Tag Archives: feminism

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!

100px-A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain3.svg

 

Image by ParaDox, found on Wikipedia.


Days of Shirley Jackson

I remember the day I became obsessed with Shirley Jackson.

Photo credit: Laurence Jackson, Shirley’s son

It was summer, I had a deadline, and I was supposed to be watching my six-year-old son and his friend. In an act of desperation, I googled “wifi” and “bounce house” and we embarked for Let’s Go Bananas!—a dark and dusty warehouse filled with listing inflatable landscapes. I propped my laptop on a picnic table that was usually reserved for birthday parties. Every five minutes or so, I unfolded my legs from a pint-size plastic chair and checked to see if the ambient screams were emanating from one of my charges. In this manner, I managed to produce perhaps 200 words (half a page) in two hours.

Around this time, a friend loaned me two collections of Jackson’s domestic memoirs: Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.* In these tales, which first appeared in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day, Jackson creates a glib and distant fantasy of family life. She always seems to be stirring a pudding, sewing costumes for the school play, beating dust from the curtains, and attending little league games—all while observing her four children with a wry yet loving eye.

A casual reader of Life Among the Savages might assume that Jackson’s husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was the sole writer in the family’s book-lined study. The word “typewriter” appears only once, and it is identified as “father’s typewriter.” Jackson’s stories might as well have appeared on the doorstep like milk bottles, for she certainly never discusses her work habits. You would never guess that she published six novels, two memoirs, a play, and scads of critically acclaimed short stories in the years while her children were still very young.

Because Miss Jackson wrote so frequently about ghosts and witches and magic, it was said that she used a broomstick for a pen. But the fact was that she used a typewriter–and then only after she had completed her household chores.

New York Times, 1965 (obituary)

Jackson has been on my mind again lately. It’s summer, I’m freelancing, my now nine-year-old son is skulking around the house, and I haven’t worked on my personal writing in more than a month. My wife, the therapist, gets to leave the house every day and no one can call her in the middle of a session to complain that they’ve lost the batteries for the wii remote.** I’m here with the kid and the dogs and the dirty dishes, and I have the sensation of needing to do ten things at once and doing a little bit of everything a little bit badly.

To top it all off, we’re really broke right now. We’ve been amassing the paperwork to apply for a home equity loan, and I had to explain my work history to a 25-year-old loan officer in matching Banana Republic career separates.

“I was working part-time because I was, uh…” Oh for heaven’s sake, just say it. “I-was-trying-to-write-a-book.” The loan officer regards me impassively. Her baby doe eyes can neither confirm nor deny the validity of my literary ambitions.

Image

The view from our dirty windows. Yes, that’s a Halloween decoration from last fall.

Later, I notice that she has simply entered “homemaker” as my profession.

This tickles me to no end. I wish that she could see my home—the piles of unfolded laundry, the tumbleweeds of dust and dog hair, the brown sludge at the bottom of the refrigerator drawers. If anything, I’ve become more resistant to household chores since I’ve started working from home. And the irony is even sweeter because I have been supporting myself by writing chatty copy about seasonal veggies, home-canning and other domestic pursuits (this despite the fact that my son only eats toaster waffles, dino-nuggets, Granny Smith apples (regardless of season), pizza, bean tacos, and California rolls.)

“She learned early that the special breed known as the housewife-mother-writer must make important choices and firm decisions. If she looked up from her typewriter and noticed that the windows were dirty, she did not get up and wash them.”

–Lenemaja Friedman, Shirley Jackson (1975)

There isn’t a really great biography of Jackson, but there is a compulsively readable one: Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. Oppenheimer is overly given to psychologizing—except in the moments when one might crave it the most. (For instance, when Jackson develops a debilitating writer’s block after a critic suggests that her novels feature lesbian themes…)

There’s a particular moment in Private Demons that I cherish: Jackson is invited to speak at a writer’s conference, and her daughters have been farmed out to neighbor women for the weekend. “Without premeditation,” Oppenheimer recounts, “each woman, in response to an irrepressible urge, immediately grabbed the little girl left to her, and dumped her into the bathtub to wash her hair.” It’s almost as if their hair has never been combed before, one of the neighbors recalls. The matted snarls are so intractable that the girls end up with haircuts. Then Shirley comes home, and she’s pissed, because she thinks the other moms are trying to show her up by cleaning her kids.

In citing this story, I’m not indulging in schadenfreude; I’m in awe of Jackson as a writer and as the “housewife-writer-mother” who managed to look away from dirty hair and dirty windows. I am continually reproached by dirt and disorder. I can’t help it; I come from a lineage of repressed artists and impeccable housekeepers. At my grandmother’s memorial, every single testimonial included a reference to her legendary cleanliness. My mother likened her mom’s spotless refrigerator to a still life.

