Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My broken branch of the family tree

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings where Renee has very generously allowed my random musings to appear on her excellent blog

Genealogy is something of a familial obsession with my kin. The never ending quest to push the records as far as they can and fine every slight tiny detail about the lives of people you never met who died years, decades, even centuries before we were born. It's vaguely creepy to be honest.

As you can probably tell, I've never really got it, not to the degree that consumes my family. I don't understand why they're so frustrated that my grandfather's family has only oral records, no paperwork. I can understand lamenting the tragedy of the times when considering how many of my male ancestors died at sea – and how many of my female ancestors ended in work houses or the numbers who were working gruelling physical labour into their 80s – but I don't understand the personal almost grieving that often accompanies each revelation, like it was a personal loved one who suffered such straits. Perhaps it's because, while we're an immensely vast and almost disturbingly close knit family, I've always been an outsider – I don't feel many bonds with my living kin, let alone those long dead.

Of course, I've had issues with genealogy before, specifically about my great uncle Ralph who is listed on the tree as single. Even the big obituary scrap book (yes they keep an obituary scrap book. Because that's not creepy morbid at all, right? Of course you've never seen them compete to see who manages to put the most column inches in the local newspaper whenever one of the family shuffles off their mortal coil. It kind of gives you a new definition of morbid) lists him as brother, uncle, cousin, sorely missed etc. Of course, he lived another man for oooh, 20, 30 years? Oh no official record, no obituary, not record on the tree – but I've heard enough rants about “Henrietta” and how he “stole Ralph's money”. I always wonder who Uncle Henry was (and it causes no small ructions that I insist on calling him uncle) but the family hasn't even remembered his last name.

Now fast forward a little to a family gathering I have somehow found myself talked into. Consider it triage, I do my duty at this gathering that is merely excruciatingly boring and I have done my kinship duty and don't have to attend one with relatives I actively despise. I'm sat in a corner wondering if I can sneak out my kindle and do some reading while my mother is rhapsodising about some 16th century parish records that we've all gathered to enthuse over (a many times great grandfather, a farm labourer, died young, apparently his mother was an unmarried Irish woman). Well, they've gathered to enthuse over, I've gathered to nod and smile and make appropriately positive noises at the correct moment and wishing that there was some decent coffee in the house. Deciding that the kindle was perhaps a little unsubtle, I click around on a lap top trying to find something to keep me awake, clicking past like 9,000 different electronic versions of our family forest (No tree ever looked like this). And I notice something.

There are my many many many cousins. There are their spouses. There are their endless children, even little Originalnamie (whose mother may actually kill me for calling her that) who was born earlier this year. And there's me... little me all on my lonesome. I click around, willing to assume my technical incompetence could cause all kinds of random stuff to happen with any computer. But no, my entry in the family tree is missing some important details

Like how awesome I am (of course). And how I'd happily take a chainsaw to several branches of the family tree. I think some of the biographical dates were wrong too – oh and I was missing a husband.

Yup, there I was, on the grand, much beloved and obsessed over record of all our kin - Sparky. Single.

I have to say that it was not a very good moment. To hear all these relatives gather with my mother to excitedly discuss a relative from the 16th century and check to see if they have his marriage records, yet my present day marriage is not listed.

Makes me wonder, in a couple of generations to come, will the kids grow up hearing spiteful tales about how Beloved stole my money complete with insulting nicknames – or will I just be remembered as having died a bachelor? I wonder, I wonder.

I think mainly the point I want to make with this is yet again, how your prejudice doesn't have to be extreme in order for it to be harmful. My family will be the first to say how tolerant they are of having a gay son (I know, because they've said it oh-so-many times), compared to many families – they never tried to disown me, they never attempted to change me, they never cast me out onto the street. And yes, they're right, in some ways. But they have they ever tried to treat my being as anything other than a tragic affliction and hoped – oh so hoped – that I would fix myself somehow. In a thousand ways, nearly every time I meet them, they have throw in some clueless, painful sporks – and have since before they even knew I was gay. Since before even I knew I was gay, for that matter. And it continues to this day.

Being better than the worst is never enough. Not being as bad as can be doesn't mean what you're doing still isn't pretty bad. The fact that there are people worse than you out there, doesn't mean you're not hurting people. It's always tempting to point at someone – anyone, no matter extreme – and say “I'm not that bad.” Because though it's true – there's a good chance if you're saying that that you're not that good either.