Caitlyn Jenner will undoubtedly be one of the most famous faces and names of 2015. Caitlyn has joined (and surpassed) the ranks of Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono in the LGBT community. She has told her story, and I applaud her for doing so, as she is paving the way for other transgender men and women. But in light of Caitlyn's personal introduction to the world, I would like to tell another story. This is the story of a man named Benny.
Benny was my great-uncle, and for the first 12 years of my life, until his death, he was one of my very favorite people. He was the definition of kindness and beauty. When we teach our children what true goodness is, we look for people like Benny to show as an example. I didn't know a lot about Benny back then. I didn't know that this petite man, who walked with a cane and always laughed and told jokes, was actually in a great deal of pain, both physically and mentally. I didn't know that Uncle Benny, who brought nothing but love and joy into my life every time I saw him, had lived a life of isolation and betrayal. I did not learn the truth about Benny until many years after he died, when my parents decided I was old enough and mature enough to understand. And now that I am a parent raising three impressionable children in what can often be a cruel world, I feel so incredibly grateful that I was able to know him and love him. I only wish that my children could have known him as well.
So in his honor, as he was never on the cover of Vanity Fair and never felt the support of millions of people as Caitlyn Jenner does, I would like to tell his story.
Benny was born Beatrice Summons. She had 3 siblings, one of whom was my grandmother, Bethany. Beatrice was what many called a “tomboy” growing up, but as she approached adulthood, she began to have female relationships. Those who knew her assumed she was a lesbian. In 1946, my grandmother Bethany was about to marry my grandfather, and they requested Beatrice stand up as a bridesmaid in the wedding. This was impossible for her: wear a dress, put on makeup, stand in line with other women for photos, and be something she was not. Although she and my grandmother were very close, she could not bring herself to do this, and she ran away. She was gone for many months and upon her return, she had changed. She began dressing in a masculine style, always black pants and a crisp white shirt, tucked in. And she asked her family and friends to start calling her Benny. She had begun to live her life as a man.
My grandmother loved Benny and accepted him into her home, but not all of his family was as welcoming. Those who had disapproved of Beatrice having lesbian relationships fully separated themselves from Benny, now that he had transitioned. It was the 1950s, and things like this did not just happen. A woman could not disappear for a few months and return a man. Benny's life was often a dysfunctional mess. He had difficulties keeping employment and frequently had no place to live. He suffered from endless medical problems, most of which were unexplained. Thankfully, my grandmother always allowed him to come home, to live with her, when he was struggling. Sometime in the late 1960s, Benny disappeared again for a while. When he returned, his breasts had been surgically removed. Again, explanations were vague. The story told was that he had been sick and needed the surgery. Did he have breast cancer? Or did he somehow find a doctor willing to remove his breasts for cosmetic reasons? How would he, an often unemployed and uninsured man (who was still anatomically female) pay for this procedure in the 1960s? So many questions remain unanswered to this day. His life was full of shame and full of secrets.
Eventually Benny found a companion, a woman named Emma. He and Emma lived together for over 20 years, although the nature of their relationship was never clear. Again, more shame and secrets. His life was plagued with illness until his death in 1992. He was 62 years old. Many of his immediate family did not attend his funeral because of the name on his tombstone. Although his nickname was Benny, he had legally changed his name to Rodney Summons sometime during his transition. Some thought his tombstone should read Beatrice. But it read Rodney, as that was his name. He had said goodbye to Beatrice long ago.
I remember Uncle Benny's funeral and having guests at my parents' house afterward for the reception. I was a child, so my sister and cousins and I ran around the yard, playing. We were sad, because we loved Benny, and we knew that he had died. But we also knew that he had been very sick and had suffered for a long time. In some ways his death was a blessing, a relief from the pain. We did not know that he had never fit in this world. We did not know that he was never able to have a healthy, loving relationship that society accepted. We never knew how hard it was for him to work, to fight discrimination, ridicule, cruelty, abuse. Which public bathroom was he to use? How was he supposed to dress? Even in death, he was unable to be himself as family fought over his ‘real’ name.
Benny was one of the kindest and most loving human beings I have ever known. My hope is that someone reads Benny's story and realizes that not everyone needs to be on the cover of Vanity Fair to feel validated, to be seen and heard. There are so many more Bennys than Caitlyns. There are so many who live their lives in secret and shame when they deserve to feel love and acceptance. I love you, Uncle Benny. I miss you. And I am so thankful that you were in my life.