Why I Love the X-men

by Randall S. Frederick

The X-men have been a consistent part of my life since I was introduced to them in 1991. From fourth grade through eighth, I and my friends would act out the parts of our favorite heroes and villains, trading toys and cards in the same way other kids traded baseball or basketball memorabilia. We would test one another’s knowledge of stats and comics. What was the name of the villain in this issue, what power level is this character at, who is their uncle? When the animated series came out in 1992, I remember thanking God that I was born into such a time as this. Far and away, the comic books secured my love of reading and narrative structure, a lifelong appreciation for artistic talent and use of color, and social awareness. 

My parents separated in 1992. That summer, Superman came back to life and Batman’s back was broken. My cousins gleefully told me that since I was ten, “double digits,” everything would become worse. They were right. Although Superman’s resurrection, Batman’s brokenness, and turning ten were milestones, I was dimly aware that my mother and grandmother spent the entire summer behind a closed door. A decade later, I came to understand they were discussing whether my parents should get divorced. In ways no one could predict, that was the last summer of my childhood. When we returned to Louisiana at the end of the summer, my parents renewed their fights, plural, in earnest. My mother moved into another bedroom, my father remained camped upstairs. The entire year, that introductory chapter to adulthood, came to a screaming end in August 1993 with X-men #24, the one with artist Andy Kubert’s now classic red cover. While my parents argued and began screaming about the U-Haul parked in the driveway, I mentally checked out. I was not interested in begging them to stay together anymore, or reminding them that they loved one another. My mother had decided she was leaving, a decision that had been coming for over a year since she returned from India and found clarity about the malaise and depressing boredom of her mid-thirties. My father thought her trips overseas were childish then; America was the only country worth visiting and we already lived there. “What makes India so great? Diarrhea and having a dot on your head?” She wanted to go back to school and finish her degree, to learn things, to better herself, to grow, to breathe. He felt she would only embarrass herself if she studied anything other than how to be a secretary. These were not arguments either party would win. No middle-ground of understanding would be found. Even at the age of ten, I knew their differences were irreconcilable. I think, honestly, I just wanted to read my comic quietly more than I wanted them to reach a peaceful end. That night, I slept in the U-Haul as my mother and I moved to a new city. 

I had read and then re-read X-men #24 that night on the sofa, having already packed my clothes and toys while we waited for my father to get off work and discover the moving truck parked in the driveway. Whatever anxiety I felt, I dove in and was absorbed by the world built by writers Chris Claremont and Fabian Nicieza. It was an alternate world for me, a world where right and wrong existed but were bridged with undefined morality. Sometimes, the heroes we loved left or moved on, grew up, wanted new things. Sometimes, villains were banal. The truly complex archvillains made sense in a way, not because they were maniacal but because their morality and convictions made sense. Say what you will. Magneto might hold the world for ransom, but at least he had an ethos. With either side of the ideological divide, the best of intentions often came at an unanticipated cost, so thank goodness for allies and teammates who knew you and could see you for who you really were. But be careful. Outside the safe hallways of schools and subterranean lairs was a real world waiting to judge and persecute. 

My mother had tried to make it work, she said, and she had been intentional about not asking me to go with her. She had wanted to avoid a scene like that, where she would have to make me choose which parent to be with, which parent I loved more or wanted to grow up with. But this was how it was. She was leaving. She wanted me to go with her, okay?  She wasn’t going to ask me to come. It was my choice, she said. My father was a good man, he wasn’t a bad person – yes, even though they yelled at one another – he was still a good person, but she was leaving, okay? I went with her. It seemed ridiculous to entertain the alternative. Randy, my father, was always working and routinely joked that I wasn’t his son because I didn’t like seafood, wasn’t his son because I didn’t have a job, and did not understand what the generally accepted accounting principles and procedures for proprietorships and partnerships using double-entry accounting were with emphasis (naturally) placed on both manual and automated financial systems. Gosh, everyone knew what those were. Wasn’t I paying attention in class? Jesus. Conversations like these sprinkled most of my childhood into college. I was stupid because I didn’t agree Ronald Reagan was the Greatest. Period. President. Period. Ever. Period. Something was wrong with me for wanting to write children’s books. I was wasting my life by taking a class on the arts. When I wanted to go to grad school, I was wasting my life. When I didn’t like Diet Coke, I was simply wrong. Whenever he gave me a birthday gift, it was on credit. I owed him, “but it’s okay. You can pay be back when you get a job.” Once, when I told him I thought a classmate might be gay, he accused me of being “a faggot. You talk to faggots? You must be one. You don’t want to be a faggot. They’re bad people.”

