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.


Tech Savvy Senior Moment

Every January, I make a photo calendar with all my favorite family photos from the previous year. (I used to give them as gifts, until I realized that no one really likes to look at us quite as much as we like to look at ourselves.)

Anyway, I was going through my files, and I came across these sweet pics of Dad helping me network my new printer. I thought folks might like to see a stylish senior who bucks the stereotypes about aging and technical agility.

hitechdad1

 That’s a baby picture of Dad in the lower right corner. He’s peeking out of an old-fashioned wicker buggy.

hitechdad2

“We have to do something about these cords!”


What Makes a Baby

My nine-year-old son believes that kissing got me pregnant.

Me: Do you know how we made you?

Waylon: You got that thing from Uncle Brian.

Me: Sperm?

Waylon: Yeah.

Me: And then? We used my egg, right?

Waylon: Yeah.

Me: So how are you related to Mommy?

Waylon: Well, I’ve been with her a lot. And also, when you two kissed [mimes sloppy French kissing] some of Mommy’s DNA got inside of you and then it got in me.

I love Waylon’s version of the story. Part of me wants it to remain exactly the same forever. But I also worry that we should be more strictly scientific about the mechanics of reproduction. I don’t want some playground smartypants to give him the 411.

I’ve written before about how hard it is to find children’s books about reproduction that don’t assume a gender binary (and children’s books about human sexuality that don’t assume reproduction). Most books for kids begin with “everyone is born a boy or a girl” and end with “some day you’ll make a family too,” but those are assumptions we don’t make in our family, because 1)we’re queer feminists and 2) Mommy is genderqueer.

Final Cover.inddThat’s why I was so excited about Cory Silverberg’s book What Makes a Baby. Silverberg, a Toronto-based sex educator and writer, set out to create a “where do babies come from” story that would be inclusive for transgender, gay, lesbian and other nontraditional families.

As an adult reader, I appreciate the book’s attempt to uncouple sex from gender. Playful gender-neutral figures are accompanied by matter-of-fact statements:

“Not all bodies have eggs in them. Some do, and some do not….Not all bodies have sperm in them. Some do, and some do not.”

I couldn’t wait to read What Makes a Baby with Waylon. He’s a little old for picture books, but I thought he would appreciate a story that was flexible enough to include our funky family.

When we finished, Waylon was thoughtful for a moment. “What did you think?” I asked.

“Is Uncle Brian kind of like my dad?”

Okaaaaay. Not what I was expecting. Maybe reproduction is a little too culturally overdetermined to be so easily unmoored from gender. Or maybe Waylon is more interested in the question “how did I, personally, arrive on this planet?” than in the general question of how babies are made. Still, it’s an important question, and one that we need to approach over and over again from multiple angles. I appreciate almost any occasion to start a safe and meaningful conversation.

While What Makes a Baby has broad appeal, I suspect it will be most helpful to families where two parents contributed biologically to making their child. I think it will be especially valuable in families where one or both parents’ gender presentation is different than the gender typically assigned to the role that they played in reproduction.

To continue to answer Waylon’s questions, I’ve ordered the COLAGE Donor Insemination Guide. I’ve also been talking up the idea that he’s Katy’s “brainchild,” because she contributed the single most essential ingredient in his conception: the idea to have a baby in the first place.

What Makes A Baby will be re-issued in 2013 by Seven Stories Press. Silverberg is currently working on two more books about sexuality for kids of various ages. Can’t wait!


Tell AISD to Honor Nondiscrimination Policy

My son’s school district has taken the unprecedented step of cancelling a University of Texas graduate student play based on the story of two real-life male penguins who parented an abandoned egg at the Central Park Zoo.

Photo credit: Paul Mannix

Emily Freeman’s play, And Then Came Tango, was performed for second graders at Lee Elementary in Austin, Texas, on October 16. According to the Daily Texan, the principal at Lee expressed concern over the content, and Austin Independent School District moved to suspend and later cancel the play’s tour of other Austin elementary schools.

