Sometimes worlds collide in the strangest ways, especially when birth families and chosen families interact.
A few weeks ago, my tattooed femme friend brought her lover, a leather-clad bootblack, to dinner at my parents’ house in North York. The two of them had met at Mr Leather Ottawa a couple of months earlier, when the bootblack asked the femme to hike up her skirt so she could polish the femme’s boots. A hot affair has ensued ever since.
When I was recently back in Toronto visiting family, my mother decided to throw a giant dinner party, and announced that she wanted to meet some of my friends. So the femme and the bootblack joined me, my partner, my parents, grandmother and other assorted relatives for a gourmet kosher feast.
My grandmother, who is the most stylish clothes horse I’ve ever met in my life, oohed and ahhed over the femme’s houndstooth kitten-heeled shoes. The bootblack displayed impeccable manners, clad in a tie and a smart leather vest. When my Mom asked the couple how they met, the femme declared, “she polishes boots for charity events!” It certainly made for an entertaining meal.
You see, my brother and I have raised our parents just as they have raised us. We grew up in a liberal, open-minded household. My mother, a lawyer, was always interested in human rights cases, so we followed the Supreme Court like other families follow the hockey game. I wrote my first editorial on abortion rights when I was 12, and when I turned 18 and was allowed to vote for the first time, I stubbornly insisted on placing an NDP lawn sign beside my parents’ long-standing Liberal sign. They didn’t remove it.
Still, I don’t think anything prepared them for the experience of having two gay kids. My brother came out when he was 13. I followed three years later at 19, after having moved to Montreal. My father barely lifted an eyebrow, and Mom blurted out, “maybe we were a bit too open-minded?”
Since then, my brother and I have challenged them to learn about aspects of the community that they would never have had access to before.
My father takes pride in the fact that my brother helped care for a trans male friend after his surgery, and likes to freak out acquaintances by referring to “Matt, after his hysterectomy.”
After having a long conversation about polyamoury with my mother this fall, she looked at me and said, “you know, I believe that deep down, the religious right understands gay marriage, even though they don’t accept it. But they’d have a field day if they knew about how some of your friends really live.”
“Yes,” I said, “but if this is how people are really living, we owe it to our community to tell the truth about our experiences.”
I thought about these interactions recently, when I heard that Premier Dalton McGuinty had declared the third Monday in February to be Family Day, a new statutory holiday. Because when politicians and religious leaders use “family” as a buzz phrase, they are generally referring to the two kids and picket fence straight ideal. When I hear the word, I think about families like mine, and like the Kwans.
Most people know Ed Kwan by his drag queen moniker, China Doll. Ed and his brother Don manage Shanghai restaurant in Ottawa, along with their siblings and parents. The restaurant, which opened in 1971, is a Chinatown institution — the first of its kind in Ottawa.
When the Kwan siblings decided to take over the restaurant from their parents several years ago, they decided to do things their way. The place is now a hub of art shows, craft sales, dance parties, and even disco bingo, although the place is best known for its karaoke on Saturday night, hosted by the always fabulous China Doll, decked out in the most outrageous Value Village creations.
Don and Ed are gay, and they actively support queer causes, frequently opening Shanghai’s doors to dyke dance parties, fundraisers to support trans youth, and events in collaboration with the AIDS Committee of Ottawa. Nancy Kwan, the matriarch of the family, is always present at these events, welcoming guests, and cheering on her son’s Olivia Newton John impressions.
The Kwan family challenges the notion that all that immigrant families are not capable of accepting and integrating the reality of their kids’ queer lives. They remind us how much richer our lives become, when we stop infantilizing our parents and actually expose them to the way we live.
My parents came to visit last week. Sure, my girlfriend and I tossed the silicone under the bed. But we didn’t bother to hide the erotica books, or take down the photographs of our friends sporting strap-ons. That simply wouldn’t have jived with our family values.