Author Archives: Paige Schilt

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.


Genderqueer Family Trip to Japan

It’s become an end-of-summer tradition. Over the past several years, I’ve created a collection of posts about family vacations with my gender-ambiguous wife. Whenever we travel, public restrooms are a problem, because we never know when Katy will be read as male and when she’ll be read as female. We’ve studied the variables, but there doesn’t seem to be any discernible logic to the “sirs” and “ma’ams” that come her way. From South Texas to Hawaii, we’ve navigated public restrooms as carefully as the average traveler might step through a poopy cow patch.

This summer, we decided to take a family trip to Japan. Our 10-year-old son is passionate about Japanese cuisine, so we weren’t worried about how to feed a finicky kid in a foreign land. We were meeting our friend Nancy, who travels to Japan several times a year, so we weren’t sweating over transportation or communication. As always, we were concerned about where Katy would pee. It’s one thing to be chased out of the women’s restroom in a familiar culture, and quite another thing to be chased out of a restroom in a place where you don’t know the language or customs.

Waylon looks suspicious on the streets of Tokyo.

Waylon looks suspicious on the streets of Tokyo.


On our first day in Tokyo, we set out for Senso-ji temple. Perhaps it was the presiding spirit of Guan Yin, goddess of compassion, but Katy spontaneously decided to try the women’s room first. (In the US, the women’s room is the riskier option.)
Statue of Guanyin at Sensoji Temple.

Statue of Guanyin at Sensoji Temple.

What happened next was refreshing. No one stared, no one gave her the dramatic double-take, and no one gasped that she was in the wrong place. Senso-ji temple set the tone for the rest of the trip, and Katy used the women’s restroom without incident. It was a rare treat to be able to visit the same restroom together without coming up with some plan (like gabbing in our girliest voices) to encourage people to read Katy as female. We were able to relax and enjoy our favorite Japanese technological innovation—the multi-function bidet toilet complete with calming music and a butt blowdryer. (We are totes going to get this toilet.)

We are totally getting a Japanese bidet toilet some day.

We are totally getting a Japanese bidet toilet some day.


I asked my friend Yumi if she had a hypothesis about why Katy had such a great experience. As a Tokyoite, Yumi suggested that Katy’s difference as a white foreigner probably trumped any other differences. Also, she mentioned that people in the city just want to avoid trouble and go about their business. They’re less likely to engage a stranger—especially when there’s a language barrier.

I suppose we’ll never know why the bathrooms were so blissfully uneventful on this trip, but it was certainly a welcome respite. I’m curious to know what other gender nonconforming folk have experienced in Japan and elsewhere?

Family portrait at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

Family portrait at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

Sensoji photo credit: James Willamor.

Wireless Toilet Control Panel photo credit: Chris 73 on Wikimedia Commons.


The Sun Shines Out of His Behind

When I was eight months pregnant, I watched a documentary about a lesbian couple whose baby was born without an anus.

“Hey,” Katy whispered in the dark. “I’m not sure this is the best thing for you to be watching right now.”

“I’m okay,” I said, “Shh!”

I was perched on the edge of the seat, heavy belly balanced awkwardly on my thighs. I couldn’t shift to a comfortable position until movie baby emerged from successful reconstructive surgery.

Later, I began to obsess on the possibility that our baby would be born with the same condition.

Katy tried in vain to assuage these fears. What was the likelihood, she asked, that another lesbian mom would have a baby with the same rare malady that she’d seen in a movie? But worrying about a baby with no anus was about focusing my energies: instead of worrying a little bit about each of the thousands of things that could go wrong, I worried a lot about one particular thing.

Yes, that is an AC/DC onesie.

Yes, that is an AC/DC onesie.

When the nurse placed Waylon on my chest, my mouth fell open. I should close my mouth, I thought, but a noise like chirping crickets was swelling in my ears, a wall of sound between thought and action.

Finally, a familiar voice distinguished itself from the din. “Paige, he’s beautiful. He’s beautiful, Paige. Paige, he’s beautiful.” Katy’s words were a trail of breadcrumbs; I followed them back to the present.

At that instant, a black lump slid across my belly.

It was meconium, the first shit. I looked at Katy: “He has an anus!” Joy and relief and love washed over me in waves. He was beautiful! And healthy! I was so absorbed that I didn’t see the puzzled looks on the nurses’ faces.

“She saw a documentary, you know, about a baby who was born with no anus,” Katy explained. “She was worried.”

Happy birthday to Waylon who turns 10 this week!

Happy birthday to Waylon who turns 10 this week!


Funerals and Freakshows

Philip Koonce II, beloved husband, father and coach, passed away on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. He was born on October 16, 1926, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Dr. Philip B. Koonce, Sr. and Mabel Koonce. Philip is survived by his children: Philip Koonce, III and his wife Gail, Blaine Koonce and his wife Lynn, and Katy Koonce and her wife Paige; his grandchildren: Cody, Bryan, Brent, Haley, Andrea, Jenna, Stephanie, Dylan, and Waylon; and seven great-grandchildren.

I pulled up to Daddy Phil’s house just before the viewing. The family was already at the funeral home, but the garage door had been left open to reveal rows of folding chairs and card tables bedecked with vinyl tablecloths.

The kitchen table was loaded with kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in.

Food would continue to roll in throughout the evening.

Inside the house, the kitchen counter was crowded with boxes of kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in throughout the evening and the next day. Friends and family would appear in an intricately choreographed dance, unloading ice and coolers, cookies and casseroles, sodas and red Solo cups.

