Straight as an Arrow: A Family Devastated by Homophobia

Illustration by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable

— Gibran Kahlil Gibran

My Aunt Geri was was the youngest of four children. My Uncle Bob was barely a year older, both products of my Grandma’s brief, tumultuous second marriage about a decade after her first marriage with my Grandpa produced my mom and my Uncle Jim.

Geri and Bob grew up close, and without their father. While my mom and Jim stayed in relative contact with their dad, the two youngest siblings were completely abandoned by theirs. As is the case for many families, mother and grandparents did their best to backfill the loveless chasm left behind when one parent disappears.

Geri and Bob were natural born troublemakers. From their earliest ages, they lived as self-proclaimed outlaws, both sharing a disdain for rules, and a zeal for the adrenaline rush of breaking them. In the late 50s and early 60s, they were the prototypical juvenile delinquents — causeless rebels that no one cared to make a movie about, but with hijinks under their belts that would defy the imagination of the craftiest screenwriter.

Tales of said hijinks were relayed to me by Aunt Geri herself, who was my favorite relative as far back as I can remember. When my parents went on their honeymoon, Geri and Bob were entrusted to watch me. I was around a year old, and very much enjoying the fortnight-long raging acid party that had consumed the house the minute my parents had left. As crazy as things got, I was well cared for and cherished throughout the chaos, which included raiding my mother’s pottery shop for clay that ultimately ended up plastered about the house, and numerous visits from Mequon’s Finest to address noise and nudity complaints.

As I grew older, I leapt at every opportunity to spend a weekend with Aunty Gee, who would bring my brother and I to utterly inappropriate drive-in movies and teach us how to hop a fence for clandestine late-night swims in the public pools. My Aunt was an epic party animal, who had friends in almost as many places as she had been banned from. Back then, the over-the-top drinking, smoking, and whatever-else-ing was all part of her living legend: the beautiful, buck-wild iconoclast who dated the president of one of the most notorious biker gangs in the country and rode a Harley of her own — all while never missing a single day of work. She loved animals and nature, and belied her genuine gentle soul every time she took in a stray. Growing up in the shadow of my mom and her brother Bob — two of the most talented artists I’ve ever known — her own artistic talent shined through on the few occasions when she put brush to canvas. I am honored to be able to look over to see one of those works of art as I type this: a haunting depiction of a gnarled tree from roots to tip-top branches, backlit by a moonless night of stars. As much as I admired her Fuck-The-World attitude, I loved her even more for the innate sweetness that peeked-out from under the tough exterior.

Uncle Bob on the other hand, always kinda gave me the creeps. When I was very young, he was often part of Geri’s perpetual party, but as time went on I saw him less and less, and the times I did see him were increasingly uncomfortable. When I was about 6 or 7, he was watching me at my grandma’s house and taking pleasure seeing me writhe in pain as he squeezed my toes in a nutcracker. Not long after, he came to stay at our house for a few weeks, bringing a palpable bad vibe with him along with a case of hepatitis, which necessitated that my brother and I not use the same bathroom as he did. Mom told us he got hepatitis from a visit to Mexico. Thanksgiving was always rife with alcohol as I was growing up, and after my 9th celebration of said holiday, a particularly sloshed Uncle Bob cornered me in the kitchen to explain — over and over and over again — that he wasn’t straight, he was gay, which meant he was attracted to men. He was drunk to the point where he didn’t remember what he said 30 seconds earlier. I remember being much more bothered by the broken record than the news of homosexuality it delivered.

By the time I was a teenager, and thus of age to engage in the family tradition of drinking to excess along with my aunt, Uncle Bob had become nothing more than a faded and cursed memory. While sitting on a picnic table dragged into Lake Michigan, vomiting my lunch and 5 Miller Lites into the drink to make room for more Great-Tasting, Less-Filling fun, Geri hit me with What Happened To Bob:

When he was 13, he was sent to a juvenile detention facility for stealing a car. There, he was shot full of Thorazine and repeatedly raped by the priests who ran the place. Unable to cope with this trauma, he turned gay, and blamed his misfortune on Grandma, who he treated like shit until she had no choice but to disown him. “The Faggot” was a horrible asshole of a person who didn’t deserve to be called a son, brother, or uncle. And no one gave a shit where he was or what he was doing from then on.

Unable to cope with the trauma of this story, I took action according to aforementioned family tradition and proceeded to drink until I blacked out. Leaping into the raging river of addiction and dysfunction that tossed the fate of my family like so much flotsam and jetsam, I embarked on a journey of self-destruction that has been well-documented in media worldwide and in My Life After Hate. All along carrying the belief that homosexuality was a disgusting symptom of a sick society. This irresponsible denial of my Uncle Bob’s humanity was projected to deny the humanity of all LGBT people as my darkest depths of hate and violence were realized.

As I grew out of misanthropy and into a person who cared for human beings in general, my thoughts would turn to my uncle sometimes and I would ask about him. According to Geri, That Faggot was never to be forgiven for what he did to my grandma, and my mom would just respond with genuine sorrow how she tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too far gone. I never had the nerve to ask grandma before she passed on in 2009.

