Good Family

Linda S. Balisle summons memories and weaves together varied life experiences to define what makes a family.

For 31 years I’ve represented children and adults whose families are either being put together or falling apart. For the LGBT community I’ve worked in the courts and legislature to establish rights of children of LGBT parents to continue their relationship with both if their parents break up. So far, the courts and legislature have been unwilling to give legal status to children and their LGBT parents as “family.” The convenient legal designations “married,” “biological or adoptive parent” or “relative” eliminate the need to identify the substantive characteristics and components of a family. In fact, once a family is legally recognized, there is no need to demonstrate anything about the actual relationships to qualify for more than 1000 state and federal benefits available to married couples and their children.

Most people don’t know that it is the children who benefit the most from a family’s legal protections because they are automatic dependents, heirs, and beneficiaries of substantial benefits and protections, and have absolute rights to contact with both parents absent a finding of “unfitness.” Few legal benefits are available to children of LGBT parents. In fact they are the only children who are “non-marital” children by operation of law. Yes, these are terms of art, but our U.S. Supreme Court said 40 years ago that “non-marital” children were to be treated the same as marital children. There are many ironies and tragedies related to this fact. One of the ironies is that the LGBT parents often want to be married and to have their partners adopt their children so they have all the benefits granted to children of heterosexual parents.

A tragic irony is that many LGBT parents had to leave their own families once they came out, and need, more than most, to create their own families. The legal limitations on this often are simply re-victimization of cast-out LGBT teens and young adults.

A short introduction: I was raised in the South, except for 2½ years in Brookfield, Wisconsin. I thought I would be a writer and journalist. I moved many times growing up, living in towns from 6 months to 3½ years. Fully identifying as a lesbian came later in life, in my 40s after my son left for college. Frankly, it was the first time I had no obligations to anyone but myself and my work, and I had finally started writing again.

Life events, both small and monumental, have been the best gauge of who my family really is. Many of these events arise, at least in part, from my Southern upbringing. I have to look at what it was like to live in the midst of the terrible things that happened in the South of the 1950s and ’60s and to remember what I personally witnessed that made me a mystery to myself for too long. I remember that “which family you came from” determined how you were treated. I remember learning how to talk to anyone without saying much. It seemed there were roles to play more than lives to live. I discovered there were serious rules and expectations, which, if you had to be told, it was too late. You weren’t a member of the larger family community.

Where I grew up, most people seemed to approve of or were too afraid to speak against law enforcement’s extreme measures to control people who look different than “we” do. When the nightly news flashed film of vicious dogs and fire hoses aimed at black people, I didn’t hear any criticism of it, except sometimes from my mother—“It’s just not Christian.” Instead, even in kindergarten, I heard friends’ parents, a Sunday school teacher, and neighbors talk as if they knew the ‘’white folk’’ involved and sympathized with them, supported the use of dogs and fire hoses, and expressed no objection to the occasional murder. I was scared.

What went on inside the homes of families I knew, including my own, could also be frightening to a child. I have observed that when people think that the world outside their home is a scary place, they put up with a lot more dangerous and unnerving behavior inside their homes.

I’ve had the privilege of listening to thousands of people talk about their families, what they desperately want to preserve, what they desperately want to escape. But it is the personal experiences I’ve lived that integrate all I know about what I consider to be a good family.

I finished high school and started college in Columbia, South Carolina, where Fort Jackson was a major employer, as well as the place where young men—boys really—trained and left for Vietnam. It was also where these young men returned in body bags. While in high school, the college demonstrations against the war were met with the same measures used against blacks during the peak of the civil rights movement.

In 1970, the collision of Old South and New South had begun. As part of the Old South traditions, I had to sign into the dorm by 10 p.m., no boys were allowed in the rooms, and attendance at sorority mixers required white gloves. I knew most who turned out to be gay men because I dated them all. While some sexual behavior between women occurred it was part of “sexual experimentation” and had nothing to do with relationships.

At the same time, there were signs of a New South … Many students did not want to be considered racist, corporations began moving their headquarters south, and members of USC’s nationally ranked basketball team were primarily from New Jersey, with no interest in learning the unspoken rules of racial relationships.

So why was I still stuck, unable to relax into myself, unable to be satisfied with the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of my classmates? I now realize that I had learned too well to hold myself in abeyance out of fear. But my increasing panic attacks persuaded me to leave a full scholarship and the South behind.

I left in the middle of my college sophomore year with my closest friends from high school, Tony and Betsy, wondering why. I landed in Madison in January 1972, and have remained in the area ever since. I started building my own family, some of whom remain in my life today.

But the South kept coming to me. My South Carolina high school friend, Tony, moved to Chicago soon after I married and had my son. Tony had come out before arriving in Chicago and happily created a family of choice and a party guest list of 146 of the handsomest professional, educated gay men in Chicago. I was one of a few women in his family of choice. During this time, the letters from his mother consisted primarily of Biblical quotations damning him to everlasting hell. When I got a divorce in 1980, Tony’s mother changed her focus, suggesting that Tony and I get married—a long time Southern “solution” to the “bi-sexual” problem in certain families. Her hopes were dashed when, in 1982, Tony found out he was HIV-positive.

The following decade taught us much about our families. Tony’s mother became an activist in the AIDS Quilt and other supportive activities. She demanded and received support from her South Carolina Mormon congregation. My family regularly asked about Tony’s health and how I was doing. They never suggested I should keep Tony from hanging out with my son on holidays, and were appalled at the vicious suggestions of others that AIDS was retribution for a dissolute life. Tony and I felt fortunate that our families said all the right things.

