Everybody has a gay uncle. This is how many acquaintances will respond, apparently, when you tell them you’re writing a book about your own gay uncle. Of course, not every parent has a brother (Bruce was my father’s eldest sibling), let alone a gay one (he came out as a teenager, his partner Will was already in the picture when I was an infant), and that gay brother isn’t necessarily alive (about fifty-three years my senior), and not everybody spends enough time with this gay uncle to form some kind of bond with him (we visited his and Will’s house around Bruce’s birthday every August, I always slept on their couch while my father stayed nearby with my grandmother), and not every gay uncle likes children (he did) or wants children to like him (he did), and not every uncle signals his gayness in his décor (images of men’s bodies displayed on the walls, in books under the coffee-table, in magazines by the toilet), and not every gay uncle will let his young nephew wander freely through his home (no room was off-limits, even when I was unsupervised), and not every gay uncle will be ready or willing to help when this boy discovers his fondness for other boys (I was fourteen, he didn’t hesitate). But everybody knows the archetypal figure of the gay uncle, which has become practically a cliché. There’s even a trendy portmanteau, “guncle,” in which I hear only “gunk,” but perhaps that’s the point: the idea of the gay uncle oozes across the popular imagination, his adhesiveness messing up conventional notions of kinship.
In her 1990 essay “Tales of the Avunculate,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick defines “uncle” as “a metonym for the whole range of older men who might form a relation to a younger man (as patron, friend, literal uncle, godfather, adoptive father, sugar daddy) offering a degree of initiation into gay cultures and identities.” Why has the uncle become the familial role most closely associated with queer men’s tutelage? Something about the uncle is always already queer, since it’s not abnormal for him to be unmarried and childless, and his relation to younger generations tends to be more oblique and versatile than a parent’s. And in mainstream iconography, the uncle is rarely a straightforward hero or villain, but often a liminal creature, paternalistic but not patriarchal (Henry Gale), obsessive but not dogmatic (Toby Shandy), eccentric but not beyond the pale (Auntie Mame, technically not an uncle but still the patron saint of most gay uncles I know). The uncle is too queerly protean to be pinned down by any comprehensive theory. But I do have a few postulates about Bruce.
theory of initiation
I don’t have much of a coming-out story. One morning, I began to ask Bruce, “When did you tell your parents…,” and I didn’t have to finish the question; he immediately caught my drift. (Then again, I wasn’t fooling anyone at the time.) Instead, the story always begins a year earlier:
Bruce and I were celebrating his sixty-sixth birthday at Lee’s Lunch, a greasy-spoon strip-mall diner a few miles from his home. He’d just begun weightlifting, and to show off his newly voracious appetite, he ordered a second plate of biscuits and gravy. When the waitress asked if she’d heard him correctly, Bruce leaned forward on the red checked tablecloth, flaunting the pecs bulging through his white T-shirt; stroked his thick mustache; raised an arm in a benedictory fashion, jangling his silver bracelets to make sure all could see and hear him; and hammed up his Southern drawl and fire-and-brimstone flair as he intoned, “It takes a lot of gas to run this Cadillac!” I have no idea what the phrase means or where it came from. (Why a Cadillac and not, I don’t know, his and Will’s old pickup truck?) But I was spellbound by the way he summoned these words, recited them in perfectly iambic rhythm, inflected them with so many tones at once—both flirtatious and menacing, bombastic and self-mocking. I was thirteen, so self-conscious about my changing body that I’d become almost mute; I seldom raised my voice above a murmur, couldn’t imagine holding court for the mere pleasure of the performance. Throughout the day, I listened to Bruce rehearse this incantation, whether pouring an extra glug of vodka in his Pepsi or excusing himself for a longer-than-usual afternoon nap in the bathtub: “It takes a lot of gas.” I began to shadow him.
