Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Family is Code

Family. It's a word that, no matter what, means something to all of us. At its utterance, some pale and cover their mouths while running from the room. Me, I'm a lucky one. I have a great family, albeit smaller than some -- no oceans of cousins, aunts, great-uncles. Just the normal sisters, nephew, Dad, and some etc.

But there's an interesting usage of the word Family that you might not be aware of.

Years ago, I was at a training class for dispatchers in Sacramento. One of the men in the class was awesome. Really handsome, rugged, dreamy eyes, he let me bum cigarettes and we made dirty jokes out in the courtyard. Something...though.

"Are you family?" I asked out of the blue.

His eyes narrowed. "Why?" Then he paused. "Are you?"

I laughed while nodding and he whooped.

It's code, see. Are you family? means Are you gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/queer? But it's special, because it also means the person asking is some flavor of queer.

What if a gay person asks this of a straight one? Normally, they don't know the code. And we know that. If we ask and the person looks puzzled -- "Huh? Do I have family?" -- we backtrack and change the wording quickly, "No, I mean, are your parents still alive? Where do they live?" and the chat goes on, that question answered.

I realize as I type this that it's been YEARS since I've used it this way. Perhaps it's gone the way of "Are you a friend of Dorothy?" Usually, it's just a shorthand between people. If a woman in clogs and Stanford sweatshirt walking a tiny dog in a sweater walks by, Lala will mutter, "Family?"

"Duh," I say.

It's interesting, though, how this arose from necessity. Gays and lesbians needed a safe way to bluntly ask each other, back when it wasn't as safe as it is now (the phrase is said to have been used as far back as 1930). And the word itself -- Family -- implies both what gay people sometimes had to leave behind in order to find their real, accepting one. And it made the answer at the hospital a true one: "Are you family?" "Yes." (Even today, domestic partners have horror stories of not being able to be at their loved ones' bedsides.)

I'm glad I'm living NOW. I don't know how brave I'd be in other times, I really don't. I hope I would be strong, though.

And I'm so glad to have all KINDS of family (Pens included).


Sophie Littlefield said...

sugar, you'd be brave enough - remember what we were talking about...anyway, i'm glad you're one of the many many shades of family to me too :)

Mysti said...

And I'm glad you live here, where, on our best days, anyway, who you love does not define you.

My stepmother asked me once, suspiciously, why I always lived in cities with lots of "those people."

I was tongue-tied. How to explain that Los Angeles and San Francisco aren't exactly two ends of a gay pipeline with Santa Cruz in the middle. What a party train that would be!

Finally told her it's because that's where I always feel safe. Tolerance for one turns into tolerance for all. On our best days, anyway...

Rachael Herron said...

@ Mysti - HA! I so want to be on that train. And your sentiment is lovely - tolerance is contagious.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Great post, Rachael.

As a family member who has a few years on you, I certainly recall the days when we had to speak in code to make ourselves known to each other. Of course, there's also a particular glance, a way of acknowledging a sister through eye contact alone, but that's a whole 'nother column.

Brenda B. in Maine

Rachael Herron said...

@ Brenda, oooh, the eye contact. That's true. There's always that. No words needed. :)

Unknown said...

Fascinating. (although it pisses me off that people needed to speak in code to begin with). And DITTO on all kinds of family. It's so true. xo

Juliet Blackwell said...

Hey Rachael -- Great post, as always. I think using "family" this way did express the need we all have to create family, and no doubt in part came from so many gay women and men who were forced out of their blood families for being who they were. It's lovely to think that maybe, just maybe, the slang is going away because it's not needed as much any more.

Oh, and classic Mysti -- love that gay pipeline idea ;-)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Rachael, you write the BEST posts. You bring heart and mind together with graceful verve. :)

Adrienne Bell said...

Love this post! I feel like now I know this secret I'm not supposed to be in on.

Although, I have to say, the bit about the hospital horror stories really makes me angry. Saying that there are different classes of families, some more important than others, is the same as saying there are different classes of people. And I can't stand that.

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