I Am the Gay Cousin at Thanksgiving

portrait of a thoughtful teen gay woman with a piercing on her nose.

Prologue

Thanksgiving is a holiday and that means I have to see my family. I’m already dreading it. I know, it sounds callous, it sounds hard-hearted, I sound like the Grinch that Stole Thanksgiving… and that might be the worst Grinch of all because Thanksgiving isn’t exactly about resentment. I mean, look at the damn title.

Happy Thanksgiving

Sure, I could say this resentment stems from the fact that this holiday commemorates a bunch of white immigrants taking advantage of the Native Americans’ hospitality…which preluded genocide and colonizing them as a historical“thankyou” that we’re meant to re-enact annually(withpie included). I mean, if that doesn’t cause a bit of resentment in you as well, perhaps Thanksgiving can be a day of reflection.

But that isn’t where my resentment began or ended. It had a lot to do with the fact that there’s one in every family; that one was me. Yes, I am the Gay Cousin. Worse, I’m the Trans Cousin. But let’s focus on the gay, because whether you like it or not, if you’re a part of this beautiful rainbow at a family Thanksgiving table: you are the Gay Cousin.

What does it mean to be The Gay Cousin? Well, let me tell you what it meant to me.

Act I

At eight years old, I had to hug people I didn’t want to. I had to play games with my hormonal and sometimes sadistic older cousins when all I wanted to do was eat my face off, steal a glass of wine(Jewish,we start early, that’s my excuse) and enjoy the warmth of the house. Inevitably, conversations about normalcy would lead to mating habits, because it’s totally appropriate to talk to children under ten about making a life-commitment to a partner and popping out kids. Just think about that. How many of us young queers had to suffer through those cold-sweat inducing talks? Even at that age, I knew that I couldn’t tell them that all my crushes had been on girls and I wanted to be their boyfriend, not anyone’s wife. I believed my feelings were odd, perhaps even invented or insane. I was odd and invalid. That is what I internalized, since that was the resounding theme. I was unacceptable.

Act II

At 16, I was a bit of a fuck-up. Who wasn’t? I spent most of my time getting high with my friends and making out with all of them to dull the pain of being bullied, even the“straight”ones. Mostly the“straight”ones. That was kind of the only option at a Christian private school. I liked to slink around in suits and reveled in comparisons to Shane McCutcheon, though I also kind of hated myself for it. I also had to go to Thanksgiving again, like I did every year. My cousins were now dating people, some were fucking them. I sat there quietly, stirring my yams with brown sugar and thinking bitterly that I’d probably fucked more people than they’d ever dreamed of in the past year… but I couldn’t say anything.

Autumn landscape with a tree. Digital painting

It was better to be a prude than gay. It was better to pretend to be unloved than gay. It was better not to talk about the fact that I’d just gotten out of a three-year relationship with my best friend because we started talking about college and I told her I couldn’t leave everything behind and travel the world with her or that I was in an abusive long-distance relationship. I couldn’t laugh with them or lower my head and tell a story that would humanize me; to tell the truth would instantly dehumanize me. I would become The Gay Cousin. I especially couldn’t tell them about the fact that I’d come out to my parents as transgender and they refused to use the proper pronouns for me or talk to the family.

I missed my real family: The shadow cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inchwhere my identity was respected and celebrated for the first time; where I felt attractive, alive, powerful and a part of something. Those people were the family I needed, a bunch of queer gothic misfits who told me I wasn’t wrong if I was weird. The people I could love. The people who would help me survive this fucked-up gender mess at all costs.

Act III

I am now in my early twenties. I have come out to my family as transsexual, though I have not given them a solid answer as to my orientation, partially because it’s so sticky on its own. I had been fucking men in grimy places and enjoyed the way they smelled, the way they would leer at me over the table and tell me their boyfriend was out of town, so they needed a man to keep them company for the night. I have a partner of five and a half years and they’re genderqueer, though at the time they were presenting as female. We don’t explicitly tell them we’re together. They never ask, either.

portrait of a teen gay woman on a pink wall

My older cousin and his girlfriend are treated like newlyweds every time the family congregates, and my single-but-dating cousins are asked about their plans. No one asks about us or the love of my life. My obnoxious aunt, however, does stop her work over the cranberry sauce to gleefully comment on how“masculine”my haircut looks, how it’s“better”and congratulates me on that.