Oppenheimer describes Jackson’s frequent letters to her parents, in which she depicts herself as a “mature, well-organized, serene housewife and mother.” I imagine the letters as rough drafts for the domestic memoirs—fictional feats in which feminine expectations are deftly transformed into a commodity to support her unorthodox life and writing.

“Her letters were her revenge,” says her son, and I’m struck by the warmth and empathy that the Jackson children seem to harbor towards their mom—despite the snarled and dirty hair. It’s a sharp contrast to my paranoid fantasies of my son’s future. I tend to imagine him on a therapist’s couch. “She was always tyyyyping,” he complains. “She made me toast my own Eggo.

***

Earlier this summer, The Atlantic published a much-discussed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (Nothing sells magazines like a disillusioned feminist.) Personally, I can’t remember the last time I worried about having it all. I am usually too focused on staying sane for the next fifteen minutes.

My recipe for sanity has many ingredients: writing, exercise, activism, sex, family, friends, dresses. I need to make money and care for my loved ones and keep my personal space clean enough that it doesn’t interfere with any of the aforementioned items. On a given day, I’m lucky if I manage to juggle three of these priorities. Usually it’s writing that falls to the very bottom of the list, until I begin to feel pent up and frustrated and then it pushes back to the top.

In the summertime, it’s even harder to keep all the balls in the air. I’ve been lucky to have lots of paying jobs, but they’ve come right at the moment when I had hoped to spend more quality time with Waylon. We’ve had several visits from family, and I always seem to watch them approach through dirty windows.

Can’t wait for fall.

=====================================

*I suppose that the title “Life Among the Savages” is partly a Romantic reference to childhood and partly an ironic reference to Jackson’s white, Christian neighbors. I imagine that the publishers were eager to capitalize on the fame of “The Lottery” and Jackson’s reputation as an observer of small-town New England mores. My paperback copy of Life has a picture of a white woman posed between a white child in an African mask and a white child in a Native American headdress, which may also be a reference to husband Stanley’s writing about African folk traditions and African American literature. I can’t help wondering what Shirley’s friend Ralph Ellison had to say about the title and the cover (see Ellison’s “Slip the Yolk, Change the Joke,” which is a response to Hyman and a meditation on masks and archetypes.)

**In all fairness, Katy tried to talk me out of working from home with Waylon. I believe her professional prediction was something like “it will drive you crazy.”


Sick and Wrong

It had to happen sooner or later.

When we sent our son, Waylon, to school, we knew that eventually some kid would tell him

that it’s sick and wrong

to be

fat.

Apparently, some denizen of the playground has taken it upon himself to inform Waylon that he has “fat cheeks.” Now, whenever Waylon looks in the mirror, he sucks in his cheeks like a six-year-old Zoolander. Suddenly he shuns his puffy coat. The other night at dinner, when I told him he needed to eat his chicken for a little protein and fat, he looked at me with panic in his eyes. “I don’t want to be fat!”

I find these developments more than a little disturbing. Before Waylon was born, my wife, Katy, and I made one solemn vow: no fat talk in front of the kid. Whatever our private struggles, we promised to abstain from negative body talk about ourselves, other people, and especially our son.

It may seem strange that we prioritized body-positive parenting before, say, saving for Waylon’s college fund. But it’s all a question of context. To say that our families were fat phobic is a little like saying that Fred Phelps has a problem with gay people. Katy grew up hearing “lose some weight” as the one-size-fits-all response to every dilemma. When she became addicted to speed in the eighties, her mother was initially blinded by her miraculous weight loss. There’s actually a picture of Katy in the family photo album, looking skeletal and vacant, with the breezy caption “a size six!!!!”

My parents’ attitudes toward weight were similarly disordered. They approached dieting with punitive, penitential fervor. At one point, when I was 13, my dad was exercising two hours a day and subsisting entirely on raisins, grapes, and bagels. “You don’t want to be unattractive,” he’d say when he dropped in between workouts to admonish me and my sister for eating junk. “Unattractive” was the code word for fat. Its connotations were lazy, undisciplined, stupid, feminine, and self-indulgent.

These kinds of messages, which mistakenly equate physical attributes with moral qualities, were shaming and insidious. Luckily, I had one natural ally in sniffing out hypocrisy: my metabolism. I have a fairly fast metabolism. Whether I eat a lot or a little, whether I eat healthy food or junk, my weight stays within the same 10-pound range. By the time I reached adulthood, I had realized that the social approbation I received for being thin had nothing to do with self-discipline or moral righteousness. It was just genes and pure, dumb luck.

