BEARING WITNESS TO VIOLENCE: a therapist’s tips for transgender day of remembrance

This year, the organizers of Austin’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial have asked psychotherapists from the LGBT community to be available at City Hall for participants who may need support after the event.

Their request is a recognition that bearing witness to violence—both physical and systemic violence—can be emotionally devastating. It’s crucial for communities to come together, mourn their dead, and organize for the future. But how can members of a vulnerable community remember acts of violence without becoming re-traumatized?

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More than 200 names will be read at 2014 DOR memorials all around the country. That’s 200 human beings, many of them trans women of color, who have died because of anti-transgender violence in the past year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No one knows how many deaths go uncounted.

“It’s a difficult event to attend,” says blogger Autumn Sandeen. “It’s a difficult event to plan.” In a recent article for San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, Sandeen wrote about the numbness that some long-time trans activists feel in response to the ongoing violence.

My wife, Katy Koonce, has been attending Austin’s TDOR since the beginning. As a trans-identified psychotherapist, she has helped countless clients sort through their feelings after Day of Remembrance. I asked Katy for her tips on emotional self care for folks who are attending this year’s event. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Look around. This may be the most transgender people that you’ve ever seen in one place. Remember that, despite all the violence and discrimination, our community continues to grow and organize. They can’t keep us down.

2. Talk to people. Generally speaking, trans people like to help other trans people. If you’re new to all this, ask about what else is going on in your community. If you’re an old-timer, pay it forward.

3. Resolve to use TDOR as a stepping stone to more community and more action each year. Make a plan to attend the monthly TGQ Social or volunteer for Transgender Education Network of Texas. Ask other people you meet what they’re up to.

4. Observe yourself with compassion. Take note of the things that trigger you. Sometimes the hardest thing about TDOR may be hearing from PFLAG parents and thinking about your relationship to your own family or hearing from trans youth and thinking about your younger self.

5. Remember to breathe. Take in the faces around you. Make eye contact. The anxiety you’re feeling is most likely not about the now. You’re here, surrounded by other people who have come out for similar reasons. Let yourself be in the moment.

Transgender Day of Remembrance
Thursday, November 20th, 2014
6:30 PM
Austin City Hall, 301 W 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701

Photo courtesy of christmasstockimages.com.

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Friendship as a Way of Life at the Dog & Duck Pub

Last night was the final Sunday night at the Dog and Duck Pub on 17th and Lavaca.

IMG_4625My sweetie Katy and her best friend Nancy have been spending Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck Pub for twenty-one years.

That’s longer than my parents were married.

That’s longer than The Beatles were a band.

If Katy and Nancy’s Sunday night ritual was a person, it would be old enough to join them at the Dog and Duck for a drink.

Nancy and Katy actually met for the first time at the Dog and Duck. It was 1991, and Katy still had long, permed tresses a la Jon Bon Jovi. By chance, she happened to make the acquaintance of a group of gay girls from College Station. Katy was intrigued by these college-educated queers with their hairy armpits and Doc Martens and dark beer. She made plans to meet her new friends at the pub, and they showed up with Nancy in tow.

Flash forward a year. At the tail-end of a long and booze-soaked Pride weekend, Katy and Nancy were feeling the Sunday blues. They decided to meet for one last drink at the Dog and Duck, and the tradition stuck. Pretty soon, other people started to drop by every week too. The Dog and Duck was like Katy and Nancy’s living room. No need to call ahead or make a plan—if it was Sunday night, you could pretty much count on the fact that they would be there.

Sometimes people would come to the Dog and Duck regularly, and then life would pull them away. They might resurface years later and start attending the Sunday night sessions again without skipping a beat. I came along in 2001, which makes me somewhat of a newbie. Even after thirteen years, I still occasionally meet old-timers who are new to me.

The Sunday night tradition has outlived jobs, pets, apartments and more. Katy and Nancy both swear that more than one romance ended because of a girlfriend who didn’t respect Dog and Duck time. I’ll admit that when our son was a baby, I didn’t always relish the idea of Katy spending the difficult bedtime hours at a bar. But I’ve also felt pretty damn lucky to have a spouse who really nurtures her friendships. It takes a lot of pressure off when you know that you’re not your partner’s only means of emotional support.

Sunday night conversations at the Dog and Duck can range from raunchy to tearful. Last summer, when my family of origin was in crisis, the battered picnic tables in the courtyard were my refuge—a place where I could narrate the whole, complicated story without interruption and then ask for insights from my friends.

It would have been easy for the ritual to fall by the wayside when Nancy started traveling for work. These days, she’s out of the country almost as often as she’s home, and it takes more intention to keep track of the schedule, but Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck have remained the default.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that homosexuality wasn’t subversive as a way of having sex, it was subversive as a way of life. As queer people, one of our strengths is that we hold on to our subcultures and friendships. We don’t put away childish things, we weave them into the fabric of lives that don’t follow straight lines. But it’s not easy to maintain long-term relationships that aren’t legitimized by blood or matrimony or profit. (There’s a reason why we say gay couples who have been together for ten years are the equivalent of straight couples who have been together for twenty-five.) That’s especially true for adult friendships, because our culture lacks ritualized times and places that preserve and strengthen those bonds.

Last night, I raised a glass to Nancy and Katy, thanking them for making a time and a place for friendship in their own lives, and in the lives of so many others. Now the ground is shifting, but the roots are still strong. May we nurture them, and may they bloom wherever they are planted.

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Read about the closing of the Dog and Duck Pub.

Do you have a favorite memory of Sunday nights at the Dog & Duck? Help create a virtual archive by sharing in the comments!

If you like this post, please support my homosexual agenda by sharing on social media. Thanks!


Trans Character in J.K. Rowling’s Latest Book

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I’ve always been a huge J.K. Rowling fan. I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series aloud. Twice. When Rowling published her first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, I rushed to buy it and was thrilled to discover a multi-layered story animated by white-hot rage at inequality. Later, I devoured The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first detective novel that Rowling published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

silkwormNeedless to say, I was excited to dig in to the pseudonymous Galbraith’s second novel, The Silkworm.

I’m not an aficionado of detective fiction, but I do enjoy a good whodunit from time to time, and this one seemed especially compelling because the plot revolved around a book within a book, and all the suspects were literary folk. Was The Silkworm J.K. Rowling’s allegory about the London literary world? And if so, who were the real-life inspirations for the murdered author and his eccentric agent? Or the grammatically challenged erotica blogger and her sidekick, the aspiring transsexual memoirist?

Wait. What?

I have to admit, I held my breath when I first encountered Pippa, the transwoman who claims that the murder victim misrepresented and betrayed her. When Pippa first enters the action, she’s trying to stab The Silkworm’s detective hero, Cormoran Strike. Good lord, I thought, please don’t let J.K. Rowling go all Law & Order on me.

“Citizen’s arrest,” said Strike. “You tried to fucking knife me. Now, for the last bloody time—“

“Pippa Midgley,” she spat.

“Finally. Have you got ID?”

With another mutinous obscenity she slid a hand into her pocket and threw out a bus pass, which she threw to him.

“This says Phillip Midgley.”

“No shit.”

Pippa’s character is filtered through the consciousness of Strike, a former military man, and his assistant Robin, a small town girl trying to adapt to London life. Their impressions of Pippa include plenty of clichés. But Pippa’s violent impulses aren’t what sets her apart in this fictional world. In fact, they put her in good company.

Nearly everyone in the book has a reason to seek revenge on the dead man, and Rowling plays with our cultural preconceptions and the conventions of detective fiction, offering us a series of red herrings—the repressed gay publishing mogul, the cuckolded alcoholic editor, the promiscuous red-haired mistress, and the transsexual woman who’s been cast out by her family and then betrayed again by the dead man.

I didn’t know who actually committed the murder until the very last pages of the book, and I realized that my preconceptions about age and gender and ability played just as much a role in whom I didn’t suspect as whom I did suspect.

I think Rowling is poking fun at the genre and maybe even trying to make readers aware of their own prejudices and expectations. Have you read The Silkworm? What do you think?