“So that was your ring-of-keys moment,” a friend recently told me over brunch at the Cadillac Café in Portland, Oregon. Of course, I’d ordered the biscuits and gravy, which prompted me to tell my friend about Bruce, which then prompted her to recall the famous scene from Bechdel’s Fun Home in which young Alison witnesses a “truck-driving bulldyke” at a luncheonette: “like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.” My friend was onto something, but it’s an imperfect analogy, since my uncle and I were never strangers to each other, and recognizing our shared queerness was a more gradual process. To explain my own luncheonette encounter, I wanted to say something about the relationship between desire and language. I wanted to cite Wayne Koestenbaum: “Sexuality, whether homo or hetero, does not arrive only once, in that moment of revelation and proclamation that we call ‘coming out.’ Our body is always coming out. Every time is the first time. Every performance is a debut.” But what did I have to show for years and years of thinking about this formative scene? My friend watched me expectantly as the waiter approached and asked if we needed anything. “No, thank you,” I said.
theory of mimesis
“It’s hard being employee of the month,” Bruce told me. “You have to sing, dance, light up the room—it’s terrible!” I was tagging along to his part-time job as a minder at an adult daycare, where he led seated aerobic workouts and karaoke singalongs of Rodgers and Hart standards. He was older than many of the clients but too restless to retire, and he looked right at home. One woman gaped at Bruce, stunned silent. “You looking at me?” he asked, extending his palm to her. “That’ll be a dollar.” He gave her a roguish low-five, and she blushed and beamed.
I decided to try out this line a few days later, hoping to elicit a similar response from a handsome boy I spotted on the sidelines of my high school’s soccer field. “You looking at me?” I asked, straining to arch my eyebrows seductively and lower my voice to Bruce’s sultry register. “That’ll be a dollar.”
He turned away from the game and scowled at me. “What the fuck is your problem?” I shrugged off my failed come-on as a prank and ran away. Some kinds of charisma can’t be learned by imitation.
theory of biography
A fan of reading by candlelight in the tub, Bruce once stayed up so late with Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton that he fell asleep and dropped all nine hundred pages in the bathwater, startling himself awake. As a child I failed to understand my uncle’s zeal for life studies, and I politely declined whenever he tried to foist on me a weighty book on Janet Flanner or Katherine Anne Porter. Why would I have wanted to read a tome of minutiae about these dead people I hardly knew? Bruce’s answer never changed: “The gossip!”
He wasn’t wrong: the more biographies I read, the more I appreciate the art of the dishy anecdote. But for someone so fond of gossip, Bruce never wrote down much of his own, though he occasionally sprinkled it in his letters. (“Was I at the Piers? O yes. Did I cruise porno shops, porno theaters. O yes. Did I know 1970s Times Square? Yep. OK. Used to go at midnight to watch peepshows, the people. Mugged twice, etc. And, yes, I gave good audience at the GAYITY [sic] theater…”) My father once gifted his elder brother a ream of blank paper and a book titled How to Sell Your Memoir, but Bruce protested. “I can’t write because I don’t know who I’m talking to,” he told me. “I wonder: Why would you want to know that?” He much preferred extemporaneous storytelling, and in his nephew, his most eager listener, he found his Boswell.
“Take notes!” he wrote in my thirteenth birthday card. “You’ll be glad you did!” At every subsequent family meal, he would pause in the middle of a tall tale, turn to me, widen his eyes like a stern headmaster, and swivel his wrist in the air with an imaginary pencil, asking sometimes aloud but more often tacitly, “You’re writing this down, aren’t you?”
