My sister was gay. She came out around age 16 or 17. I remember her telling me she was gay shortly after catching me in bed with my first girlfriend. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d literally caught her in bed with her girlfriend. We had a great conversation that day. Although it was loaded with back and forth insults and sarcasm, it was genuinely witty and heartfelt. That day we loved each other again.
Unfortunately, we didn’t always get along. In fact, our relationship was pretty estranged for most of our adult lives, but the conversations we had over her being gay and how she was going to tell our father, etc., those were some of our better days—the days I like to think about most when thinking about my sister.
Adele died a few years ago from cancer, so she never had the good fortune of experiencing yesterday’s Supreme Court decision. I’ve known a lot of friends who were cheated and died way too young from one illness or another. I knew several people, friends mostly, who died of AIDS when I was still in my 20's. My next crime novel is dedicated to a childhood friend who died way too young from a brain tumor. Marriage equality is a big deal, something that has taken way too long, and my sister would’ve been ecstatic had it happened while she was alive.
We were a pretty liberal family growing up, but perhaps more by circumstance than intent. Our father ran off with his first cousin’s wife, and later married her. It was a family scandal that cost my mother, sister and myself a lot, but not nearly as much as it would cost my father. Although I’d visit him from time to time before he died, our estranged fate had been sealed years before. None of us attended his funeral.
The day my sister came out to my father was a classic Stella moment. The old man was a hustler back in the day; a very hard working guy, but with very selfish priorities. He wasn’t necessarily liberal or conservative, although he verbally supported the Democrats when he was a union lithographer. Once he owned his own business, I suspect his politics might have changed. I clearly remember the time he went off on me for talking about socialism after my honeymoon in Europe. By then he was mostly legit and owned headshops in Brooklyn and New Rochelle. My father wasn’t always legit.
He was living on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village the day my sister told him she was gay. We used to go there to meet him every few weeks for breakfast, a short lecture injected with insults about our weight, clothes, hair, you name it. We’d also get a five or ten spot, depending on his mood. That day, a Sunday, we met him at Miteras diner on the corner of West 3rd and McDougal. He was standing at the counter with his friend, Joe Mara, a sort of village icon back in the day who owned the Night Owl café before it became a headshop. Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan used to play there, but Joe became famous for refusing to allow the police to fingerprint him after being arrested. He spent thousands on lawyers and then had my father create a poster of his prints. Joe then gave the posters out for free in his store. Yes, Joe was nuts, but he was one of my first employers. I rolled posters in the back of the Night Owl for a time while in high school.
That Sunday visit, Joe and my father were shooting the shit while Adele and I sat in a booth to wait for him to join us. Just before Joe left, we heard him crack a gay joke and I cringed as our father laughed. “Uh-oh,” I thought, here it comes.
My father then slid into the booth with us and was about to signal to the waitress when my sister turned to him and said, “Daddy, didn’t you know I was gay?”
I watched the color drain from his face as he swallowed hard, and then timidly shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I didn’t know.”
“I’m gonna go get the Times,” Adele said, giving him time, I suspect, to get over his shock.
She went around the corner to a kiosk near café Reggio, one of her favorite places in the Village. My father waited until she was outside the diner, then turned to me and said, “That was like a kick in the balls.”
“Don’t say that,” I said. “She’s your daughter.”
“You’re too young to understand,” he said. “The shit those people go through.”
In retrospect, I want to believe that my father was being considerate with that last comment. What I believed then, however, and what I still believe, is that he was probably more embarrassed than considerate. If our father was proud of either of his kids, he never showed us. My sister was a brilliant student and would eventually become a teacher in a public high school where they named the school library after her. On the other hand, I spent way too much of my life seeking his acceptance. I don’t blame him for the choices I made. I blame myself for thinking they would ever make a difference.
I’m not sure if our father had genuine issues with homosexuality. We didn’t have another discussion about it until many years later when his wife had a huge argument with my sister, called her a fat dyke, and threatened to leave my father if he didn’t fire his daughter (Adele managed his store in the mall at the time). My father’s parting words to her that day, after handing off some hidden cash, were: “Please don’t tell your crazy brother.”
It took her several weeks to do so, but she eventually did tell me. I reacted like the crazy fucking brother I was, and it pretty much ended my relationship with my father. I couldn’t understand then, nor can I understand now, how he could let what happened happen.
So it goes.
I turned a bad corner for a number of years after that. I lost contact with both my father and my sister, and what I was engaged in may have widened the gap between brother and sister. I’ll never know. What I do know for a fact is that my mother, whatever her crazy Catholic beliefs at the time, supported my sister’s sexuality with all her heart. That said, I don’t know if my sister ever got over my father’s inaction the day of her argument with his wife.
I’m sure my sister suffered some idiotic slings and arrows from homophobes everywhere during her life. People say stupid shit, usually because they’re ignorant, and sometimes they’re just cruel. I know homophobic comments had to bother her, but she was strong and independent and confident. Ultimately, I suspect, the slings and arrows faded to the irrelevance they deserved.
They probably bothered me more than her. After all, I was the crazy brother.
Adele had a few long-term relationships over the course of her short life. She was three years older than me and died at 55 years of age. She lived with a few of her partners, and managed to buy a house in a very small gay section of Brooklyn on Fenimore Street. She also lived in Chelsea in Manhattan, and eventually she bought a condo in Jackson Heights, Queens. Adele worked as an accountant for Yankee pitcher of Ball Four fame, Jim Bouton (and said he was a brilliant guy—a big deal because my sister didn’t hurl many compliments in the direction of male athletes). She also became a tax accountant for gay businesses and then settled on teaching, her first love, later in life.
As I said, whatever the bad chemistry between us, our better sibling years occurred when we were young. For whatever reason, they didn’t last, but she was an incredible aunt to all three of my kids, and an incredible teacher to her students, most of them students of English as a second language. I remember several of her students attending her memorial held in the high school in Manhattan. During that same memorial, I was seated next to my mother thinking I had to be there for her when they started showing pictures, or Momma Stella would lose it and maybe suffer a heart attack.
Never underestimate the strength of a mother. It was me who broke down when I saw a picture of my sister and myself as very young kids sitting on some kind of toy train. My head dropped into my mother’s lap and I lost it.
I’ve been very lucky my entire life. Things always happened at just the right time to keep me from the kind of self-destruction that lasts. Teachers always seemed to bail me out, whether in the form of coaches, education, writing, music or street rabbis. And there was my sister who encouraged me to step off a window cleaning scaffold and dare to find the bigger wide world.
I would take a few dozen detours, make a hundred more mistakes, breakup my own family, leap into a street life, replace love with greed, get myself in trouble, and eventually meet the right woman at the right time to find some measure of redemption. I never thought much about marriage, not enough to take it seriously until meeting the woman who would become my fourth wife.
I wish my sister had the same options, to marry whomever she loved. To divorce when a relationship soured, or to just choose to live as partners knowing the choice to marry was hers to make. Yesterday the Supreme Court permitted us to take a defining step toward the democracy all of us are meant to have. My sister would’ve been very proud of the decision. If the heaven she told me she believed in shortly before she passed exists, hopefully she’s partying with friends, drinking champagne with one hand and raising her other in a fist of gay pride.
“No longer may this liberty be denied,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the historic decision. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
Marriage is a “keystone of our social order,” Justice Kennedy said, adding that the plaintiffs in the case were seeking “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”