If I had to nominate one member of my family to be the cautionary tale that haunted every waking minute of my life — and I don’t know why I’d have to do this, but bear with me — if I had to nominate someone for the role, it would be my great aunt. Auntie Jo is the sort of person who tells you never to smoke even though she does, who tells her son-in-law to bury her Y2K supplies in the backyard for safekeeping, who would never help a handicapped person, and who buys tapes about the end of the world. What’s the point, I wonder, of spending your money on tapes about the end of the world if you already believe that it will happen? Spend your money on something You’ve always wanted, like a hammock, or a nose piercing, or cat pajamas. Why sweat the small details of the apocalypse?
Furthermore, as a devout Christian, she should know that if God intended for her to survive, he would most likely directly contact her with his message, not leave the equivalent of a voicemail on an obsolete format like VHS for the righteous to hear about through the all-mighty infomercial. I understand that no one has time to talk in person anymore, but couldn’t he at least Skype her, or have his likeness appear in a doughnut — preferably a cruller? Well, people do say God works in mysterious ways.
Auntie Jo is not my anti-role model because of her religion or her hypocrisy. It’s the way in which she uses religion to validate her righteous attitude and her condescending manner towards people she considers to be unworthy. At the same time, my own behavior seems to mimic hers. I’m not religious, but I’m definitely a hypocrite. I preach open-mindedness, but I’m shockingly judgmental. This is a means of simplification more than anything else.
For example, I’d much rather be on your Enemy list than your Awkward Stranger list. It’s odd, how I’m perfectly all right with an assignation that deems me one of the bad guys. But the ache of being an unknown element, perpetually in limbo, agitates me. Not that I want to make the effort to know you, or you to know me. I far prefer the bittersweet burn of snap judgments based on superficial characteristics you have perceived from the few times we’ve spoken, the few times You’ve waited behind me in line for salty broth and rubbery chicken. After all, it’s far simpler for me to wish you would judge me than for me to stop judging you. It’s just more… convenient.
Relentlessly, I harbor the belief that the rest of society is as quick to judge as I am. In a senior class I took in high school focused on race, class, and gender, the teacher gave us an exercise that asked us to lay claim to our identities. Step forward if you are in this group. Speak on it. What do you want everyone to know about this group? We were asked to represent and share something as members of both minorities and majorities, something that outsiders might not yet understand. When the teacher called for queer representatives, one lone student stepped forward. He was far braver than I was. I lacked the faith in my fellow classmates so important for disclosure, the faith that they would not judge. That day I gave up the chance to stand for something bigger than myself.
I’ve seen that even the staunchest homophobes can become more accommodating. Recently my cousin, Reba, got engaged to a woman. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” my grandmother said. This came from a woman who had scoffed when she heard the news that one of the first lesbian couples to wed in Massachusetts had filed for divorce. “What did you expect?” she had yelled at the TV screen. She had not expected her own blood to be attracted to the same sex, and certainly not Reba. Reba was almost perfect. A helpful, diligent, and caring woman, she had always watched over her younger cousins and never talked back. If a relative was ever to turn someone — a homophobe into an ally, that is — it would be her.
And if I had to nominate one member of my family to be the role model that reminded me not to judge, and to do others proud simply through living well, it would be Reba. Though she may be at the opposite end of the spectrum from Auntie Jo there is no friction between the two, no easy, thoughtless relegation of Reba to an Enemy list on the part of Auntie. How could anyone, regardless of their views on orientation, dislike my cousin? Likewise, how could they hold onto their prejudice if they respected her? I suppose they could think of her as an exception.
At the end of the day, that’s what I want. I want to be exceptional while intertwining such a trait with other aspects of my identity. I want to stop judging those who judge, and those who don’t, and to allow complex people to rest in the limbo of my Awkward Stranger list. I want to change minds simply by living well, and to have faith that if I put faith in others, I will not regret it. Most of all I want to spend my money on something I’ve always wanted, like a hammock, or a nose piercing, or cat pajamas.