I tried to log as many notes as possible in my journals, but they never added up to any kind of unified narrative, and Bruce shied away from my attempts to sort out how he got from there to here. Since he died, my mom has repeatedly asked if I ever recorded a proper interview with my uncle, but to me it always seemed that my whole relationship with him was an interview.
theory of detail
Bruce was often more modest than he let on, selective about the adventures he chose to share from his life. He loved to tell me about his time in boot camp during the Vietnam War: he was based somewhere near Seattle, and on weekends his Marlboro Man boyfriend would pull up on his Harley and whisk away Bruce to the city. Will later called this boyfriend to break the news of Bruce’s death and retold this story, which elicited a sigh and a long, dramatic pause. “Well,” the boyfriend said, “it was really more like a Vespa…”
theory of exegesis
“Light blue, right pocket!” That was all Bruce said when I first asked him about hanky-flagging; I couldn’t tell from his delivery whether this response was a command or a confession. Years later, this is how I sometimes wear a bandana in the back of my jeans, though no one seems to pay much attention to these codes anymore: I initiate most of my sexual encounters via some kind of textual medium, and “what are you into” tends to be one of the first questions on the table. Yet I still cathect this outdated piece of fabric and what it signals. Did Bruce foresee that his pubescent nephew would someday relish sucking cock? Was this inchoate predilection written on my face? Was he projecting his own desires onto me? Have I shaped my tastes based on my uncle’s unwittingly prescient remark? Or has my wishful thinking made too much of this coincidence?
I never saw Bruce flagging, but after he died I discovered a gray bandana in his sock drawer. I then raided his closet for whatever bondage gear would confirm his adherence to the code, but I found only a bag of dildos, unused for so long that they had melted and fused into a shapeless mass of silicone.
theory of ambulation
Whenever he and Will prepared to drive somewhere, Bruce would wait by the car and start reading. Ten pages later, Bruce would shout, “Will!” to which his husband would answer, “I’m putting on my boots.” This exchange would repeat itself for ten or fifteen minutes until, finally, they managed to get on the road. A sensitive artist at heart but a rough woodsman in his vesture, Will has always worn high lace-up Caterpillar boots, so this excuse for his dawdling was never entirely false. But the phrase “putting on my boots” became shorthand for his many digressions and diversions. During one particularly meandering drive home from the train station—we pulled over in a graveyard so he could discreetly relieve himself in the grass, stopped at the supermarket for a case of Steel Reserve and three varieties of blue cheese, and took a “scenic route” through woods too dark to see after the early winter sunset—Will confessed, “I seem not to share most people’s sense of time or navigation.” I often don’t know what scholars mean when they talk about “queer time,” but Will’s internal clock is always the first example that comes to mind.
Boots were also Bruce’s footwear of choice, specifically the cowboy variety, which suited his Burt Reynolds–esque persona. He collected them in assorted styles and colors and wore them on every occasion, claiming they were incredibly comfortable, though he quickly switched to chunky New Balance sneakers as soon as he developed arthritis. When I was fourteen he bestowed to me a caramel-brown pair that was two sizes too big, and even in the thickest socks, my feet rattled inside them. But I stubbornly insisted on wearing them every day to school, where the clip-clop sound of the heels turned heads in every classroom I passed. I swayed my hips, trying to exude Bruce’s magnetic swagger, but the more I played up the machismo, the more awkwardly I swayed and wobbled. I wanted to believe my nebulous boyhood could be, as theorist Gayle Salamon says, “a realm characterized by a kind of magical thinking to which Merleau-Ponty refers when he describes the ultra-thing,” to believe that a pair of cowboy boots could “have the power to confer gender.” Instead, these boots only widened the gap between who I was and who I aspired to be. No matter how hard I tried to impress every boy who crossed my path, most of them looked either confused or indifferent; though they never said so, I could tell they could tell I was too soft and swishy to be a real cowboy.