Photo from the Hachette Book Group.

We’re Expecting! And It Looks Like Twins!

Dear Reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to Queer Rock Love lately.

It’s not that I’ve run out of stories about our queer family life—far from it—It’s just that I’ve been needing to conserve my energies. Now, after months of intensive gestation, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m expecting a baby…a book baby!

The book version of Queer Rock Love will feature tons of never-before-released material, and it will be published by Transgress Press—an independent, trans-led press based in Oakland. Their current titles include Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and Hung Jury: Testimonies of Genital Surgery by Transsexual Men, which features a foreward by Shannon Minter.

This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I'd taken as truth. I like that in a book.

This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I’d taken as truth. I like that in a book.

We were in San Francisco earlier in the summer and were lucky enough to attend a reading for another Transgress Press book, Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves. It was exhilarating to hear many different stories from diverse transmasculine experiences and perspectives. As an added bonus, I got to meet face-to-face with my editor, Max Wolf Valerio.

Transgress Press donates 40% of book sale profits to social justice organizations that work to empower marginalized communities and save our planet. They also ask authors to donate part of their royalties to social justice organizations. Stay tuned for more on that front!

But Wait, That’s Not All
When I said “we’re expecting,” I wasn’t just being sloppy with my pronouns. Katy’s been incubating a project too. Her band, Butch County, has been writing a whole bunch of new material, and they’re getting ready to record their next album.

In the meantime, if you have a hankering for muscle-rock-meets-genderqueer-swagger, you can listen to a couple of their greatest hits on bandcamp. You can also see them perform live. This weekend they’re performing on Sunday at 4:30 as part of Stargayzer Fest. And next weekend, on September 20, they’ll be melting faces at 1pm at Austin Pride.

Total hottie.

Check out Butch County at Stargayzer Fest.


“Should Waylon Have Two Mommies?”

Six-thirty comes early when you go to bed at two.

Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.

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Photo Credit: John Leach

On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.

blue_hair_selfieI roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk with PTA peeps.

After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.

Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.

At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.

Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.

I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.

CaptureI’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”

I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.

Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”

“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.

“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.

We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.

Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.

7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.

The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:

“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”

Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.marfasheetsThis post was originally posted under the title “The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale.”

P.S. A lot of people have asked for a link to the original “Should Waylon Have Two Mommies” article.

Butch County photo by John Leach of johnleachphoto.com. Used with permission.


Meet the Fam

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Have you ever wanted to pelt us with questions about how it feels to be a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in Texas? Well, now’s your chance!

Katy and I are doing a thing called “Partnering & Parenting Beyond the Gender Binary” at the upcoming Contemporary Couples conference in Austin on May 17.

I call it a “thing” because it’s not really a presentation or a workshop. Our plan is to interview each other in front of a live audience. I’ve been honing hard-hitting questions like “hey, hon, what’s up with your gender identity these days.”

(I’m actually really looking forward to this conversation, because Katy recently wrote a funny, heartfelt essay about her ever-evolving gender identity for an anthology called Letters to My Siblings. It’s a follow-up to the Lambda-nominated Letters to My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect from Transgress Press.)LFMB_cover-final-2013_06_28-v5_03

Anyone can attend the Contemporary Couples conference, AND many sessions will be especially useful for therapists who serve (or hope to serve) LGBT couples. Some of you may want to refer your therapist for some cultural competency training.

Our former couples therapist, bless her heart, I know I’ve already subjected her to caricature, but I’ll never forget the day that Katy and I were discussing our sex life and she said helpfully “Have you ever considered using a prosthetic?” I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard. (Yeah, we’ve considered that. From many angles.)

If you’d like to learn about the superstar speakers at the Contemporary Couples conference, check out my interview with keynote speaker Dr. Judith Stacey, author of Brave New Families. 

Speaking of families, the photo at the top of this post was taken by Erin Walter, who is part of our Butch County/Girls Rock Camp family. In addition to being a badass bass player with stage-presence galore, Erin is also a writer, activist and mom. Check out her sxsw wrap-up (including a super-cute picture of Erin with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!) at The Admiration Society.


