Not long after we moved in together, my girlfriend and I created a budget to monitor our living expenses. We both freelance, so it’s a modest one.
Towards the end of each month, our fridge often nears emptiness, sometimes frighteningly so. However, we never go hungry, and not just because we’ve grown accustomed to planning our meals down to the day or because we’ve learned to get creative with the items in our pantry.
Many of the nights we’ve expected to have to stretch our resources have turned into the ones wherein our bellies have been the happiest. On one occasion, basmati rice, feta cheese, and hummus from my mother became the components of a filling meal for two with the surprise addition of my paternal grandmother’s homemade kubba. On another, a bag of hazelnut-centered chocolates—which my maternal grandmother picked up for me on her most recent trip to Greece—made for the perfect after-dinner sweet at a time when we couldn’t afford dessert.
The gifts of food from my family are ones that I accept gratefully. Significantly, however, they are always delivered by my mother: aside from my brother, she is the only member of my family who, in the year since my girlfriend and I have moved in together, has visited our apartment.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time around both my parents’ sides of the family, and I cherish most of my memories from that period of my life. My Assyrian father’s parents and siblings lived one town over from us during my childhood, so they were present for a good deal of my upbringing. We were similarly close with my Greek mother’s family, who lived about ninety miles away. On the weekends, we’d make the trek to my maternal grandparents’ house to see the whole family, and I relished the time I got to spend with my cousins, all of whom I am close with in age.
To be sure, my family and I have never been the type you see on TV—the kind on the sitcoms that are heartwarmingly dysfunctional and unfailingly manage to resolve their psychological ailments by laying them bare before each other. Of course, I’m sure most families aren’t quite like that, because it’s TV. But I also grew up with the awareness that I had a family—that they were there, and for a long time, that fact was enough for me to consider myself charmed.
Nonetheless, for the most part, I wasn’t disillusioned about where any of my cis and straight adult relatives stood: I understood that most of them wouldn’t dole out blessings for any relationships that ventured outside of cis-heterosexual monogamy. I understood this before my uncle, who has been with his now-husband for over a decade, completely and conspicuously disappeared from our family gatherings for many years, during which no one dared openly offer an explanation, much less levy an argument against his sudden, implicit ostracization.
Though I’d been in a five-year relationship prior to meeting my girlfriend, she was the first partner I felt strongly about bringing around my family, and I did so almost immediately after we started dating. After my mother told my grandmother that B was trans, she declared that we were not welcome at her house unless B put on masculine airs. vaguely (but no less obstinately) citing Orthodox Christianity, my grandmother deemed the stipulation a matter of “respect” for her and her house. The circumstances when it comes to my father’s parents are a bit different. To put it bluntly, they still don’t know that B is trans because I’ve been too scared to tell them. Like my mom’s mom, they’re pretty conservative, and a shock-acceptance doesn’t seem to likely.
When my maternal uncle learned that B was trans, his response was particularly cruel and not one that I care to repeat here or elsewhere. More importantly, the crassness of his reaction shocked me; in the past, I’d considered him an even-keeled person, and folks in my family have often characterized him as gentle and kind. We didn’t speak again until he texted me about six months later. He told me that, while he couldn’t pretend to understand my relationship with B, he wanted me to know that he still loved me and wanted me to be happy.
Upon receiving his text, I burst into tears of relief; for months, I hadn’t spoken to anyone in my family other than my mom and brother, and the shift into implicit isolation had felt both abrupt and drastic. However, in the months that followed my brief reconciliatory exchange with my uncle, a strange feeling started to creep over me. I don’t know how to describe it, suffice it to say something—I—felt wrong.
To be sure, the fear I feel when it comes to telling my paternal grandparents that B is trans is mostly founded in selfishness: though I no longer see them and scarcely speak to them, their ignorance allows me to keep them, if only in some sort of illusory way, in my life. My concern is that once they find out about the nature of my relationship, they will not only disapprove of it, but of me for being in it. Of course, I can’t be certain that their reaction would be unlike that of my grandmother’s and uncle’s, whose discomfort, I believe, stems not from my choice to be in a relationship with a trans woman, but rather, from their unwillingness to accept that B is trans.
