“You’re being a spaz,” Corey yelled from the kitchen, “just put some clothes in the suitcase and zip it up. You’re going to be late.”
He was right. I was being a spaz. I was trying to pack modestly, but it was hard to navigate the walk-in closet when each and every piece I brought with me would be scrutinized. My mother made me promise not to bring any makeup. She had asked that I stay away from dresses and loud, floral prints. She said a nice sweater and some pants would do, but I don’t think she realized that I didn’t exactly own a “nice sweater” or “some pants.” I owned a few extremely low-neck sweaters. I owned pants so tight they looked painted-on. But, I didn’t own a nice, modest sweater or some pants she would approve of.
I had a right to be a spaz, though. I told myself I would never set foot in that house again. My father had kicked me out of a Thanksgiving dinner almost eight years ago, and I swore to him that it would be the last time he saw me. He had said, “good riddance,” in that callous, manly, too-macho-for-empathy tone that I detested. My mother had cried, chasing me out of the door, begging me to come back inside and sit down and apologize - as if coming as myself was something I needed to apologize for.
To be fair, I hadn’t really shown many of the classic signs. I had a lot of high school girlfriends. I had sex with most of them. I brought a few of them home to meet the family, and they had all gained the approval of my stern father and nurturing mother. My older brother even set me up with a few of his old girlfriends. In college, I continued to date women, but there was a missing component – lust. Passion. Women were soft and warm and felt nice, but I didn’t yearn for them. I didn’t fantasize about them. I didn’t watch porn past my years of puberty. Women were nice, but I just didn’t want them the way other boys around me did.
I had my first gay experience in college. It was a drunken kiss with a boy from my Biology class, but I felt it. I felt it all the way to my toes. It was deep, lustful, passionate, and I wanted more – so much more. He wouldn’t go any further with me, but I remember rubbing my face raw against his beard while we kissed in the bathroom, away from the crowd and the girls and the music. We were in a bubble, tucked away and free to roam. When I saw him in class the next meeting, he didn’t make eye contact with me. That’s when I knew, with a sinking certainty, that, while he probably felt a lot of the same feelings, he wasn’t ready to admit to them. I, on the other hand, was more than ready. I couldn’t wait to meet someone else, someone not-feminine.
Through a few more bathroom experiments, a few actual dates, and one or two relationships, I started to understand my sexuality. I was gay. I wanted to be with men, intimately. In those hookups, I was fulfilled. I was happy. I felt those butterflies in my stomach, that tugging feeling in my groin, that sensation of never kissing enough, never touching enough. However, I also wanted to be more feminine. I started to dress in women’s clothes on the weekends and go to out-of-town bars where I could be myself, flamboyant and floral and proud. My girl friends started helping me with makeup and showed me how to dress for my body type. I started to embrace this new person - who was similar to my old self, but so different as well.
After my college graduation, I entered the “real world” of dating as a gay, cross-dressing man. I felt the ridicule. I ignored the sideways glances. I listened to straight men tell me that I was “misleading” because I was “too pretty.” The rejections were the worst. They felt different than the rejections I had faced dating women because, in this reality, where I was embracing myself and my new identity, they were rejecting me – the real me – not the me who couldn’t have cared less about sleeping with Tina what’s-her-face.
I joined support groups, full of men and women of all ages who had been navigating the same challenges I was. We were all getting to know ourselves, even those of us who had “come out” years ago. It was almost like attending an AA meeting. Our steps were different, but we were trying to come to same conclusions – acceptance of who we were and willingness to share that person with others. Some of the younger people in the group had been kicked out of their homes for sharing their identities with their families. Some of the older men had wives and kids at home. The women shared stories of men assaulting them, proclaiming they could “turn them” straight – sometimes even raping them. It was cathartic. That’s where I met Corey.
He was a mentor, because he had come to terms with himself and his sexuality. He had openly shared this with his family, who, despite friction in the beginning, had come to accept him as he was – gay and proud. He agreed to go on a date with me, and it was all uphill from there. We hit it off quickly. I wore my favorite dress, which he heavily complimented. He took me out to a fancy restaurant and ignored the glances we received. I felt like a schoolgirl on a date with the quarterback of the football team. He was the one who convinced me to go to Thanksgiving that year as myself, not as the person my family had known for the last twenty-seven years.
