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The Name Game

All I could think of was that early grainy photo of Earth taken from outer space. There was something familiar yet distant about the sonogram image of my partner’s first grandchild. In staring at the black-and-white pictures of baby’s first snooze, I felt a strong connection to this incubating Einstein-to-be. But then came a question that tempered some of my joy: what would he or she—the three-month mark doesn’t tell you everything—call me?

Gay-family semantics can be as fluid as the makeup of LGBT relationships themselves. Phil and I, though never wed, have been a couple for nearly two decades. Once we started getting serious, I grew keenly interested in meeting his two young-adult sons. I didn’t want to force myself into their lives.

They’d had a traditional version of family upended by divorce and a parent’s coming out, and I had no interest in rearranging the furniture again. It would be up to them to say when they were ready to meet me. It would happen in good time, and, fortunately, it did.

Through all kinds of social occasions with them since, the question of what to call me had never come up. Dad was Dad, and I was Jim. But when the younger son and his fiancée asked me to speak at their wedding, my sovereignty was no longer quite so simple. How would I be billed? How should the priest introduce me when it was my turn to speak? When guests asked which side of the family I was on, how was I to answer the inevitable follow-up about “what” I was to the groom—many of the guests didn’t even know that the groom’s father is gay.

A gesture that might have cemented my spot in the familial firmament had oddly cast me adrift. If my nomadic status troubled me, it was as much about my place at a table—literally—as the broader questions of place still confronting LGBT families. Many of those questions, of course, are simply generational. Well-meaning elders grew up in a vastly different world. And while flat-out bigotry can never be excused, far lesser offenses can be forgiven. I’m thinking of, say, the great aunt who keeps asking why her 30-something (lesbian) niece hasn’t found a husband.

For my longtime Toronto friends Den and Phil, there was never a question about what Den’s nieces and nephews would call Phil: if it were Uncle Den, it would also be Uncle Phil.

Terms like “mom” and “dad” can be much trickier. Of course, if a gay couple together adopt or have a biological child, there’s little question about what that child might call his or her parents. But what about blended families, in which youngsters take up residency with mom and her new wife, or dad and his new boyfriend?

The trick, experts say—particularly where older kids and teens are concerned—is not to force children to use a particular term. If they’re comfortable with “aunt” or “mom” or “grandma,” that’s a gift. But resentments could build if children are told what they have to call the adults in a gay relative’s life.

When one of my partner’s daughters-in-law suggested that her children call us Grandpa Jim and Grandpa Phil, I had to object. I didn’t want to make things confusing for toddlers barely learning to speak. They do, after all, have just one grandfather, and he’s not only totally devoted but also lavishes them (sometimes to my rolling eyes) with clothes and other gifts. I want these children to know who their grandfather is; my belief is that he’s earned and deserves the honour.

That said, Phil’s grandchildren have grown up knowing me. I cradled them when they were mere hours old. Once they began talking, they’d always ask where I was if their grandfather visited without me. For now, I’ve asked that they all call me “Jim.” Maybe some day they’ll choose to call me “Grandpa” instead or as well. The important thing is that whatever they call me, they won’t love me any less.

 

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