Functionally, the distinction between these responses doesn’t matter; if B and I aren’t welcome into my family, then it doesn’t really matter why. However, in noting the distinction, I can’t help but think of an Assyrian saying my dad would, when he felt it pertinent, reiterate to my brother and me as we were growing up—I can yell at my brother, but you can’t yell at my brother—which means about exactly what it sounds like: if you’re not family, you’d better not talk shit.
In truth, my disdain for my maternal grandmother’s and uncle’s rejection of B is not as noble as it might sound; I’m not simply a highly principled person. Rather, growing up, I’d internalized the belief that my family and I were permanent (or at least as permanent as was possible) fixtures in each other’s lives, and that little else was less mutable than our bond, than our collective ability to depend on each other. And I’d had these impressions about our family because I, like my brother and my cousins, had been raised with them.
I knew that my mother’s family, for all their religious conservatism, valued dependability and loyalty when it came to family, because despite not being married, two of my uncle’s five daughters became pregnant as teenagers. For years, my grandmother has loved and doted upon her great-grandchildren, despite the fact that they serve as irrefutable physical evidence of her granddaughters’ lack of “respect” for her god and religion. I figured she’d extend the same leniency and loyalty to me. Instead, as the year that followed B’s coming out to friends and family progressed, my grandmother completely stopped calling me. I stopped being invited to family gatherings, holiday-related or not. This development, of course, made sense; I wasn’t going to go without B.
Early on in the year, when my mother would let it slip to me that she, my dad, my brother, and his girlfriend were attending family functions together, or when I would see pictures after the fact, I would quite literally break down. I found myself unable to reconcile what felt to me like two completely disparate realities: I couldn’t compromise with my family, but I hated being erased just the same. Alone in my apartment, I would howl into the phone as my mother, who accepted B and our relationship right away, did her best to act as a receptacle for my anguish.
After absorbing my despair for several weeks, my mom and brother began declining invitations to family gatherings. In an effort to stop my guilt in its tracks, each would tell me that they hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, that my ostracization gave them a convenient excuse not to. That their sudden serial non-attendance had nothing to do with me. But the truth was clear. I began to worry that, by relying almost exclusively on my mom and brother for emotional support when it came to the subject of being isolated from our family, I’d wind up foisting my current state onto them: now, they too would be isolated.
I knew they were spending less time with our family out of loyalty to me, and the gesture made me feel loved. But I also felt like a nuisance, as though I were an infant who needed to be pacified. When I cried to my mother, I raged, despite the fact that she was far from the most appropriate confidant: right around the time that I stopped speaking to most of my family, my mom voluntarily entered an in-patient treatment program for alcoholism. My grandmother spent the weeks during my mother’s stay calling me, sometimes daily, sometimes multiple times a day, to ask if I’d heard from my mother and to tell me to be strong and pray that God would give her the strength she needed to get better.
Having just moved into our apartment, my girlfriend and I didn’t have a mattress yet and were sleeping on what we affectionately dubbed our “floor bed,” which was just a bunch of blankets with a collective age of about two hundred years. Most afternoons, my grandmother would call, and I mostly wouldn’t answer. When I did answer, I’d sit stiffly on our floor bed, doing my best to patiently assure my grandmother that though I hadn’t spoken with my mother (whom I heard from twice during her stay), I was sure she was going to be fine, and that I was doing my best to be strong. Afterwards, I’d hang up and cry.
Around the same time, I also became estranged from my father. He didn’t respond with hateful rhetoric when I told him B was trans, instead telling me he “needed time” to get used to the idea. Not long after I told him, however, he began repeatedly inviting us to dinner at my parents’ house in an effort to demonstrate that he had no issues with our relationship. I never took him up on any of them and, eventually, completely cut off contact with him. Although my reasons for not wanting a relationship with my father extend into the past far before B and I met, I’ve long known that his conservatism manifests in ways that would be harmful to B and me.
