My brother Sam was sitting in his hospital bed, with the three of us (Sam’s husband Bruce, his close friend Leslie and me) listening as the doctor offered the prognosis for Sam: his life could be measured “in terms of days and weeks rather than months. Also, I wouldn’t want to pound on your chest and break your ribs and cause you more pain just on the chance you could live a few more hours,” he told Sam softly, his voice slightly wavering.
“Well,” Sam replied defiantly, “I’ll still have hope.”
This scene occurred in October, just two months after Sam and Bruce were married in a Quaker Friends service. The Friends service, while not a valid civil marriage, meant a lot to our large family, despite the fact that most of us are atheists and would have preferred a civil one. But that was not to be, because this was in 1988.
A few years after my brother died, as my uncle C drove me to the airport after a brief stay “home” in Honolulu, he blurted out the following:
I thought you might like to know, a few months ago, Auntie M told me that my niece had called. She said, “Mom, I got good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first, good or bad?”
“What’s the bad?”
Uncle and I laughed at his story telling. It was funny the way he had told it.
But I’ve thought a lot about that since. From that plane ride back to Seattle, through all the recurring memories, dreams and what-if-he-were-alive-now thoughts about Sam, and again when the Washington State legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239, which would allow same-sex couples to marry.
On the one hand, uncle was trying to tell me something that was troubling him, but also something that he thought I should know: that others in our extended family had faced gay/lesbian in-law issues, and that he and others in the family were supportive of the “new” families being formed.
On the other hand, from at least from my point of view, I struggled with how his niece had termed the news as good and bad. Was it bad news that she was a lesbian? Was that the way she broke the news to her mom? It was said in good humor I’m certain. And it was a way to lighten the news to the family, I guess. But I can only wonder about how much she agonized about how to frame the discussion of her pregnancy and her sexual orientation before she actually did tell her mom. I knew it must have been difficult because I knew how much Sam had gone through before he told me that he was gay, and then later, how he had met “the love of his life.”
At the time that uncle told me about his niece, I had recently resigned as director of Asian Pacific AIDS Council, and the memories of working with gay Asians feeling isolated from their families were still very fresh in my mind. Many left home (and maybe still do), because of family pressures, real or imagined. Even from San Francisco. I met folks from San Francisco and Los Angeles in Seattle and Portland. And folks from Seattle and Portland taking up residence in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I even met gay brothers from the Bay Area who had settled in Seattle but didn’t know that the other was gay until they met at a gay Asian event here.
Sam and I were married a week apart. Much of the preparations were done with the hope that some of my relatives could be present at both. But when Sam’s wedding date came around, he was in the hospital facing a serious cytomegalovirus infection. He was married in absentia. When Bruce informed my uncle Z that Sam was feeling better a few hours after the services, my 87-year-old uncle replied, “You should get married every week; then Sam would get better.”
The marriage ceremony together with the attendance of the elder generation of Shimabukuro family members meant a lot to Sam and Bruce. The acknowledgement of friends and family was important.
Marriage is not simply a two-person thing. It’s a family affair. That’s why I believe R74 will be approved. And it will be approved because of the Asian American vote, not in spite of it.