My Gay Brother Was The Best Parent I Could Have
By Julissa Catalan
Conservatives say that a child needs a traditional upbringing — a mother and a father — in order to be “raised right.” I had neither, and I’m thankful for that every day.
My father, whom I not-so-affectionately refer to as my sperm donor, left our family when I was 3 years old. With my mother working non-stop in his absence, I was primarily raised by my older gay brother, Byron. My upbringing was so nontraditional that it didn’t even look like the “nontraditional families” you see on TV. But now that I’m 33, I find myself feeling grateful that my father left, because a traditional family isn’t always a happy family.
I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had he stayed. From what I can remember of my first three years, and from my siblings’ retellings, I gather I did not miss much. He drank and he cheated. A lot. So I imagine I would have wound up in the middle of all that, and been left with a bad case of daddy issues.
Instead I grew up in a home where my brother consistently empowered me.
My youthful interpretation of how a man should treat a woman was not determined from watching my parents interact, but rather from how Byron treated me. Any abandonment issues my father might have left me with were eliminated, because my brother fulfilled the role a father should.
Byron enrolled me in gymnastics and took me to every ballet, jazz, and tap rehearsal. He would attend every performance with a bouquet of flowers in hand. The neighborhood moms had his phone number and often called him for advice on their own girls.
In middle school, Byron was the one to determine my punishment when I was caught smoking cigarettes. He was also the one to ground me when I said I was down the street at a slumber party, but was really an hour away at the Jersey shore boardwalk. In my later teens, Byron was the shoulder I cried on during my first heartbreak. He was also the cool older brother who drove me to and from all the Friday night football games, and let me take his cell phone, while my friends were busy looking for a landline to return their parents’ pages on.
Byron had high expectations of me, but he made me want to live up to them. He refused to say curse words in front of me and expected me not to use them as well. And he always presumed that I would go to college, and after that, graduate school, because that was what I was supposed to do.
Byron is in many ways a stereotypical gay man: fashion-minded and artistic. (He’s a talented painter who earned a partial scholarship to Pratt Institute.) This, too, became part of how he supported me. He taught me not to wear black heels with a brown handbag, and that over-tweezing your eyebrows does nothing for your face but make your nose look big. He often still declares that I am hit or miss with my fashion sense and should consult him before walking out the door for an event. If I dare give him an attitude on this, he is quick to remind me of the wedding I wore a jumpsuit to, and that my photo with the bride and groom is the ONLY one that the photographer cropped from the waist up.
But though I’ve known he was gay as long as I could remember — he had a different air about him than most men, and for several years his “friend” would sleep over at our house pretty regularly and come to all our family functions — we didn’t discuss his sexuality at all until I was 20.
I grew up in the ’80s, a time when some actually thought AIDS was gay-exclusive, and was a teenager in the ’90s, when our first real personification of a Latino gay man came courtesy of MTV Real World’s Pedro Zamora. Society’s views on the gay community — and the way gay men were treated — was very different from the way things are now. Byron was out around those he knew would accept him, and guarded around those who might not.
Byron trusted me, but he was my parental figure. In the ’90s, sexuality was often seen as being about sex more than it was about identity. Just as a straight parent wouldn’t talk about their sexual experiences with their children, Byron felt that part of his life had nothing to do with me. Like most parents, he just wanted to set a good example.
Still, it wasn’t always a well-kept secret, and I would later find out he was on the receiving end of sickening discrimination throughout the years.
My guy friends sometimes made fun of Byron for being gay, mocking the way he spoke and ignorantly assuming that they should somehow have their guard up around him. I was never embarrassed by him, though, and any time someone made fun of him, I found myself getting more defensive than he even would.
After Byron came out to me, the dynamic of our relationship changed; we found ourselves naturally speaking very openly about men, the way friends do. We would go to gay clubs and drag shows together — and unlike my younger days, rather than having friends who mocked him, I now had friends who wanted in on the fun. Straight girls, and guys (some of whom I was dating at the time), would come with us to drag shows. The boys would often place bets on which drag queen would win the contest that evening. The NYC pride parade became an annual tradition for us. Each year we would head into the city with my best friend and her gay brother. During these expeditions, Byron and I discovered that we had the same taste in men, and I even set him up with a guy or two. We were back to being brother and sister, instead of parent and child.
But in some ways, having Byron raise me means that he’ll always be an authority figure — even though now he’s an authority figure who lets me set him up on dates. Even once I was an adult and didn’t have to ask for permission, I still wanted his approval. I found myself consulting with him on anything from throw pillows to financial decisions. And even after we got to the point where we spoke about men openly, we still never ever talked about sex in detail.
Byron and I lived together until I was 27 years old. I moved out on June 15 of that year. On June 25 our sister Emma died from cancer, and Byron was left to raise her 13-year-old daughter. Just as with me, she is his priority — only she is much cooler than I ever was. Rather than dance and gymnastics classes, she opted for bass lessons and rock concerts.
I expressed sympathy once, saying, “You couldn’t catch a break. You thought you were done raising other people’s kids and could start your own life, and now you had to start all over again.”
“Don’t ever feel sorry for me,” he replied. “I love my life. I am happy with the life I chose.”
This time around, Byron chose to be openly gay with his “daughter” from the beginning. I’m proud of my brother and relieved that time and cultural change have given him the opportunity to be his authentic self in all aspects of his life, particularly when raising another child. I can see that she is benefiting so much from that experience with him. She is wise, open-minded, and understanding in a way that my generation didn’t have the capability to be. As a teenager, my niece already has the same relationship with Byron that I didn’t get until my twenties. Her friends don’t make fun of him for being gay; instead they respect him as her father figure. And they, too, talk about men, and find themselves often checking out the same guy.
Other than that, though, the relationship is just the same. My niece voluntarily took on his “no curse words” policy, and she never wears black shoes with a brown bag. And she has been accepted to most colleges she’s applied to, because that is what she is supposed to do.
Lead image: Courtesy of Julissa Catalan