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Gay Uncles Face

Gay Uncles Face


As parents now wait until their 30s and 40s to start families, so too are modern grandparents finding themselves making this "career change" later in life -- often well into their 70s, when they may not exactly be in their prime for the job's demands. And thus marks the rise of the gay uncle -- the guy who spoils you rotten, answers all those questions you can't ask your parents, and has you home in time for dinner. But this modern-day guncles phenomenon presents a major question: What exactly is it guncles are supposed to be doing?

I didn't have a gay uncle growing up, but I remember the first one I saw. It was Paul Lynde, playing Samantha's Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. No one said he was gay, but Arthur's sneering innuendo, campiness, and suburban gate-crashing had enough cultural signifiers to raise a pink flag in my 9-year-old brain.

These days, real gay uncles are de rigueur. At least a dozen companies sell onesies printed with "I Love My Gay Uncle." A new children's book called Uncle Bobby's Wedding explores a young guinea pig's jealousy when her favorite uncle marries his boyfriend. There are Facebook groups where teens praise their GUs ("I'm not gay, but my Uncle Herb is; yes, I do have a gay uncle!") and a co-ed worthy cocktail called "the gay uncle," made with Jack Daniels, cream, and Tabasco. The Urban Dictionary's definition of the term underscores the ubiquity: "gay uncles -- you either got one, or you are one -- or both!"

As a guncle myself, that seems like a good thing. When my niece Amber heard some schoolmates teasing two girls who were playing "wedding" at recess, she turned on them. "It's called gay," she shouted. "Get over it."

While it's nice that gay uncles have become integrated into the family circle, what's our role supposed to be?

I have a master's degree in early childhood education, and I've worked with young kids professionally for 20 years -- as a preschool teacher, school director, and youth researcher. I have seven nieces, and I wrote a book called The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting. (Of course, being an expert is different from putting it into practice: The shoemaker's kids go barefoot. Child psychologists are insane parents. You get the idea.)

When I was doing publicity for my book, interviewers consistently used a line that seemed to offer a clue: "Gays are the new grandmas."

At first the phrase confounded me. Was it a slight on my prematurely graying hair? My fashion sense? Eventually, I demanded an explanation.

My interrogator explained that it had to do with advancing maternal age, and its correlative impact on grand-maternal age. My mom -- exceptional in many ways -- was only 20 when she had her first kid, making her mom a grandparent at age 39. But many of my friends didn't even start thinking about pregnancy until they were nearing 40, and their parents are all significantly older than mine.

If you do the math, you'll realize that many modern grandparents are beginning this career change in their 70s. Even with recent advances in joint replacement, plastic surgery, and mental-robics, the current generation of grannies is, quite simply, old. Where my grandma taught us gin rummy, took us biking and swimming, and out to concerts -- I saw the Cars with her in '84; she and my sister hit the Jacksons' Victory tour that same year -- today's nanas are more physically and mentally frail: forgetful of any child-rearing tricks they once had, and more likely to be using a walker than moon-walking.

So who does this leave to spoil the kiddies, take them to key cultural events, and treat them like little princes and princesses? Their gay uncles, of course.

We're around the same spry age as our breeding siblings and friends, making us capable of running after a traffic-bound toddler, or whisking a tantrumming tot from Gap Kids without slipping a disc. My grandma took me birthday shopping at Saks, but these days people simply ship their tweens off to the big city to troll the boulevards with their guncs. My 9-year-old niece is obsessed with Canal Street's "silk" dresses and garish knockoffs, and digs my favorite East Village thrift shops. But the first time I took her into the Prada store in SoHo, she eyed a pair of thigh-high white leather boots, crossed her arms, and exclaimed, "Now that's what I'm talking about."

Taking these consumer adventures even further, I've heard stories of some fashion-forward, urban gay uncles teaming up to host special playdates for their nieces. Not content with serving cupcakes and playing Wii, these gents use their special homo-bilities to provide the little girls with full-on makeovers: hair, face, clothing, accessories.

Of course, all this spoiling sometimes comes with unforeseen responsibilities.

My fashionable friend Carlton was thrilled to take his teenage niece to his favorite New York boutiques during her visit last fall. And when he visited her in Baltimore that Christmas, his sister was equally thrilled with the gifts she'd brought home. "A Marc Jacobs coin purse," she said. "You shouldn't have." Carlton squinted at the bag. "I...didn't." He stormed upstairs and confronted his niece. "I take you shopping and you steal?" he said. "Unh-uh. Not OK." The girl cried and apologized.

Still, not all gay uncles are thrilled about being cast into this consumerist role.

"I love the idea of being kooky and zany," said visual artist Brad Hampton. "That's totally gratifying. But I hate all the gift-giving pressure, like uncling is just about commerce and merchandise. Hopefully my reputation as a fun-loving uncle will back up my performance as a 'bad Santa' uncle."

Other gay uncles reject even this unspoken pressure to entertain their friends' and family members' kids. "I hate the idea that as a gay man I'm expected to become some sort of child-centric clown," said Mike Albo, author of The Underminer and The New York Times's Critical Shopper column. "I feel like I'm good at being strange with my nieces and nephews -- like Aunt Jenny from the Brady Bunch -- observing weird phenomena. But I don't want to have to goo-goo over them all the time."

Forgetting the kids themselves for a moment, gay uncles also consistently cited the sense of loss they experienced when friends or family members had children: the way in which, as childless siblings or friends, they felt supplanted by the monomaniacal focus that contemporary parenting seems to require. This spurned feeling was certainly a big inspiration in my writing my tell-all book about the heinous mistakes my friends and family members made raising their kids. "Even when you do see your friends," one gay uncle said, "there's no quality time for conversation. They just talk about their kids."

Capping this off was the way many guncles feel somewhat...let down by their friends' life choices. My generation's gay activist experiences in the '90s -- ACT UP, Queer Nation, gender studies -- had us convinced that our peer group really was going to create a new society.

"It's not like I wanted our 20s to continue," said Albo. "But it bums me out that all these formerly sex-radical, gender-fluid people followed this conventional path of hetero marriage and kids." Echoing this concern, Hampton says, "It might be a retrograde view of my sexuality, but I thought not having to participate in all that family stuff was kind of the whole point of being gay."

I have to say, I'm down with this sentiment. While I love working with kids and enjoy my nieces, my boyfriend of 18 years and I are both uninterested in organizing our life around that "family stuff": marriage, kids, settling down. Frankly, we don't buy its benefits. But I believe this creates an important role for people like us in the lives of the kids around us, especially given the smothering parenting culture in which they're being raised.

For example, I've remained close with many of my former preschool students. Though they're all supercool urban teens now, I can say with certainty that my external, but genuinely adult, perspective has been extremely useful and relevant for them. They ask me questions about things that they'd be ashamed to ask their friends, subjects they're unsure how to look up, or would be horrified (or perhaps punished) if the issue were broached with their parents. And I try to answer them as honestly as I can. I certainly remember these connections with adults who respected me as a kid -- who took my concerns seriously, who weren't afraid of hard topics, who offered limits and practical guidance -- as some of the most profoundly important and influential in my life. More than shopping instructor, clown, or cultural attache, it's this kind of guncling I truly relish.

"I guess I look forward to when my nieces and nephews are teens," Mike Albo said, echoing this sentiment, "and they don't want to speak to their parents. I'm totally looking forward to them being the completely immature teenager that I still am." He laughed. "Finally, another 15-year-old girl in the room besides me."

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Brett Berk