When Tony was admitted to the hospital for his last illness, he was visiting his mother in South Carolina. My law partner said, “Of course you have to stay with him; he’s part of your history.” My parents felt the same way. “Good family” for me meant not having to explain spending two weeks by his bedside and another week planning his funeral.

By the time Tony died in 1993, only four men on his party guest list were alive. You read that correctly—142 of the handsomest, brightest, most successful gay men in Chicago were buried between 1982 and 1993. It was this experience—the funerals, the memorial services, the weekends at emergency rooms—that few outside of the LGBT community talked about. Many lesbians and mothers were caregivers. We were exhausted. My high school friend, Betsy, was a caregiver in South Carolina, unique among mothers in Columbia. Unlike the widely discussed horror of the growing death toll in Vietnam in the late 60s, my experience from 1982–1993 with so many excruciating deaths was rarely discussed outside a small group of friends.

Even now, it seems impossible to convey to younger members of the LGBT community what it was like. It’s ancient history to them. I don’t really know if those of us who lived it so closely will fully recover in our lifetime. I worry that seeing AIDS as a “chronic and treatable” disease may encourage behaviors that will recreate the nightmare of the 1980s and 90s when there were sometimes several funerals in a week.

A few years after Tony’s death, I told my parents, who had separated after a 40-year marriage, that I was only dating women. My mother wanted to know what my father thought. My father asked me how my business was going. If others had opinions about it, they blessedly kept them to themselves.

On one of my father’s visits to Wisconsin, I introduced him to my new partner. He was polite, but later asked my brother why she was always with us. My poor brother had to explain it to him. My father told me, “I don’t like surprises.” I reminded him I had told him I was only going to date women. He said, “I didn’t know it meant that.” But he quickly said, “But I still love you. Your family is here for you.” He added, “And if you change your mind again, I’ll still love you.”

But there was fallout and it took time to heal. At the second Christmas of this relationship, my father sent me and my partner a Christmas card with two checks. Her check was for the same amount as mine, just as he did with my siblings and their spouses. I was stunned.

My father was born in a tent city in southeast Oklahoma in 1928. By sheer grit and intelligence, he worked his way through school and up the corporate ladder to a national executive level. I knew what money meant to him. I broke down. I called him even though I was still crying to tell him how much it meant to me. He was silent a moment, then said, “Well it has a lot to do with how I feel about you.”

Good family.

My partner and I attended the wedding of Betsy’s middle son in a small, wealthy, white community in South Carolina. It was a country club wedding, and we were the only gay couple attending. While the Electric Slide is meant for lines of people and is easy to blend in, slow dancing is an announcement of your intimate relationship. When my partner insisted on slow dancing, I refused. I couldn’t begin to explain it all to her in that moment, why, unlike the other weddings where we had slow danced, this was different.

Betsy, who is married to an Episcopal priest, took my arm and said, “If you don’t slow dance with her, I will.” I decided to dance. We went to the dance floor, closely wrapped as all the other couples on the floor. We did it, no one got shot, and I didn’t die. I did go out to the car and cry. I lived to tell the tale.

Once again, Betsy was good family.

Like many who left the South, I now think about the things I miss. The year-long flowers and plants, the music, the slower pace, the different rhythms and lilts of speech patterns and language, and the daily mix of people of color with white people. Despite the continuing racism, many southerners have taken a page from the North and learned to moderate their race-related language and behavior in public. For those of us who are still so easily re-stimulated by our past in the South, these changes make it easier to simply be there. But I’m not moving back.

I do like to visit, though. Recently my current partner Cindy and I joined my brother, his wife, my niece, her husband, and our in-laws in Memphis for my niece’s art show. Betsy drove over from Hot Springs, Arkansas—her new home with her husband. On Beale Street we filled ourselves with great food, great music, and sober history lessons taught in remarkable photo exhibits. At one of the outdoor Delta Blues venues, a ribald and fabulous woman blues singer, Ms. Zeno, approached women in the audience with the question, “How do you know you are a woman?” Most said, “because of my man,” “I just know,” and the like. When she got to my partner, Cindy smiled and said, “Because I love women.” Ms. Zeno’s face rearranged for a split second before she said, “No one ever said that before.” Then Ms. Zeno pulled it together and said something unprintable that caused everyone to howl. I looked around at my family and Betsy laughing hard with Cindy and me, and thought—really good family.

These days, my farm in Wisconsin allows me the intimate connection with land I learned growing up in the South, visiting my great-grandmother at her Oklahoma farm, and spending summers with relatives who lived in Wyoming’s mountains. The bedrock at my farm here is only 25” below the surface, allowing me to feel the presence of so many who have come before. Few, if any, of the people who lived here long ago looked like those of us here now. Feeling their presence makes the area feel less homogeneous, more reflective of the world. It comforts me.

When my 35-year-old son Sam met Cindy, he took several opportunities to talk with her one-on-one as well as hang out with us as a couple. He told me later, after finding her smart and funny with a great heart, that she was “a very welcome addition to our family.”

I treasure and respect his mature and measured assessment of her before he drew a conclusion. But I will always fondly remember one of our early conversations about me being a lesbian. He was about 20. It was the week before Madison’s Pride parade. I asked him, “Do you want to join us in the Pride parade?” He looked at me and said, “It’s not my party, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Now, that’s family.