***

Growing up in Carthage, Texas, Philip dreamt of becoming a famous country singer like Tex Ritter (another Carthage native son). His mother, the indomitable Mabel Koonce, wrote to Ritter for advice. The country music legend responded with a long letter that said, essentially, “It’s a hard life. Go to college. Explore your options.”

Daddy Phil in the Philippines.

Daddy Phil in the Philippines, his football helmet behind him.

In 1944, Philip enrolled at the University of Texas. He played football and (at Mabel’s insistence) interned for a state senator. Drafted at the end of the war and stationed in the Philippines, Philip found an unusual niche. At 19, he was recruited to coach and quarterback a football team for the Air Core. He also helped organize entertainment for the USO. In a letter, he told Mabel that it was “the kind of a job I’ve always wanted and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

After the war, Philip attended the University of Houston. He walked on to the football team and eventually won a scholarship. He met his future wife, earned a master’s degree in education, got married, and moved to Texas City to begin his career as a high school football coach.

***

The Koonces are a musical people. Daddy Phil dreamt of being a singer like Tex Ritter.

The Koonces have always been musical people. Daddy Phil dreamt of being a country singer like Tex Ritter.

The Koonces are a musical people. Katy’s mother, Donna, wrote volumes of rhyming verse. Her couplets could be simultaneously sappy, pointed and inspired. She might wax poetic about a mother’s love, but she was equally likely compose an epic guilt trip.

Katy’s oldest brother, Phil III, has been known to rhyme as well. His ode to Father’s Day, “A Few Things I Remember About Dad,” hung on the wall above the old man’s bed.

As lead singer for Butch County, Katy growls her rhymes. They’re less sentimental, more sexual, filled with fictional characters and intricate rhetorical acrobatics.

Katy’s middle brother, Blaine, is the kind of musician who can play anything with strings. He’s been in all kinds of bands, from bluegrass to gospel, but his real genius is improvising songs for any occasion, which he delivers in a charismatic comic deadpan.

Despite his reserved demeanor, Daddy Phil had a beautiful voice, which he shared in rare performances at anniversaries and family gatherings.

***

On the evening of his funeral, friends gathered around the card tables in the garage. They came to eat and talk, to comfort and commiserate, but mostly to listen and to sing.

Blaine played everything from "Let It Be" to "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother."

Blaine played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.”


Sandra and April brought a cooler full of ice.

Pammie brought pasta.

Leigh Ann and Redonda brought King Ranch casserole.

Dede brought paper products, including extra t.p.

Someone brought shrimp slaw and made sweet tea.

Someone else wrote it all down on a yellow legal pad in the kitchen.

Blaine held court with his guitar. As the night wore on, he and his friend Victor played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The mourners overflowed into the driveway and coalesced around the beer coolers. In the darkness, the  warm yellow light of the garage was like amniotic fluid, enveloping and protecting the dearly beloved. I put my arm around my queer-as-shit wife and sang along about “kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.”

***

I had hoped to see Katy’s nephew, Bryan Koonce, hip-hop impresario and aspiring MC. After Katy’s mom’s funeral, he had delivered a manic, virtuosic description of what it was like to smoke salvia. I was curious what more I might learn.

I found him inside the house with his two sisters, Andrea and Jenna. They were sitting on the family room couch, texting, seemingly separate from the rest of the party.

“Do you remember me?” I asked, plopping down on the rocking chair. “I’m Paige, Katy’s wife.”

“Yeah, I remember you,” Bryan answered, friendly but distracted by his phone. All three siblings have young kids, and all three live together at their mom’s house. His sister said something under her breath. They seemed to be sparring in real time and via text simultaneously.

“We’re kind of the Jerry Springer side of the family,” Bryan said, bashfully.

I gazed at the family photos on the opposite wall. If they had captions, they’d read like a rolodex of reality show plots: “Addiction Killed My Mama,” “The Brother I Never Knew I Had,” “My Daughter Looks Like a Man.”

“Which side isn’t the Jerry Springer side?” I asked, sweeping my arm around the room and including myself.

“True,” he laughed. I’m not sure if he registered the irony that I, the unlawfully wedded wife of the prodigal daughter, was awkwardly trying to reassure the first-born son of the first-born son.

***

In 1969, Philip moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to work with at Brazoswood High School. For 16 years, Koonce served as Assistant Head Football Coach and Defensive Coordinator, helping to guide the Brazoswood Buccaneers to eight district titles and to the state championship in 1974. Former players remember him as stern and disciplined yet compassionate, an introvert with a sense of humor and a talent for storytelling.

I did not grow up in a close-knit community. I never learned to anticipate the needs of grieving neighbors, nor did I know the spiritual comfort that these small gestures give.

However

I have been honored to write obituaries for both of Katy’s parents, and I have rarely felt so purposeful, rarely known such a fit between the task at hand and my humble tools.

I can’t spin rhymes, can’t keep a tune, but I’m lucky to cast my lot with people who know how to sing and to grieve.

Postscript:

As I was writing this, I found an apropos video by Bryan Koonce. Sample some Koonce family rhymes:

And the soul that I have will lay next to Dodie

Sippin’ on some scotch and listenin’ to oldies

Credits: Kolache photo by Chmee2; Tex Ritter photo from Capitol Records (public domain). All other photos courtesy of Koonce family.


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