I haven’t worn these boots since then, except at a recent rodeo-themed queer dance party in Moscow, Idaho; having spent most of my life in the Northeast, I felt even more cognitive dissonance trying on cowboy drag in a region where Western wear isn’t necessarily a kitschy statement. After seeing a video of me strutting to Lil Nas X and Orville Peck, Will offered to mail me more of Bruce’s cowboy boots; I assured him I wouldn’t know what to do with them, but my uncle insisted. When it arrived at my apartment door, I heaved the surprisingly weighty box onto my kitchen table, and I heard something shatter when I put it down. Inside was a set of broken ceramic statuettes, formerly boot-shaped knickknacks. I keep the fragments among my altar of avuncular mementos, as if they were Bruce’s remains.
theory of curriculum (i)
“Have you memorized All About Eve yet?” Bruce asked, apropos of nothing. “It’s on your final exam!” Of all the classic texts in the camp cinema canon, why did he assign this one to his adolescent nephew? Having since watched the film at least a dozen times, I’ve been known to announce “fasten your seatbelts” to a gaggle of friends as we march to The Boiler Room, but I’m still not sure what other wisdom my uncle aimed to impart. Perhaps he intended this fable of intergenerational rivalry and betrayal as a cautionary tale, but that seems unlikely, since Bruce and I were never competitors, and he seemed too confident in his own star power to worry about being upstaged. Bruce never explained what else was on my “final exam,” and I still wonder if he anticipated a turning point when the protégé would surpass his mentor, when I would no longer need my uncle to teach me the ways of the world. But despite the lengthy syllabus of art and pop culture he amassed for me, Bruce showed little interest in the kind of encyclopedic connoisseurship that David M. Halperin dissects in his book How to Be Gay; rather, he seemed to revel in playing up his own ignorance and forgetfulness. Whenever he struggled to recall Glenn Close’s name—surprisingly often—Bruce would ask me, “Meryl Streep and who else?” Or he would punctuate a tall tale by garbling one of Ethel Merman’s numbers from Gypsy: “I’ve lived, Mrs. Goldstein!” Perhaps he was indirectly preparing me for my own dotage, but I like to believe he was teaching me to transcend the anxieties of one-upmanship by maintaining an air of indifference to exhaustive expertise.
theory of curriculum (ii)
Yet there was a time when I desperately wanted to embody the knowingness I associated with Bruce. Strolling home from high school in the cowboy boots he’d given me—and keeping my head down, lest my heels trip on the sidewalk—I heard a driver pull up beside me and roll down the window to ask, “Those boots aren’t made for walking, are they?” I recognized the voice, squinted at his tightly curled hair and owllike features, and saw it was an older boy I’d noticed serenading crowds of starstruck girls at the piano in the choir room. “Want a ride?” Why not?
I watched his long, agile fingers tap the steering wheel and imagined them guiding my hands upon a keyboard as I practiced scales beside him. He kept turning away from the road to smile at me, and I wasn’t sure how he knew where to go or what he saw in me, a lowly ninth-grader. During our first wordless minutes together, I listened to the woman belting on the stereo and tried to break the silence by showing off the musical chops I’d gleaned from my worldly uncle: “Is this Ethel Merman?” My driver laughed and told me the singer was someone named Maria Callas, praising her voice so effusively that I didn’t want to butt in when he sped past my street. As he described all the arias I ought to hear, I dreamt that we’d meet again at his home, probably a mansion equipped with surround-sound speakers, and we’d listen all day to his favorite operas, and he’d teach me the names of all the famous singers, and his seven or eight siblings would beg me to stay for dinner and save me the seat of honor, and my table manners would be impeccable, and his mother would hug me and thank me for bringing flowers, and his father would shake my hand and welcome me to come back any time, and his dogs would lick my face, and then maybe after dinner my new friend—but now he parked near the woods behind my elementary school, unzipped his fly, and reached for my hair with those graceful fingers. I asked what he was doing, his face blanched and hand lurched as if I’d woken him from his own dream, and he instantly started the engine and chauffeured me home.
“I thought you might be more experienced,” he said, “considering… you know.” He nodded at my boots as I stepped out of the car and dashed up the driveway. I didn’t turn around when I heard him roll down the window again and stage-whisper, “Isn’t that a light blue hanky in your pocket?”
