Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Bio or chosen, families bring us full circle

One of the only places I’ve ever wanted to vacation is Alaska, so I could volunteer passing out hot chocolate along the Iditarod dog sled race course. It’s not a trip I spend any time thinking about or planning (I have an equal aversion to cold weather and dogs), but rather the aftereffects of a stirring PBS documentary I watched in the ’90s.

That’s about the extent of my globetrotting ambition. I’m going to Denver later this month for one of the first vacations of my life, not counting long-weekend trips for family reunions in exotic locations like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Santa Claus, Indiana, which more than fulfill any desire I’ve had to travel.

Almost every hour of any vacation time I’ve taken during the last decade was spent in Chicago, visiting family and friends, and gorging on Giardano’s pizza and Italian combos dipped in hot peppers. The trips always wind up being enjoyable and fulfilling, but I’ve become increasingly agitated as soon as I arrive.

The pressure to make rounds early and often enough so that no one feels slighted is an exhausting start to what is supposed to be a period of rejuvenation. It’s a burden that I expect having moved a thousand miles away from home, and I would never obligate anyone, especially those with children, to the expense of coming to Atlanta.

Me visiting everyone in Chicago feels more fair than the reverse, but a few months ago I became aware of how the imbalance affected me beyond the harried itineraries during my trips home.

My brother and some of his friends from Indianapolis recently took a Guy’s Getaway to Atlanta, and about three drinks into us hanging out, it dawned on me that something was different—different about this visit, and a different emotion inside of me. I’ve spent time in Atlanta with other family members who were here for conferences and long layovers, but I’d always met them at hotels or restaurants.

This was the first time that a family member was in my home. I waved my arm across my one-bedroom apartment in one of Midtown’s affordable throwback (i.e. delightfully shady) complexes, but struggled to find a word for this different emotion, what it meant to me for someone who knew the intimacies of my adolescence to land upon where that journey has currently led to.

“This is my … day,” I said with tipsy deliberateness. “This is where I wake up … and where I come home from work … and where I eat, and shit … and where I do my best to … live … and enjoy life…”

My brother’s eyes stared into the living room, the tipsy deliberateness of his nodding head letting me know that he was looking not at the space or furnishing, as much the years. I sensed that he was proud of me, and happy for me, and relieved for me.

“You know I know… ” my brother said as he raised his glass to toast.

I take comfort knowing that the Atlanta-based Ryan that my friends and family know is existentially the same Ryan they knew in Chicago, that we’ve all kept it real. But I’m also a different person, an aged me. Context matters, and I regret not yet trying harder to share the fuller version of Ryan with those who have always known and loved me.

The brother in this story is not my biological brother, but rather my god brother – which is another way of saying that he is the brother of my childhood best friend.

Both are my brothers, and I tremble thinking about how different the scene and arc of this column would be if their family had not opened their home and their hearts when everything—school, family, sexual orientation and destiny—was in disarray.

LGBT folks know a lot about the families we choose—the mentors and confidants we find as substitutes for unaccepting relatives—but many of us belong to families that chose us. Even when our biological families love us without condition, for which I am truly grateful, there are people who come into our lives and shape us as if they were in the womb.

Together, they center us, and support us, and help us remember who we are. They demand of us, and irk us, and leave loving but testy voicemails reminding us that the money for the family reunion is due. They are the most valuable context.
Biological or chosen, families are the magic of returning home, and the still unnameable emotion of home coming to you.

Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.