Monday, May 18, 2015

My Kentucky Kinfolk Grow Up

Maysville, Kentucky, January 2004

My mother's family moved to Indiana when she was seven years old.  She was born in Magoffin County, Kentucky, in the Appalachians, where the Hatfields and McCoys feuded, where ultra-fundamentalist churches handle snakes, where everyone goes barefoot and listens to Country-Western music and rides around in red pickup trucks.


My Uncle El was old enough to stay behind, working on the farm, then for the gas company, marrying, and having a huge number of children -- 12 in all.  Three were my age or a little older, El, Graydon, and Dayton.

We met in Indiana, at my Uncle Paul's wedding, where we saw the Naked Man in the Peat Bog.

 During the summer after 7th grade, my parents and I drove down to visit.  I liked hanging out with them so much that for years I thought of Kentucky as a "good place," where same-sex desire was open and free.

I didn't see them again.  When I was a kid, we always went to Indiana to visit our other relatives instead, and when I was living in West Hollywood and New York, I flew back to Illinois twice a year to see my parents and brother and sister. There was no time for Kentucky.  And the years passed and passed and passed.

I got my Ph.D.  I moved to Florida.  I hadn't seen them for 30 years.

At Christmastime in 2004, I was back in Rock Island for the holidays, when the phone rang.  My Uncle El had died on January 1st, his birthday. Did I want to drive down for the funeral?

I had only met him twice, but I wanted to go.  I wanted to see Kentucky again.

Uncle El had 12 children, 31 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren, plus brothers and sisters, cousins and second-cousins, and third cousins, and some friends who weren't even relatives, all filling up the Maysville Baptist Church, the Howard Family Cemetery, and then the white frame house on a mountaintop that I remembered from 30 years before (except now it had running water, an indoor bathroom, internet access, and cable tv).

Was Kentucky still a "good place"?  Not hardly.

It was heterosexuality as far as the eye could see.  There were Howards, Shepherds, Praters, Gearhearts, and Handshoes, all reuniting over casseroles and pies and cakes, all introducing boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives and kids,

Graydon, now 43, was working for the power company in Michigan.  Dayton, 45, and El, 47, ran an auto repair place in Mayville, Kentucky.  They were all married with children, and some grandchildren.

My parents cautioned me to not "talk about guys"  (their code for "gay topics"), lest the Bible Baptists lynch me, so when I was asked "Where's your wife?" and "Did you leave your wife back in Florida?", I replied with a vague "Oh, I'm not married."

When I was asked "How old are your kids?", I replied with a vague "Oh, I don't have any kids."

When men gave me an inclusive nudge and exclaimed "You know how women are!" or "You know how wives are!", I responded with a noncommittal shrug.

Was there even a glimmer of gay potential in this paeon to heterosexual marriage and reproduction?

Maybe a glimmer.

1. Cousin Graydon and his wife were big fans of Will and Grace.  "That Jack always cracks me up!"

2. I told Cousin El about Angels in America,  the HBO miniseries about gay people that aired a couple of weeks ago, and he smiled politely.

3. Cousin Dayton introduced me to his 15-year old son,  Joel, "a real lady's man!"

"Dad, that's lame!" Joel protested.

"But it's true!  He's always hanging around with girls.  He even joined the drama club at school, just so he'd have his pick of the girls."

"Dad!  I joined drama club because I want to be an actor!"

Wants to be an actor?  Always hanging around with girls?  

"I lived in West Hollywood for 13 years," I said.  "I know quite a bit about the movie business. When I get home, I'll send you some of my old books."

"That'd be cool," Joel said noncommittally, anxious to be rid of the oldsters.

When I got back to Florida, I sent Joel a box of books: a history of Hollywood,  my old textbook from acting class, some Shakespeare and Ibsen, and "accidentally," Geography Club by Brent Hartlinger, about a teen who starts an undercover gay club at his high school.

He sent me a nice card, thanking me, but not mentioning Geography Club.

Some glimmers of gay potential.

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