Why did I think those boots and that bandana would protect me, or at least help me flag down fellow wanderers who were just as disoriented as I was? I began to hide out in section HQ76 of the library, trying to fill the gaps in the imperfect education my uncle had given me, but still hoping my acquaintances would discern that I was more of an amateur than I wanted to appear. I didn’t speak to that boy again until my early twenties, when I saw him on a subway platform and asked if he remembered picking me up several years earlier—what was on his mind that afternoon, I wondered? He shrugged and said, “You were so hard to read.” I wanted to bark back, “Then you should have tried harder,” but figured I couldn’t accuse him of hermeneutic laziness when I hardly knew how to make myself more legible.
theory of posterity
My friend Avi is probably tired of hearing me introduce him as Lee Edelman’s nephew. I know the notorious queer theorist is opposing “the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized,” not objecting to children per se, but I’m still tickled by the dissonance between Edelman’s uncompromising critiques of reproductive futurism and Avi’s warm and fuzzy tales of Uncle Lee. I once emailed Edelman to solicit his thoughts on this subject: is there something uniquely liberatory, I asked, about the queer uncle’s relation to his younger kin, or is he not exempt from the heteronormative logic of compulsory reproductive biopolitics? Edelman replied that he could “imagine no more fully satisfying familial relation than the avuncular,” but he admitted he wasn’t sure how to help me. Maybe some paradoxes of queer unclehood can be untangled only in practice, not in theory.
Will often remarked on Bruce’s paternal instinct with me, since our relationship was the closest my uncle came to childrearing, but I wish I could have seen Bruce with Will’s son from a previous marriage, whose own son is around my age. After meeting these two “cousins”— neither of them queer, as far as I know—at my uncle’s funeral, I wondered how my relationship with Bruce would have differed if he had been my stepfather, or even my blood father. How would our expectations have changed? Would our responsibilities have been more restricted by the pressures of the nuclear family structure, even though we were never really “chosen family”? Does anyone choose to become an uncle, or is he typically called upon to assume that role? Would I have elected Bruce as my honorary “uncle” if we weren’t already offshoots of the same tree? I know these are unanswerable questions, but I imagine Edelman might have been mulling over similar ones when he wrote “a special word of thanks” to his nieces and nephews at the start of No Future: “However much they might wish it otherwise, they are part of this book as well.”
theory of ambivalence
I was getting an HIV test at a New York City clinic named after AIDS activist Michael Callen and poet Audre Lorde. The nurse asked how I identify my gender and sexuality and offered a long list of options. “Cis man,” I said, “and either gay or queer.” The nurse frowned and asked, “Which is it?” Did I really have to choose, especially here, in the center that calls itself “the global leader in LGBTQ healthcare”? Why couldn’t I be both? “Queer” seemed more accurate to describe my political and intellectual commitments at the time (“not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you,” as the millennial saying goes), but I was growing tired of vapid internet rhetoric about queering this and the inherent queerness of that, and I feared the term would gloss over the specificity of both my sexual track record (mostly but not exclusively other cis men) and the cultural history Bruce had bestowed to me (very gay). Would “queer” even signify anything in my case? Would calling myself “gay” disqualify me from entering the radical queer socialist utopia of my dreams? Would Bruce have cared about this distinction? Why did I still care whether he would have cared? I caught the nurse staring at my freshly trimmed quiff haircut, my floral Zara shirt, the Keith Haring–esque design on my tote bag. “Okay, gay.”
theory of masculinity (i)
On my uncles’ mantle was a new photograph of a tall, broad-shouldered model in a red ballgown and matching stilettos, twirling a parasol. Their friend Julia had taken this self-portrait to document “her transition,” which Bruce explained with overemphatic air-quotes, in case I didn’t catch his drift or understand why he kept fumbling with her name and pronouns. “At first I didn’t get it,” Bruce said, kicking up his feet on the coffee table, “but then I realized: We all perform! We all play a role!” He grinned at me, widening his eyes like an undergrad who’s just discovered Judith Butler, and I couldn’t tell whether he expected me to believe he’d never before reached this epiphany. How had Bruce spent most of his adult life wearing a uniform of leather jackets, Levi’s, and cowboy boots and not considered himself playing a role, and what made him think his performances were more authentic than Julia’s?
