Blood, Marriage, Wine, & Glitter is S. Bear Bergman’s third book; in it, the established trans* lecturer and author of acclaimed books Butch is a Noun and The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You explores how his family defies expectations but remains central to his life much like those of more “traditional” folks. Conceived by two married, polyamorous trans* men and a donor of seed who was a mutual friend, Bergman’s son Stanley is currently growing up smack-dab in the middle of a familial setup that contains familiar and totally queer multitudes: blood relatives, his partner’s blood relatives, former (and current) lovers from both of them, his partner’s children, lifelong friends, other parents, favorite drag queens, the colleagues who got him through the rough parts, the people he’s met on the road, the queer adults who saved his life. In the book, Bergman uses essays to explore how this family both resembles and strays from that which his parents most likely expected at his birth, as well as the plethora of reasons he wouldn’t have it any other way for Stanley or for himself.
The book was a strange request of mine. I usually start out these reviews, or at least include in them at some point, why I offered to review a book. The answer here is unclear: the book, white with red glitter writing on front, arrived at my door and I had completely forgotten I ever agreed to lay eyeballs on it. But truth be told, I was looking for a last chance at learning how to cope with the word and concept of “family.” For someone who struggles to respect the idea of family as a whole, it was a reach – but Bergman has, most definitely, taken me to task.
BMWG marked a series of firsts as well as a sea of memories for me; I read it on the way to Los Angeles to see my girlfriend and spent a good while of the flight grinning deliriously when reading about Bergman’s people from the past and present, welling up at the image of him defending and fearing for his son the way I always knew my parent worried about me and the world I lived in, and feeling strangely compelled to continue delving deeper and deeper into his life despite it resembling something I was sure would feel alien but actually ended up feeling warm, safe, comfortable. This book reminded me I had a family: a random assortment of the most unique and stellar crew of beautiful queer folks, biological relatives, and friends I can call on any time. It resembles, to anyone else on this planet, something like a crew of girls in an ice cream shop but has also sometimes gone by “Homo Mafia,” and it always fit just right. This book filled me to the brim with gratitude for every single human being in it in a way that has, thus far, remained deep inside of my heart. I have been staring up at the sun grinning and looking for the person responsible and repeating to myself one of Bergman’s last reflections on his love-filled, joyful family and the son which brought to it a new and distinct sense of togetherness, unity, and purpose: let me stay this lucky.
“Family comes first” was my mother’s catch phrase. I bristled at it when I was a teenager, usually scowling with a phone dangling between my ear and my shoulder. I attempted either to remain in my room on the phone for three more hours or to bring my dinner there, and away from the table where my brother and I would inevitably argue and my mother would sigh. “Why can’t you just talk to me?” my mom would sometimes ask as a follow-up, which seemed almost hilariously implausible. Stefanie or Paige or Olivia’s voice would come through shortly after: “do you have to go now?” I would turn around and walk away, shut my door and continue talking, and refuse to surrender. I had stories to tell. (When I got the ‘net at 13, it turned into all-night AIM sessions, which were similarly received with sighs and “you can talk to your friends later.”) These stories were never stories my mother would have understood, either because they were inane and completely meaningless twelve-year-old-girl problems or because I didn’t want her to know about my anxieties and challenges. My very first lesson in family was “watch what you say,” which I guess most people consider “a good upbringing.” But I could never stop talking.
Growing up with a single mother and a brother in an Italian-American New Jersey universe meant that family was central to – nay, simply was - everything: seats at school functions and performances were given out to blood relatives first, family friends next; we trekked miles to help family members move knowing they would do the same; we took vacations with family, structured vacation days around the multitude of school schedules available between me, my brother, and my cousins; we pitched in for one another but often not for anyone else. My mother, a consistent conspiracy theorist of the strangest kind, didn’t often trust other people – not even her former in-laws, though that was mostly understandable – and stressed the importance of family to my brother and I. ”Family is everything.” My mom said it because my grandmother was driving us around while she worked nights, and we were temporarily shacked up in her old childhood room when my father and her first split. My mom said it because her sister was helping us to survive, to be “brought up,” to learn about life. My mom said it because her family took us in when our plane landed in Connecticut, and they were there for her every step of the way as she attempted to give us children of Horrible Divorce normalcy. But the phrase confused me even before I was queer, or political, or different, from the people it referred to – although, admittedly, the gaps in understanding became oceans when that finally came to be.
