In big Catholic families, people like me are shameful secrets, buried deep and kept hidden.
My parents disowned me for being trans. I am my people’s foremost abomination, and they would rather have nothing to do with me ever again than say my name. They still tell their friends I’m who they thought I was, still pretend I haven’t visited them in Miami in years because I’m cheap and not because I’m not welcome. I stayed hidden from my relatives.
What I didn’t know was they were hidden from me, too.
My mother was one of seven, and my father’s mother was one of nine. Between them, I have 14 first cousins, at least five second cousins, eleven first cousins once removed that I know about, and more miscellaneous marriage-kin than I care to track. Extended families don’t linger all in one place anymore, and getting a lot of us together involved well-planned visits to my aunt’s old house in New Jersey with the flowering cherry tree, which we see no longer. My mother and her six brothers and sisters are unlikely to all share a dining table again, with or without me, thanks to living in different states and living mobile military lives.
Dad’s family all ended up in Miami, sooner or later. I knew them a little better, from frequent visits to my grandmother’s home where they would gather to play dominoes, watch baseball, and drink boisterously. We spent many holidays there, enjoying Cuban holiday food I would eventually miss once I moved away. My grandmother used to visit relatives in Cuba, too, but she is long gone, and it is likely they are as well. Dad’s path passed through New Jersey first, where he met my mother. Their numbers didn’t seem unusual to me—my paternal grandmother was one of nine, and the resulting tangle of sons and sisters and husbands meant that family gatherings were well attended. Eventually, though, I noticed that my maternal cousins were close to my age, as one would expect, but all of Dad’s relatives were much older. As I slowly sorted out who was connected to whom, I came to wonder… where is that missing generation?
One day, as part of an effort to figure out if I might have some friends in the family I wasn’t considering, I asked my godfather to help me figure out the empty spaces in the family tree. He is my father’s cousin, and in an odd twist of fate, the only other LGBTQ person in the family I knew about. And he told me the story.
Dad and his cousins make a set of 10, with all of them having one or no siblings, bringing the family sizes down to modern levels a generation before Mom’s side did. And, including my godfather, half of those ten are queer.
My father’s family tormented those five. My homeland, the good old US of A, tormented those five. Their homeland tormented those five. They grew up being told every horrible thing a patriarchal Catholic culture can tell a queer person, laser-focused on their specific demographic because all five, as far as I know, were men. Only three of them made it out of the AIDS crisis alive, itself a crime deliberately committed against the queer community. Two of the survivors severed ties with the family over their mistreatment and became known to me only through my godfather’s testimony.
I was shaking at my desk, alternating between fumes and welling eyes. I wasn’t alone, and then I was. There were so many of them, and the rest of my family took them away. People like us…we’re expendable, in this culture. No one wants us, and even when they miss us, they keep it quiet. Were the tiny family sizes because my grandmother’s siblings didn’t want to bring more people like us, like me, like those five into the world?
Now I cannot help but rage at what this family and country took from me.
I could have grown up with five people like my godfather, instead of just him. There could have been a whole Queer Contingent at all the big family parties, that I could have grown into, who could have helped me find my way a little earlier. There could have been a whole bloc who knew exactly how to deal with the venom that the rest of Dad’s side of the family passes people like me every chance it gets. I could have been part of the weird, weird process of finding a way to be both Cuban and queer with other people who had done it already, instead of fighting my way through this impossible bind almost entirely on my own, so far away.
This is what some Catholic cultures and patriarchal families want. They drive us out every single time, they’re still trying to drive my godfather out, because they know that the worst thing in their world is for us to find each other. They know that if we find each other, we’ll find our compromises and our joys and our safety in each other’s lives, we will find the next set before they bury them in denial and fear, and we will crumble their lies about how horrible it is to be us.
This is how they get us thinking that we have to choose between our heritage and our true selves, as if it were impossible to be both Hispanic and gay. They know that they cannot clean us out of their bloodline, so they make sure that every one of us has the trauma of hand-carving our place in a world that insists we don’t have one, doomed to recognize any help we might have had far too late.
Of Dad’s other four cousins, two are confirmed Trump voters and I have no relationship with the other two. I can’t imagine their estranged kin are eager to reappear. And so, like them, I am forced to choose: be present and visible to the next round so that they, too, can navigate these contradictions…or keep myself safe. I don’t even know how to try to contact the two who left the family, or whether they would accept a trans woman like me as one of their own.
What my family took from me here is their strangest theft yet: the knowledge that, after all of their railing about my impossible weirdness, I’ve picked up a family tradition I didn’t even know we had, and lived it more fully than anyone ever imagined.
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