Adjusting to Tennessee
let me start out this entry by saying: there are a lot of things about being in tennessee that i love. i love the scenery; in middle tennessee we have crazily-gorgeous rolling hills. i love property marked by fence rows, decrepit barns painted with ancient advertisements ("see rock city!"), and hillsides studded with grazing cattle. i love the cadences of speech here, even if sometimes i make fun of my parents when they fall too far back into it. there is something relaxing about tennessee for me. i think that feeling may stem from spending so many christmases here - it is a place that, to me, still somehow feels like the holidays.
being here, though, i miss alternative culture. mainly, i miss gay people. i miss that sense of belonging that i always felt in carrboro, sitting at a picnic table in front of the weave or eating dinner at the spotted dog or even just throwing softball with robin and stephen in the yard. i miss transpeople and gender queers. i miss people who look androgynous on purpose (a significant number of middle-aged women in middle tennessee look androgynous without meaning to). i miss seeing gay couples hold hands in public and look like they don't know they're doing it... moments that aren't political statements, you know, but instead are just living.your.life. i feel sure there are gay people here, but they are not visible in the general population. they don't stand out, at least not to an out-of-towner like myself. and i miss them.
my family here is, of course, fantastic. i've really enjoyed being around them for such an extended period of time (honestly). growing up, we were the only ones that lived away, and my parents made sure we came back often enough to feel connected, but i've never before been a local part of the lives of these cousins/aunts/uncles before this summer. being so close-by has been fabulous and i love it, love feeling so connected. i love going to baseball games and just shooting the shit with my aunt and uncle and cousins; sometimes i feel as though we have never before known each other outside of holidays and kidding around. sometimes, though, when i am in this particular group, i am reminded of our differences more than our similarities. sometimes, surrounded by these people who undoubtedly love me, i feel like an outsider - in the middle of a conversation, i look around and realize i am the only one not laughing, not nodding, not agreeing, and suddenly i feel very much a Democrat, very Non-Religious, very Gay. an outsider. this is never something that anyone does intentionally. i am always sort of jolted when it happens, and sort of confused about the root of it.
coming out to my family was a sort of long, extended process. i told my parents pretty much the second i decided to first date a woman, and at first i assumed they would tell my extended family - not because i particularly wanted them to, but more because i thought they'd need the support and counsel of their siblings to work through the emotions related to that particular piece of news. for reasons still unknown to me, that did not happen. my parents did not choose to share the fact that i was gay with anyone, at least not initially (maybe they've told some people on their own by now? who knows). on my dad's side, i told one of my cousins who's not generally known for keeping secrets (!) and she told her mother, my aunt, who talked to me about it, and then it slowly sort of made its way through the rest of the clan. i assumed my mom had told her family until just last year, when my aunt made a comment about me having a boyfriend, and i looked at her strangely, which led to a conversation, and again the news sort of spread from there. while in general i do not define myself as gay before anything else (i am also so many other things, equally if not more importantly, like a reader and a lifelong learner and someone who cares about the rights of immigrants and a lover of old music...), it does feel More Important when i feel uncomfortable mentioning it. because my parents and i really never talk about it, i sort of have this constant nagging feeling that maybe the people around me don't know, and this makes me uncomfortable. what i am trying, however fumblingly, to say is that being in tennessee pretty constantly feels like lying by omission.
i did not realize all of this until last weekend, when i went with my parents to nashville to see patty griffin play at the ryman auditorium. there were several (many?) gay couples in the audience and i just felt so connected, could feel myself suddenly relax. like, "oh, it wouldn't mess anything up if every single person here knew i was gay!" it was like letting out a breath i didn't know i was holding.
this weekend, i went to augusta for the wedding of one of my cousins. i had such a good time. i have a really fantastically large extended family on that side, and this weekend eleven of thirteen first cousins were there (counting nathan & myself) with four out of five spouses and ten children, plus the big six (my dad and his siblings) and all their spouses. we had so much down time to just sit and visit - under the portico (ha!), by the pool, at the brunch, at the reception - and it was so great. i loved it. there is a sense of belonging in that particular group of people that i can't really explain. it isn't just that we're related; i've interacted with lots of other families, or seen them interact with one another, and the dynamic hasn't mirrored ours. it's the combination, i think, of being related AND legitimately enjoying one another, consistently realizing over years and years of interactions that you would choose to be in one anothers' lives even if those blood relationships were out of the equation. it's the realization that you are invariably linked to the exact group you would have dreamed up for yourself. a few years ago, my cousin cooper and i decided to try and attend as many smith family gatherings as we could. there are so many of us that it's kind of like forrest gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get, who's going to be at any given party. we went to several dinners, sporting events, etc, and as we compared notes afterwards we came to the conclusion that it really didn't matter at all which family members showed up - a gathering of any branch or combination of our family was always a good time.
whether by my own advances or by theirs (i can't remember now), i have talked more openly with this side of the family about being gay. some of it is probably just location; until this summer, they were more physically close to my daily life, and i saw them more often, so we talked more often and did fewer marathon catching-up sessions. several of my gay friends have met this side of the family, and when i was in my most recent relationship we went to multiple events together, including staying overnight with one of my cousins. i have worked diligently at being comfortable with my homosexuality in front of this side of the family. at this point, especially after several of them helped so much in talking to me through my big breakup in the fall, it has stopped seeming like an issue.
i remembered that conversation with cooper many times this weekend as i perspired through the georgia heat with the vast majority of my family. i remembered, too, another conversation, this one with one of my professors in undergrad, maybe circa 2002. she made the statement that the more education you get, the more difficult it is to go home. i have thought of that conversation many times since, and have felt the truth of it - education changes you, and if those changes happen away from home, it's always going to be a challenge when you go back, because of course everyone is expecting to meet the old you, and of course you're different. this weekend, though, when i thought of my professor's statement as i sat surrounded by the people to whom i always come home, i thought, this isn't hard. every single one of us is different each time we come together, but it is our joy to encounter these changes in one another, to have the opportunity to meet again and again as we each work to carve out our place in this world. there was no need at any point during this weekend to scream "but i'm a lesbian!" or "but i'm not a christian!" - not so much because they already know those things, but because in the smith family, being different doesn't set me apart, doesn't define me. we're all ourselves, complicated and precious.
i can think of nothing i am more proud of or more grateful for than the fact that i am part of that. this weekend was the most therapeutic experience i have had in a long, long time. it was good for my soul.
DATE ADDED: 2010-07-23 14:10:37
COLLECTION: Personal Reflections
ITEM TYPE: Document
CITATION: findyourriver, "Adjusting to Tennessee," in HACKGENDER, Item #53, http://hackgender.org/items/show/53 (accessed December 9, 2013).
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