I didn’t tell this story to my then-partner, who was beginning her own transition to womanhood. Our relationship was falling apart largely because of my failures to offer the support she needed at the time, and she saw these failures as symptoms of an unhealthy investment in reactionary ideals of gay masculinity. “Just look at your relationship with Bruce,” she said, citing my attachment to my uncle as undeniable evidence that I just wanted to be with “a real man,” whereas it seemed to me that she and I had grown apart and fallen out of love for many other, situationally specific reasons, not because of my general desires. But was she right about what I actually wanted? Was I even “a real man”? Was I unwittingly perpetuating gay cis men’s history of refusing to confront their own unconscious transmisogyny, or was I just a shitty boyfriend? Probably both.
theory of masculinity (ii)
I wish Bruce could have met Tom, my current partner, who once asked how my sense of self has changed since my uncle died. I supposed that I felt less pressure to compare myself with other gay men or to fit their mold. Then I remembered when, a few years earlier, I first joined a gym, more to shake off my anxieties than to get in shape. Tom complimented my newly toned biceps, but I bristled when he joked that I was “getting so masc”: I was embarrassed to admit that I coveted a more conventionally “masc” body, since I feared that acknowledging this aspiration would align me with the ugly ideologies of toxic masculinity, though I was probably too sensitive, Tom said, for such an outcome to befall me. When I later bleached my hair, motivated more by boredom than by any urge to make a statement, Tom teasingly called me a twink, and I once again prickled. I’m not smooth-skinned enough to join this tribe of clean-cut ectomorphs, and I remain too scarred by the bullies of my childhood to enjoy an uncomplicated relationship with my leaner adult body. I conceded that the ephebic Troye Sivan look was sort of what I was going for, but Tom insisted I was already graceful enough.
I still haven’t fully accepted my not-quite-boyish, not-quite-butch gender, but at least I’ve grown to appreciate the label “otter,” which seems to suit Tom and me both, and which I find oddly gratifying. Because the term doesn’t convey such narrow cultural expectations? Because it signals a more malleable identity? Because I want to claim, as Maggie Nelson does in The Argonauts, an affinity to the otter’s “small, slick, quick, amphibious, dexterous, capable” nature? Because nonhuman otters are so cute? I don’t know. But I’m sure Bruce, who called himself a wolf, would have approved of the matching set of pink trucker hats I once purchased with my lutrine partner at the Slippery Otter Pub in West Yellowstone, Montana. We often wear them, reminders that our bond endures even when we elude each other.
theory of context (i)
Opinionated and fond of attention, Bruce would have loved social media, but he never learned how to use the internet. Will often showed my latest Facebook posts to his husband, who printed them and sent me his handwritten annotations via snail mail—for example, these captions Bruce suggested for a snapshot that caught his twenty-two-year-old nephew unintentionally smoldering at the camera:
A few remarks that caused S. Pfau to glower…
(A) Listen, dude, all I did was ask you to dance…
(B) But I only said your pants fit nice…
(C) Hey, I knew your uncle when he lived in the Village. You do that stuff too?
(D) You come here often?
I later found an old photograph of Bruce making the exact same face, probably on purpose. I could imagine him fielding all the same remarks and, unlike me, never getting too flustered to come up with a winning comeback.
theory of context (ii)
Then again, in his early twenties, Bruce seemed to share my penchant for avoiding eye contact, even (especially?) when he knew he was being watched. How do you unlearn that kind of studied evasiveness?
theory of regret
At my college graduation, I explained to Bruce the spring-semester tradition of “senior scramble,” a last-ditch effort to hook up with every classmate who’s ever caught your eye. I proudly shared my list of successes (Adam, Nick, Dennis) and the ones that got away (Eric, Conrad, J.T.), and Bruce rolled his eyes. “Oh please,” he said, “you have the whole rest of your life for that.” I’d love to know how many missed connections remained on his wish list when he died four years later. This is the story I’m tempted to tell whenever a Grindr correspondent asks, “So what brings you on here?”
theory of hierarchy
An extremely ticklish child, I never understood why I was supposed to cry “uncle” if I wanted to be set free, especially since the tickler in question was usually my stepmother or a babysitter, not an uncle; in fact, apart from the occasional handshake or hug, Bruce and I seldom touched each other at all (we were not a physically demonstrative family). No one can agree on the phrase’s origins: some cite an old joke about a man who tries to teach his parrot to say “uncle”; some claim ancient Roman boys, whenever they got in trouble, used to shout, “Uncle, my best uncle,” but who knows why; some believe the English word “uncle” derives not just from the Latin avunculus (little grandfather), but from the Irish anacol (safety, protection, deliverance); some mention the stereotype of the “handsy uncle” who won’t mind his own business. In any case, in the mythology of tickling, the uncle always seems to occupy the dominant position of administering pleasure or pain. Is the nephew structurally conditioned to see himself as a passive, helpless figure, perhaps even a victim?
I newly recalibrated my place in this dynamic after reading about Alex Morse, the gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who ran for Congress in the 2020 primary. In an effort to derail his campaign, the UMass Amherst College Democrats accused Morse of abusing his power: as a twentysomething adjunct instructor at UMass, Morse had contacted and dated several students—not his own—through Tinder, though all his encounters with these students, younger but still adults, appear to have been consensual. Morse maintained that he never violated university policy, and investigative journalists eventually outed the College Democrats’ scheme as a baseless smear campaign, but Morse still lost the election. On one hand, if an ancient professor in his late twenties had propositioned eighteen-year-old me, I was so timid and naive at the time that I likely wouldn’t have hesitated to cry wolf. On the other, now that I’m a graduate instructor of Morse’s age in an even smaller, more conservative college town, I empathize with him, yet I never dare to chat on “the apps” with any undergrads: whether or not they might welcome a message from me, and however nonthreatening I might be, I know how easily I could appear to be exploiting my position, especially as a gay man. (How deeply ashamed I felt at my former office, soon after a higher-up was ousted for sexual misconduct amidst the early #MeToo movement, when I—a twenty-six-year-old, mid-level employee—accidentally “tapped” the Grindr profile of a twenty-three-year-old assistant, though he assured me he didn’t mind.) How does one learn to distinguish between an imbalance of power and an abuse of power? Maybe no one, not even an uncle, can teach you that secondhand.
theory of innocence (i)
I never met my late uncle Stephen, my mother’s beloved younger brother, who was only nine when he died from a sudden bout of pneumonia. I’m glad she decided, when giving me his name two decades later, to change the spelling to Steven, subtly distinguishing me from my eponymous ghost. But his story still haunted me throughout my asthmatic childhood, when I dreaded my ninth birthday as if it were my preordained expiration date. It haunted me again when, at sixteen, I incurred my first spontaneous pneumothorax: at the time I didn’t know how common this affliction is in teenage boys, so when the doctor explained that my lungs had burst open and collapsed for no apparent reason, I assumed this would be the end of me. And Stephen’s story haunted me once more in 2018, when my mom showed me a new poem she’d written, titled “A Letter to My Son in Brooklyn.” The speaker describes three moments when she feels powerless to protect her son: his coming-out at age fourteen; the lung surgery he underwent at sixteen, for which he was sedated but conscious, while she sat and watched beside the operating table; and his imminent move from New York to Idaho, now that he’s twenty-seven. “Would it make any difference,” the poem ends, “if I said— / My darling boy—Be careful.”