Sissy Fight

When my ten-year-old son is excited, he flaps his hands like a limp-wristed seal.220px-Seehund

He makes the same move when he’s happy, or when he’s being ironic, or when he’s delivering the punch line of a joke.

It’s the kind of gesture that can be endearing or annoying—depending on how many times it occurs in a given conversation—but it always fills me with a sense of pride. In a culture that allows boys such a narrow range of expression, I’m pleased to be raising a son who talks with his hands.

Still, there have been many times when I’ve locked eyes with my spouse above our flamboyant flapper. How long, we wondered silently, before someone rains on this hand parade?

There was a time when I was more optimistic. Free_to_Be..._You_and_Me_(album_cover)When Waylon was three, I introduced him to the soundtrack of my own childhood, Free to Be You and Me, but I purposely skipped the classic “William Wants a Doll.” Waylon didn’t yet know that boys who played with dolls were called sissies, and I didn’t want to introduce what I hoped were outmoded ideas.

It didn’t take long before Waylon’s peers proved me wrong. Even though he attended the most progressive preschool in town, a place where boys and girls alike wore nothing but briefs and body paint through much of the summer, he still caught flack. Other kids reacted in horror when he wore pink clothes or painted his toenails or carried an orange backpack with a peace symbol.

Katy and I searched for a way to help him think critically and stay safe in his social world. We explained that some families have very different rules for what boys can do and what girls can do. Some parents enforce these rules very strictly because they’re afraid of being different.

“It’s okay to be different,” we told him. “If someone gives you a hard time, you can tell them we don’t have those same boy rules at our house.”

I’m not sure he ever uttered those words, but our talks seemed to make him feel better, and he loved to come home with exasperated stories about the gender stereotypes he encountered.

“Did you know that some people think boys are not allowed to like the color purple?” he’d ask over dinner, rolling his eyes.

Given his critical perspective on gender expectations, you might think that he would be a bit of a rebel. But Waylon didn’t like to rock the boat. When he encountered resistance, he tended to retreat. By first grade, he wasn’t wearing pink shirts or painted nails.

I thought maybe he had too much at stake, being a kid with queer parents. Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with social hassles, or maybe those things just weren’t part of his evolving identity.

Then the flapping emerged as a major feature of his conversational schtick. It seemed so undeniably Waylon, such an expression of his personality, but I wondered if he’d retreat from that too, once he realized how other people perceived it.

The other night we were eating ice cream in bed and watching the Olympics.

“Do you want to hear something sexist or uh, racist or whatever?” Waylon asked during the commercial break.

“Yeah, what is it?”

“Some people call this ‘sissy fighting,’” he said, flapping his arms in his usual way.

“Who says that?” Katy and I asked in instant unison.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged mysteriously. “But what does it mean?”

“It’s a stereotype that men who move their arms like that are gay,” Katy said.

“’Sissy’ is a word that people use to tease boys who don’t follow their idea of how boys are supposed to act,” I said. “It’s sexist and homophobic.”

“I know that,” Waylon said, as if my labels were belaboring the obvious.

That was it, end of conversation, he was ready to turn back to the TV. I snuggled next to him, my mind a swirl of conflicting emotions.

It’s painful to watch your child bump up against the world’s negative judgments. Whether or not Waylon keeps flapping, I know he’ll never be as free as he was before, and I resent it. But I feel hopeful too, because he didn’t seem ashamed. The way he framed it, the problem was other people’s bias, not the angle of his wrist.

Maybe he’ll live to flap another day.

Seal photo: Marcel Burkhard

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Trans Family Story Featured in Parenting Mag

Howdy QRL readers!

This is just a quick note to let you know that one of my stories, “Our Social Experiment,” is a featured archive on Brain, Child magazine’s web site right now. If you’ve never read Brain, Child, you’re in for a treat–it’s a treasure trove of beautiful writing and nuanced feminist parenting knowledge.

If you’ve never read “Our Social Experiment,” here’s a little teaser:

Last Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair.

“Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class issues creep up like a slow and annoying blush.

“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.

I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nope. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.

