In truth, I really didn’t know my Uncle Jerry. He’s been gone for over ten years now, and even though he enters my mind now and again, I can’t say that he was much more to me during his life than my father’s brother from whom I often tried to keep a distance. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I truly regret not getting to know him far better than I did.
It turned out that I had a lot in common with my Uncle Jerry, but I was too busy trying to suppress that identity while growing up, so building an affinity with him never rose high enough on my list of young priorities. I was working very hard to avoid being gay, so I couldn’t possibly be witnessed getting close to someone who was openly so. Quite the opposite, I even felt annoyance at his outspoken tirades at family events—generally against the Catholic Church or the ineffective politicians of the day. I couldn’t understand his unending need to challenge and antagonize those who were otherwise bound by familial blood ties to love him. I couldn’t understand his sense of frustration at what he saw as unjust.
My memories of Uncle Jerry are fairly fragmented now, but certain things I remember quite vividly. He called me “Dalton” for some reason I never understood. He took my cousins and me out for ice cream, and to a favorite local amusement park, Knoebel’s Grove. We would eat hamburgers and drink Pennsylvania birch beers at Coney Island, a popular burger joint in his hometown.
No matter how good any given family gathering might be, however, I learned that Uncle Jerry was prone to get into heated arguments with the family. And, from my young vantage point, his brothers—my uncles—could be very hard on him in response. So I was always a bit on-guard when I was around him, as I never wanted to be caught in the middle of an uncomfortable argument between the adults. Often I didn’t know what the fights were about, but it was never a good thing to be around. Irish Catholic brothers tend to make effective verbal sparring partners.
I finally came to understand that Uncle Jerry was gay when he, my grandparents, and my Aunt Millie and Uncle Flicker drove to visit my family while we were living in Wisconsin. I probably suspected that he was gay even before I knew the word. But I saw the “proof” on the front seat of his car one day during their stay. A book that had a title that included references to “homosexual” and “identity” right there on its cover. When I saw that book, I remember backing away from the parked car like I had seen a rattlesnake inside. I could feel my heart racing.
During my college years, I would occasionally join the family at Uncle Jerry’s house for gatherings. I remember the kitschy gay postcards from his friends that were displayed on his refrigerator. I remember an ACT UP and SILENCE=DEATH BUTTON, too. Even though I found myself wishing that he’d removed these provocative in-your-face proclamations from his refrigerator before the family arrived, I distinctly recall a moment of feeling a bit impressed that he hadn’t.
After college, I finally began to come to terms with who I was. And by the grace of God, I met the most amazing man and fell madly in love for the first time. Over time, I became more comfortable bringing Rodney around to meet my family. I never had the courage to introduce him to my family as my “boyfriend” or “partner.” That’s not how it’s done in my family, anyway. But they all knew, and they couldn’t have been nicer to him.
One of the last moments I remember sharing with Uncle Jerry was a time that he hosted a family Thanksgiving celebration at his Sears Roebuck catalog kit home in Harrisburg. I brought Rodney, and was slightly nervous that my Uncle Jerry would recognize that his nephew “Dalton” was gay and make a scene out of it in front of the family. In fact, he did no such thing. (And I have little doubt that he knew I was gay long before I did.) Quite the contrary, I introduced Rodney, we exchanged pleasantries, and the rest of the day went along, as would almost any other family gathering we’d shared over the years. Except for one very notable difference: my Uncle Jerry invited a friend to dinner. He was African-American. I have no idea what their relationship actually was, but I delighted in the idea that Uncle Jerry may have a partner.
Years later, I learned that Uncle Jerry was very sick. I struggled to comprehend how I never knew that he was sick for so many years. I was naïve, to be sure, but I couldn’t fathom that my parents wouldn’t have known this for some time and kept it from me. Nevertheless, I was concerned for him, and spent time reading about HIV treatments of the time, and praying that he’d pull back from the brink. But this time, he did not.
For whatever reason, I’d always assumed we’d have a chance to talk about our experiences when the time was right. He lived through an amazing period of time that included the Civil Rights Movement, the Stonewall riots, the improbable election and unthinkable assassination of Harvey Milk, and the horrific onset of the “gay cancer” that took so many. From what I knew of him, I’d expect that he was not merely a bystander—he was undoubtedly an activist in many of these causes.
So now I know that it’s tragic that we didn’t get to know each other as I became a more confident adult. I would have loved to know what he’d lived through and done.
As I’ve grown older, I have become something of an amateur activist myself. I argue with my family and friends. I march in the occasional parade. I financially support people and causes, particularly those directly related to equality for all. It would have been nice for him to know that I do all of that.
Every one of us lives through a historical arc in time, and we each get to decide whether we’re engaged in that arc or we’re bystanders of the arc. Uncle Jerry’s arc led to mine. And I cannot help but be struck by the progress we have made in the fight for equality since Uncle Jerry’s untimely passing.
This very morning, I watched a United States president during his inauguration speech talk plainly about achieving full equality for everyone—including gay Americans. This is something I could have never imagined ten years ago.
I’d love to know what Uncle Jerry would have thought.
-- January 21, 2013