The Amazon Trail
My Big Butch Gay Aunt
By Lee Lynch
Photo: E. Mulligan
Last fall, I brought my sweetheart to meet my family. In the course of an evening spent looking through old pictures and documents, my brother said something about a great Aunt Jo.
I knew the family on both sides had been riddled with women named Josephine. I knew nothing at all about this one. My brother added, "She never married. She had a friend from work named Vera who used to stay over."
During the 1930s and 1940s my father was mostly at sea. My brother, who is fifteen years older than me, grew up with my mother's family in a big old Boston three-decker, surrounded by aunts. By the time I came along my parents had moved to New York so I never knew the great aunts and uncles.
I asked if he remembered anything else about Great Aunt Jo. It turned out that she and Vera worked in a laundry. My brother said Great Aunt Jo was big and strong and operated the wringer. Wringers were large wooden rolls, operated with manual cranks. Smaller versions were used in homes, often built into or set on top of washing machines. They were used to wring laundry dry by compressing clothing or linens and squeezing moisture out. It took enormous stamina and well developed muscles to operate one of those things eight to twelve hours a day, five or six days a week.
I gleefully concluded that Jo Murphy was my big butch gay aunt. Finally, I had identified another gay gene in the family.
There were other possibilities. When my mother told me that a younger third cousin had divorced his wife, become a vegetarian and moved in with another boy, I said to myself, "YES!" But we are of the same generation. I wanted queer ancestors.
There was another, longer-lived, great aunt, who kept house for her two single brothers. I have wondered what the brothers got up to when they went out with the boy-os. None of that was conclusive though. Where had I come from? Did the lavender stork bring me?
I can imagine what a difference it would have made to have grown up knowing, or at least knowing about, Aunt Jo... My mother, Aunt Jo's niece, probably had no inkling. Lesbianism just wasn't in her frame of reference. As a Catholic, it's possible my great aunt never came out at all and her relationship with Vera might never have crossed into sin. Since I wasn't out to them, no one in my family would ever have thought to tell me about her even if Aunt Jo had marched in the gay contingent of the Patriot's Day parade. Even today, how many families announce to their offspring that there's a queer in the gene pool?
Aunt Jo herself might not have been very helpful. Say Vera stayed over now and then. Say they felt romantic about each other. Say they were both willing to physically express how they felt timidly, passionately, with great shame or with the glow of multiple orgasms making them fearlessly affectionate in front of their bemused - or amused -- families.
It still would have been verboten to come out to a kid, no matter how clear that I was headed for no-man's land.
So I went though the severe depressions, the suicidal thoughts, the misery of being bullied and the isolation of secrecy just like my great Aunt Jo may have. Instead of offering intergenerational support, my family suffered from a common disease. I don't even want to call it homophobia. Most people are so uneducated about homosexuality they never think of it as an option for their kids, even though they may have lived and interacted with lesbian or gay male people all their lives.
Like any kind of abuse - and I consider the withholding of information about sex education and life style options to be abusive - the cycle must be broken. Thanks to the courage of 1960s liberationists and would-be revolutionaries, thanks to the societal tectonics that altered the gay landscape way back during World War II, I was able, a number of years ago, to get past my fears enough to come out to my brother. As a consequence, his kids, neither of whom seems to have been fortunate enough to inherit a gay gene, know and embrace their gay aunt.
I hope Great Aunt Jo and her Vera had some happiness together. I love the idea that they may somehow be blessing us when my sweetheart and I have our wedding. Maybe, some day, I'll be a great gay aunt myself, and can help some kid feel part of the family.
© Lee Lynch 2008
Lee Lynch, Author of Sweet Creek from Bold Strokes Books
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