We all loved Grandma Geri dearly. Since I could remember, she was a calming, supportive, and compassionate pillar amidst the rampant dysfunction that was normalcy in my family. Grandma was the person you could always turn to. The person who was always sober, stable, and welcoming. After my Aunt Geri bought her own house, grandma let me stay in the upper flat in-between ghetto skinhead houses. Even when I was at my lowest point, my grandma was always happy to see me.

As was my aunt. She was always there for me as well, until the creeping hold of the booze sapped more and more of her ability to help people. Geri lived to help others, which you sometimes would have never guessed.

When she was drunk she would get wild. I know how much fun this can be at first. For the first decade. The timespan varies but sooner or later the party ends and there’s nothing left but a mess of drowned experience. In 2004 I quit drinking and my life has been gaining meaning ever since. About that same time Geri was plummeting downward in flight of tragedy after tragedy. After spending almost a decade in love with her high-school boyfriend Bud, he was decapitated in a motorcycle accident. This began a pattern of death stitched along the decades between then and now. Her close friend Kenny died in a motorcycle accident also. Years later, Geri was the one who found Kenny’s wife Mia 4-days-dead in her apartment after an apparent heart attack. Her friend Skip died in front of her, also of heart failure. One morning Geri walked out of her house just in time to see a 5 year-old boy killed instantly by a truck speeding down the street.

My aunt didn’t process this magnitude of death very well. Instead of seeing it as all the more reason to appreciate life, each morbid memory piled upon the other to form a monstrous burden that demanded constant numbness. The more she drank to forget, the more concrete the horror became. Alcohol cost her her job, her life savings, and ultimately her sanity.

Uncle Bob died during the summer of 2010, alone and miserable in a mental health facility somewhere in the Carolinas. My mom had to jump through months of hoops to get the powers that be to send her his cremated remains. On September 9th, 2010, my mom, her boyfriend, and I met Geri for dinner to discuss what to do with Bob’s ashes.

Facebook friends of mine may remember this post the following day:

Thursday night I made a decision that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I was leaving work. There were 2 ways to exit the parking lot. I paused for a moment to consider. One way lead to my aunt’s house, where I had driven her and her car home from dinner because she was too drunk to drive. She was crying and saying she was going to kill herself as we drove. I told her to grow the fuck up and think about how that would devastate me and her son and the rest of our family. That seemed to have a positive impact, and we were able to lighten up the conversation. By the time I dropped her off, we were laughing over some pictures of her dog in diapers and I made her promise not to drive anywhere. She gave me a hug and agreed.

I went to work for an hour or two. I had a walloping headache from concussion #19 suffered last Monday morning when I was cranking a bolt tight and the wrench flew off and clocked me in the forehead.

I also had a ton of work to do at home, so I chose to take the way that lead there, selfishly opting to take care of myself instead of taking care of my aunt.

She took her own life later that night with a gunshot to the chest.

I’ve been debating whether to air my hurt and guilt here. I guess I chose to because it’s an efficient way of letting everyone know at once what happened. I know many of you knew my aunt and had shared good times with her and I.

Now she’s gone

Geri was so wasted when she showed up to the restaurant that she ran her car up on the sidewalk. But until my mom asked, “What about Bob?” she was just regular old wild belligerent drunk. At the mention of Bob’s name she crumpled into a heap of the kind of soul-wrenching sobs that only a lifetime of lies and regret can evoke.

A week later my mom showed me this letter from Bob to my grandma:

Turns out it wasn’t at age 13 that Bob was incarcerated and assaulted, and it wasn’t for stealing a car. He was committed to a brutal mental institution at age 17… for being gay.

My Grandma Geri made this decision with a sound mind, and believe it or not, a loving heart. According to the intolerant societal norm of the time, homosexuality was a sickness. And what parent would sit idle while their child was sick?

I can’t fault my grandmother for doing what she thought was right, nor can I fault my aunt for taking her side and concocting a revisionist history to cope with the fallout. Looking back, now knowing what really happened, I can share the sorrow that devastated my family and use it to amplify the urgency for compassion and inclusion in our human society.

How much happier would my family have been had Bob been accepted for who he was? We can only speculate now. It does strike me that the same family who ostracized my uncle because of who he was attracted to never thought of doing the same to me when I voluntarily became involved in a movement of hate and violence. When I came stumbling-drunk into family dinners ranting about a Jewish conspiracy to destroy “The White Race” via integration with blacks and societal illnesses (i.e. homosexuality) — there was no attempt to lock me up and have some priests rape some sense into me. This wasn’t because of any outright sympathy on behalf of my grandma or anyone else in my family for the disgusting ideological stance I had adopted, but more so because of the sad fact that violent racism and anti-semitism was — and in many ways still is — better tolerated by our society than homosexuality is.

Yet there is also the truth that my family learned something from the injustice that Bob suffered, and that had a lot to do with the unconditional love that I was always fortunate to have, even when I blatantly refused it. My mom has always walked the walk of compassionately accepting people for who they are, and I’m happy to say that I am finally able to appreciate the example she set for me. I love her and all of my family deeply. In memory of the intolerance that brought about tragedy, I will do my best to nurture and grow that love in hopes that other families within our great common human family can avoid making similar mistakes.