That Fall, after the move, my dad visited his own father seeking advice or maybe solidarity. Billy, my grandfather, told him in his simple Mississippi drawl that my mother was “a pretty woman. It won’t be long before someone notices.” This proved true. Almost immediately after signing up for classes in a new city, men began visiting with boxes of wine or styrofoam containers of takeout. It was a new world for her, a world where new people were actually interested in what she had to say, where professors told her she was right, that she was intelligent, that her future was promising. Like many returning students, the real-life experience she brought with her back to the classroom proved an asset. People noticed her slim figure, the work she had put toward losing over fifty pounds with the fitness craze of the early Nineties – Jane Fonda workout tapes, community fitness centers and gym memberships (now offering childcare!), the growing empire of home equipment and weights. With her long brown hair, easygoing personality, remarkable mind, friendliness with drugs and alcohol, and album collection, she was the sexy “cool girl” everyone wanted to know. 

In hindsight, I barely noticed. Do young boys notice the sexual appeal of their mothers? Their sexual appetites? I certainly didn’t. Then again, I don’t know whether I noticed much of anything outside of the X-men that year. I insulated myself behind a growing wall of comic books and toys, even reading through my first “adult” novel, Jurassic Park. On Saturdays, I would watch X-men: The Animated Series and understood that while none of the episodes were canonical, they were insights into my favorite characters. The cartoon was an alternative to the alternative reality I continued to visit through the comics, and I watched them with the adoration of a religious devotee. In the show, Wolverine’s sadness was a lesson into the human dilemma. In the comics, an adventure to Russia helped me understand folkways and customs. Both offered colorful exaggerations of real issues, but not real problems. I was on the pipeline. I wanted to medicate myself from reality. When my mother met the person who would become my stepfather, my primary concern was whether he could drive and drop me off at the bookstore to get another issue for my collection, to spend time with my “friends” inside imaginary worlds, to simply get away and hide.

1993, it turns out, was the start of All That Happened, a long chapter of my life that I occasionally pull from to make dark, inappropriate jokes at parties. The jokes are the perennial cliches, you understand. Abusive stepfather. Abandonment. Car crashes. Drugs. The time my stepfather sliced a kitchen knife at me before choosing to throw me across the room. (Pause.) “He had been arrested before, so of course he knew domestic violence was easier to defend than a felony.” (Wait for laughter.) The time my father proudly told me one Christmas that he had a new family and I was not going to be a part of it. Unstable school records. Judgment from the school I attended. Condemnation from the church I attended. But my, my, my, look at how much that boy reads! 

You know the cliches. They are debatably amusing when told appropriately. This is how I learned to ask for help, through veiled humor. People tend to laugh when I emphasize the gun here, the topless neighbor there, the neighbor who asked if I would be willing to suck his penis because it hurt, break-ins that one summer, the friend of my parents who offered his girlfriend to make me a man, the sugary sweet of the alcohol my stepfather gave me as he rubbed my leg – “it was the first time, but lemme tell ya, not the last!” (Wait for laughter.) People especially like accents. Accents tend to confirm their sense of detached arrogance. “It’s like a Faulkner novel!” someone will cry and I smile and I nod because while I have the accent, it was not like Faulker at all, really. Despite the overpowering smell of a dead body in one story and a burned barn in the next, there were some things even Faulkner refrained from sharing.

