As I captured private family moments with my camera, I realized my task felt familiar. It should. I'd played the role years before.
Five summers ago, after the marriage of my partner Juan's brother Ezequiel to a woman named Heather, I wrote about how hard it was for me to watch those two get married knowing full well Juan and I may never get our chance to do the same. I also talked about how it was easier for me to hide behind my camera, taking photos of the wedding party—a beautiful group bound together that day by the promise of hope and meat kebabs—rather than be part of it ("The Wedding Party," WW, Aug. 6, 2003). Since then, Juan and I have worked hard to fight for the rights of gays to get hitched and, better yet, we've become valued members of each other's families.
We've made progress.
But two weeks ago I was back at my old tricks. Placing my body behind a viewfinder, I shot photos of that same wedding party. The occasion wasn't an anniversary celebration. It was Heather's funeral. Heather died of ovarian cancer days before her 34th birthday, leaving behind a 14-year-old daughter,
Anesha, and a 1-year-old son, Austin. We got the news right after this year's Pride parade.
I wasn't that close to Heather. Even though she was artistic, funny and compassionate, we just didn't click. Truth is, I loved her but I think I saw too much of myself in her. We were both odd ducks in our own odd ways.
On the day of her service I had a hard time maintaining my usual photographic disguise. Over the intervening years I've become close to Juan's family—especially his mother, Elvira. That's why I was excited to finally meet her mother, Isabel. Meeting Juan's seventysomething abuela was an eye-opener. I approached her after the funeral held at a Beaverton Foursquare church and started to take her photo. Rather than pose, the tan, redheaded, youngish-looking woman asked me if I "¿habla Español? Realizing I didn't, she abruptly turned away from me. Juan, taking in what happened, tried to introduce me to her. But she stopped him cold by saying in Spanish that if I didn't speak Spanish, then she didn't need to speak to me. I didn't understand what was said, but I understood what had occurred. I moved back and continued to take pictures of other loved ones, including Juan's sis, Sylvia, who took me aside to discuss whether Grandma was racist, homophobic, or both. The real truth of why Isabel didn't want to meet me was deeper than words: I was white, I was gay and I was with her grandson.
Over the years, Juan and I had made progress as a couple. But that solemn day of life, death and just a tad bit of prejudice clued me in to how much further we have to go. I wish Heather and I had had more time together. I would've really liked to invite her to our wedding. Hell, who knows, maybe she could've talked Isabel into coming, too.