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A Family's Unusual Blessings
submitted by Tom S.
The Starnes family got together for its annual gathering last Sunday. We have been doing this on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's for almost 40 years now. This year we met at Floyd and Carlos's house.

Floyd and Carlos. It seems so easy to say now. There was a time when I doubted if such a thing would ever be easy for me to say. Floyd is our baby, a real charmer from the day in 1960 when he opened his eyes in the old Sibley Hospital that used to sit on North Capitol Street. Everybody has loved Floyd along the way, and he has returned the favor.

On the spring day in 1981 when he told me he was gay, it came as no great surprise. By that time in his life, the tell-tale signs were there. Although he never exhibited society's stereotypical signs of being gay, his gentleness, at times, took on a decidedly effeminate quality. And handsome as he could be, with girls dogging his every step, he never really dated — aside from a prom or two. But it was a shock, just like the call from my sister telling me that Mama had died. Sure, I knew she was on her way out. But when Jane called and told me Mama was gone, the shock of losing my mother was no less real.

So when Floyd said, right out, that he was gay, I felt that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have never been able to tag. Was it fear, about how I would handle "this" now that "it" was out in the open? Was it fear about what this might do to the father-son relationship that meant so much to me? Was grief a part of this churning in my gut? Grief over the loss of my dreams for my son — dreams of a "normal" life which, of course, included a wife and kids.

I hurt for him. That surely was a part of what I felt that day. How hard it must have been, how much courage it must have taken to say it — to his dad — whom, he must have felt, might be repulsed by the whole notion of having a gay son. Fathers are the ones who tend to be short on love and acceptance when it comes to dealing with the issue of homosexuality. Maybe Floyd felt I would be too.

I hurt because guys like me had been telling and laughing at "queer" jokes for years. It pained me to think that my son would be the butt of such stories, though, as he later told me, he had already lived through years of ridicule, quite often at the hands of his male school teachers.

But what I have cherished from that day — other than Floyd's courage and honesty to claim who he is — is that within our family, he chose to tell me first. I treasure that gift.

The next day I told a colleague at work, and she said, "Just wait until you get to the guess-who's-coming-to-dinner stage."

That day came. I wouldn't say it was a big deal, but it was something of a deal. Open expressions of intimacy between my son and another man took some getting used to, but I did. And Carlos is now one of the family. He's a wonderful companion. He talks like Desi Arnaz, which gives us Starneses something else to laugh about. He is a gourmet cook, which has helped him close more than just a bit of the gap between him and Granny Trout, my wife's mother. (Anyone who can make good gravy must have something going for him.)

Keott is one of the family, too. He is the 9-year-old boy that Floyd and Carlos took in at age 3 and adopted just last year. Floyd and Carlos are wonderful parents. It is nothing short of amazing to watch Keott's development. To see a terrorized, apprehensive child move along the way toward becoming an open, loving, trusting child is a sight to behold.

So, the Starnes clan gathered at Floyd, Carlos, and Keott's house for our annual Christmas/New Year's family reunion.

There are a bunch of us. I was one of eight brothers and sisters to begin with: five girls and three boys. Benton was gone before we started getting together. Elizabeth died in 1976, and Lucille died last year. Joining the five of us who are left are about 50 or so children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and assorted in-laws.

There was a time when not all of the family would have come. One relative, who is no longer alive, thought it was "wrong" to be gay; another declined to attend a celebration that Floyd and Carlos had to mark the fifth anniversary of their relationship.

But there we all were, ranging in ages from 4 months to 72 years, exchanging gifts, eating wonderful food, watching football, reminiscing, asking my niece Wendy when her baby is due and sharing health inventories. Just the normal stuff of which family holiday gatherings are made. If anyone was troubled by the locale of this year's reunion, it wasn't obvious amid the hubbub and good cheer that flowed through the house that day.

We are also a family that takes its faith seriously. Although we have moved on from the revivals and hell-fire preaching that my generation was reared on, we are still trying as best we all can, to serve faithfully the God of our understanding. So our Christmas gatherings are not just family reunions scheduled around a national holiday. They are also times when we come together and remember how blessed we have been as a family and how fortunate we are to have each other. We did that last Sunday, and it seemed of no concern to anyone that we were in a gay couple's home—a gay couple with an adopted child—and that we were doing anything less than upholding the strong family values of love and acceptance that were so high on Daddy and Mama Starnes' list of priorities.

[This story appeared in the Washington Post, Outlook section, Sunday, January 4, 1998.]

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