Be the "Guncle" You Wish You Had!

Taking your place as a gay uncle can have rich rewards for everyone.

Posted Jan 17, 2017

Now that we are well into Winter, there is a sense of relief that the holidays are in the past. It is interesting to witness whether or not folks are sticking with the goals they have set. I have been touched recently by gay clients who have made it a priority to invest more time with their families, particularly with their nieces or nephews. These clients beam as they describe the developing bonds, and the joy they experienced during their family visits. They were reminded that family could have some positive meaning for them. 

Sometimes we may forget about the benefits of having a close relationship with a niece or a nephew, but the rewards of choosing to forge one can bring as much joy to us as to them. Of course, some gay men have complicated relationships with their families based on religious or political differences or family members’ homophobic attitudes. Still, even when this is the case, not every family member may fall into the same category and keeping an open mind and heart may have surprising benefits.

In my sessions with the two clients mentioned, we discussed ways to enhance the positive connections they had discovered. In both cases, it was useful to interact with the niece and nephew separately from their parents. It was so enjoyable for me to see how much my clients relished the contact with family members and being able to bring their whole selves to the relationships.

It is prudent to take a couple of things into account as one moves forward in a relationship with the next generation: 

How old are your nieces or nephews? Their openness is, in part, developmental. 

  • Younger kids may be completely available whereas adolescents may not seem to be as appreciative. This may just come with the territory of adolescence! Be aware and attuned. You will know. 
  • Young adults are busy discovering the world and your perspective may prove extremely helpful, but they may just think of you as another adult, another person who doesn’t understand. Your strategy should include making time to understand, starting with taking them to dinner or the theater, something you both can enjoy that will loosen defenses.

Don’t divide to conquer (it won’t work ultimately).

  • If you get along with the kids, but are experiencing issues with your siblings, their parents, be careful not to put the nieces or nephews in the middle. You can defend yourself (educate them) without throwing the parents under the bus. When the relationships need to be separate because of conflict, they need to be protected with good boundaries—and maybe one day the need for those kinds of boundaries will change too.

Closeness with family members can contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing. And even when the relationship with parents is strained, subsequent generations tend to be more accepting. Updating one’s sense of acceptance in a family can be very nourishing, and sometimes it is the younger members who can provide this opportunity!

Your Role As “Guncle” 

Think about your own upbringing for just a moment.  No doubt there were awkward times or moments when you felt ashamed or were shamed by others. Were there people outside of your nuclear family who supported you, even if they didn’t know it?  Who made a positive difference in your life? Frequently, my clients talk about a neighbor, teacher, a friend’s parent, or an aunt or uncle.   

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises entails asking clients to recall special moments with these special figures. It may take time to remember that someone was actually there for them, but once they do, the awareness of this caring person allows them to absorb the importance of the bond, as if it were happening in this very moment. Such memories can be reclaimed throughout life, called forth from the past—and the deeply nourishing feeling that lingers internally can actually begin to be more prominent than other moments that were, and often still are, painful. The meaningful connections with people who saw beyond fear and limitation to the little boy or young man you were may have enriched or even saved your life.  

Now, you have the opportunity of being this special person for someone who is coming up in your family now. Whether a niece or nephew (or someone else) is gay or in some other way feeling isolated and different from the norm, your presence can make a huge difference. And this feeling of being significant—and embraced for everything you have been through and learned along the way— will be a boost to your spirit in a thousand ways.

David

David has wondered for a few years whether his nephew might be gay. As a teenager he has always been different from other boys, excelling in the arts, and not being interested in sports.

I have encouraged David to make a greater effort to get closer to this nephew, and to assume a role of authority, trusting that his influence will be greater than David gives himself credit for.  

Because David’s parents don’t like to discuss his being gay, they certainly don’t want to think about their grandchild being gay as well. Early on, loyalty to his parents and negative self-judgment won out (bad enough they have to deal with him) and David remained distant from his nephew. However, one day when alone together, the nephew confided in him that he was gay and had not told anybody in the family. David was honored and touched by his nephew’s trust. And he immediately understood that he was “that figure.”

As a result, David is now more connected to his nephew, and they have important conversations about gay development, intimacy in their own family, and the development of sexuality, and safer sex. It is a mutually satisfying relationship, and David is realizing more and more just how important it was that he responded when his nephew reached out. 

David’s experience is just one among several I have heard in the weeks since the holiday flurry. "Guncle" is a rather silly sounding name, but spending some time exploring its potential meaning may be a worthwhile investment for you and for others.