A few days after my sixteenth birthday, I traveled down to see my older brother, Jesse, with my mom and grandmother. Stepping into his adult apartment felt like entering another dimension. Neither my little brother nor I had been allowed to spend much time there.
After years of knowing our brother’s teenage room so intimately—playing with his TI-computer, marveling at his massive Lego city, smelling his Colours cologne, and breathing in the garlic scent of his Pizza Hut apron—this place seemed otherworldly.
My mom and my grandmother shuffled awkwardly around the space. My brother scurried around the room nervously making small talk. It seemed they were all stalling, waiting for something to begin.
I’m not stingy with love, but I love my older brother best. With an 11-year age gap between us, there is no reason that we should be so close, and yet here we are. When I was very young, he became a surrogate parent, rocking me to sleep. In childhood, I had full advantage of his big imagination. As a teenager, he was the protective, insightful, older brother. Today, he is my friend.
With Jesse around, a simple swing set became the most expedient way to catapult oneself over a dangerous lava pit below. A dormant beehive became a scientific expedition. The tall, scary hill covered in snow suddenly became the most excellent sledding adventure.
When you are a kid and you have an older brother with a ‘75 Mustang, you will most certainly experience the joy of a reckless 55 miles an hour (!) drive down a rural back road.
In my childhood, I found my brother intensely curious and fearless. He still is.
We are so close that I was much older before I could fully comprehend that he was my half-brother or what that even meant. He was just Jesse, my Bub.
Sometime around age nine, we stopped seeing as much of my brother. When he did come home, his visits were short, and his hugs were awkward and stilted.
My little brother and I were wrecked by his absence. When he did visit, we wrapped ourselves around him—literally. We would crawl into his lap, hug him needlessly, endlessly. Even though we could see tension between him and my parents, we were undeterred in our mission for his full attention.
One day, after a particularly sharp comment from my mom, my brother snapped at us to get off of him. It was the first time we had ever heard an unfriendly word from him. We slunk away, astonished and hurt.
What followed were a series of years where it felt like Jesse wasn’t welcome at home anymore. My little brother and I were heartbroken and confused.
We often asked mom why Jesse didn’t come to visit anymore and she would tell us he had his own life to lead, that college was a lot of work. We must have asked so frequently that one day she snapped at us, “It’s because you hang on to him too much. He hates that.”
The next time my brother visited, we kept our distance, afraid that the love bursting from our little bodies would push him further away.
Sometime in my early adolescence, we went to visit Jesse in the town where he lived (Christiansburg, maybe?). He was happy to see us, but nervous too. He told us that today we were going to meet his roommate.
As we assembled at Macado’s (!), a tall, lanky guy walks up to join us.
“This is my friend, Keith,” Jesse said glowingly, proudly.
Keith has an outsized presence in my memories. My brother loved him and so I loved him too. He had glasses, which was really all it took for me fall for him (see: Kellie Martin). Jesse’s roommate came to our birthday parties and was always there when we went to see our brother.
And then, one day, Jesse told us we wouldn’t be seeing Keith anymore. Like a child of divorce, we pleaded for answers. Had we done something wrong? How can we bring him back? I remember crying real tears at the loss.
Time passed and we met more a few more of Jesse’s friends, but by then I had learned not to give my heart away so easily.
As I passed into full teenager, we entered another period where we didn’t see as much of my brother.
My mom and I spent a fair amount of time on the road together, driving to Girl Scout events, and once in the quiet car on the way back home, she asked me an unusual question.
“Why do you think we don’t see as much of your brother anymore?”
“I don’t know. I figure he’s busy. And you and dad are not very nice to him.”
“What would you say if I told you that your brother was different? What if I told you he was…gay?”
“Is that why he doesn’t come to visit anymore?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just asking how you would feel about him if that were true.”
I remember pausing to think. This seemed important. There seemed to be a right answer. I could tell this was hard for my mom.
“I would still love him just the same. He’s my brother.” I shrugged.
I wish I remember what my mom said after that. I only recall her trying to hide tears. Was she trying to tell me my brother was gay? Or was she testing out the concept of “gay” using someone I unconditionally loved? It didn’t matter—for me the answer was the same.
It’s a few days after my 16th birthday and we’re standing in my brother’s apartment.
After some awkwardness, my brother tells me to come sit at a spot in the center of the room. My grandma, my mom, and my brother surround me like an intervention.
I start to feel nervous, so my brother knowingly reaches out and puts my hands in his to steady us both. He clears his throat, and then:
Sis, there is something I want to tell you.
Do you understand what that means?
Mom and dad asked that I wait until your sixteenth birthday to tell you, to make sure you were old enough to understand.
I want you to know that I’ve been careful. I’m HIV negative.
His voice cracked.
I hope you know this doesn’t change anything between us. I’m still your brother. I love you very much, and I will always be here for you. Okay?
There is a long pause.
Is that all?
Yes. That’s all.
Okay, well…I knew that already. And I love you too. Always. Now, let’s go eat.
I didn’t know then, but it was a big deal. My brother had a long, hard road of coming out to my parents. There was a period of time where he wasn’t welcome, where he had been distanced…nearly disowned.
Through those years, we all turned inward. My brother, struggling to come to terms with an identity he had been told was wrong, dangerous. My mother, trying to understand what it means for her relationship with her son. My dad, fighting long held beliefs about right and wrong. My little brother and I, just longing for our Bub.
In a different time and place, we would have shared these feelings with each other. Leaned on the family unit for support and understanding.
But I didn’t grow up in that time or that place.
It would be another decade before anyone in our family dared to stop referring to his boyfriends as “roommates.” Some of my extended family has still refused to acknowledge this fact about my brother. We’re still working on getting my dad not to refer to my brother’s interests as “that gay stuff.”
I would keep the promise to my parents and wait another year and a half for my older brother to come out…again…this time, to my little brother.
After it was over, the adults breathed a sigh of relief and my little brother walked over to me standing in the kitchen.
“So that’s it?” he asked.
“Huh. I mean, he’s still my brother. I still love him.”
It was a weird secret to have kept, mostly because it seemed so benign to us. The telltale signs had been there all along for anyone who cared to look. My brother’s inner battle had manifested itself in the form of complicated mixtapes: Bette Midler and Dolly Parton, next to Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman, with the occasional Madonna, for good measure.
I know that Pride month it not meant for me. It is for the millions of men and women who are brave enough to be their truest selves in the face of a small-minded world.
And yet, here I am. I feel immense pride to be my brother’s sister.