I still don’t know how to answer my mom’s “letter.” What difference would it make if she told me, or if the speaker told her son, to be careful? What am I supposed to do with that warning? I’m no daredevil, so I can’t do much apart from avoiding cigarettes to shield my lungs from something like a pneumothorax; I can’t do much to hide my queerness or prevent whatever homophobic violence I might face. The poem portrays me as little more than a source of parental anxiety, but I know my mom’s concerns aren’t entirely about me. Having inherited her dead brother’s name, I understand I’m the Ste[v]en with whom she’s supposed to get things right. I’m the Ste[v]en she’s supposed to keep alive, feeble lungs and all. I’m the Ste[v]en who’s supposed to outlast her. If her brother had reached sexual maturity, would he have become a queer man, and would he have meant as much to me as Bruce did? I’ll never know, but I still include Stephen among my pantheon of gay uncles, the one who never grew up.
theory of innocence (ii)
But maybe every gay uncle is someone who can’t or won’t grow up—or someone who, as queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton would say, grows sideways. “I’m the oldest teenager I know,” Bruce often said, referring to his own enduring sprightliness, perhaps also hinting at his vicarious enjoyment of my progress through adolescence. But Bruce was no Peter Pan: he told me he finally admitted to himself upon turning thirty-nine, while riding the Fire Island Ferry to a circuit party, “This isn’t a joke anymore”—this being his fear of mortality. That was in 1977, when it was still fashionable for gay men like Bruce to lament growing old; for those of us who came of age in the twenty-first century, myself included, it’s easy to take for granted the privilege of looking forward to gay elderhood.
Soon after turning twenty-nine, I caught up with my friend M., who said his business had been picking up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked how, since I knew M. primarily as a portrait photographer, and face-to-face shoots seemed risky. “You mean I haven’t told you,” he said, “my day job is running SayUncle.com?” I pretended to be a longtime devotee of this niche gay studio and half-facetiously offered to audition for the role of a doe-eyed, guileless nephew, but when I first browsed the site, I sensed I was already older than some of the actors playing uncles. I started to watch a few sample videos, each of which begins with the same caveat (porn is fantasy), but they did nothing for me. I can understand the widespread appeal of uncle–nephew porn, and in principle I’m not opposed to the genre, but for some reason partaking in this fantasy leaves me cold. Because I don’t want to face the end of my youth? Or because I resist admitting that every gay uncle–nephew bond I’ve known, though never overtly erotic, has been marked by some kind of mutual desire? What have I offered the uncles I’ve sought out, and how will I know whether I’ve held up my end of the bargain? Maybe this nephew won’t find out until he becomes some young man’s Uncle Steven.
theory of closure
For years I’ve been accumulating notes in a file named uncle.doc, saving almost every mention of an uncle I encounter in my cultural consumption, expanding my compendium of uncles and uncle-adjacent figures throughout history. I’m often tempted to share these notes, but I don’t want to know what I’ll unwittingly reveal about myself through what I’ve included or omitted. My acquisitive obsession remains a private source of comfort, as if the more uncles I observe, the better I’ll understand both the idea of avuncularity and my uncles themselves, though I know collecting this evidence won’t help me solve all the mysteries of nephewing. Still, I’m pleased to have established a strong enough personal brand that five friends separately texted me about the release of Uncle Frank, Alan Ball’s sentimental road movie about a closeted NYU professor who, accompanied by his niece and his partner, returns to his homophobic family’s home in South Carolina, circa 1973. It’s not a very good film, though Paul Bettany plays a pretty hot uncle, and I identified with his adolescent niece’s curiosity about why Frank seems a little “different”: “He used aftershave. His fingernails were always clipped. And he wore a gold chain underneath his shirt.” (I remembered my five-year-old self asking, “Dad, why does Bruce wear so much more leather than you do?”) But I was especially maddened that Frank’s coming-out dominates the plot; in a film supposedly about a gay uncle, we learn almost nothing about the lasting impression he’ll leave through his avuncular relations. I would want to begin where Ball ends, when the niece is still figuring out where she belongs, or maybe even later, once Frank is no longer with her. What stories can you tell about your gay uncle only after he’s gone?