Creating the Family

by Derik Cowan
April 1996

The first time the topic came up was in a PFLAG meeting. One of the regulars was talking about how she found a lot of support and caring in her lovers, ex-lovers, and often her lover's ex-lovers. She described it as some sort of family network, one that was partially voluntary and partially chosen by others.

To be honest, I thought that the whole idea was a little far-fetched for me. It was all very well and good for this woman to be able to feel somehow connected to her lover's ex-lovers, or her ex-lover's current fling, but it doesn't really work that way in other people's worlds.

But then it came up again. We were reading a strip from "Dykes to Watch Out for" for my class on lesbian representations, and it was all about how the main character couldn't seem to find the one Ms. Right, but instead found herself fit into a network of current and ex-lovers, which we talked about in class as some sort of family -- at once wonderfully supportive and dreadfully frustrating.

I still don't know that I totally buy this idea. Perhaps it's because the word "family" has some rather bad connotations for me. It's become a weapon, a tool of the religious right that they use to cripple any sort of progressive legislation on a variety of social issues including gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues. No one wants to appear to be anti-family, so we spend lots of time arguing whether or not our stands are pro-family and then neglect the individual.

Furthermore, my personal experience is that family, far from being that stable space for support and love that we like to think of it as, is rather something that at once throws out those who do not fit in with the family's ideals and then demands that those thrown out continue to fulfill their responsibilities to the family.

On the other hand, what possibly could be wrong with reclaiming a word like family? Why shouldn't we try to turn the enemy's weapon on him? We've reclaimed words before -- words like queer that were used to denigrate gays and lesbians are now terms of pride. Why shouldn't we also claim our right to a supportive structure, or family, one that isn't hereditary, but one of our own choosing?

In the past year or two, there have been all sorts of people who have provided me with support, love, and care when I needed it. I guess they've become something of a family to me, and I'd like to mention them here as a sort of thank you.

First and foremost, there is Jagu, who took me in when I needed a place to live in Amherst, who fought for my right to stay in school even though my parents had stopped supporting me, who takes care of me when I'm sick, and mothers me to death when I start falling behind in my schoolwork. There's been some debate as to whether he or my advisor gets to play mom, but I think Jagu wins hands down.

Then there's Kurt. I met Kurt a couple of weeks after my parents threw me out of their home, and he gave me a reason to live. We lost touch when I moved to Amherst, but then he also moved into the area, and we dated for a while last spring. If it wasn't for him I don't know what I would have held onto during the first couple of months after being disowned.

After I moved to Amherst, I met Brandon, and we went out for most of the fall of my sophomore year. Brandon helped me get in touch with the anger I felt over being disowned by my parents. He could say the things I needed to hear or get me to say the things I needed to say without my even realizing what he was doing.

I guess the next person on the list would be Jeff. We lived together last summer, and were briefly engaged to be married. Then there's Van, who I was visiting the weekend my parents found out I was gay and who's always there to scheme with. And of course I can't forget Mike and Aric.

I even have some sisters in my family. There's Becca, my best friend since my freshman year here at Amherst who has endured more tirades, spells of depression, and half baked ideas from me than anyone. We often joke about how in an earlier time we would probably have been married by now with 2.5 really messed up children. And there's Jessica, who's been affectionately dubbed my little sister because she's all of four months younger than me. There are others, of course, but I really don't want to drag this on for too long.

This month, on the 27th, I turn twenty-one. Naturally, I'm planning quite a celebration for my birthday, but what will be most important to me will be the gathering of my family around me. Not my blood family, my gay family, and I'll be happy.

Derik K. Cowan, 21, is a full-time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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