When former Vice President Dick Cheney, instigator of invasion and defender of torture, reiterated his support for gay marriage, I thought of my cousin Helen – and the family roots of tolerance. Helen does not have to watch her foreign travel plans out of fear of indictment for war crimes or anything like that. But way back when, she was probably my most right wing relative. May still be today, but these days I don’t ask and she don’t tell.
In those days, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was lifting dogs by their ears in the White House, I was against the Vietnam War and just about none of my relatives were. And since I was not shy about offering my opinion, any visit was pretty much guaranteed to feature an argument. So after a farewell debate tour and a move to another city for college, I didn’t see some of them for quite some time.
As years passed, though, I became perhaps a bit more diplomatic. The relatives, after all, were uniformly working class, so I had come to see them as part of the solution and not part of the problem, the occasional fog of false consciousness notwithstanding. Meanwhile, most of them became perhaps a bit more liberal and my early anti-war stance started looking not so crazy to many of them. I don’t think that was the case with Helen though.
Then, about fifteen years ago, as I was preparing to move to the West Coast, I went to visit Helen’s husband Clinton in the hospital where he was literally on his death bed. Only about a week away from dying from complications of lymphoma, he spoke only in a whisper and even though a little amplification system was set up to make his voice audible it fell to Helen and me to carry the conversation.
Well, once we started talking, it all came back to me. Soon I was listening to Helen tell me about the time she worked for the election department and how a Puerto Rican woman named Maria Garcia Ramirez had come into the office and Helen had searched through all of the “R” files and just couldn’t find her name although the woman insisted she was registered. At some point in all of this, someone else in the office picked up on the problem of locating the woman’s records. This other employee, apparently Puerto Rican herself, volunteered to try and find the file and lo and behold, there it was in the “G”s, under Garcia. Now wasn’t that outrageous, Helen asked me, that they let these people do that.
Oh boy, I thought, this ain’t gonna be easy. So I looked for another topic and pretty soon I was hearing about what a bad idea it was that they were letting women in the police department – with those pony tails that a criminal could just grab a hold of – and the fire department – “I want a big strong man carrying me down the ladder.” What was I going to do now? I couldn’t sit in silence, but I sure didn’t want Clinton’s last memory of me to be an argument. Now, although Helen is my first cousin, due to the fact that her mother was not only older than mine but had also married at a much younger age, she was old enough to be my mother’s Maid of Honor. And two of her four children were older than I. As I searched for a safe topic, I thought of the oldest of them, Bobby, who had been a member of the New York City Police Department, as both Helen’s father and her and my grandfather had been. I’d met Bobby’s second wife at a wedding a few years back and was somewhat surprised to find that she was black. Maybe that might somehow provide the seed of a more, um, liberal conversation, I thought. And then, I remembered her younger son, Clinton Eric, as they used to call him.
He was much younger than his three siblings and I, and since I was no longer in regular contact, the first time I got a chance to see much him of was back at his house after my mother’s funeral when he was maybe fourteen. It was pretty clear to me even then that he was gay or going to be, although I don’t know that the word was in use at the time. So when I arrived at my aunt’s house for Christmas some years later I wasn’t surprised when she told me the family news that Clinton was gay. What was real news, though, was that he was performing a monologue show – in drag. And Helen was apparently quite proud of him.
Eureka! Problem solved. I brought up Clinton Jr. in the hospital room that day, Helen bubbled with pride and enthusiasm, and I got to leave Clinton Sr. laughing. Some time later, when I described to a friend the change I had witnessed in family members’ attitudes about homosexuality caused by Clinton and the sadder story of my cousin Danny on the other side of the family who died of AIDS back when it took people quite quickly, my friend observed, “Well what are people going to do, shoot them?” No, of course not – in nine case out of ten cases they were going to realize that this was still the same person they loved and that it was their world view that had to change.
The last time I saw Helen was in late September, 2001. She and I had flown in from different parts of the country to see Clinton perform before a full house at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. His shows are always heavily autobiographical and there were times when she and I were the only people in the house who knew exactly what he was talking about. And it seemed like half the show was about her, to the point where when we all went to an outdoor restaurant afterwards, people would recognize Clinton and ask if this was Helen sitting next to him.
At that point in time I knew I was about to become part of a minority who didn’t think that the September 11 attacks justified the invasion of Afghanistan that was gearing up in Washington and I decided I wouldn’t engage Helen in it. I figured we’d content ourselves with the things we now agreed upon.
So when I see what having a gay person in the family can do – humanize a Darth Vader-type like Cheney and alter the wacky views of my cousin Helen – I can’t help but wonder how we might broaden the empathy. I hold out little hope for Cheney, of course. And, as I say, I don’t actually know what Helen herself makes of this war as we have seemingly put a permanent hold on our foreign policy discussions, but I can’t help but think that if we could just get the cousin Helens of the nation to look more closely at our seemingly never-ending wars, justified today because they were fought yesterday, and really feel the fact that those people dying daily under the bombs in those far off countries are someone’s children too, well who knows what could happen.