As an LGBT parent who interfaces with AISD almost everyday, I can’t say I was surprised. Consider this:

  • According to the American Library Association, the children’s book And Tango Makes Three (based on the same penguin couple) was the fourth most frequently challenged book in the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • From the Briggs amendment to Prop 8 and beyond, right-wing activists have successfully associated LGBT equality with “teaching homosexuality in schools.” Anyone who has studied this history can tell you that the specter of innocent school children tainted and traumatized by queer sex has been one of the right’s most potent weapons.
  • The AISD Student Handbook contains a nondiscrimination clause that includes sexual orientation. However, as far as I can tell, elementary school teachers and administrators do not receive training on how to create an LGBT-inclusive learning environment that would support the spirit of the policy.
  • When it comes to LGBT families, I would be willing to bet that Texas elementary educators don’t know what they are allowed to say about family diversity or whether AISD would back them up if they included LGBT families in their lesson plans. Conservative demagogues foster these fears when they refer to same-sex marriage as “illegal” activity. Consider this quote in the Austin American Statesman from a group called Texas Values:

“We define marriage very clearly in the state of Texas. So if you have a play that tries to push and promote a different marriage definition, which is clearly illegal, it leads students to ask questions about it, and it leads to the discussion of sex,” Saenz said.

(Not to belabor the obvious, but there’s a difference between something that lacks legal status and something that can get you arrested. Same-sex lovin’ hasn’t been illegal in Texas since Lawrence v. Texas.)

  • Finally, AISD is experiencing a serious budget crisis in a state where Rick Perry and right-wing legislators control the purse strings.

Given all of this context, I would have been astonished if And Then Came Tango had moved smoothly through AISD elementary schools. However, I was still disappointed that the play was cancelled with so little public soul-searching about the district’s responsibility to create an LGBT inclusive environment.

If you are in Austin, I hope you will ask the district to honor the spirit of its nondiscrimination policy. The main number for the school district offices is 512-414-1700. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is at superintendent@austinisd.org. The Board of Trustees office is at 512-414-1704 or trustees@austinisd.org. A complete list of current board members is here. (Incidently, Jayme Matthias, AISD’s first openly gay board member, will begin his term in 2013.)

You can also take your children to see And Then Came Tango this weekend. There will be several free performances at UT’s Oscar G. Brockett Theatre.

h/t Dana Rudolph at Mombian for the link to the ALA and the AISD contact info.


My Favorite Things

Yesterday morning, I was tooling around on Oprah’s web site, trying to figure out how to submit a personal essay for O Magazine. Unfortunately, according to the terms of use, anything you submit online automatically becomes property of Harpo Industries, to be developed as they choose in any medium they see fit. (As much as I’d like to see a reality series based on a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to develop it, because I wouldn’t trust a casting agent to recognize low-femme nerd realness.)

Since I can’t come to O Magazine, I decided to bring a little bit of Oprah to the blog. Here are some of my favorite things. Picture me lavishing them upon you like an Oprah-style giveaway, because they are all cheap or free.

1) Tango, My Childhood Backward and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond

Justin Vivian Bond performed in Austin a few weeks ago, and I had the pleasure of reading this memoir while I could still hear the cadence of v’s voice, the way every sentence pulls up short, leaving half the meaning in the space between.

Here’s one of my favorite lines:

“But looking back, I think that a frosted pink is a perfect color for a little trans child in first grade.”

This book has (deservedly) great blurbs, including one from Michael Warner, who says that Tango “should be in the hands of every child who can read.” (For those of us with a queer theory background, it’s kind of delicious to speculate what else might be on MW’s recommended reading list for children.)

2) Sinead O’Connor Bathroom Shrine

I was having kind of a rocky time a few weeks ago, and the universe sent two signs from my personal savior, Sinead O’Connor. First, The Atlantic published a long biographical article titled “The Redemption of Sinead O’ Connor,” and then Justin Vivian Bond, Christeene Vale and Silas Howard played “Black Boys on Mopeds” at the aforementioned show. It reminded me to ask for solace and guidance at the Sinead shrine in my bathroom (and to listen to Faith and Courage, one of my favorite albums of all time).

I made the shrine with magazine clippings and mod podge.

3) Succulent Garden

My most recent fortune cookie said “time and nature heal all wounds.” Now that temperatures have finally dropped into the double digits, I’ve been healing myself in the beautiful golden light of Texas in October. My favorite puttering project is a succulent garden on our front porch. Most of the plants were originally gifts from friends, and others were pocketed from public places. (The great thing about succulents is that a single leaf can grow into a whole new plant. They just need “a touch of earth” as my friend Gretchen likes to say.)

