My grandfather

cn: death and homophobia. I do not recommend reading this if you are one of my relatives. I do not desire, and will not respond to any expressions of condolence, or general concern for my personal wellbeing.

My grandfather grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Very conservative, very religious, and his neighbors were Amish. He left his background behind, moving to California, becoming a professional scientist, and–a point of family pride–an anti-racist activist. Specifically, he spoke at many churches against California’s 1964 proposition 14, which would allow people to discriminate by race when selling housing.

At the time I became an adult, my grandfather was openly nonreligious–the only other nonreligious person in my family that I knew of at the time. He called himself a deist, believing in a god that does not intervene in the world, and which does not require any worship. Perhaps for that reason he was the only relative who took extended interest in my blog, which was more atheism-focused at the time. Despite several disagreements, we had many positive interactions.

But over ten years ago, I came out as ace and gay, and then I learned that my grandfather was homophobic.

He would not have agreed with this characterization. His particular flavor of homophobia, was that he did not care what my orientation was, nor my sexual behavior. He just really thought I should settle down in a heteronormative family. His rationale was that he deeply loved his own family–a fact that everyone at his funeral agreed upon. He was certain that I would find a heteronormative family equally rewarding.

I came out as ace first, but the problem became a lot more obvious after I came out as gay nine months later. I have to conclude that this was merely because he did not understand asexuality. He did not appreciate asexuality’s subversive anti-family narratives. He did not know that many aces remain single, and say they’re happier that that way. From his perspective, asexuality would be easier to overwrite with compulsory heterosexuality. So, on top of dealing with his homophobia, I felt insulted by his casual dismissal of asexuality, his inability to recognize the threat it posed to his small-minded worldview.

I do not recall any big arguments. What I recall is several problematic comments first on my blog, and then in person. He gradually became more insistent, and explicit about where he was coming from. It culminated in him saying something terrible to me, something that I cannot in good conscience repeat. I am still disgusted by what he said to me, perhaps even more now than before.

We did not talk nearly as much after that. We would still interact in normal situations, but the spark in our relationship was gone. I heard secondhand that he was sorry about ruining our relationship, that he was afraid he would only make it worse by talking to me. I believe it, but that’s not meaningfully different from the feelings he expressed to me himself, directly before telling me the terrible, unrepeatable thing. The truth is, I do not care how he felt about it towards the end of his life. Whatever those feelings were, they belonged to him, and had less bearing on my life than he wanted them to.

My grandfather was an example of the common problem, where people who support one social justice cause do not necessarily support the next one. I think that people try to address the pain they see for themselves, but developing generalizable principles is harder than we give credit for.

For me, the operating principle was difference. We are different people who want different things, experience love in different ways, and are fulfilled by different paths. It is fair to say that most of us do not really know what would fulfill us, but you can’t just copy your own life experiences onto someone else’s under an assumption of sameness. My grandfather didn’t care what my orientation was, but he damn well should have, because it was highly relevant information.

The principle of difference is fairly basic, but my grandfather apparently didn’t understand it. Once I saw this, I could not unsee it, and it colored my interpretations of his other actions. I saw through his expressions scientific wonder, towards the way that he would badger me and my brother to feel the same wonder.  After we both quit our scientific careers, he would tell us repeatedly we ought to go back. I saw how much difficulty he had admitting that even his own needs were not the same as what they once were.

My grandfather, in his final years, suffered from a disease of the inner ear, and eventually dementia. I saw very little of him, because of the distance, the pandemic, and also because when I did see him, he had limited ability to communicate. I mostly heard things secondhand, often filtered through my father, who spoke of the immense stress of having to care for him.

My sympathies go to my father, and other members of my grandfather’s immediate family. My grandfather loved them all deeply.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    For me, the operating principle was difference.

    Yeah. And I’m convinced that being different in a significant way from established norms can help one generalize to other differences. For a long time, I cursed my stuttering. Slowly, I came to realize that it was actually a blessing. I saw how people responded to difference; it was often based on ignorance, even when well-intentioned. And it was sometimes just ugly, as though one’s mere existence was an insult.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *