I have in becoming an LGBTQ advocate and writer, the more my father's success as a preacher comes under scrutiny, and the more likely he is to be shunned out of the brotherhood of Baptist Missionary Association men who help maintain his ever-dwindling salary.
What's left unsaid between us, then, is what most frightens us. Neither of us wants to fail at what he loves; neither does either of us want the other to fail at what he loves; and my mother just wants us both to succeed, no matter how impossible this seems at the moment.
The tenuous bloodline that holds all of us together might snap in two if we were to openly admit what my blatant secret-sharing (in the form of a forthcoming memoir) might do to the family. As a close friend of the family admitted the other day, what's most notable about us is our seemingly innate ability to stand out as secret-hoarders in a stretch of the Bible Belt notorious for its secret-hoarding.
Exhibit A: a typical family conversation:
"Do you have enough money where you're living?"
Yes, I have a lot of money. (A lie.)
"Well, how are you liking it? How's teaching?"
It's going well. I really love it. (A half-truth.)
"How's your writing going?"
It's great. (Almost always a lie.)
"Are you happy about the memoir?"
Yes. (I am happy, but you won't be happy once you find out what's in it.)
Most of my progressive queer friends caution me against remaining loyal to the oppression I harbored in my childhood. "What you're talking about isn't etiquette," one friend chides. "It's internalized bigotry." "Classic Stockholm syndrome," another friend calls it. Analogies abound: sleeping with the enemy (creepy), retreating to the cave (also creepy), sinking my own ship (inaccurate, since I could never learn to build one in the first place). And while I know they're at least partially right, that many of them had no choice but to escape their debilitating childhoods, I've never been able to conceive of a future where my parents' love didn't factor into it in some way.
Perhaps this is only because I've been raised in a certain Southern household where family history gets grafted into stories we repeat for decades, passed down to each subsequent family member like rare china. But I do, in fact, want to one day carry the family china. Like my mother, I stress over the family heirlooms we've lost or damaged. I want to repair the nicks, redefine the hollows I've left in our family story as something more like "character" or "local color" -- or even, one day, as "progress."
What one friend might call my conservative stance on family, I call stubbornness. I was lucky enough to have been born into a family where most of its members love me despite our differences, and the teacher in me wants to use my life as a teachable moment in an extended version of one of my great-grandmother's etiquette lessons.
Here's my complicated stance on proper etiquette: when applied ever so slightly to the right social situation, etiquette has the power to render us our best, most well behaved selves; when applied with a heavy hand, it has the power to asphyxiate.
For many years, our family didn't talk about what happened to me during "ex-gay" therapy. We didn't talk about what had become of their lives after I joined the Peace Corps and moved overseas, leaving them to deal with the guilt by themselves. We kept our mouths shut out of some perverse sense of family etiquette, and it nearly ended up killing us.
In the years that followed "ex-gay" therapy, I shed propriety as though each social more I encountered carried the force of the straightjacket strap. Each trip home, I barraged my parents with facts about human rights issues. I treated them like the wayward child I imagined they saw me to be. I urged my father to consider a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, and this despite the fact that I knew he would lose his church congregation if he ever admitted such a sentiment aloud.
I tried to convince my mother that she, too, could become a feminist (it's easy! just take a stand against the entire church mentality that engulfs your daily existence!). I was naïve enough to believe that shedding all tradition would open up a new, more enlightened way of communicating with the people who'd raised me in all of their strong-accented Arkansan wisdom.
Predictably, each prodigal return home brought with it new complications. I loved my parents, and I wanted to be as real with them as possible, but I also wanted to be able to sit down with them at the kitchen table without the cold silence that followed one of my political rants or one of my father's sermonizing speeches about how many people in the world still hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. There had to be some middle ground, some place where love could meet without the "all-seeing eye" of God scrutinizing our every utterance.
Strangely enough, it turned out that poetry was the answer. I use 'strange' here not because I question poetry's ability to articulate humanity's most difficult truths in the most beautiful language possible, but because my father had expressed zero interest in poetry before I dragged him along to a poetry reading one night. Though he'd once thought that poetry was the kind of thing "sissies" tended to enjoy, by the end of the night he was ready to read "all the classics," and by the end of that month I had dug into my shallow pockets to buy several books of poetry for him -- everything from Whitman to Dickinson to e.e. Cummings -- thinking he would balk by the time he reached the Modernists.
Instead, he latched on, reading with the fanaticism he had always brought to his Bible studies. Before long, we were reading poetry aloud to each other, quoting lines back and forth, many of these phrases centuries' old, connecting to a shared cultural past that seemed willing to open its ranks to include our broken, discombobulated selves. He even began writing his own cryptic poetry, unraveling the tangled knot of emotions he must have felt at living such a complicated family life.
I want to believe that each of us pockets away some secret branch of our family trees, that what we choose to adopt and adapt says everything about who we are, and who we will continue to be. My great-grandmother continues to communicate to us through the language of etiquette. My father and I speak to one another through poetry. My mother speaks to both of us through her unconditional love.
Who knows how long any of this will last? Perhaps tradition is actually dead. Perhaps, in the face of imminent extinction, there's no room for tiptoeing around each other. Perhaps we all just have to face the harsh reality of living on a dying planet and unite as one big earthly family.
Who knows if my family can hold the family tree together with our crude instruments of language and love? If the answer is God, as most of my family believes, then I'll ask that He politely keep His mouth shut. At least for the time being, family comes first.