By Aaron Cooper
Descending the narrow staircase to my sister’s basement family room, I was blindsided by my seven-year-old nephew’s arms locking around my legs in an immobilizing embrace. Ordinarily, we would have slipped past each other where the stairs angle ninety degrees, but tenderhearted and gentle Isaac had designs on me; he sought more than a hug. Peering out through his wire-rimmed glasses, with his ever-present yarmulke (skullcap) balanced on his head, he looked up and whispered a question best delivered at close range: “Why aren’t you married?
Instantly, my radar bleeped the influence of others. Had he eavesdropped at his parents’ door? Did dinner conversation about this gay uncle raise more questions than it answered, leaving some mystery unsolved? Kids rarely take interest in the love lives of their elders—what whet his curiosity about my matrimonial state? Dangerous territory, I thought, knowing his parents’ Orthodox Jewish beliefs and refusal to define my beloved partner, Eric, as a member of the family. I proceeded with caution.
“Interesting question,” I said, stalling for time. “I bet you have some ideas about that.”
“Mommy says you haven’t met a girl yet.”
Bullseye. They talked, my sister and her son—a pureed conversation, smoothing out ingredients inconvenient and complex, like my eighteen years of committed partnership, or Eric’s and my shared devotion to our adopted son. I imagined her narrative rendering invisible the rich and textured life I’d worked so hard to build, and I felt deflated, like the flattened shell of a plastic blow-up toy.
Suspended between floors while footsteps circling above threatened to enter our space and steal our moment, I recalled how my sister, one year before, had demanded that I refer Isaac and his siblings to her if they asked me personal questions. “Let me tell them what they need to know,” she said, and for the sake of family harmony, I had agreed. But looking into his probing eyes, I saw myself at his age, wondering about something I needed so much to understand.
When I was seven, Bobby Fine raced across the blacktop during the forty-yard dash faster than anyone in our second-grade class. I was enchanted with Bobby—mesmerized, really—all crew cut and dimpled smile. When I tried to get close, to hang with him as pals, he gave me a kind smile and ran off with buddies to throw and bat and climb. Watching from the edge of the ball field, puzzling over feelings that made no sense to me, I quietly joined the ranks of those who stand apart.
At nine, my best friends Karen and Susan vied for my attentions. Karen played a mean jump rope; I was one of few who matched her. Susan, in her kitchen after school, enticed me with root beer and heaps of savory Fritos. Hanging with girls earned me deviant status, especially with the guys. Boys don’t jump rope; boys play baseball, and tease those who aren’t like them.
Like all kids, I hated feeling different, seeing no reflection of myself in the male faces all around. Loneliness blew in through summer windows with boy-noise from the nearby baseball field as I sat alone with scissors, paints and stencils. If only I’d known someone like me.
At thirteen and a freshman, one tall, disdainful junior sauntered each week down the study hall aisle to murmur “fem” as he passed my desk. I feared and loathed him, along with some others who oppressed me with scornful looks and toxic labels: sissy, queer, fag. Shame rendered me mute, of course, afraid to expose my ordeal—not to family, not to friends.
Nearly fifteen, I accompanied my father one Sunday afternoon to the disheveled painting studio of his cousin Chuck, a bachelor artist famous for the dark and dreary canvasses he bestowed at family weddings and bar mitzvahs. Behind a bi-fold door, a bathroom wall of male pin-ups disoriented me—not the academic poses or figure studies expected in such places, but pornographic clippings boldly sexual and arousing. I asked my father afterwards, as we were driving home, if he noticed that bathroom wall. No, he said, while I watched his lips slide into a grin and quickly back again, and so I changed the subject, puzzling alone over the unsettling impact of that provocative montage.
Thirty-five years later, much has changed; young people witness, in film and television, a more honest portrayal of gay and lesbian lives. But in the sheltered world of my nephew’s Orthodox day school, where the universe is peopled with families like his own, popular culture has less reach; toxic myths may yet endure, leaving questioning youngsters bewildered by who they are.
Which is why I refused to abandon Isaac on those stairs—this adoring nephew who gripped me so tight—abandon him to the age-old misconceptions about a different slice of inevitable life.
The deception in Isaac’s story—“you haven’t met a girl yet”—roused me to speak the truth, to arm Isaac with the knowledge he might some day need, so he could comfort a struggling classmate or friend, perhaps even himself, with the reassuring thought, “I love my gay uncle.”
As my tightening chest forewarned of family disharmony, I breathed deeply and knelt before my nephew, face to face.
“Actually, it’s not because I haven’t met a girl yet. I am kind of married.” Riveted as a statue, he received every word. “You know Eric. I’m kind of married to Eric.”
“The Torah says that’s wrong,” he said haltingly, more question than conviction.
“Yes, that may be. But there are lots of men like me—men who love other men and make a family together.” Magnified through thick lenses, his eyes never strayed from mine. “This is how I was born. God made me this way. That’s just how it is.”
Without another word, he turned and walked downstairs, leaving me alone, bracing for the aftermath.