During most of All That Happened, when I was not a shadow curled inside of himself, I was a wunderkind, “an old soul” who made solid grades despite poor attendance. I was considered mature because I could say “Like Titicaca” without giggling. I was named the School Librarian in sixth grade because, let’s face it, the adults at my small religious school had never bothered to read Jane Austen or Mark Twain, Frederick Douglas, even Dr. Seuss. Then, my teacher asked me to begin teaching “since you think you’re so fucking smart.” I didn’t, but she was pregnant and about to go on maternity leave. They needed a substitute for a few days, so sure. Still, when I tried to explain to my sixth grade class that The Lorax was about protecting the environment – a slam dunk, for those of you familiar with the story – that same teacher laughed at me and told me to shut up because I sounded “weird.” 

Sometimes, I could tell a joke without even trying. Other times, I was the joke. On the last day of eighth grade, a classmate who was a staple on the junior rodeo circuit literally tied my ankles together, pulled my clothes off, and twisted my nipples while calling me “lil’ heifer.” My teacher, coincidentally enough the same woman I had in sixth grade and said I was weird for imagining that the Lorax was speaking for the trees, laughed and cheered my ropist. True story. That very day, I dropped out of school and didn’t enroll in another one until I went to college. Also a true story.

Many have responded to jokes and stories, my production of verbal tension, with light questions like “So it all worked out, right?” Jokes are like magic tricks in this way. Once they hear the punchline, they want to be assured there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. That the world is safe. Narrative tension requires a relief, a laugh. Horror movies are excellent at this, ratcheting up the suspense and freakishness until the body is numb, the mouth dry, only for someone to break that tension with a punchline. In real life, however, resolution did not come. Many of my jokes demanded assurance that it all worked out. You see, like the “to be continued” tag of comic books, there was more yet to come. 

In defense of every adult in my orbit from 1991 until 2004, calling a child an ‘old soul’ is much easier than acknowledging something is wrong, that a child is being abused or neglected, that the lil’ heifer would alternate between vomiting McDonald’s into the toilet and “forgetting” to eat. This is objectively curious behavior. Alas. These were the Nineties and such circumstances were really quite common, at least in the South where most people peak by the end of high school.

When my mother remarried, things became tumultuous. It was a blur then and even more so now with the distance of middle age. My mother’s mother died in 1994 and this, looking back, significantly impacted my mother’s judgment. Until this point, my mother had been making sympathetic choices. Many people got divorced. Many people went back to school. At least her mid-life crisis was trending upward. When her mother died, my mother began to live into the worst expectations of her parents, the most vile self-criticisms. This was accelerated by my stepfather, who was quite handy with insults and wild accusations. Surely, she convinced herself, everyone else saw what she didn’t. Like Joan Didion, she hurt people she cared about and insulted those she did not. She cut herself off from anyone close to her. She cried until she was not even aware she was crying. And when she went to the doctor, he said she seemed to be depressed and should see a specialist, even writing down a name and address, but she did not go. Instead, she got married, which it turns out was a very bad thing and badly timed. She came to understand what despair meant that year.

We were homeless for a summer. My stepfather walked off a job, not for the first or even fourth time. This time it was in protest to suspicion of drug use. He couldn’t talk his way out of it, so he quit. Coming out of the fog of losing her mother years later, my mother had divorce papers drawn up for the second time only to discover she was pregnant. Not wanting to compound all of her previous moral failures with an abortion – which her dead mother would have never forgiven – she reluctantly agreed to work things out once again. 

It wasn’t all terrible. My stepfather gave me my first mixed drink. He gave me my first cigarette and first hit of weed. He rubbed my back, then my leg. Unlike my father who simply asked if I was a faggot, he was sure of it. He routinely said as much or – and this was his favorite – a “punk-ass nigger shoeshine boy.” He made fun of the hair on my legs, which he said made me look like Robin Williams. He made fun of the fact that my parents divorced not because they had become two very different people, but because they didn’t love me. He made fun of me when I was disrobed and tied in eighth grade, agreeing that “You do look like a heifer.” He made fun of my body, how much weight I had and then again when I developed an eating disorder to correct my mistake. He made of the fact that my father didn’t love me, that he had chosen a different family that did not include (or want) me. He would wake me up sometimes by pouring water on my face or, a few times, by putting a cockroach in my mouth. I think all of this, weighed together, helped me develop a genuine mistrust in the goodness of humans. So, there was at least a lot of laughter in those years. I have to remind myself of that, that I was always able to make people laugh without even trying.