My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our motley crew. Did he think we might be rock stars?

Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Read the rest on Brain, Child, where they created some awesome art for the story. It’s a picture of a small boy playing with a train track in the shape of the transgender symbol. Show them some love for featuring a story about a genderqueer parent!

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Image by ParaDox, found on Wikipedia.


ABCs of LGBT: Why We Need Inclusive Elementary Schools

Last year, my son had an elementary school teacher who actually talked about gay people.

Last year, for the first time since kindergarten, Waylon’s classmates didn’t give him any flack about our unusual family. Fourth grade went by without an insult, an indignant question, or even a casual “that’s so gay.”

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Selma_to_Montgomery_marchessmallI happened to be in the classroom on the day after President Obama’s inauguration address. The students were studying the Civil Rights Movement.

“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Hardwick began, “yesterday the President mentioned the march from Selma along with two other movements. Who can tell me what other equal rights movements he mentioned?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. I looked at Waylon. I knew he knew. When the POTUS mentions Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall in the same breath, you can bet your sweet lentil casserole that it’s going to be dinnertime conversation in our queer feminist home.

But Waylon didn’t raise his hand. He was waiting to see what his classmates would say.

Mrs. Hardwick called on the first student, a little girl who proudly answered “women’s rights.”

“Yes, that’s right!” the teacher said. “What else?”

At this point, Waylon looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head. It was a rare—perhaps unparalleled—moment in his education.

Fewer hands were raised now, but there were still some eager answerers. Mrs. Hardwick called on a little boy who was half perched on the back of his chair.

“Uh,” he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of what he was going to say. “Gay marriage?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Hardwick said. “The president mentioned the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.”

I looked at my son and saw relief mixed with wonder. His private home world had emerged into the classroom, and no one made any derisive remarks. It was just a simple connection between the course material and current events, the kind of thing that good teachers do all the time.

But it was a big deal, because the elementary curriculum in Texas is silent on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.

be-nice-sign-copy2Currently, our district’s elementary anti-bullying initiatives tend to be what University of Texas Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler calls “pro-social” interventions. They focus on interpersonal conflict rather than intergroup bias and emphasize empathy and social skills over teaching students to name and critique inequality.

When it comes to gender and sexuality, these “pro-social” interventions may miss the mark. According to Dr. Bigler, kids who enforce gender norms don’t necessarily intend to be hurtful. Sometimes, they’re merely sharing what they believe to be true.

So the kid in first grade—the one who told Waylon that it wasn’t possible for two moms to have a child—she wasn’t trying to be mean. She was merely sharing what she believed to be true about gender and families. And the current K-5 curriculum wouldn’t leave her any wiser on that score.

In a soon-to-be-published paper, Dr. Bigler and her team compared students who received pro-social training to students who received pro-egalitarian training that named sexism and put it in a context of social inequality. They found that students who received the pro-egalitarian training were more likely to be able to critique sexist stereotypes in the media and more prepared to challenge gender-based exclusion and teasing among their peers than those students who received standard pro-social lessons that emphasized inclusion and kindness.

Clearly, I can’t prove a causal relationship between my son’s year without bullying and his teacher’s willingness to name gay and lesbian people and talk about their struggle for equality. But, as a mom and a former teacher, I know that kids are smart. If their classroom lessons are silent on the subject of LGBT people, they’re going to understand the underlying message that some people and families are less than worthy.

I’m urging my district to adopt the Welcoming Schools curriculum, which puts LGBT families in a broad context of diverse families and teaches elementary students to avoid gender stereotypes. Welcoming Schools offers a wide range of resources for school administrators and educators to support students who don’t conform to gender norms, and it has been successfully implemented in diverse districts across the United States. Read more about it, and talk with your principal and school district about a collaboration that can be tailored to meet your school’s needs.

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Put a Ring on It

Katy claims that it happened like this:

We were in my car, heading north.  She was behind the wheel. “If we were straight,” she said, turning to the passenger side, “I’d take you to Atlantic City and marry you right now.”

And then, purportedly, I said, “For all this talk of marriage, I don’t see a ring on my finger.”