Thus, when Waylon was born, Katy and I were determined to disrupt old family patterns. As a baby, Waylon demonstrated a marked preference for well-cushioned bodies. This was most apparent when we traveled to France and decided to save money by holding him in our laps for the 11-hour flight. When I held him, Waylon would toss-and-turn, trying to find a comfy way to rest his head against my bony clavicles. Again and again, he’d give up and reach for Katy’s more comfortable belly.

As a toddler, Waylon preferred to rest on Katy’s belly while we read bedtime stories. He could fit his body between the crook of her neck and the cradle of her hips. Before he tottered off to bed, he’d squeeze her and bestow rows of tiny kisses. “Belly, I love you! You are the most comfortable belly in the whole world.”

Of course, raising a fat accepting child turned out to be easier said than done. Although Katy and I had vowed to eschew negative body talk, that didn’t mean that we’d successfully jettisoned all of our negative baggage about our bodies. One summer, when I ventured to the pool in a new two-piece bathing suit, Waylon patted my midsection. “Hey,” he said, in a tone of pleasant surprise, “your belly looks kind of fat in that.” I resisted the urge to shroud myself in a giant beach towel, but I can’t say that my reply, “thanks a lot,” wasn’t shrouded in sarcasm.

When you’ve grown up in a fat phobic family, it’s pretty hard to leave all those old habits behind. I came up listening to my mother bemoan her wide thighs and child-bearing hips. I know I’ve slipped up once or twice and said disparaging things about my own body within earshot of my son. And although we try our best to love the bodies we’ve got, it’s not like we don’t watch what we eat. Katy’s a performer, and she has a target weight that makes her feel more comfortable on stage. When Waylon first realized that she was dieting for an upcoming show, he was absolutely stricken. “Please Mommy,” he begged, “please don’t get rid of your fat.”

It was perhaps the first time in her life that Katy had to assure someone that her diet would not be too successful.

But the most challenging thing about raising a fat accepting child has been helping him make sense of the social stigma attached to fat in our culture. The necessity of introducing some context became clear when Waylon was three and we took him to our favorite pizza place. The waiter came to our table, and Waylon greeted him with a cheerful “Hi Fat!” The young man blushed and avoided my eyes for the rest of the evening, which was excruciating. I wanted to tell him that Waylon’s words weren’t meant to wound, but I doubted my ability to explain our parenting philosophy quickly and convincingly enough to avoid causing the man further mortification.

When I talked to Waylon about that incident, I tried to explain it in children’s terms. Being fat doesn’t make someone bad, but calling someone fat can make that person feel bad. It’s complicated and contradictory, but I think he gets it. Just to make sure, I backed it up with some good, old-fashioned parental guilt: “If I ever hear you call someone fat in a mean way, I will be very, very upset,” I told him.

“I know, I know,” he said, in the impatient voice he uses when I tell him something obvious.

These days, when I see Waylon sucking in his lovely round cheeks, I wonder if we’ve succeeded at all. It’s easy to see his self-consciousness about his appearance as an external manifestation of my inner demons, a reflection of my own not-fully-expurgated fat phobia. I think, if only I hadn’t said that thing about my butt, if only we’d never told him that Katy was dieting…

But part of me recognizes that there’s no way to shelter Waylon from the prejudices in the world around him. And fat is hardly the only issue where there’s a gap between our family worldview and the ideology of the larger culture. The other day, one of his classmates told him it was “strange” that he had two moms. Yes, we had to tell him, kids are going to say that. Not everybody knows gay people. Some families don’t know that it’s okay to be different.

As a parent, I have to trust that Waylon can encounter other people’s assumptions without losing touch with our family’s core values: justice, compassion, and self-acceptance. But today he still doesn’t want to wear his bulky winter coat. Still, yesterday he hugged Katy’s middle and said, “you are the best belly in the whole world.” I hope that, eventually, the same love will extend to his cheeks, his belly, and every other part of his beautiful, perfect body.


Stilettos, Sissy Boys and the Limits of ‘Gender Neutral’ Parenting

Last week, PBS Parents featured a blog titled “Gender Appropriate Toys.” It begins promisingly enough with a critique of parents who enforce binary gender norms in their children’s toys and activities. The author (Kristen of Supersisters) suggests that boys should be free to engage in nurturing and domestic activities as preparation for becoming well-rounded men. Next, she shifts into a discussion of childhood cross-dressing:

So why are we so concerned about our sons wearing our shoes? If wearing women’s shoes as a small child causes any sort of issue when a boy gets older, nearly every man in the world would now be a cross-dresser.

