I was nervous the morning I boarded the plane with my partner, John, to attend my half-sister's wedding in Missouri two weeks ago. Not because I had any misgivings about the wedding itself. After all, I was happy my only sister on my father's side had found "the one" guy with whom she felt she wanted to spend her life, and I was delighted we were invited to celebrate with her as she said "I do." However, the butterflies swarming in my stomach were a direct result of the accumulative 20-plus-year history of larger family gatherings since I came out of closet, events that were often seasoned with varying amounts of homophobia-laced awkwardness.
I should start by explaining my family tree is complicated -- as has been the case with my family's acceptance of me as a gay person over the years.
My biological mother and father -- both of whom are devout Pentecostal Christians -- were divorced shortly before I was born (it's a long story) and although I never knew the two of them together, I never wanted for a sense of family growing up. Both my parents had remarried by the time I was 4 years old, and my family soon grew to include a half-brother and half-sister on my father's side and the same on my mother's as well. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence living with my mother and stepfather (again, it's a long story), but by the time I had turned 17, my father and I had begun to rekindle our relationship. When my mother's family decided to pack up and move from California's Central Valley to a small town in Oklahoma the summer after I graduated from high school, my dad and stepmom asked me to move in with them in hopes we could become a cohesive family once again. I agreed, but when I came out to them a few months later our happy plan quickly derailed with my stepmother telling me, "If God had wanted you to be with a man he would have given you a vagina," and my father telling me he didn't want me to "influence" my siblings and didn't "think it was a good idea" I live with them anymore.
Several years later, my dad and stepmom reached out to me and apologized for their initial reaction, and while we all worked to rebuild our relationship, larger family gatherings were never comfortable.
From the cousins who wouldn't even look at me when I attended my half-brother's wedding and moments where my parents awkwardly referred to my partner as my "friend," to my grandmother holding my hand on her deathbed and asking me to "get my heart right with God," these incidents had made me come to believe my sexuality would always present an obstacle in my relationship with my family -- a fact that made me even more anxious any time John joined me for a rare visit.
Where my sister's wedding was concerned, I couldn't have been more wrong.
Upon arriving at my father and stepmother's home the weekend of the wedding, I was happily surprised to find my younger cousins -- who I hadn't seen in more than a decade -- eagerly asking us questions about our relationship and when the two of us planned to tie the knot.
The following day when we gathered at a chapel for my sister's big day, I couldn't help smiling as I watched my dad and stepmom introduce us to friends, never stumbling, as they said, "This is our son, Jase, and his partner, John." They exuded a comfort with us in public I thought I'd never see, and as I walked into the chapel side by side with John, each step became noticeably lighter.
Pictured above: Advocate editor Jase Peeples (right) and his father (left).
However, it was at my sister's reception later that night that I realized exactly how much my dad's side of my family had evolved.
Shortly after the newlyweds cut the cake and a number of guests began to migrate to the dance floor, my stepgrandmother approached me, gently took my hands in hers and said, "Please don't ever think you aren't a part of this family. We love you exactly for who and what you are."
Her kind comment pulled into focus for me what was happening all around me that night -- acceptance.
It was happening as one of the cousins who wouldn't even look at me more than a decade ago, after I came out, insisted that we pose together for goofy photos.
It was happening while my brother and partner sat next to each other and giggled while my 3-year-old nephew demonstrated his fanciest dance moves for them.
And it absolutely happened when a longtime friend of our family lightly touched my shoulder and said "You better go get your guy" when the DJ cooled down the dance floor with a slow song.
I realized the only person in that entire reception hall who was holding on to a single sliver of discomfort over the fact John and I were a gay couple was me. In that moment, I let my guard down, and for the first time in my life, I was completely, comfortably, and confidently myself around members of my family.
Pictured above: Advocate editor Jase Peeples (left) and his partner, John (right).
As John and I drove back to our hotel that night, I laid my head on his shoulder and began to cry, overwhelmed with happiness. I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my chest, and I was so proud to see just how far my father, stepmother, and the rest of my family there that night had come. They didn't simply tolerate me and my relationship with John, they'd come out of their own closet as supporters.
While my biological mother uses her religion as an excuse to demean LGBT people like myself and eagerly spreads messages that same-sex marriage signals the beginning of a Christian holocaust, my father and stepmother have decided to follow the most basic teaching of their religion: to love. And that has made all the difference.
I left Missouri that weekend feeling closer to my father's side of my family than I had since I was a boy, and when I awoke the next day back home in Los Angeles, I saw my stepmother had sent me a message which summed up the entire weekend perfectly.
"We love you and John so much! That was the best time ever!!" it read, and I couldn't stop smiling the whole day, because it was true.
JASE PEEPLES is The Advocate's entertainment editor and a contributor to Out and Gay.net. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples