I used to think there was something wrong with me. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I never liked your jokes. I used to think there was something wrong with me because at family events, when all the other nieces and nephews would run over to laugh and play with you, I would run and hide. Yesterday at your funeral you were celebrated as a larger-than-life merry prankster who took nothing too seriously. I felt that old tinge of shame when we were asked to write down our favorite stories of you and I couldn’t come up with a positive one.
My childhood memories are spotty because my brain was always so overloaded with fire from my dad’s intense verbal abuse, from feeling like a constant hot mess of “wrong”, from not having the words and concepts I have now to make sense of my experience, words like “queerness”, “neurodivergence”, “misogyny”, “intergenerational trauma”, and “silencing”.
There’s only one childhood memory of you that sticks out in my head. I must have been around 8 years old. I was sitting on the couch watching TV. You called my name from your seat across the room. I looked over. You’d pulled your dick out of your shorts, or your balls – I was too young to know which was which. You weren’t hard. You weren’t masturbating. You were just waggling it about, looking straight at me with amusement, making sure I saw. My mom walked in from the next room and caught you. She rolled her eyes and gave you an, “Oh, you men”, playful sort of smack.
I recounted that memory to a therapist about five years ago in passing, and her jaw dropped. “You know that’s sexual abuse, right?” she said. I hadn’t considered giving it that label. It was just Uncle [bleep]. You were always, like…mooning people and taking your junk out and stuff. It was your thing. You were a character. It was funny. I mean, I never laughed, but…I was supposed to, right?
A few years and a fuck ton of therapy later, I went home to a family event. I was now in my thirties. I told you I’d moved to Providence. You told me about the strip club you frequented there, how sometimes the strippers would come out all soapy and wet, and you made a jerking off motion to describe what you did under the table. You didn’t know that I’d spent years by then immersed in gender and kink and sexuality issues, reading and writing and listening and fighting; that I’d tried to have a career as a stripper myself a while back (I quit fast. It was too hard!); that my arms were and are linked in deep respect and solidarity with sex workers in the struggle for justice. I didn’t feel the outrage you expected. I saw your attempt to hurl strip club references at a femme for shock value as outdated and sad. I just looked at you with crinkled eyebrows and said, “I don’t understand. Are you trying to tell me you jerked off under the table?” You responded with some kind of affirmative, I don’t remember what. I shook my head with pity and walked away. That’s the memory I wanted to write down as my favorite, because it’s the first one that didn’t leave me feeling like shit.
The following Christmas, in 2016, Trump had just been elected and things were weird. I had just come out to my parents as bisexual. You were a raging Republican. You cornered me and brought up my sexual orientation, trying to push my buttons again by getting into your fascination with “bulldykes” and lesbian sex. Again I looked at you with confused pity and walked away. My world had become so much bigger than you. The iconic 90s leatherdykes with boots and whips from whom you’d drawn your shock material had become my heroes, role models, and crushes. I had been closely studying their writing and their activism, identifying fiercely with their desires and passions and loves and losses, while you’d simply vacationed in their porn and appropriated their imagery to freak out the squares.
That imagery freaked you out, too, though, didn’t it? You were only comfortable interacting with it when you could reduce it to a toy you that you used in the tired game of edgelord versus middle class morality. But I am not a toy. I am what grew up in the cracks in your empathy. I am what could not be silenced. I am love and dignity. Slowly, over the years, I have become more and more intimate with all of those vulnerable feelings and desires that you would poke and prod and manipulate in others from your place of safety and comfort, but would never be able to tolerate standing shoulder to shoulder with. And yeah. I take myself super fucking seriously. I deserve to, after all this time.
I saw you once more before you died, on Christmas of 2017. You avoided me the whole day. I fancied that maybe you’d finally learned I was no fun to toy with, that I was playing an altogether different game and it had nothing to do with you. At the funeral I heard an outpouring of grief from folks who felt like they’d never had a chance to tell you how they really felt. And I felt that old tinge of shame again, because last Christmas, you and I shared a secret that few at your funeral would know: I didn’t like you much anymore, and I’d made it abundantly clear to you.
Now the funeral’s over, and I’m releasing that old shame. I’m making my peace. No, I didn’t like you much, but I appreciate your humanity. I grieved for and with the people who loved you dearly. I have empathy for the little boy you were, even though I’ve run out of patience and smiles for the glorified emotional immaturity of white cis male edgelords. I hesitate to tout forgiveness of abuse when it is so often shoved down the throats of the marginalized to keep us compliant, but here’s the thing: I have some of it to offer you. Because in those last encounters before your death, I got to stand up and watch you back down. I got to push your big, floppy dick out of my face. I finally got to feel safe and powerful. I forgive you, because I got to experience a little bit of justice, and believe me: neither justice, nor forgiveness, nor safety, nor power, is a luxury that I will ever take lightly.
Photo Credit: ell eff