In 1996, I could no longer afford to buy comics. It’s more precise, more honest, to say that my family no longer had the financial resources to afford even a single comic once a month at one dollar and seventy-five cents. Their priorities were cigarettes, alcohol, and weed. My brother was born that year and, as is the case in many families, sacrifices had to be made. My reading material was the first to go, though to her credit, my mother told my stepfather that they needed to “grow up” and “be adults now” that she was pregnant. Come July, there was a baby in the family and “somebody” had to take care of him. I wish I could lament this decline of circumstance, but tears failed me. They came easy for my brother, even my mother, but I was learning that my own did not matter. Every cry for help outside of our house was either met with toxic positivity – it’ll all work out – or dismissed as me “acting up” out of jealousy toward the infant I was tasked with caring for. Nothing I said or did mattered, and as my stepfather would remind me, I was technically a truant. I was an outlaw. No one would believe me, “and if I wanted to, I could have you arrested and sent to juvie. Maybe you’d like that. Yeah, maybe,” he would threaten. “I’m sure someone would love to fuck your fat little ass.” He would know. In silence, I entered the safety of re-reading comics because real life seemed to make a ghost of me. When I spoke up, I was silenced. When I showed up, I was waved away. When I asked for help, I was shamed. When I disappeared, I was tolerated.

In fairness to our declining poverty, the history of comics celebrates crossovers. Early on, getting multiple big names in the hero business together under one cover guaranteed sales during lean years. This is how superheroes began to team up; The Justice League and The Avengers were both created to maximize profits. Later, after actual teams were built and became a staple, team-ups and guests stars became popular so publishers could sample which heroes and heroines generated interest without committing them to a team. Then came the crossovers. Marvel, the publisher of X-men, had been taken over by new management in the early 1990s and these new titans of industry with their shareholders and stock options began to change what they did not understand or appreciate. Management wanted to maximize profit in the Nineties and, turning to the stock actions of oppressive capitalism, they began to cut content and insist on more ads, less color, firing old hands and hiring hungry artists at lower salaries. Specifically, Marvel’s investor raiding created the circumstances for bankruptcy, which isn’t surprising. Many companies collapsed as a result of Reaganomics and corporate piracy. Stories became thinner, literally thinner with less pages and more ads. Narratives became dependent on other titles, other issues, to fill in the narrative. Then prices went up. Then up again. Then again. With soaring profits, creators wanted a cut and corporate balked. As a result of the blatant disrespect to their talent, Marvel lost their entire stable of megastars in the industry – writers and editors and artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarland, Rob Liefeld, and Marc Silvestri. Having already disrespected their talent, Marvel now began to disrespect their readers. Crossovers became a staple, readers finding “pick up this other title you’ve never read and are not interested in for the rest of the story next week” instead of To Be Continued. Soaring prices, diminishing returns, and now the insistence that a story already light on content be continued in a title I had never heard of? It was too much. The fantasy could not be sustained and, in my case, it could no longer be afforded. I stopped cold turkey.

When my mother realized she was pregnant, my stepfather had moved back into the house. He and my mother tried once more to make things work. He agreed to her terms and promised to stop doing drugs, to stop drinking, to cut back on cigarettes, to sober up and become an adult. He resisted the urge to quit his job, this time offshore, because they both understood being apart was important to staying together. While working offshore may have been dirty, sweaty work, that there were some parts that he enjoyed; I knew by this point that he was gay and it was easier to live an entirely different life on a rig. My mother didn’t know yet.

