Jean, my stepmom and I loved each other. Yet, though she tried very hard, Jean couldn’t understand what it’s like for me to be lesbian and legally blind. After many years, she stopped believing that lesbians are disgusting and became a supporter of marriage equality. Jean was proud of me. She’d post every poem I wrote on her fridge. Yet, Jean felt that I’d have had a much happier life if I hadn’t been queer and visually impaired.
Nearly every queer and/or disabled person I know has experienced this feeling of both love and isolation from their family. This disconnection often doesn’t come from lack of parental love. We’re disconnected from our families because our identities are so different from theirs. Mister Rogers taught us to like everyone as they are. But that’s difficult to do if we can’t find bridges between differences. The experience of ourselves and our families is rarely accurately represented on screen.
Thankfully, ”Far From the Tree,” a new documentary playing nationally, directed by Emmy Award-wining Rachel Dretzin, speaks eloquently to our experience. The film, available on Video On Demand, is adapted from the best-selling 2012 book with the same title by gay writer Andrew Solomon.
The documentary tells eye-opening stories of difference and identity. Solomon, an LGBTQ rights activist and a Columbia University Medical Center professor of clinical psychology, is a producer of the film. Solomon’s book tells hundreds of stories of parents who love, but struggle to relate to children who are so unlike them. For the book, Solomon profiled families with children who were autistic, deaf, transgender, criminals, people with dwarfism or different in other ways from their parents.
The 93-minute film, though it features only a few people, is no less powerful than the book. Through the doc, we meet Jason who has Down syndrome and his mom; Jack, an autistic teen; Loini who feels that she’s found her tribe when she attends the Little People of America convention for the first time; the Reese family whose teenage son Trevor has murdered a child; and Joe Stramondo and Leah Smith, a hetero married couple with dwarfism.
Like the parents featured in the film who struggle to comprehend their children’s identities, Solomon’s folks, when he was growing up, didn’t understand his gay identity. On screen, Solomon talks movingly about his life. “I think my mother imagined that her first-born son would be part of the real mainstream, the kind of kid who was popular at school, athletic, at ease in the world and basically quite conventional,” he says, “And instead she got me.”
Why does “Far From the Tree” speak so forcefully to me and many others who are queer and disabled? Because so few people have recognized the parallels between the different facets of ourselves and our families’ attempts to not only love, but understand us.
Don’t get me wrong. The film doesn’t imply that different identities are alike. It doesn’t say that having Down syndrome, being a little person or autistic is the same as being queer; or that being a criminal is the same as being LGBTQ or disabled. What “Far From the Tree” does say is this: Parents love their children no matter how different their identity is from theirs.
“You love your children,” Solomon says, “It isn’t really up to you. They just have come along and changed you.”
When I was young, homosexuality was considered an illness. If I’d have come out to my parents as a teenager, they’d likely have sent me to a psychiatrist. Though things have radically changed, I worry that in the Trump era this progress could be set back.
Many people believe that I want to be healed. They don’t get that my vision impairment isn’t a tragedy; it isn’t just eye disease. It’s a part of my identity.
Leah Smith and Joe Stramondo don’t want to be cured of their dwarfism. It’s essential to who they are. There are similarities in experiences of oppression between queer and disabled people, Joe Stramondo emailed the Blade. “There is a history of LGBTQ people being regarded as ‘defective’ and in need of a fix or cure,” he wrote, “to most people outside of disability activist circles, it is almost unthinkable to regard disability as an identity to have pride in rather than a defect to be fixed.”
“Far From the Tree” does much to correct this misperception. Check it out. It’ll enrich your understanding of identity and family.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.