oral history

Life With Dad and "the Aunties"

By Stefan Lynch Strassfeld as told to Beth Teper
Share
Life With Dad and "the Aunties"
Stefan Lynch Strassfeld and his father, Michael, in 1986, when Stefan was 14 years old. Photo credit: Peggy McOmie

My parents met in college in Iowa City, in grad school. Both of them had acknowledged to each other that they’d had same sex attractions, and in my mom’s case, had had same sex relationships. She would always say that she was sleeping with her college roommates in undergrad but that everybody was doing it. And whenever she says that, I just look at her and I’m like, That is a story that you tell yourself. Yeah, sure, everybody was doing it.

They met and they were out to each other about their experiences, but that sort of made it ideal for them because they could feel simpatico. They understood each other. This was pre-Stonewall, pre-the sense that there was an alternative, that you could be proud and gay. That was not really in the air yet in the mid-sixties, late sixties, especially not in Iowa City.

So they married and moved to Toronto when I was born, and then he was in the big city and he met other men who were like him. And he very quickly realized that whoa, this nuclear heterosexual family life is not what I want, but he and my mom stayed married. She was supportive of him exploring his real sexual orientation and sexuality. They eventually separated, but never divorced. He introduced my mom to the woman who then she fell in love with and moved out to California to be with when I was seven.

You can look at my parents’ relationship as a marriage of convenience, but that would not tell the whole story, because they actually really did love each other. Marriage between two people who have a lot in common can be a really good marriage, even if it doesn’t last. They were both trying to figure out how to fit into a world that did not want to accommodate them, and so they made it work.

From what my mom says, she was really happy for my dad for the most part, and the reason that she eventually ended [the marriage] was that my dad was just not taking as active a role in parenting me. He basically was abusing his privileges as a married man, to work and play with the boys at night and leave her all the childcare. She was not working or was working very little, and was kind of getting fed up with this arrangement. She was like “No, we need to separate because you’ve got this too good, and all the responsibility is landing on my shoulders.”

My dad was from a small town, a very family-oriented, conservative environment. When he ended up in Toronto, his coming out process as a gay man began. He refused to lead a double life, with a kid on one hand, and a gay activist, partying, on the other hand. And so, in the spirit of integration, I was part of all of that activism and community that he was building for himself as a gay man. There wasn’t a separation. I would fall asleep sometimes on the floor of the disco, and I would hang out in the political activist collective meetings that would go until 3:00 in the morning. I would make rubber band balls and paper clip chains while they were talking about important matters.

So there were these men who I grew up with, who were mostly my dad’s friends and lovers, who I called my “aunties.”  A few of them were uncles but mostly aunties, and they were men who were peers of my dad, out gay men, living out and proud gay lives. They were often alienated or rejected from their families. They were often prohibited from being around kids, whether it was actual state laws prohibiting gay men from being teachers, or whether it was just the social pressure and social fears of gay men as pedophiles. So for all of these men, because my dad was their peer, I was kind of the one kid who they got to have in their lives.

aunties

Not everyone was excited to have me. Some of them were just extremely uncomfortable because they were never around kids. But some of them were always engaged with me, whenever I was around and awake, and there are a few who are still in my life.

I think of Eddie, my auntie Edwina Jackson, who we called “the ice queen” when I was a kid. He was just cool. He was from Eastern Canada, and Canadians are not always the most warm and forthcoming people, but he, like, took it to a whole different level of coolness and coldness. He had white hair prematurely.

He was in the collective meetings that I was at. They were debating the next legal maneuver against the police because the collective paper that they ran had just been raided the week before. I was there, not really caring or understanding any of it. Ed would look over at me and always found me more rubber bands and paper clips, to make my rubber band balls and my paper clip chains.

As the years went by, he stayed part of the family. Then, when AIDS really became the dominant feature in our lives, he changed. I think going through so much death and getting very close to a lot of women, lesbians working in the same AIDS organization that he was working in, doing the same kind of work in the midst of death and dying that he was doing, but doing it from a political place that was really informed by their emotions, their anger and their sadness, he really softened. So Ed became a muffin and he still is. He’s just a sweetie.

He was the person I called when my dad was dying. I was 19, on a break from college, and was taking care of my dad full-time. I wanted to go back to school and was really at my wit’s end and exhausted from taking care of my dad. So I called him up and said “Ed, I can’t take care of my dad any more, I need a break, I’ve got to go back to college. Can you help?” And he did. Within a week, he’d organized 40 people to do round-the-clock shifts, taking care of my dad, and kept it up for six months when my dad was dying at home. “The Lynch Mob,” we called it, the support group for my dad while he was dying.

So I got to know him really differently that way, and then he was the executor for my dad’s estate. I just actually took my 20-month old son to meet him for the first time a couple months ago. It was really special to have this little person meet Ed, who had known me since I was just a couple years old, who was the only other person in the room with me and my mom when my dad died, who I had stayed close with since then.  To get to introduce him to my son and for my son to know him, one of the only men who survived this era, one of my only aunties who survived, was more than special. It just felt almost impossible, like How did this happen, you survived!

MichealandBill

Then there’s Bill, Bill Lewis, who was sort of the love of my dad’s life and then his friend. He moved in right after my mom moved out, so I was like five or six, and lived with us until he died when I was 15. They weren’t lovers that whole time, but they did buy a house together and Bill lived on the top floor and I lived on the bottom floor with my dad up until Bill died of AIDS when I was 15.

I have fond memories of Bill, but he was sort of classic stepparent in that I think he was a little jealous of my relationship with my dad. I already had parents, why would I need another parent? But he was there for ten of my first fifteen years and his death presaged my dad’s death by just a few years. It was pretty dramatic and sad.

Bill was a microbiologist who had actually just gotten a grant from the Canadian government—this was 1987—to do some basic research on retroviruses like HIV. He was studying HIV in his lab. Bill was very healthy and then one day was very not healthy. At first we thought it was just a cold, and then we thought it was the flu, and then it turned out to be pneumocystis pneumonia, and within three weeks he was dead.

He was upstairs for the first two weeks, just coughing. I remember bringing him soup and I remember that he was getting scareder and scareder. Already, probably hundreds of people that he and my dad knew had died. And he was not an uneducated, uninformed person.

And he knew that this could be the end, but he didn’t want it to be. He had just gotten this grant and he was in his late thirties. He had just finished the renovations on the beautiful house that we all lived in, and he so wanted to believe that it was just a bad cold.

This was at a time when there was an effective medicine to treat pneumocystis pneumonia, which is what it turned out to be, but that effective medicine was not legally available in Canada. A short drive over the border into Buffalo, you could get it, and so a lot of gay men were doing that. But he was too sick to make the trip. But with that treatment, the aerosolized pentamidine, which just hadn’t been approved in that form—the medicine approved, but that form of aerosolizing had not been approved by the Canadian government—it’s very likely he would have survived.

AIDS was horrific, but there’s a lot of happy memories too. One of the things that gay men did very well, and still do very well, along with other queers, is resist through joy. There was a lot of resistance through joy, both to heterosexism, homophobia, and later on AIDS, and now to transphobia, the assimilationist culture of the gay community. There was a lot of joy when I was growing up, and of course this gay male culture in particular expresses joy through dress-up and drag.

StefanBillandMichael

Dress-up for me as a kid was not cowboys and Indians. It was finding just the right cigarette holder and just the right wig, and bottles and bottles of half used Aqua Net and nylons, and figuring out was that ratty feather boa still going to work? And just exactly how could I get away with a Bette Davis voice at seven years old. There were a lot of drag parties, I dressed up a lot. I was usually the only kid, but not always. Sometimes my friends would come over and they had straight parents, but their parents would let them get dressed up. We would be schoolmarms, or ‘50s movie stars, or the Wicked Witch of the West.

One year, I won a prize. It was at my auntie Eddie’s apartment for a clutch and earring party. I was really into tennis, and I made earrings by cutting in half a tennis ball, putting little ear hooks on the tennis ball and hanging them from my ears. And I made a purse out of my tennis racquet case, and of course came in with short white shorts and a tennis shirt. That stuff was just so fun. Who gets to go to grownup dress-up parties all the time when they’re kids?

That was the lesson I feel like the gay culture taught me, that I don’t see a lot of other people getting, which was how to really have fun, even when life is not easy and even when people are dying and even when you’re not allowed to work because you’re gay, or you’re fired from your job because you dared to put a picture of your boyfriend up in your cubicle.

So that happens, OK. Go out with your friends, dress up, have fun, see who can do the best Bette Davis impersonation.

About the Author

Stefan Lynch Strassfeld was the first director of COLAGE,  Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere. Today he is the director of health services at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. He lives in San Francisco with his partner and two children.

Beth Teper is the executive director of COLAGE.

This interview was provided courtesy of StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives: www.storycorps.org. This interview was edited for length and content. You can listen to an audio excerpt of this interview here.

Recent Recollections

oral history

This is His Obituary

Maura and Margrethe Lauber’s father’s death wasn’t memorialized in a local paper when he died in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, the two sisters give their father the remembrance he didn’t have.

This interview is provided by StoryCorps.

 

Read More
interview

Living with Cookie

Max Mueller, the only child of downtown New York’s cult icon Cookie Mueller, remembers their bohemian life in the West Village—and his mother’s last days.

 

Read More
oral history

The Photos

Twenty years after finding pictures that held the answer to her father’s mysterious past, Sade Taft embarked on a journey to reconnect with his family.

Read More