In the fifth grade, I had two friends I could count on at recess. Kent and Jared were as eager about the X-men – the comics, the cards, the toys, the cartoon, the t-shirts, the culture – as I was. Kent’s family lived outside of town on a small farm while Jared was the son of a local criminal attorney. It was a study in contrasts. Kent’s family was Southern Baptist, Jared’s devotedly Catholic. Already suffering from general nerdery, whatever social standing Kent and I may have had was diminished by our friendship with Jared. We knew with certainty that Jared was gay. Everyone did. I know that I asked Jared once if the rumors were true and denied it, probably fearing we would abandon him. For Kent and I though, it didn’t matter. We had already taken it as likely that Jared was in fact gay despite his protests and, acknowledging the reality of schoolyard bullying, we still wanted to be friends with him anyway. In the decades since, I’ve often thought about him. Every time there is new legislation insisting that gay people are not really people, that in a nation of free speech we cannot say the word “gay”, that alright gay people exist but they can’t get married, that gay marriages are basically one step away from marrying animals or your favorite lamp, I think about Jared. For even the brief period of time we knew one another, his friendship has remained meaningful to me. Jared was my first gay friend. He admitted it to me one afternoon while we were walking home after school. I remember us stopping and that I intentionally hugged him and thanked him for sharing that with me, long before such language became standard for affirming gay friends and relatives. In a way, it was a relief. I was grateful, even, that I was the kind of person someone could come out to. In college, when I volunteered at a church, a handful of teenagers came out to me and asked if God still loved them. Whatever frequency I was putting out to the world, it was that it was okay to be gay. In grad school, my roommate Chelsea came out to me. Students, over the years, have come out to me. With each of these events, I think of Jared not because his coming out was especially noteworthy – it wasn’t – but because I know it is important for people who are coming out to feel the same love and enthusiasm I expressed those many years ago. I want to continue to live that way, to greet people that way, with acceptance and joy. Some, like my father, misunderstood this frequency and mistakenly believed that recognizing the existence of gay individuals (who, yes, are loved by God) also made me gay. This was the early Nineties, after all, when there was still tremendous stigma around coming out. Many felt at that time that gay people were diseased or broken, that God was punishing them with AIDs for simply being born. Televangelists denounced gay people every day, together with politicians and civic leaders. Without even understanding what those words meant, I’m gay, I wanted Jared and the ones who came out to me after him to know that they could still be themselves with me, that the world was cruel but I wouldn’t be. People might assume terrible things, but I wouldn’t. In short, Jared coming out to me in 1993 was, I’ve come to recognize, a result of the X-men. 

From its original publication in 1963, the mutants of the X-men have served as a metaphor for outsiders, others, the unwanted of society. The first issue of the comic was released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement not long after the March on Washington where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby said King’s speech was a defining moment for them and where they drew the origins of the team. For over fifty years the X-Men comics and movies have connected fans over its overt commentary about the division of humans and mutants or as writer Chris Claremont said, “The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.” Claremont came on board as a writer for the comic in 1975, when the series was given new life, but the intention was there from the start. Creator Stan Lee explained in an August 2000 interview with The Guardian that,

“Our first book, Fantastic Four, was selling very well, so my publisher asked me to come up with another team of heroes. Well, my main idea was how could I make them different from all the other teams that were around? And the big problem was figuring out how they got their superpowers. I couldn’t have everybody bitten by a radioactive spider or zapped with gamma rays, and it occurred to me that if I just said that they were mutants, it would make it easy. Then it occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.”

