I am unique among my friends in that I come from a very extended family, for lack of a better adjective. Sure, having grown up in the 1970s and '80s I have plenty of friends whose parents divorced. I can even think of one particular friend whose parents divorced and remarried each other twice.
But I don't know anyone else who can claim a family tree quite as convoluted as mine.
I'll give you the quick version. It starts with my mother and father, who adopted me when I was 3 months old. We lived together until I was 5 and my parents divorced. I went to live with my mother.
Both parents remarried. My father and his second wife are still married and have one daughter.
My mother, who would pass away when I was 22, married her second husband, who would become the man I consider my father. To add to the mix, he'd already been married and had two daughters. He and my mother would have two children.
And following my mother's death, my father would remarry two more times, picking up four more stepchildren along the way. Did you get all that? Don't worry, I have trouble keeping track of everyone, too.
My point in telling you all this is that, with all the "family" I have, the parent I'm closest to and who had the most influence in my life is the parent with whom I share no biological or legal connection.
My mother always said, "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." She couldn't have been more incorrect. I'm not sure how my dad and I hit it off or why I seem to be much closer to him than several of his own biological children. For some reason we just chose each other.
From the first time we met when I was a hurt, scared 5-year-old trying to make sense of my parents' divorce, my father supported me 100 percent. Even the day I came out to him — when I was prepared for him to turn his back on me — he was more worried about how long I had been struggling with my own sexuality than he was about learning that his oldest son was gay.
The moral of my short story is that love really is what makes a family. It might be a bit of a cliché, but it's very true. And this whole story has been on my mind lately, because on April 2 a photo exhibit on the subject will make its Cincinnati debut at the Haenie Gallery at St. John's Unitarian Church. The exhibit, formally titled Love Makes a Family: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Their Families, is being brought to town by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
During its two-week stay in Cincinnati, portions of Love Makes a Family will be on display at the Cincinnati Public Library, UC's Langsam Library, Northern Kentucky University and Norwood and Walnut Hills high schools. The exhibit will also be on display at Stonewall's dinner event on April 8.
This acclaimed exhibit created by photographer Gigi Kaeser and editor Peggy Gillespie chronicles 20 families of all races with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered moms, dads, grandparents and/or youth. Multiple copies of the exhibit are traveling the country and have been shown in places including Duke University, Yale University, Purdue University, Princeton University, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Microsoft Corporation, Hawthorne Elementary School in Madison, Wisc., and many churches, corporate headquarters and community centers.
Happily, the positive effects of the exhibit have been surfacing around the country. In Amherst, Mass., five families sued the superintendent of the Amherst School District claiming that the exhibit would be harmful to their children. The case went to the Federal Court in April 1996, when the judge decided to allow the exhibit to be shown in the local elementary schools, where it was used by teachers to help educate students about diversity and acceptance of all kinds of people and family structures.
According to Gillespie, upon seeing the exhibit, one child was overheard saying, "What's the big deal? They're just families." One fifth-grader wrote in a guestbook, "I really liked how you showed that people in gay, lesbian, and bisexual families are no different than anyone else."
Both the exhibit and the book that accompanied it make an important statement about the strength, support and love that exists in GLBT families despite the inexcusable lack of legal and societal support. Exhibit co-creater Gillespie put it well when she wrote, "Regardless of the route children take into this world, they do need one particular kind of family once they arrive: a loving one. Love alone, however, does not mitigate the complex issues facing GLBT-parented families. This book is meant to honor these families, and Gigi and I hope that it will be of some help to them in their continuing struggle for legal recognition and equality."
While none of us should stop working until our GLBT families have the legal protection they deserve, works such as Love Makes a Family keep the dialogue alive. And, most importantly, works like Kaeser and Gillespie's exhibit and book help combat homophobia by breaking the silence and reminding society that our families have faces and names.