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My Uncle Eric

26 Mar

When I was a kid I had this uncle, Uncle Eric.

Maybe you’ve heard of him? His name was Eric Donkin, and for a while (quite a while, actually) he was kind of a Big Deal in Canadian theatre.

Here is a picture of Uncle Eric as Julius Caesar:

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Pretty badass, no?

He wasn’t really my uncle. He was actually one of those family friends your parents force you to call auntie or uncle or cousin. His father had died over in England when he was a baby, and he and his mother had emigrated to Montreal when he was only 11 months old. His mother, who I called Nana Donkin, had met my grandparents not long after arriving in Canada and soon became their close friend. She used to babysit my mother and her siblings, and Eric had been like a (significantly) older brother to them.

Anyway, Uncle Eric was very well-established as an actor by the time I met him – he was already in his mid-50s when I was born and living in Stratford with mother and his friend John. Or rather, Nana Donkin lived in one large, gorgeous Victorian house in the middle of town, and Eric and John lived in another right next door.

My mother referred to John as Eric’s partner, and Nana Donkin called John his chum. My grandparents simply referred to John as Eric’s friend. None of the adults I knew ever spoke aloud what must have been obvious to everyone: that John was Eric’s lover, and, had gay marriage been legal back then, he likely would have been his husband.

As a kid, you don’t question language or titles a whole lot, I guess. So when my mother told me that John was Eric’s partner, I thought she meant business partner. I figured that they lived together because they had a lot of businessy stuff to do, and probably they were both bachelor-types who liked having the company of a roommate and friend.

As I grew older, I didn’t think to question John and Eric’s relationship. They were never demonstrative, never open about their love for each other; probably because both had grown up in a time when that just wasn’t done. Even when I was old enough to know what being gay or queer meant, and old enough to know that you couldn’t legally marry someone of your own sex, and certainly old enough to know that gay people often referred to their significant others as their partners, I still didn’t put two and two together.

It wasn’t until I was fifteen and attending Uncle Eric’s funeral that I realized that he was gay.

I was (and still am) a theatre nerd who, at the time, had dreams of someday sweeping across a Stratford stage in a period gown, loudly and beautifully enunciating my way through one of Shakespeare’s more famous monologues. So I was understandably a little overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting in a private family-only box at the Festival Theatre listening to Richard Monette and Martha Henry eulogize my uncle. As I sat there entranced, drinking in every theatrically-spoken word, I had a lightbulb moment.

Someone, I can’t remember who, was reminiscing about performing with Uncle Eric at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. She told a story about how one night, after whatever show it was that they were doing, all of the chorus girls ran into Eric’s dressing room and covered him in bright red stage-make-up-y kisses. Eric had just laughed and said, “I think I’m playing for the wrong team.”

There was, like, a record scratch sound that went off in my head.

Whoa. Hold up. What team were we talking about? What was she saying?

I leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Mom? Was Uncle Eric gay?”

“Shhh. Not now, Annie,” she said, distracted.

“No, but really,” I said, my voice entering “inappropriately loud” territory. “Was he gay? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Annie,” my mother hissed. “We’re in the middle of a memorial service. We will talk about this later.”

How had I gone my entire life not knowing that John and Eric were in love? Why hadn’t anyone every told me?

It seriously still blows my mind by the time Eric died in 1998, we, as a family, still couldn’t talk about the fact that he was gay. And it’s not like my parents were in any way conservative or homophobic – they were usually very open and liberal about everything. We’d already discussed the fact that being gay was normal, that it was just fine and dandy to love or date or co-habitate with someone of your own sex. I had gay friends at school; my father had taken me to my first pride parade when I was 14.

Every single one of us said that it was okay to be gay, but we never talked about the fact that Uncle Eric was in love with a man.

Later, after eating miniature sandwiches at John and Eric’s home, after letting John show me the pond in their backyard that Eric had built and proudly stocked with goldfish, after I’d hiding myself in a corner with Eric’s copy of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy in an attempt to avoid having to talk to family, I grilled my mother about Eric. At fifteen, I was loud and somewhat abrasive, and I think I might have accused her of being a complacent middle-aged homophobe. For some reason, maybe as a way of transferring my grief and surprise at Eric’s death (he’d died suddenly of a heart attack during a rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing), I was strangely upset about the fact that she’d never told me that Eric was gay.

“I don’t really know why, Annie,” she said. “I guess we were afraid of Nana Donkin knowing, and I thought if I said the word gay to you, you would repeat it in front of her.”

“She must have known, though. How could she not have known?”

“Well,” said my mother, not looking at me, “I think that it’s possible to stop yourself from knowing something if you really don’t want to know it. You have to remember that she grew up in a different time, and this wasn’t something that was acceptable back then.”

I’ve been thinking about Uncle Eric a lot today, what with the hearing regarding Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriage in California, that are happening at the US Supreme Court right now. I’ve been wondering how different things would have been if John and Eric had been allowed to marry. Surely, then, we would have had to talk about it. Surely we wouldn’t have been able to tiptoe around the issue the way we did.

Surely one of the number of articles and obituaries that I’ve read about him today would have mentioned John, his partner of dozens of years, if they’d been married.

There are people, nice people, who want to convince you that it’s possible for LGBTQ folks to have equality without necessarily having marriage equality. They want to ban gay marriage not because they’re homophobic, but because it goes against The Bible (which is obviously what should be informing American laws, because who needs separation of church and state?) and is somehow Morally Wrong. They’re totally fine with people being out of the closet, and starring in sitcoms and getting up to hilarious gay shenanigans, so long as they can’t get married.

And I think it’s great that so many people who, a generation ago, would have publically been against gay anything are now only against gay marriage. I do, actually, think that that’s a big step forward. But I believe that it’s wrong to say that the LGBTQ community is fully equal in a society that affords one, huge, particular right to straight people only.

And you know what? Remembering Uncle Eric has reminded how easy it is for straight allies to stay silent when their voices are needed the most. All of us, my whole family, could’ve spoken out against the casual, insidious homophobia that John and Eric faced. But we didn’t, and it’s hard for me to figure out the how and why of that.

Fifteen years later, I can’t help but be upset and embarrassed by the ways we let Uncle Eric down. I can’t help but re-examine my life to try to figure out the ways I’m letting down other oppressed groups that I call myself an ally of. I suspect that there might be more ways than I can think of.

For now, please enjoy this clip of Uncle Eric in The Mikado: