I only ever knew him as Dusty. His given name was William but the thought of calling him anything but Dusty always seemed unnatural. I was never quite certain as to why or how he’d received his nickname. I just knew it had stuck.

Dusty was my uncle but he was more than that. He was also a family way-shower of sorts. Looking back, I realize it couldn’t have been easy for him. Living within the confines of our ultraconservative, small Texas town was not without its challenges.

Dusty and I were both raised within a family and culture that practiced little tolerance for anything or anyone perceived as somehow different. Whether it was judgment about skin color, religion, or sexual orientation, tolerance and diversity were not kindly welcomed. My family viewed life as a man’s world, and the white, heterosexual male was always the head of the household with no questions asked.

Questions about why or how things were done a certain way were never welcome because it was simply “how things were.” Religion, gender roles, gender identity, sexual orientation, and race had already been defined, and we weren’t allowed to question those definitions, at least not without a fight.
Dusty, however, always seemed to shrug off the notion that it was just “how things were.” He’d ask thought-provoking questions during family gatherings—questions about race, sexuality, and religion. He’d often wink at me in delight when his questions resulted in uncomfortable expressions from certain family members.

I remember how Dusty often seemed to provoke anger in my father, just by his mere presence. For a long time, I couldn’t understand why. As a child, I had always just assumed (and even been told) that it was due to their age difference. My father was 10 years Dusty’s senior but as I got older, it became more evident to me. You see, Dusty was a gay man, and he didn’t seem to care what my father or anyone else thought or felt about it.

I remember the whispers during holiday gatherings. Most of the men in the family chose to ignore my uncle, not deeming his interests worth discussing. Disregarding their ridicule, Dusty would ignore them and often break stereotypical family tradition by joining the women in their conversations. He always treated the women in the family with kindness and respect. He’d assist them in the kitchen or invite them into the salon he owned for a day of beauty and joy.

My father, often within earshot of Dusty, would speak of him with disdain, telling me that a man should never act in such a manner. Dusty never seemed to mind or allow it to affect him for he knew who he was.

In 2005, Dusty was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 46. He made his transition soon after but his legacy and the lessons he taught me are still very much alive in my life.

It was through him that I learned tolerance and respect. He taught me that it’s okay to question the status quo and that old traditions can be broken to create new ones. Most important, he taught me that it’s okay to be me in whatever form that takes. I can sometimes still picture his delightful wink and the joyful way in which he lived his life.

Thank you, Uncle Dusty.
Rev. Evin Wilkins is senior minister at Unity of Madison, Wisconsin

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