I showed up that year in a nice blouse with jeans and heels. My mother had opened the door and stood there in complete shock. I tried to hug her, but she backed away from me. My older brother came around the corner and started hysterically laughing. When my father walked through the hallway and saw me, he started cussing. He said I was hideous. He told me I should be ashamed to be in public like that. I tried to stand my ground, but he was relentless. I pushed my inside as I started to cry, and he followed me to the bathroom shouting at me to take everything off, to be a “man.” When I emerged, my face soaked in tears and makeup sliding all around, he told me I wasn’t welcome until I put on some “real clothes” and acted like the man he had raised. I told him I wouldn’t be coming back. He said, “good riddance,” and I left, listening to my mother beg me to stay the entire way.
Corey comforted me, but it was a hurt he couldn’t understand. His parents had accepted him, almost instantly. Sure, they were a little shocked, but they had kept an open mind. My family wasn’t going to accept me this way. They were too conservative, too narrow-minded, too entrenched in the societal constructs that told them men wore button-down shirts and pants and married women. I started attending his family events, as his boyfriend, and never looked back.
My brother reached out to me months after the incident, asking for a chance to explain his reaction. I gave in, and we started to rebuild our relationship. He told me he was proud of me for coming out, for dressing the way I chose, and for standing up for myself and my new identity. His words were heartfelt, but he also admitted that I probably wouldn’t be invited for another family holiday. We had “Sibling Thanksgiving” and “Sibling Christmas” with each other, but my mother and father never reached out to mend the bridge – until my father got sick.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Most men don’t live long enough to even get diagnosed – they die with the cancer before doctors have a chance to find it. It might as well have been a death sentence. The day he was diagnosed, my mother called. She cried on the phone explaining his condition. He was steadily declining. She said, “It would mean a lot if you could come home for Thanksgiving this year. Since, he might not have another with us.”
I didn’t give an answer right away. I talked with Corey, but he didn’t want to hear my protests. It had been eight years since they had kicked me out of the house. Eight years of no contact with my mother or father. Eight years of trying to reconcile the loss of my parents, even though they were alive and well. I had spent eight years coming to terms with their rejection, and all of those wounds were going to be torn wide open once again.
“You have to go,” Corey told me with a matter-of-fact tone in his voice, “you might not see him again. He might have changed. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t see him now.”
“I can’t go in there,” I told him, “I can’t face them. They don’t want me there, not really. They want the other me. They want me to show up dressed like a man with a woman at my side. My father is going to want to see someone I’m not anymore. I can’t do that again. I won’t compromise myself for them anymore.”
“Your father is dying, and he is going to want to see his son, regardless of what he’s wearing or who he brings with him. He wants to see you. You have to go.”
We argued the point for days, but he won me over. I called my mother and agreed to attend Thanksgiving dinner. She had rules, of course. She had asked that I not wear any makeup, to avoid upsetting my father. She didn’t want me to show up in a dress or anything too “girly.” She also asked that I come alone – meaning I couldn’t bring Corey with me to shoulder the grief. I agreed through gritted teeth.
This was months ago. Thanksgiving was in three days, and I hadn’t packed a single bag. I knew I would need to leave tomorrow in order to get there on time. I would probably have to spend Thanksgiving night in my old room or on the couch. But, with the time upon me, I just couldn’t bring myself to muster up the courage. It was like willingly throwing myself into a lion’s den – except, this den was full of my family, and their teeth were sharper than anyone else’s.
Corey was also packing to spend the weekend with his family. His mother had called me, urging me to attend the dinner, but promising me that no matter what happened, she still loved me. It was nice to have a separate family, one who supported me, to rely on in times like these. I wanted nothing more than to ditch my Thanksgiving dinner and hop into Corey’s car. His parents lived in the mountains. We were guaranteed a cozy fire and snow and the freedom to kiss and hold hands and sleep in the same bed. His family was my sanctuary, and I was leaving that safe-place to travel into Kansas – a flat state housing my homophobic family and their criticism.
