Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: My modern families

Any estrangement I have from my family—and it abounds—doesn’t result from being gay. I’ve always been accepted by my immediate family, and welcomed as kin into others, through both fellowship and genetics.

The distance between my relatives and me is not filled with bad blood; rather, I come from two bloodlines inclined to flow along separate channels. A four-day trip to Chicago planned for later this month is developing into a weekend that will reaffirm yet transform my understanding of family.

The origin of the trip is a gathering for my father’s side of the family, most of whom haven’t seen each other in decades, since we were growing up on 60th & Halsted (the same Halsted that runs through Boystown in an alternate reality). “Reunion” is too big a word for what we are attempting, which is simply a Saturday night family dinner at Old Country Buffet.

It’s worth a round-trip airplane ticket, even though I learned a few years ago that my father is not really my father, so I share no blood with those I call family.

“OK, cuz,” wrote my cousin Tassie, who, like many others, probably knew the truth about my father long before I was informed,  “I am going to change the date to September just for you and if you don’t come I am going to be really pissed.”

It’s touching to know that the shenanigans of older generations don’t disrupt the bonds we developed as brothers, sisters and cousins.

The weekend is also the culmination of a discussion I’ve been having with someone from my childhood who contacted me several years ago on Facebook. Without any knowledge of my shifting parentage, he wrote that he is convinced we are brothers, that his father is my father.

I’ve been reluctant to do a DNA test—which would reveal not only siblinghood but also ethnicity—due to resentment that a cotton swab could have more say about who I am than 35 years of life and experience. Nevertheless, we’ve bought the kits and will learn whether we are brothers during a night of beers and blunts. I desperately hope we are, and wish I shared his certitude.

More recently, I was contacted on Facebook by my 20-year-old nephew, who has found love for the first time, and subsequently, motivation for more than the life he’s known on the South Side. He is convinced that his best course will take him away from Chicago, something I’ve known for more than a dozen years.

We’ve been talking about the young couple coming to Atlanta to look for jobs, staying with me until they can get their own place. Suddenly, it looks like they will depart Chicago with me at the end of the month, which means I have two weeks to heterosexualize my gay bachelor pad.

It’s daunting to take in a couple of South Side refugees and temporarily provide for a three-person household while the two of them discover adulthood. But I once walked their path, and I know I wouldn’t have advanced without impulsively seizing escape routes without knowing where they led, and I believe we face no struggles or odds that would be any greater than their current fate.

I’ve tried to be a good uncle throughout my nephews’ and nieces’ lives, while knowing they needed far more from me than the cash I send home for Christmas or birthdays. I was protected from responsibility by distance, my displeasure with their mother, and the sense that I was ill-prepared to take care of someone else’s children.

While being a gay male has insulated me from the demands of guiding toddlers and teenagers, my absence from their development is something I’ve struggled to reconcile myself to for a decade. Unable to be their guardian, I hope I can at least be a mentor to my nephew as he crosses into manhood, and together we can steer our family to a smoother way forward.