There are two problems with this scenario.  First, I am not a coquette.  It is not my custom to speak like a latter day lesbian Scarlet O’Hara. Second, I am not a believer. I’m the divorced child of divorced parents.  I don’t venerate marriage as a natural state, a keystone of civilization, or even a particularly convenient model of intimate relationship.

Still, “I don’t see a ring on my finger” are the words that, according to the only other extant witness, I am supposed to have uttered on September 10, 2000.

This was our second date. I had recently relocated from Austin, Texas, to rural Pennsylvania. As a newly minted English Ph.D., I was eager to take advantage of a visiting professorship at a small liberal arts college just west of the Allegheny River.  Nevermind that my new home was two hours from the nearest airport.  Or that the local lesbians lived like Jamesian maiden aunts. Or that the weather forecast called for snow from October to May. All the better, I told myself, I’ll hole up by the fire and write.

But I wasn’t writing.  I was thinking of Katy. And I invited her to visit my rural abode.

A week-long second date is a risky proposition. Since I had left Austin, we’d thrown caution to the wind, confessing our dearest hopes and desires over lengthy long-distance telephone calls.  By the time Katy arrived at the airport, we were already building a future on the flimsy foundation of flirtatious conversation.  But we hadn’t even kissed yet.  If our physical chemistry didn’t match our conversational chemistry, we would have to suffer a long and awkward seven days.

After our first kiss (in the baggage claim area), we did considerably less talking.

Five days later, we came up for air. Our time together was almost over, and I wanted to find something special to mark the end of our epic date.

A colleague told me about Lily Dale, New York, a Victorian-era village populated by psychics. I knew that my new love had an affinity for the supernatural, and I thought it would make an amusing day trip.

Lilydale1910

A spiritualist camp meeting in Lily Dale, NY, 1910.

Founded in 1879, Lily Dale quaintly bills itself as the largest spiritualist community in the world—as if municipalities worldwide are vying to be the capitol of a nineteenth century fad. In Lily Dale’s heyday, spirits knocked on tables and powerful mediums oozed ectoplasmic goo. These days, so-called “physical manifestations” are frowned upon.  But Lily Dale is still home to 90 registered mediums, who commune with the dead in private consultations and regularly scheduled public meetings.

It’s a strange place for a romantic getaway.  Most pilgrims are grieving.  They come in search of answers about the death of a child or lover.  They want to know where the treasure is hidden or whether their dearly beloved is resting peacefully on the other side.

foresttemple

It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into disrepair.

Katy and I arrived just after the regular season, which lasts from June to August.  The weather had turned wet and windy, and mud puddles clotted the narrow streets. Standing water glistened from bright green Astroturf on the ramshackle porches of aging Victorian cottages.  It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into benign disrepair.

Holding hands, Katy and I followed the path to a pet cemetery in a stand of ancient trees.  Under their lush green canopy, Katy told me about the deaths of her dogs, Face and General Lee.  She told me about her best friend Jane Ellen, who had promised to visit in dreams after she died. Sitting on a stump in the shade of the forest, Katy told me about her crystal meth days, when she could walk into a library or a metaphysical bookstore and literally hear books calling her name.

Normally, this was the kind of talk that caused me to roll my eyes.

As a teenager, I had been hostage to my mother’s New Age awakening, when she bought a condo in Santa Fe and consulted a psychic to help her find husband number three.  Surrounded by tanned white people with positive vibrations, I had resisted with the only weapons I knew—sunscreen and a bad attitude. As soon as I could, I fled to the gothic mists of the Pacific Northwest. I vowed that folk art angels would never adorn my home.

Rather than putting me off, Katy’s mysticism made me want to get closer.  Her drug-induced visions of talking books had a dark, malevolent edge that was missing from the usual New Age blather.  The darkness allowed me to relax my constant vigilance and adopt a guardedly curious posture toward things that I habitually disavowed.

