Family can be a tricky thing at times – it can be comprised of the nuclear family model, or it can consist of grandparents, aunts and uncles (both real and “play”), or single parents. Family can be a source of strength, a feeling of not being alone in this world. But family can also be a source of shame and embarrassment when it doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold. Family can mean a lot of issues and problems, though I dislike using the term dysfunctional. Who decides what is functional? And do we view a functioning family unit under the guise of a Eurocentric model or an Afrocentric model? To me, family is simply those that enveloped me and raised me in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and security.
See, I was born into an unconventional family. I was born to a white mother with substance abuse issues that prevented her from being able to care for me, and a black father that wanted a child of his own. And while it is looked at in a more positive viewpoint now, with the biracial “look” being “trendy” in the modeling field, back in the 70s, being a light skinned biracial girl was not as accepted as it is today. It was an even a bigger issue when your complexion outwardly denied your actual genetic make-up.
When you couple my light skin with the fact that I was raised by two African-American men, during the the time when pictures of missing children were first plastered on billboards and on the backs of milk cartons across the country, I gained a lot of negative and unwanted attention. People would take a look at my darker complexioned uncle and automatically worried about me. They did not think that I was related to him (which I technically wasn’t, but I will discuss that later), but rather that there was something inherently wrong about my being in his presence. When I was with my father who had a lighter complexion, people were able to see a resemblance that I couldn’t, and seemed a lot more relaxed in general.
Women thought that my dad was like the good natured, non-threatening, Tony Danza character on “Who’s the Boss”. However, despite going to an elementary school populated by students from a higher income bracket in liberal San Francisco, I was still made to take special classes that focused on understanding my body and speaking up if I felt uncomfortable around certain people. I realized later that the classes were only for children in the school who were raised by a single parent. Despite our living together, my uncle was not considered my dad’s “plus one”. In plain terms, due to being raised by my father, there was the automatic assumption that I had a higher chance of being molested.
I constantly received awkward questions about why, as a girl, I lived with my father and uncle and not my mother. I had to keep it a secret that my father and my uncle were not actually related; they were lovers. Yes, before there were books about Tina having two mommies, I was growing up with gay parents. And contrary to popular belief and stereotypes, my father and uncle had been a couple for over 25 years. They even had their own version of a marriage certificate granted during an unofficial ceremony in a local community bar that catered to the African-American LGBTQ community.
I can’t lie and say that I was proud of having two gay dads. No, it was hard enough being a young girl raised by her dad. I would overhear adults, especially women, make negative comments about how “wrong” or “inappropriate” it was for my dad to raise me. They didn’t realize that without my father I would have probably become just another biracial child without a stable home, lost in the foster care system that had sorely failed so many of the children it was enacted to protect. My ambiguous ethnicity and chubby build would have probably not made me high on the list of candidates for adoption. I mean, how on earth would a parent learn how to deal with my unruly curly hair?
To complicate things in my unique family dynamic, I had very little knowledge or interaction with my mom. I lived with her only during the first year and a half of my life. I remember the few day trips here and there when I was allowed to stay with her. She ended up dying due to complication from hepatitis C in my senior year of college. Only after growing and maturing was I able to really understand and be heartbroken over the extremely difficult life she had, which included her being the victim of sexual assault as a child during an era where children were often not believed. I feel that this untreated trauma led to her later substance abuse. I have no doubt that her losing custody of her children broke her spirit in ways that I would never want to even imagine and contributed to her early death.
Like many African-American families in the late 80s, my father and uncle also succumbed to the destruction known as crack cocaine. Within a couple of years we went from having a nice 3 bedroom apartment with hard wood floors, a dog, birds, and fish, to living in a one-room welfare hotel on 6th and Howard street in San Francisco – otherwise known as skid row. During this period in time, I was probably the only student in my class that hated the weekends. For me, the weekends symbolized a complete lack of schedule, constant doorbell ringing until the wee hours of the morning, and bursts of laughter as my father and uncle’s “friends” partied, drank alcohol, and smoked crack in our living room.
My father eventually passed away from complications related to AIDS when I was 15, and my uncle, despite him having no legal obligation to do so, decided to continue to raise me as best as he could. In my late 20s I ended up taking care of him as he fought his battle with cancer, AIDS, and hepatitis. He did not survive, but considering all that he had experienced in his 67 years, he had no doubt outlived many of his friends and family members.
Now, after years of feeling as if I was from the wrong side of the tracks, I no longer have the shame that I once had. I have learned to be grateful for the positive belief systems that my father and uncle instilled in me. Age and experience has taught me to realize that my parents were simply human and did the best they could with what they had. My father never discussed it, but I feel that he may have experienced a lack of acceptance within his family due to his sexual orientation. I am now able to look back at all of those experiences, good and bad, tragic and empowering, and despite all of the things that happened, I never once doubted that I was loved or wanted or cared for. To me, that really is the epitome of a functional family: being forever comforted by the knowledge that you are loved and accepted and cared for, faults and all.
Gabrielle Turner is a biracial, San Francisco native, who writes about issues related to equality, poverty, health, and politics. She enjoys traveling, coffee drinks, the horror movie genre, and helping others to achieve their higher education goals.