Lee has always had a knack for creating relevant and timeless superheroes – hence their place in the modern mythology so many of us flock to in our free time. He lived through the years of the social justice movement, where Black Americans pushed for equal rights during a divisive and especially racist time in the U.S. It makes sense that the social justice movements would influence the comic book legend’s ideas at the time, and since its inception, the X-Men have been continued to be compared to this moment in history in more ways than one. As Sarah El-Mahmoud points out though, “There’s an inherent issue the X-Men franchise has by being a “commentary” or metaphor to the Civil Rights Movement. Just about every main character within the mutant universe with a key role in the franchise had and is known and has been a white character. To replace an experience that is inherently tied to racism, bigotry and prejudice to predominantly white, straight characters is white erasure. It’s important for us to respectfully recognize this aspect of X-Men’s roots today when talking about its commonalities and inherent ties to the Civil Rights Movement.” The same is true for sexuality and the other -ilities, -isms, suffixes, religions, and cultural norms that appear in the comic. Most of the characters are white, heterosexual, and able. Most characters are non-practicing Protestants. Recognizing this, the comic and its various licenses and multimedia footprints sustain the patriarchy of white supremacy.  I would suggest however, that instead of erasure, the X-men are something of a vehicle to dismantling these injustices and inequities in society. Which is to say, I knew even as a young boy that I was not gay but I still learned to embrace gayness as a result of the comic. I learned that black people were not all “crackheads” living in ghettos or the undeserving beneficiaries of Affirmative Action like my father insisted. Rather, as a white male, I learned from the pages of the X-men to challenge those narratives. I learned that women were as capable and deserving as their male counterparts. I even learned that gender was a spectrum. When Robert “Iceman” Drake struggled to come out to his teammates, I felt for him. It did not diminish or even cause me to question my own sexuality. I was the target audience, a straight while male, learning each month that diversity, equity, and inclusion were values worth holding. It’s not erasure, it’s education.

In November of 1999 or maybe it was 2000, I’m not sure – All That Happened was in its prime during this period you understand, one thing on top of another – my stepfather left for the last time. My mother had discovered a bag of weed in one of his pockets and he exploded. He was tired, he shouted, of hiding who he was. “I’m over it, this whole thing!” It was a brief explosion, characteristically, and he left at two in the morning, characteristically. Although this was his typical process of leaving, probably his eleventh of twelfth effort in six years, it was also Thanksgiving. Since my stepfather was scheduled to do the cooking, family members began to arrive a few hours later. They were greeted by my mother and I with an explanation. Something had happened. He had left. Yes, again. Yes, sigh, it was all very upsetting but it would all work out, we were sure. Anyway, no, we haven’t had a chance to cook yet. Our family was more upset about this than the explanation, in retrospect. How could my mother do this to them? Just ruin their holiday like this? Sigh. And worse, here my poor stepfather was just walking the streets somewhere making Thanksgiving meals for strangers. The audacity of it! Hadn’t she learned anything? Why couldn’t she be responsible enough to keep her husband around long enough to cook the turkey? 

It turns out, an abandoned wife has an obligation to meet the expectations of the rest of the family, regardless of circumstance. She has to make sure they have casseroles and pies, at the very minimum. Why couldn’t she do anything right? Why couldn’t she have at least been an adult and kept it together for another few hours so they could enjoy their meal? It was so selfish of her, wanting her husband to be responsible. It was so selfish of her to ruin their holiday without at least providing them food. God. Now they had to go to another family member’s Thanksgiving and inconvenience them for pie. The insult of it!

A few weeks later, a friend took pity on us and insisted we come with her to find a Christmas gift for her mother. We saw my stepfather walking across the street, holding hands with another man, each of them holding a beer bottle in their loose hands. This was the moment my mother finally realized what I knew, what apparently many people knew, that he was gay. We were in a public place though and, I guess with an uncanny ability to misread facial and social cues, he explained to us that he was going to take my little brother to a sword fight in a few days. When my mother, my friend, and I began to nervously laugh at how objectively ridiculous all of this was, he fell back into his familiar mode of verbal abuse and volume. My mother, he claimed, was a dumb bitch, a lazy bitch, a stupid bitch, a bitch bitch. (Take a deep breath for another swig from the bottle.) A bitch-bitch-bitch bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch. (Another swig to punctuate his point.) 

Maybe it didn’t click immediately for him as we stood there, silently watching this street performer acting out the personality markers of the person we knew, but this was the Rubicon. There would be no coming back, no understanding, no excuses after this. It was too much to overcome. He had abandoned the family. On Thanksgiving. Because he was still doing drugs. And was now living openly as a gay man. While screaming. Publicly. While inebriated. Who wanted to take his infant child to a sword fight. 