It helped that she had all the trappings of a Romantic hero: Long, dark hair, a prominent brow, and a death sentence.  When she quit drugs a decade earlier, Katy had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C.  The future looked like cirrhosis or cancer. Then, a few years later, a new generation of antiviral drugs brought hope for people with Hepatitis C.  Katy had weathered their punishing regimen—only to find that her particular strain of the virus did not respond.  Now she spoke matter-of-factly about her early expiration date.

“When I’m 65, I’ll start drinking again,” she said. “We can go on one of those Delbert McClinton blues cruises and booze it up until my liver gives out.”

I nodded my head. I had no idea who Delbert McClinton was. In her company, I felt unmarked by loss and experience. Being with her was like visiting another planet. It was like fucking an alien.

tuffy

Katy told me about her dear, departed dogs, Face and General.

I told her about my recently deceased cat, for whom I had built a small (secular) shrine.  I told her about my exes, which were the closest things I had to ghosts.

Despite all the stereotypes of lesbian merging, I had no intention of actually changing my mind about New Age spirituality.  However, because I was drunk on infatuation, and because I wanted to continue having exciting alien sex, I didn’t voice my usual opinions on mediums (quacks), the afterlife (unlikely), or monogamous marriage (extremely unlikely).

We kissed in the dappled light under the trees. An old man in overalls wandered past the headstones of long-dead pets.  I was wearing a blue vintage dress and spiky hair.  Katy was wearing combat boots and a black bowling shirt with the name “Dick” emblazoned on the pocket. I wondered, when the old man looked at us, did he see a man and a woman?  Or two dykes defiling the woods?

We emerged from the forest and into the circle of Victorian houses where mediums entertain spiritual seekers.  My ambivalence was like a powerful alternating current, propelling us up the stairs of each house and then repelling us back down into the street.  Each time we found a medium at home, Katy looked at me, trying to sense whether this was the one.  Each time, I shook my head no.

In truth, I did not want to get a reading because I was afraid that Katy would see my disbelief.  I did not want to pretend to believe, but I didn’t want her to think I was incapable of believing, either.  It was confusing. The air was full of other people’s hope and grief and yearning.  They mixed with my own swirling feelings and manifested as a lump in the back of my throat.

I do not know if Katy sensed my ambivalence.  Having grown up in a culture of ruthless affirmation, I had learned to hide mixed feelings.  But, as a dissenter, I had also learned to trust my instincts.  And now my instincts were guiding me to the Crystal Cove Gift Shop.

In the car, when the subject of weddings had arisen, Katy had predicted that a place like Lily Dale would surely have a crystal shop with rings. Now that we had passed up all of the potential mediums, she suggested that we seek it out.

Inside the Crystal Cove, I felt like the planchette on a Ouija board. I glided to the jewelry case.  Scanning the rows of quartz and hematite, my eyes lit on a silver diamante figure eight, an ersatz antique infinity symbol.

“Can I try that one?” I asked the heavily bejeweled white woman behind the counter.  I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I thought, I want it.

While the saleswoman was busy below the counter, I glanced at Katy to see if I was overstepping the bounds.  She looked happy and excited.  She told me that the ring was perfect for me.

I wanted something of hers to keep. (Later, before she went back to Texas, I would steal her shirt and keep it under my pillow, where I could press it to my face at night and breathe her in.)

If the ring fits, that will be a sign.

It fit.

I kept looking at Katy. Are we really doing this? She was selecting a ring for herself, a chunky Celtic design that looked at home on her big hand.

We paid for each other’s souvenirs. Back outside, we sat on a wrought-iron bench bedecked with cherubs. We hadn’t spoken about what, exactly, we were up to.  Now two small, white cardboard jewelry boxes were sitting between us.  Katy looked nervous.  I closed my eyes and searched for words and ritual that would consecrate the moment without overwhelming it.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you,” she replied. Tears streamed down both of our faces. I was crying because I was vulnerable and because it was okay. The lump in my throat was fading away. I felt for the rings and removed hers from the box.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” I said, quickly.  I slipped the ring on her finger and smiled.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” she echoed. She slipped the ring on my finger.

I do not believe in mediums, but I do believe in the future.

 

Photo credits: Tuffy by Ross Griff; Forest Temple by MHBaker.


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