For a Lesbian Couple, the Path to the Family Holiday Table Was Down the Aisle

“This is Allison,” my girlfriend’s mother said as she introduced me to a cousin at an extended family gathering.

“How do you know each other?” the relative asked, her preadolescent son by her side.

“Oh, they’re roommates,” my girlfriend’s mom blurted in a cool breath before I could even open my mouth to respond.

My heartbeat hastened. Tears stung behind my eyes. My girlfriend and I had been together for a handful of years already at that time and were cohabiting. We didn’t shove ourselves in any closets and we certainly didn’t need anyone doing that on our behalf.

We were out and proud, and while careful with our safety when need be — like when we traveled to countries where being gay could mean a prison sentence or worse — I never thought we’d have to put our guard up at a family gathering.

I knew the extended family I had just met were staunch social conservatives. I knew they lived in a very white, very blue-collar community and didn’t have the benefit of a college education.

What’s more, I knew my girlfriend’s mother was Catholic, but she was incredibly accepting and supportive of her daughter and had been nothing but warm and loving with me.

All these factors salted the wound when I was introduced as my girlfriend’s roommate. The veiled response harked back to the 1980s and 90s, when my girlfriend and I came out, a time and place we thought we had survived and evolved beyond.

I came of age when being gay meant I might one day be the cool aunt, but never the mom. I’d have “roommates” but not partners equally recognized and integrated into our families. I believed I was destined to be one rung below my heterosexual siblings and cousins. Even if our families didn’t see us in this light, I’d always see myself that way precisely because society didn’t recognize me as equal. Homophobia wasn’t just circulating in the ether out there; it was diffused into my bones, where it lived and breathed inside of me as well.

Still, my then-girlfriend and I were lucky to have two accepting families. Not many L.G.B.T. people see those odds. And not everyone I had dated came from families who acknowledged their child’s sexual or gender identity. Some flat out refused to welcome me into their homes.

My girlfriend’s mother was well-intentioned in spreading a veneer. She likely thought she was doing right by everyone, trying to protect us from hearing hateful discourse during an otherwise enjoyable afternoon while also trying to mitigate the extended relatives’ potential to engage in divisive rhetoric.

The problem was that her single sentence had instantaneously erased who we were. She had unknowingly stripped me of my agency and hijacked our control over driving our own narratives.

Holidays are a time when many L.G.B.T. people aren’t able to be their full selves with their assigned families. Many decide not to break bread with them because the sacrifice is too great.

That poignant familial gathering left a sour taste for me. I didn’t think about what happened often, but when it surfaced, the pain cut fresh. Over time, though, new memories of happy, incident-free family events piled on top of that one, and my love for my girlfriend’s immediate family only deepened. They treated me as one of them.

We used to think the most radical declaration of our love would be donning rainbow leather chaps and waving signs declaring “I’m not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is.” It turned out that the most extreme change came in 2013 from the most traditional path we could have taken: obtaining a piece of paper that decreed we were lawfully wedded wives.

With the pomp and circumstance of nuptial rites fresh in my now-mother-in-law’s memory and heart, she consistently introduced me as my wife’s spouse.

For my mother-in-law and others who still subconsciously held onto heteronormative notions of coupledom, legally recognized marriage was the coup that shifted their thinking. A recent PRRI study backs that concept, finding acceptance of L.G.B.T. people on the rise among communities of faith.

My wife and I couldn’t possibly be just roommates when there were rings on our fingers and wedding pictures on Facebook.

Plus, times were changing. Same-sex marriage dominated the headlines around the time we tied the knot. American soccer moms’ favorite daytime talk show host was Ellen DeGeneres, a woman who married a woman. Barack Obama was president and had our back. It had been just a handful of years since the roommate comment, but it felt like a new era. Suddenly, we were living in a climate when one no longer had to placate the cousin who might have felt uncomfortable around “the gays” at the family soiree.

Fast forward another handful of years, and my wife and I now have a baby. Parenthood was the next most traditional vestige after marriage, and a journey my wife and I never thought we’d embark on. Yet, becoming parents is the most neutralizing event in our queer lives, breaking down walls, countering ignorance with love.

People — family, friends, complete strangers — see our baby before they see us. They approach him to ogle and admire, and then size up the lot of us. Our son, almost 2 years old, plays the involuntary role of diffuser, softening preconceived judgments of people who would otherwise approach us coldly, or not at all. I did not intend to place a burden on my baby to serve as padding for ignorance, but if our little family can help educate others and warm hearts and minds, then it’s a role we are obligated to play on behalf of others.

Though my mother-in-law may never have considered that introduction from nearly a decade ago a betrayal of her support and acceptance for us, she would now never hesitate to proudly introduce us as her family: her grandson, her daughter and her daughter’s wife.

Allison Steinberg is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television and coffee over sleep.

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