Since I’ve made the decision to cut ties with my father, his parents and siblings (the latter of who accept my relationship with B) have each attempted to convince me to speak to him, mostly by invoking some variation of the “life’s too short” brand of philosophy. However, neither to my paternal relatives—some of who have expressed their own visceral distastes for my father’s judgmental nature—nor in my writing have I felt compelled to justify my decision to not have a relationship with my dad. To me, doing so just doesn’t seem worth the time. After all, life’s too short.
Some days, when it forces its way into the forefront of my mind, my choice not to talk to my father’s siblings feels a bit like a shoebox full of painful memories I’ve tucked away in the darkest corner of my closet.
I feel guilty for not answering the calls and texts of his sister, who I am, in part, named after (I have two names: my legal one and my baptismal one, and my baptismal middle name is her first name); who, upon learning of my relationship with B, unintentionally skewed appropriate by asking, “So, is Christina a lesbian?”; who would pick my brother, cousin, and me up after school when we were young and stuff us into the backseat of her vintage BMW—which we called the “hotbox” in the early days of the fall when summer’s heat hadn’t yet yielded—as our grandmother, afraid to be left home alone, accompanied her on her errands.
A part of me steels myself against these memories, against my own affections for my father’s siblings, because each time I envision what our post-war relationships might look like if I only decided to give them a try, I immediately become disheartened: with the limitations, with the overwhelming sense of impossibility. And so, instead, I tuck the box away again, returning it to its rightful place in the dark.
For the past year, I’ve struggled with the notion that my collective nonexistent relationship with my family is due to a defect on my part, that it is the result of my unwillingness to compromise, rather than their unwillingness to be open-minded and empathetic. I’ve felt judged, by everyone and no one in particular, for my choice to have relationships only with those who not only accept my relationship with B but also, with those who accept that my decision to not speak to my father is mine and mine alone. I’ve worried that my choice might be interpreted by others as a reflection of my unwillingness to understand where my family is coming from and thus, of my short-sightedness.
Then, earlier this year, I read an essay that addressed this very anxiety. The author, who identifies as queer and South Asian, urged queer brown readers to be persistent when it comes to explaining their queer identities to their families, who, due to their (religiously or otherwise) conservative backgrounds, might not understand queerness. If one fails to do this, the author cautioned, one runs the risk of “fracturing” their identity as a brown Diasporic person.
For months after I read the essay, I felt like shit. Taken together with other such sentiments I’d absorbed from friends, family, and similar essays, it made me question whether my isolation from my family was, on my part, elective. It was wintertime, my estrangement from my family was fresh, and each day was unrelenting in its heralding of new doubts. I wondered if I’d been inflicting my loneliness upon myself, if I was a willing casualty of my own ingratitude. Was I simply being a spoiled brat? Should I contort and compartmentalize my feelings—and, more importantly, request that B do the same—in an effort to adjust to family members who believe trans and queer people are going to hell? Who are unapologetic in their usage of one’s incorrect pronouns? Had I been taking for granted that my family was giving me a chance to compromise?
Each time I thought about the essay, questions raced through my head.
Am I missing my golden opportunity to be the bigger person? I’d ask myself. Am I incomplete because it’s not in my bones to abide by these people’s ways of being? For making B my family?
No one told me I was banished from their home, from our family, but their reactions, much quieter by comparison, told me all I needed to know about my family’s ideas about love. After months of drowning out sanctimonious, if not well-intentioned, outsiders, I finally decided that choice cannot live where there are strings attached.
My family loves me in the only ways they know how, and maybe this is evidence of my defect, but for all my missing them, for all my loneliness and sleepless nights, I just don’t know how to be sentimental about that.
For now, the best I can do is remember that they were there, whether remembering comes by way of the food they send through my mother, or through my mental recitation of the proverb my father taught me, which, if I remember correctly, went something like this: I can yell at my family, but you can’t yell at my family.
This essay originally appeared in Entropy in January 2019. Edited by Sylvia Chan.
Named in "This Week in Essays" in The Rumpus in January 2019. Selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in Family and LGBTQIA in February 2019.