4) Used Record Player

I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when Katy pulled this portable turntable out of her mom’s best friend’s garage. Apparently I was underestimating the quality of a mid-1970s portable Sanyo, because this baby sounds amazing.

So much about this school year has been stressful—finding academic support for our dyslexic child—or boring—helping him plow through mountains of worksheets. It seems like there’s always something to do: eat vegetables, practice handwriting, brush your teeth, put your napkin in your lap, practice multiplication tables. Last night, I was cooking dinner and (between rounds of homework) I put B-52s on our new turntable. As cries of “hot lava” filled the kitchen, Waylon broke into spontaneous dance. He did the mashed potato and the twist and a funny little Mick Jagger dance with mincing feet and chicken wings. He grabbed a spatula and a serving spoon and danced until he cracked himself up, and I thought “when I think of this year I will remember this moment.”

5) Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education

If you would like to feel enthused about the Obama administration, I suggest that you re-read this 2010 letter from the Department of Education, which explains how federal civil rights law pertains to bullying based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability.

Here’s one of my favorite parts:

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.

6) The Gang

Waylon and I have been creating stuffed homemade stuffed animals from a pile of fleece blankets that our neighbor gave us. Originally we got the pattern from Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make, which was a gift from Uncle Rachael. Then we decided that we wanted to create on a slightly smaller scale, so I free-handed a pattern with a sharpie and a piece of copy paper.

Their names are Jean Pierre (he’s the one made out of a sock, which is way too difficult), Stripes and Jessie (inspired by the femme stylings of Jessie Dress.) There was another guy, with a jaunty bandanna, but we gave him away and now we’re sad.

7) Men Who Sew

I had a sweet sewing date with Waylon and his friend a few weeks ago. There’s something about a man who sews really captures my heart. Speaking of which, check out this needlepoint stocking created by Bil Browning, beloved editor of The Bilerico Project.

8) Indian-Inspired Pantry Dinner

I’ve been on a quest to use up odds and ends in my pantry and refrigerator. Here’s a recipe that can accommodate almost any combination of veggies and canned beans. The only mandatory ingredient is fresh ginger.

Step 1

Put some brown rice on to boil. Dice some fresh ginger, as much as you like. Dice onions and celery or whatever aromatics you have on hand. Sauté in olive oil until nicely browned. Add 1 tsp curry powder, 1 tsp cumin and ½ tsp crushed cumin seeds.

Remember to turn the rice down to a simmer.

Step 2

Add some more veggies. I used leftover chard, and I let it cook down a bit. Then I added a can of diced tomatoes with green chilies and a can of garbanzos. I had a little bit of tomato paste in the freezer, so I threw that in too. I let it cook until all the flavors got gay married and the rice was ready to eat.

Step 3

If you like it spicy, you could add some cayenne or crushed red pepper. Serve over the rice. Enjoy!


Back to School for Transgender Elementary Students

This fall, as elementary-age kids head back to the classroom, some transgender students are returning with more than just new school supplies. For these children, the beginning of the academic year is an opportunity to introduce a new name, new pronouns, and a new social identity.

Over the past several years, resources for transgender elementary students and their families have grown rapidly.  They now include multiple mainstream media reports (with varying levels of accuracy and sensationalism), new organizations such as TYFA and Gender Spectrum, and innovative medical protocols to delay the onset of puberty. While access to these resources is by no means universal, it is becoming increasingly possible for elementary-age children to begin their transition before the maelstrom of middle school.

However, as Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith suggest in their recent Huffington Post article, most elementary school teachers and administrators have not been trained in strategies for create an inclusive learning environment for gender nonconforming and transgender students.

As an elementary parent and an educator, I am passionate about welcoming schools. Katy Koonce and I recently had the privilege of creating a training for teachers and staff at a local elementary school. There are stellar materials available, and I wanted to share our outline and some of the things that we found most helpful.

Establishing a developmental timeline

As Payne and Smith point out, “Americans think of young children as ‘innocent’ and ‘asexual,’ so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms.”

Children are perceived as ‘too young’ for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ into the ‘innocent’ elementary school space and is thus dangerous.

The first task of our training was to reorient teachers and administrators with accurate information about gender and child development. We used Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child, specifically chapter three, “Developmental Stages and the Transgender Child,” which contains a detailed breakdown of gender identity at different ages. (If you don’t have access to the book, there is a version of this timeline available on the Gender Spectrum website.)