The confusion stemmed from the differences: hanging out with my friends meant being in a space, growing up, where I was able to truly express myself in ways my family would never allow or feel comfortable with. I could curse, use slang, talk shit, share secrets – and that was important. So important. Growing up, it became nothing short of paramount. The calls continued, though the caller changed: in college, it was nights spent up in my room talking to Josh about parties and bullsh*t or talking to other friends about coming out as queer and being in love with my best friend. None of these conversations were hostile. Sometimes they were bandages for the hostility my family revealed to me: I called friends when my brother demeaned and humiliated me, called Brandon crying uncontrollably when my mother told me she loved me, but couldn’t accept me for who I was. All of this made the idea of family seem, well, repulsive. Useless. Dumb. A huge, monumental waste of time. (Throw in the completely befuddling concept of “respecting” my neo-con family members by shutting my trap at the table during holiday dinners while they rattled on about “Mexicans taking our jobs” or “feminism destroying America” and you’ve gotta admit: the odds were stacked here. I was never going to be these people.) As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized I have a specific space carved out within my family, but still it feels like it has limits: will my cousins love me if I tell them they can’t say that shit anymore? Would my mother still respect me if she knew about the drugs I’ve done? The limit exists in families, or at least I imagined them in my own, and then used them like prison walls to define freedom: outside the limits, I had love and acceptance of another variety. Different, but still special. Unbonded by blood, but still important.
Bergman’s concept of family is more a reclamation of the term than a modification of it: acknowledging that the traditional family structure has often hurt or destroyed the queer folks he loves in his life, while less-socially-valued relationships like those with friends, lovers, former lovers, and the rest of the lot restored them. He sought the latter when Stanley was born to simply show him love. Often, discussions of what a family “is” or “isn’t” miss that vital piece: love. Family is not about making turkey on Thanksgiving, or your college fund, or driving someone to soccer practice. I mean, it is, but hear me out – isn’t the most important piece simply the acceptance, the celebration, the affirmation? My friends who became the things their families saw in them from birth don’t seem to be able to relate to this huge rift which appears between me and mine each time I survey the emotional landscape of my life. They don’t seem to get that when “a house is not a home” – be it because you kept secrets or hung them out to dry – the concept of family as the world at large knows it is already broken. My family and I were never what people thought we were. I was never that fucking girl in Gilmore Girls. I could never tell anyone with my blood everything.
Obviously, these experiences were isolating, and difficult, and often without an available vernacular for me to express those feelings with. Society at large didn’t stray from my mother’s family-centric ideals: commercials, television shows, books, Hallmark cards, magazine articles, and anecdotal evidence all seemed to agree, despite their extreme variances, on one thing: family is everything. All I knew, when I thought of the gaps in understanding and the biting my tongue and how nobody in my family knew I’d ever had a sip to drink before 21 or ever bought a pack of cigs in my life or fell in love with a woman, and then another one, was that I was surely doomed.
Admittedly, my own family situation has, in large part, helped to convince me not to start one of my own. But here’s the catch: I already have. Similarly to Bergman’s friends, who spoke dismissively about children until they looked at Stanley for the first time, I only scowl when “family” looks like a definition and not a concept. I have a family: I have blood relatives who, despite their flaws, love and accept me; I have friends who, despite miles and years, still come around for me; I have coworkers who utilize me as a shoulder to cry on and promise me they’ll go to Drake concerts with me on Halloween (lookin’ at you, Kristy). My family is already here, but I forgot to stick a label on it – and why? Bergman’s essays prove that the word means nothing, and that it’s the idea which means everything.
Bergman’s friends and “family” (in the traditional sense) alike are integral pieces of his life with his partner and his son. They break bread together, spend holidays together, exchange gifts, read stories to his son, stand up for each other, send each other letters and mementos. He keeps pieces of his friends close the same way CEOs post family portraits on their desks; he invites his colleagues over for Shabbos and scours the planet for gifts for colleagues, former lovers, and his grandmothers. His structure is the true definition of “extended family,” although nothing of his life is horribly unique from the experiences we, as queers, share with one another and non-queer folks relate to as well. We all know friendship, warmth, and love, be it from our biological mother or our favorite professor. But Bergman’s boldest move is demanding that his son, his partner, his community, and his “family” (again, in the traditional sense) respect that these people are important – equally important.
Queer folks tend to form familial relationships with the acquainted and friendly, rather than the blood relative and the in-law. That isn’t to say we can’t have both, or even that the “traditional” familial model isn’t priority to many of us; it just means our community tends to use the word to describe a broader range of relationships. And those relationships are beautiful, and important. If I were to have children, it’d be equally as important – if not more pressing to me – that they meet Josh and Amanda and Rebecca as well as my cousins and aunts and uncles. In a society, too, where queer relationships of all sorts – friendships, romantic pursuits, and sexual bonds – aren’t respected or recognized legally or socially, it becomes easy to see through the constructed term of “family” and skip straight to the heart: these are people matter to you, and they’re integral parts of your lives. That’s what family is. That’s what it’s meant all along.
Growing up, I always understood that my mother’s concept of “family” had defined her life, rather than the other way around. She was able to very easily divide how important and pertinent specific moments and opportunities were based on who they involved and effected: was it important to the family, or in line with their values? Then it was important. Everything else was filler – growing up, the dominant messages were these: food is love, family is everything, and the rest of the stuff is unimportant. She seemed to bristle when I mentioned the potential to grow up to have a career, but not a family; whereas she had wanted dozens of children I desire none. My mother and I have gotten into screaming matches about everything from “why can you tell your friends things you can’t tell US” to “why must I drive you to this sleepover in the snow” to “was Cher happy or not ending her marriage and never again entering into a faux flawless union with a man despite her mega-millions career and obvious achievements.” All of those things tugged at the concept of “family,” and tested my commitment to the longstanding definition of what that meant. All of those things ultimately led me to abandon hope in it as well. My mother grew up down the street from her cousins and ate dinner with them every night out on the stoop, but I spent family meals looking at my text messages. My mother’s family gave her the freedom to move, to explore, to land safely when she fell; I couldn’t shake, up until the eventual point of forgiveness, the idea that I didn’t fit in mine.
What BMWG has done is allowed me to reclaim the word “family,” to take it back from all of the relatives who destroyed it and used it to deny my social life any validity, from the folks who insisted they knew what one looked like, from the culture and the world which has told me, since birth, that my life means nothing if it doesn’t end with a husband and kids. I retired the idea of “family” from my head a long time ago, discarded it just like all the other social constructions I learned about in my Women’s Studies courses. I told myself family wasn’t real, was a facade, was a fallacy invented by a heterosexist society which used it to stifle and stick people in boxes. Some of that was true all along: the vision of “family” as a definitive concept, and not a self-defining prophecy; the devaluing of relationships that aren’t somehow made valid (by blood or marriage, but definitely never wine or glitter) by the state – those were all parts of a conspiracy I remain happy to step aside from involving myself in. But the warmth, the love, the joy, the sorrow, the togetherness, the understanding, and the unconditional love – those have still come my way. They just look a lot different from the standard family portrait.
I have read so many books, but none so much as Blood Marriage Wine & Glitter have made me feel less alone. Which, in and of itself, may be a testament to what it means to be part of the wild, crazy, forgiving, compassionate queer community that always feels like home.