Thanksgiving makes me think of the people we gain and lose along the way, in particular a long lost-friend from a gay youth group who promised to keep in touch and did – two decades later.
Families We Lose, Families We Choose
In the LGBTQ community, we often talk about the importance of our chosen families. This is especially evident as the holidays approach, and hosts make room at their tables for those who aren’t making the trek to celebrate with relations — or weren’t even invited. “Are there any locals who are alone on Thanksgiving?” their social media posts call. “Come to my house for a potluck! Come celebrate with your chosen family!”
Though anyone can embrace a chosen family, it has long been an essential social building block for the people of the LGBTQ community. Some of us have travelled to live in places where we feel our identities can be embraced and therefore can’t make the trek all the way back to our hometowns. Others face strained familial relations with people who cannot accept them because of their gender or sexual orientation. Fortunately, we can fill the space left with people who love and accept us for who we are.
In Portland, there are many friends that I consider family. I found Amanda, a fabulous lesbian who lives around the corner and with whom I share the bond of Philadelphia roots; she has become my little sister. I also found connection with Vicky and her husband Joe, maker of fabulous meatballs and the kind of “Sunday gravy” from back East; they feel like much-loved cousins.
Finding a chosen family is especially important for those of us who haven’t “settled down” in the traditional sense. I’m the type of friend you might not want to book a ticket to visit too far in the future, in case next week I end up living in Estonia, writing copy for a queer, hip-hop, chamber music quartet. During my adult life, I’ve lived in five major cities. In one sense that means I’m lucky to have loved ones up and down both U.S. coasts. It also means I’ve lost some friends as physical distance caused us to grow apart, and there have been people with whom I would have liked to built deeper connections that just never happened. However, it’s fairly rare to be reunited with someone once we’ve lost touch for a long time, so imagine my surprise when I received the following message last year.
STRANGER: Hey, random question. Twenty years ago did you let me crash with you in South Philly, after I missed a train out of the city?
ME (after peeking at his profile and recognizing his face from long-ago): I believe I did. Did you fence?
STRANGER: Ha, I’ve been searching for you periodically! I did fence! And you wanted to go to Fordham!
Indeed, I had gone on to study at Fordham, while he had headed to Boston College. Charmingly, he told me that he had held onto a “beautifully handwritten scrap” of paper with my first name, middle initial, and last name on it. The complication he faced is that, since 1998, I have gone by my middle name. It took him 20 years, but he was finally able to find me by searching for names beginning with my middle initial attached to my last name.
Let’s call him Kelly, since his name is as Irish as mine is Italian. I faintly remembered that he had wanted to study philosophy, and that seemed to have worked out for him as he ended up a professor. He’s also a landlord, a homeowner, and married. But none of that helped answer the question, “Why would he want to reach out to me?”
A Night with the Gay Youth Group
The night I spent with Kelly, I had gone out with a girl who identified as bisexual (her name is lost to time). I vividly remember us heading to the Attic Youth Center, which hosted a gay youth group. Why “vividly”? That’s because – at 18 years of age, I was taken into a side room where group leaders had “the safe sex talk” with new members.
It was there that a college student had showed me how to put a condom on a banana. When he told me I was also supposed to use a condom for oral sex, I looked at the guy with the phallic fruit as if he was, well, bananas. It had been bad enough when I was 12-years old and my mother horrifyingly told me she supported masturbation as long as I “cleaned up” afterwards. Now, I was having my preconceptions about safe sex shaken by a man holding a banana.
“Look, I have to tell you that about oral sex,” the college student had told me, gesticulating with the banana. “That you need a condom or a dental dam.” Clearly other young gay acolytes had reacted with similar skepticism because then he whispered, “I know it sounds silly.”
Afterward, a whole troupe of us set out on a walk in the city. In those days, coming out young was kind of a new thing. So, walking around with a group of gay youth had a new sense of danger about it, but it was also early summer, and I remember thinking that Philadelphia was at its most beautiful. We walked through the gayborhood and then on to Old City, near Independence Hall. I think we had gourmet ice cream (this was when Philly was finally becoming gastronomically known for more than cheesesteaks.)
We ended up at an all-ages dance party at Woody’s, a gay bar still popular today. We had fun, daring to attempt flirting in public – some of us for the first time. Among our crew was the young men who would go on to contact me again 20 years later, and he’d missed the last train back to the suburbs.
“Oh,” I had told Kelly. “You can stay at my house.” He seemed somewhat surprised I wouldn’t have to call my mom and dad to ask if a new friend could crash. “A lot of my friends come in from the suburbs,” I explained. “So if they miss their trains, mom doesn’t mind.” Mother wanted to keep kids safe at night — whoever their parents were.
A little while later, back at my childhood home in South Philadelphia, Kelly and I talked about our hopes for the future, what we were going to study (or thought we were going to study) in college, why were both looking forward to being young and gay in new cities.
We asked each other when – if ever – we would tell our parents that we were gay. Back then, I was still vowing never to tell. Alas, it was dragged out of me a year later by my much-loathed older, much-older sister – at the most apropos time of course: the occasion of my father’s funeral.
Kelly had a different plan. He planned to tell his parents in a letter, upon leaving for Boston College. He would let them know he was fine with moving on peacefully, should they not accept him. Twenty years later, I was eager to ask: Did they?” “My uncle came out the week before I did,” Kelly responded. “He made things easier for me.”
“Lucky homo,” I thought. After 20 years, I’m still the only gay in my family. Today, sitting at my desk in Portland, I know I won’t be going “back home” for quite some time. I haven’t been since I moved to Oregon. My family and I have sort of “broken up.”
However, when I see Kelly’s posts about restoration work he’s doing on his 19th century home in Philly, I stop to go through his pictures. Incidentally, he lives just behind the building which once housed the youth group with its safe-sex bananas. It makes me want to go back for a visit, to really meet this old-and-new friend. I picture myself back East, sitting at his dining room table, sharing a meal, or meeting him and his husband and their dog in a coffee shop near Rittenhouse Square.
I may never know exactly what motivated him to find me again; perhaps he simply wondered how life had ended up answering the questions we’d posed about our future.
Of all the things I’d wondered about him over the years – from Does he still fence to Where did he end up living? – what I wondered most of all were: How did being gay work out for him? and Had he grown into the kind of man he wanted to be? and most importantly Was he happy?
Back when we’d met, we had an entirely different conception of what was even possible for us in terms of happiness. We never even thought we’d be allowed to legally marry, never mind end up – as I did – divorced. We were both just awkward, teenage boys, starting to figure it all out: a little scared about the future, a little afraid of telling our parents the truth about who we were, a little embarrassed to learn how to put a condom on a banana.
Though he is now, just like me, almost 40, I still remember him as an almost-ginger, curly-haired youth. I wonder if there was any way I could have found him, and I am amazed that he was able to find me. But I am thankful that he did, and now I can count him among my chosen family.
If you enjoyed your visit to Sebastian’s youth, check out him navigating dating older gay man in 1990s New York City.
Last modified: December 3, 2018