Information about developmental stages (hopefully) speaks to elementary educators in the language of their professional education. Our next step was to introduce them to the words and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elementary students. (Again, our overarching concern at the outset of our presentation was to convince listeners that “this really happens at the elementary level.”)

To this end, our training included excerpts from Queer Youth Advice for Educators, which is based on interviews with LGBT youth from across the nation and includes several personal stories about elementary school experiences. This book is available as a PDF download from What Kids Can Do, and hard copies are available for $9.95. I give copies to school counselors and administrators whenever I can.

Establishing the costs of inaction

Once we had established that gender identity is within the purview of elementary education, we wanted to briefly highlight the social and emotional costs of unprepared schools. The personal narratives from Queer Youth Advice for Educators continued to be helpful on this point, especially when paired with GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Based on the 2007 National School Climate survey, this report speaks to educators in their language, linking harassment and lack of safety to poor educational outcomes.

In our case, we felt it prudent to follow the carrot of educational outcomes with the big stick of federal antidiscrimination law. Presumably most educators are already familiar with Title IX, the section of the Education Code that prohibits gender discrimination. We were excited to learn about a 2010 letter from the Department of Education that interprets Title IX as applying to gender-based discrimination that targets transgender students.

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.

Special thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality for making this letter available as a PDF on their blog.

Outlining best practices

At this point, we felt it was important to move into practical, proactive policy recommendations. For this particular educational context, our recommendations included the following:

  • Honoring preferred name and pronouns
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Restroom accessibility
  • Staff and faculty training
  • Addressing gender inclusion in the curriculum

Our recommendations were based on personal experience as well as three excellent resources:

Curriculum for teachers and students

Initially, making suggestions for gender-inclusive curriculum seemed like the tallest order. After all, we live in Texas, a state that’s not exactly known for its progressive curriculum. Luckily, my friend Abe Louise Young alerted me to Gender Doesn’t Limit You: A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Grades, which was developed by the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas and distributed through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. While not explicitly designed to speak to transgender issues, these detailed lesson plans include case studies and rhyming scripts to help young children learn to analyze and respond to gender-based bullying, and many of the examples involve behaviors that don’t conform to rigid gender norms. As an added bonus, the rhyming scripts can be useful for teachers who need words to respond to gender bias and bullying on the spot in everyday classroom contexts.

Future presentations

We learned a great deal from our first training with elementary educators, and we hope to continue to work with more schools and to share resources with other people engaged in similar projects. Personally, I’d like to write some case studies based on experiences of elementary students who have transitioned at school. Do you have other suggestions for other resources or ideas to help us improve?

Paige Schilt has taught college students for 18 years and served as Interim Assistant Dean of Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University in 2011-2012. Katy Koonce is a former school social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice.


Howdy Queen

In my story Donor Duet, I mention that Katy was Brazosport High School’s 1976 Howdy Queen (an honor bestowed on the friendliest freshman girl) despite the fact that she was already kinda howdy kingly. The other day, Katy found her Howdy Queen sash (I didn’t even know such a thing existed), and Waylon proudly tried it on.

Waylon models the Howdy Queen sash.

As long as I’m sharing pictures, I wanted to post this one from earlier in the summer, when our family was featured in a story about Trinity United Methodist Church.

This interview caused me to vacillate wildly. The premise was marriage equality, and it was easy to answer the reporter’s questions about how long Katy and I have been together, when we got married, and when we had Waylon.  After I hung up the phone, I realized that I had inadvertently left out a huge swath our lives together, so I called the reporter back.

Do you have a minute? I forgot to say that my wife identifies as transgender–actually genderqueer, which is somewhere on a spectrum of masculine and feminine–and it’s important to mention that Trinity is also a trans-affirming church.

“Wait…but…are you guys gay?”

Poor man, I could tell he was worried that he’d wasted 20 minutes of his life. I felt bashful about leading him down the mazelike path of multiple identifications, but he did ask…sort of.

The interview wasn’t the end of my dithering. The worst part was my hair–my lovely lavender hair!  For some reason, I decided to dye it dark brown for the photograph, and then regretted it immediately. It’s taking forever to grow out, and I consider my many bad hair days as a lengthy object lesson. Next time I’m interviewed, I’ll remember to resist the magnet-pull of fake representativeness and respectability.

My lovely lavender hair is gone, and it’s all my own fault!


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