Corey took me shopping the night before I left. We found some jeans and a few sweaters that I didn’t loathe. He helped me pack my moisturizer and tweezers and concealer – not even my father’s wrath could stop me from covering the stress-acne this trip was encouraging. As I loaded myself into the car, he hugged me and kissed me and promised me that this year would be different. I didn’t believe him, but I tried to put on a brave face. I felt ridiculous in my “approved” clothes. I felt naked leaving the house without even a tint of lipgloss. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and closed my eyes. It was like being sixteen all over again – dressing in the clothes my mother bought, agreeing to go out on a date with some blonde-haired girl, and feeling empty when I looked at my own reflection.
The drive was long. The flashbacks kept coming, making me tear up from time-to-time. I stayed in a motel just outside of my hometown after driving for an entire day. When I climbed into the stiff bed, I curled up into a ball of tears. I wanted Corey. I couldn’t face these people without him. I started wondering if my mother had invited the entire family and if they knew about me – knew that I was a gay man who dressed like a woman who had been kicked out of their home eight years prior. I wondered if she had called everyone to warn them about me. Maybe she had given out a list of acceptable topics – anything that would steer the conversation away from me being an “abomination” in their eyes.
The morning came, but I hadn’t slept. I packed on the concealer, put on the ugly sweater that suddenly felt simultaneously too tight and too big, worked my way into the unflattering jeans that made my legs look misshapen and gawky, and gave myself a pep talk in the dusty mirror.
“You will get through this day. If it’s too much, you can leave. You can drive back to your house, call Corey, and tell him everything. He promised that you could rub his face in this if it’s a complete disaster. You can call his mother if you need to. You are not hideous or an abomination or unwanted. This is one day.”
As I approached the driveway, I noticed a lack of cars. My mother hadn’t invited everyone. She wanted this to be an “intimate” setting. My older brother was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette. His wife was digging in their van trying to find some toy that would pacify their son. When I saw them last, she was just a girlfriend. Now she was his wife, and he was a father. He stood up to hug me, whispering in my ear that everything was going to be different this year.
I walked inside without knocking. My mother was setting the table. She looked tired, more tired than I had ever seen her. She gave me a hug, but not just any hug. This hug was an apology. She wrapped me in her arms, her hair grazing my chin, her head pressed tightly into my chest, and I felt the love wash over me the same way it had when I was a little boy and she hugged me before school. Her blue eyes had faded, looking greyer and foggier than I remembered.
“Your father is in the living room watching the game. Go in and say hello. He’s excited to see you.”
The hallway looked longer as I walked through it, passing the photos of my new nephew and the portraits of my brother and I from our younger years. My heart was racing. I felt my palms getting sweaty. I tried to adjust my sweater, but it just got itchier and tighter as I got closer to the living room. I could hear the game playing, turned up too loud. He always did that to avoid being called into the kitchen to help with chores.
I made my way inside, feeling my breath catch in my lungs as he turned to look me over. His tall, strong frame had been replaced with a withered husk. He looked weak, tiny. His hair was falling out, making bald patches across his head. The wrinkles in his face were deep, and the bags under his eyes were heavy. The intimidating man who had chased me out of the house cursing with every breath was gone. He had been altered into the man sitting in front of me, the man who looked like he needed help lifting a remote to change the channels. He looked old.
“Hey dad,” was all I could choke out. My mouth was dry, and my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
“Hey son,” he said hoarsely, “come watch these assholes try to play football.”
And I did. I sat down on the couch, cheering on the game with him. We ate dinner, tossing around jokes and sharing small anecdotes from our lives. My brother talked about parenthood while his son ran circles around the table making those “Indian” sounds with his mouth. My mother held our hands, tears welling up in her eyes as she looked at all of us, her family, sitting around the table. My father even asked me about Corey, genuinely. I told him about our plans to adopt.
“Better make it fast. I need to meet all my grandkids before this shit gets the best of me. Gotta show them how to run the ball,” he joked, coughing into his plate as he laughed.
I spent the night in my old room, crying to myself. This would be the last Thanksgiving, and it had been good. I texted Corey the news, but he didn’t have cell service at his parent’s house. The next morning, my mother cooked us a hearty breakfast. As I was packing up my things, my father walked into my room, clutching the frame for support.
“I’m sorry son. I’m sorry for running you out of here.”
“It’s okay dad,” I said, crying again, “I understand.”
“Promise me you’ll do better than I did,” he said, and he walked away before I could answer.