I want to be fair here. Is there a way to do that? I genuinely don’t think any of this clicked for him and maybe he assumed, after years of being able to return to normalcy after these eruptions, that this would all blow over of my mother would comply. Maybe he thought, drunkenly, that yelling all of this in public would garner support from his audience – the customers of the store. But, in fairness, it seems he only understood things had gone too far when the owners of the store came up and told us they had already called the police. 

It would be easy to cast his partner, one hand still holding my stepfather’s, the other holding a bottle, as a villain in all this but he seemed genuinely confused, out of place, even surprised to be a part of this theater where he never knew he was a character. In my memory, he has always been nothing more than a prop accomplice, a patsy, a nameless shadow at the corner of the panel incompletely sketched and poorly colored. Not consequential. If you were reading this in a graphic novel, your brain may barely register the question, “Who is he? What’s his power?” before turning the page and forgetting his existence entirely. I’ve imagined over the years, correctly or not, that he never knew there was a family on the other side of the blowjobs and hasty alleyways fucks behind the restaurant where my stepfather worked at the time. Two years later, a friend of mine who was gay, said my stepfather was quite fond of giving blowjobs. So maybe my stepfather never told him because his mouth was otherwise occupied, but this nameless partner’s expression during the drunken screaming, from start to finish, until two elderly store owners came over to ask them to leave was absolute confusion. He was as stunned by these events as we were. He even apologized to us after my stepfather dashed out, the bell above the door ringing loudly. He was so, so sorry. Merry Christmas? Ugh. So sorry. 

The heroines of this production, it turns out, were the two shopowners who asked my mother if she was okay, if she needed anything, if there was anything else they could do. These questions, simple as they were, exhibited more attention than my mother had received from her own family in the previous half-decade. Coming out is a process for gay people, but so it coming out of an abusive relationship. It’s not the big events so much as the small ones, the acts of kindness.

We went home, mortally embarrassed. There is no How To Guide for something like this, no Surviving Public Humiliation for Dummies for you to check out at your local library. How does one reconcile that this person who has lived with you, who has destroyed everything, who totaled two cars and fathered a child and kept getting fired for misunderstanding (drugs) after misunderstanding (violence) after misunderstanding (blowing one of the dishwashers behind the restaurant) has finally cracked and made a public spectacle of himself? What might we point to as explanation for this behavior – childhood abuse, insecurities, his closeted sexuality, even his fear of coming out projected on to his “faggot” stepson? I guess what I’m asking here is whether it makes him a more interesting or complex character when we provide context or seek motive? Does any of this matter? What if we take his side anyway, layer his actions and behaviors in a thick patina of Freudian analysis – swinging swords, publicly defending his manhood, seeking the affirming glance of a child to replace the one denied him by everyone else – are we any closer to seeing the abandonment of family, responsibility, and adulthood as part of coming out? His marriage to my mother, his strained relationship with his son, the question of his paternity regarding another child, his abuse and violence might all be written off as collateral damage along the path to self-understanding. I dig it. He was trying on different identities. He was growing. We were the ones holding him back. Anyone, especially family members, who expect things of you are the villains of the story. Horrible behavior can be forgiven, even forgotten, so long as you continue to grow. No matter the cause, the end remains the same. His frustration that day was because my mother refused to allow him to take my non-verbal infant brother to a public swordfight. He made a spectacle of himself not because he was gay, not because he was abused, but because he wanted to show his son he was a man by clanging swords in public. Gosh, even an armchair psychologist could note the irony in this. The details of these events, though, remain the same apart from their analysis. Given his long history of violence and instability, my mother chose not to leave an infant in his care to attend a sword fight. That’s it. This was her great offense. Taking his side, seeking the logic, defending his decision to prove himself through swordplay, finally channeling his eruptive violence, none of this manages to prove the validity or rightness of his claims.

Continued in part II

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