PRIDE MONTH 2021: For my Uncle Shaun and Uncle Mike
Written by Jennifer St John
My Uncle Shaun was my God Father, and I loved him very much. My maternal Grandparents owned one hundred acres north of Kingston, ON and every summer, it would be tent city. Some of my happiest childhood memories come from this time period. Some years we were in-between rentals and we would just camp for the entire summer. If not, we lived close by and would visit often. My Mom’s brothers and sisters would all show up at some point – weekends, holidays. Whatever worked. And my Uncle Shaun would come from Toronto, where he lived with his partner, who was a man.
My Mother was very close to some siblings, and not close with others. This happens in a large family of twelve. Uncle Shaun was one of her closer siblings, which in turn meant they were in our lives on a regular basis.
I always loved going to visit my Uncle Shaun in Toronto. My Uncle Mike also had boyfriends and he lived in Toronto too. He was also very close to us. As I became older and more aware, I realized that they both lived in a section of the city where the men had boyfriends. And that I didn’t see this in other neighbourhoods. I also didn’t see anyone with a boyfriend in the small town I was living in at the time.
My Mom was pretty clear from the beginning that my Uncle’s were gay. She explained to us what this meant and also that not everyone agreed with people being gay. That last part confused me though… Agree with what? Who they are?
My Mom was a huge supporter of the underdog, the oppressed, the minority and being gay fell into all of these categories. She believed in fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves, or who needed more support in fighting their cause. And we were raised the same way.
I didn’t bat an eyelash over my two Uncle’s being gay. But popular culture and society seemed to be giving me other messages. Friends made comments using the word ‘gay’ as if it was a bad thing. A very bad thing, actually. Magazines in grocery store aisle’s had pictures and headlines that made it seem shameful to be gay. The school I went to never mentioned gay people, like they just didn’t exist.
The older I became, the more homophobia I witnessed. In grade six, my Uncle Mike was living in our basement for a while and one of my school friends told everyone at school that he was gay. She was trying to embarrass me, make fun of me, and make me feel less than. What she didn’t realize was how much I loved him and how much her words weren’t going to hurt me. But what I realized was that she was also hurting my Uncles with her words. And that wasn’t acceptable.
In my high school years, my Uncle Shaun was diagnosed with HIV and then AIDS. I knew very clearly what this was. His partner had passed away from the same disease, and we all knew it was inevitable for him. I was not a wall flower, even at this age. And I was definitely my Mother’s daughter in using my voice. I was really struggling with the religion I was raised in, even though by this point, we had become part of the group who only attended on Easter and Christmas. But things were really getting under my skin.
After one particular Sunday sermon, I was done. It felt like I belonged to a group that was telling me my Uncle’s shouldn’t exist and shouldn’t be who they are. Everything just all came together in my head and heart and I didn’t go back again.
Two and a half years later, we were crowded into a Toronto restaurant, saying our goodbyes to my Uncle Shaun. His battle with AIDS had come to an end. We all wore red ribbons and proudly celebrated his life. I still have that ribbon. And in my late twenties, at St. Mike’s Hospital in Toronto, I joined other family members as we all sat around Uncle Mike’s palliative-care hospital bed and kept him company as he lived out his last days.
Whenever I hear someone say ‘Oh that’s so gay’ or, worse in my opinion, using the demeaning term ‘Faggot’, or I hear of the latest hate-crime directly solely at someone for who they are - the hair on my arms stand on end, my back becomes rigid and I recoil at the words and actions I just heard and learned about.
All I hear and see is…
… and fear.
So as we celebrate PRIDE MONTH this June 2021, I will remember my Uncles and all those who have gone before them. I will wrap arms around my loved ones and friends who identify themselves as LBGTQ2S+ now. And I will continue to use my voice and platform to embrace the celebrations of freedom for everyone to just be themselves.