We invented games and played them together. I helped her wash, train and walk her dog. We talked into the night when we were supposed to be sleeping. We shared inside jokes and wore matching dresses made to measure by our grandmother. We argued over whose piece of toast was in the toaster and any other ridiculous topic seemed important. We shared a room every night for 8 years. We baked together and memorised verses and poems together. We rolled around in the mud, shared a double bed when visiting the grandparents (I hogged the covers), washed together and talked about life, faith, emotions and anything else that came to mind.
My older sister was central and formative part of my childhood and coming of age. She saw the world differently from me and had a different personality, but I grew up imitating her. It became one of my favourite sayings that keeping my hair long when she had hers cut was one of the first times I consciously decided to do something different to the way my sister did it.
When she left home to do a degree in Biology, I was bereft. My sister seemed to slip away from me into another world. I knew it was dark. I knew she struggled with depression. I knew it impacted on her relationship with our parents, but I didn’t know much more than that. I got to know her again a few years later when I was doing a degree in music. In those years we laid the foundation to our adult friendship. When she left to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, we wrote letters. I did a lot of growing up, and we slowly solidified that friendship.
Over the years our paths have taken us, at times, to opposite sides of the world, but through letters, emails and chatting on Skype (and latterly iMessage) we have maintained and strengthened our friendship. We watched one another grow and mature from a distance, and when I saw her becoming a more peaceful, grounded person, I felt a great joy for this period of growth and its impact on her future.
I was living in Cardiff at the time. With an ocean between us I watched the slow unfolding of this deeper and more peaceful side of my sister, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next. One May day, as I sat at my desk in my Cardiff student flat talking to my sister over the internet, it all came together. In retrospect I can see that the growth in each of our lives led to that pivotal moment, the moment my sister came out to me. The moment I knew I could choose a moral belief I was already questioning or I could choose to show my sister love. The moment I knew the next words I spoke would have a profound impact on the future of our relationship. The moment I knew that a loving response was all I could give. I don’t remember what I said, although I believe she told me some years afterwards that it was, “brilliant”. I will always be grateful that she couldn’t see my face.
So I began to adjust to the idea that my sister was gay. I repeated it to myself mentally. I looked back at life for clues, and I looked forward at life to see how it might change. I thought about the positive growth I had seen in her life, and was unable to deny that this admission must be a positive thing for her, whatever my conservative Christian training had taught me to believe.
When I saw her again seven months later, I chose to behave as if it made no difference to me, to treat her just the same, to laugh and joke, to play games, to sleep on the floor together. Every time that odd feeling of something not quite right came up, I simply ignored it and went on loving my sister as I always had.
As the years went by, I kept doing this. When she talked about her friends, gay or straight, when she talked about falling in love, when she talked about her life and I talked about mine, it wasn’t any different because I chose not to let it be. In fact, if I ignored the pronouns as she talked of falling in love, her story sounded a lot like mine.
And a funny thing happened after all those years of acting like it didn’t matter. One day I realised it really didn’t. I realised that “she’s gay” was no longer a thought I needed to manage or a reality that overshadowed “she’s my sister.” For years I have been careful about who I tell. I thought it was because I wasn’t quite comfortable, or I didn’t want to be judged or to have to answer questions. It may have been that for a while, but recently I have realised that there is another reason I don’t bring it up. Because it isn’t an issue, and I don’t want it to be.
When I heard about the horrible tragedy in Orlando, I found myself wondering if I should contact my sister, and ask if she was upset about what happened. I read the headlines about a “gay club” and the LGBT community. It made me think of her and of her wife. Vauge memories were stirred in my mind, stories she had told me of hiding, of fear, of tension, yet somehow I struggled to associate her with the subsection of humanity mentioned in those reports and articles.
All those stories talked about a minority population, a specialist group, a close-knit community; a sub-division of people, in short, that was somehow other than the general population. I can easily see the necessity for LGBT+ people to identify themselves, and each other, as belonging to this group. It is a core part of their identity that has been denied, suppressed and abused for far too long. The category only exists because the wider, hetero-normative society has denied these people the freedom to exist for so long.
To my surprise, however, I have found that I can’t quite get my head around thinking of my sister as part of this group, this sub-section of society. Simply because I do not think of her as “other” than I am. She is no more different from me than any other of my family members or friends. She is not “one of them” – she is just my sister.
My mind’s refusal to list my sister under the heading LGBT made me stop and think. As parents, siblings, friends and loved ones mourn the dead from the Orlando tragedy, we would do well to remember that every member of the “gay community” is actually a person, an individual with his or her (or their) own unique identity. While it is culturally necessary to recognise their sub-group and affirm their identities in opposition to the long-oppressive voices of the wider culture, it is just as important to remember them as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, human beings just like me.
It is time we stop labelling sub-groups of people in order to differentiate them from ourselves. Offering thoughts and prayers and moments of silence only goes so far. We must figure out how to defeat hate, how to silence fear, how to see every human as, fundamentally, just like me. As long as we insist on describing different groups of people as “them” (LGBT, Muslim, migrant, scrounger, redneck) in order to describe or illustrate how “they” differ from “us,” we will continue to breed hate and fear in our society, and the innocent will continue to die (whether at their own hands or the hands of others) because it is easier to believe the overwhelmingly prevalent, misguided or hate-filled lies than it is to combat them with the truth.
So perhaps I should make it an issue that my sister is gay for the very reason that it makes no difference. I should talk about her and her wife (rather than partner), because it shouldn’t be remarkable. I should bring it up and celebrate the beauty of who she is. If I do, maybe my voice will make a difference, albeit small. Maybe that is a step I can take towards turning the tide of hate. What about you?