I feel good for a minute before I realize that she thought I looked feminine with the medium-length, shaggy hair I was completely comfortable with. This was a compliment based on gender essentialism, that a boy should look like a boy and that is“better.”That if I am to be a boy, I should be masculine. That masculinity is praiseworthy in a trans boy, even though I’m actually quite femme and ill-at-ease with traditional masculinity. The compliment didn’t feel so great going down. I heard the words“normal”and“masculine”a lot that night.

And of course, I was a good, upstanding trans person and not the awful, dirty sort that flaunt their lifestyle in others’ faces: Sexless. Loveless. A virgin atoning for my sins, a person who had to earn my humanity back after all these years by adopting normalcy as a personal credo. I sigh and laugh as my partner and I help ourselves to Jack and coke so the laughs come out smoother and less like jagged knives.

Epilogue

Thanksgiving is coming this year. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ll have to face questions about what I’m doing with my life and tell them that I’m no longer teaching at the acting studio. I’ll have to explain that going off hormones for my health has dramatically affected my prospects in my acting career and that my manager doesn’t know what to do with me, that the industry wants nothing to do with a truly androgynous boy who doesn’t fit comfortably in a binary presentation. I will have to endure their suspicious gazes, as if they know better regarding what I’m talking about than I do, as if this wasn’t my lifelong dream and goal for the past 17 years of my life. I will squeeze my partner’s hand while I do this, and I will take out my e-cigarette and smoke like a chimney if I don’t excuse myself for a toke first.

They will not ask about our relationship and will treat us like we’re roommates and very good friends with a lease togetherwhen we tell them that we’ve moved into married housing at UCLA. My cousins with their vanilla jobs, degrees(somemore useless than others) and heterosexual, cisgender relationships will be questioned with a more positive, affirming tone. They will be asked how things are going and coyly teased about their sex-lives. My uncle will likely say something racist and I’ll hold my tongue, so we don’t get into a screaming match about how he built his company on the backs of the immigrants he wants to degrade, though he is an immigrant himself.

People enjoy a family dinner with candles. Big table served with food and beverages.

Who knows whether I’ll be praised for acting normal or not this year? I’m the Gay Cousin. I always have been, and I always will be.

I’ll go to Thanksgiving this year and eat their food while exchanging absolutely filthy glances with my genderqueer masculine-identified/presenting partner. I’ll hang out with my stoner aunt who makes paintings and pottery, the one who treats me like I’m queer but also human. The one who sees me and knows the depths and possibilities of my heart. I’ll be thankful for my parents coming around and loving me deeply, even while we were at risk for estrangement. I’ll be thankful for my artistic aunt who takes no shit and has a heart as big as the sunflowers in bloom that she paints. I’ll be thankful for my partner and the way their hand feels in mine, the way they can calm me, the way they rub my belly and lament that it’s not sticking out to their satisfaction, the way I love them so complexly and so purely that I could spend my every waking moment with them and never tire of their presence.

This year, I am the Gay Cousin again and you might be too. Just remember that your blood doesn’t always determine who your family really is.“Family”is the people who love you, the people who encourage you, the people who know that you are intrinsic to this world and you have so much to offer because of your experiences, no matter what they are.“Family”is the people who appreciate what you bring to the table and the unique way you do it.“Family”is where you can be the Gay Cousin and somuch more than that, because you are a fascinating, irreplaceable human being in somebody else’s life.

So, eat up, be gay and don’t ever let this holiday make you feel bad about what you need to do to survive, who you are and who you love. Give thanks for yourself and the love you make. You are not too complicated to deserve that, and your secrets are not your shame; they are the shame of everyone else who refuses to open their heart to you.

Happy Thanksgiving, homos. I’m Kennedy Levi and I’m thankful for being in the mighty league of Gay Cousins.

Credits

A big thank you to the staff at OutWrite Newsmagazine—UCLA’s source for queer journalism, creative writing and illustration—for allowing us to reprint portions of this story, which originally appeared on November 25, 2014. For more information, visit outwritenewsmag.org.

Justin Ayars