As I read this, I tried not to get too hung up on what “any sort of issue” might cover or what she might mean by “cross-dresser.” After all, the article was normalizing childhood cross-dressing. These are ideas that might be new to the readers of PBS Parents. Cut the lady some slack, I told myself.

Then I read the last line of the article.

And let’s be honest. It’s either stilettos now or stilettos later.

The assumptions embedded in that cautionary closing line are so familiar that the author needn’t bother to unpack them. Because raising an adult cross-dresser (or a drag queen or a transsexual or a homo)–those would be self-evidently negative outcomes, right?

Sadly, this PBS Parents article is only the most recent example of parenting advice that champions gender-neutral parenting as a means to avoid raising gay or trans kids. In 2005, sociologist Karin A. Martin examined the legacy of second wave feminism’s project of gender-neutral parenting. In “William Wants a Doll. Can He Have One? Feminists, Child Care Advisors, and Gender-Neutral Child Rearing,” Martin finds a “stalled revolution.” She argues that the movement’s child rearing agenda has stalled, in part, because liberal feminist calls for gender-neutral parenting did not “fully eradicate heterosexism and homophobia from its writings about gender socialization.”

Martin cites Ms. founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 1980 book Growing Up Free, which warned against the “erroneous” assumption that “homosexuality is one of the worst things that can happen to anyone,” but then went on to re-stigmatize homosexuality with comments like these:

“Don’t try to prevent homosexuality. It won’t work and it may backfire.”

“Don’t make children feel they are the ‘wrong’ sex as this too can result in homosexuality.”

“Don’t use sex stereotypes as a vaccine against homosexuality. Trying to mold children to match stereotypes sometimes inspires just what parents meant to avoid.”

As Martin notes, Pogrebin and her peers used the prevention of homosexuality as a kind of an advertising strategy for gender-neutral parenting: “these arguments stop just short of saying that gender-neutral child rearing is good for children because it prevents homosexuality.”

Martin goes on to examine contemporary parenting advice from the late 90’s and early 00’s. She finds that, when it comes to childhood gender nonconformity, little has changed:

About 60 percent of the sources can be described as giving (at least) one of three types of advice. Two of these types have long been stereotypic responses to homosexuality” (1) Don’t make it worse and (2) recode the behavior. The third response explicitly addresses the link between gender and sexuality: (3) Don’t worry; it doesn’t lead to homosexuality.

The assumption, once again, is that adult homosexuality is a self-evidently negative outcome, one that parents would naturally want to avoid.

In sorting through all of this, I find myself returning to Eve Sedgwick’s famous, provocative essay, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” from 1991:

There are many people in the worlds we inhabit…who have a strong interest in the dignified treatment of any gay people who happen already to exist. But the number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life, is small. The presiding asymmetry of value assignment between hetero and homo goes unchallenged everywhere: advice on how to help your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishioners, your therapy clients, or your military subordinates, is less ubiquitous than you might think. On the other hand, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.

Using Sedgwick’s insight as a starting point, I pose this question to myself and other parents: if we believe that queer and gender-nonconforming people are a “precious desideratum,” a gift to the world, an “outcome” to be cherished equally with other gender and sexuality outcomes, then how do we live that belief in our parenting?

Recently, I’ve sensed the need for a new paradigm to replace “gender-neutral” parenting, which is usually heteronormative (boys can play with dolls because they will become husbands and fathers) and sometimes (as I’ve shown above) homophobic and transphobic. In its place, I suggest “gendery” parenting.

Rather than conceiving of gender as a binary that can be cautiously “crossed,” the gendery parenting paradigm would enjoin us to introduce our children to a wide variety of different gender identities and expressions. At our house, that means that our son, Waylon, spends time with his football coach grandpa and his urbane gay grandpa. Our chosen family includes a butch “tia” who probably irons her boxer shorts and an “uncle” who is a working-class straight guy. Waylon is comfortable hanging with the queens in the church choir and the sensitive skater dudes who teach at his school. Last Christmas, he asked Santa for a pair of black tights so he could dress like his high-femme auntie. This year he’s been haranguing his FTM uncle to please, please sew him some more handmade stuffed animals. Whatever Waylon wants to do or be in the future, I’m confident that he knows there are many ways to live his gender and sexuality.

Rather than just begrudgingly allowing our children to play with “opposite gender” toys, the gendery parenting paradigm would encourage us to give children the language to think critically about gender binaries and gendered hierarchies. If we provide the tools, young children are quite capable of sussing out inequalities and analyzing gendered messages–as evidenced by a conversation I had with Waylon the other day:

Waylon: Mom, I think Power Rangers is kind of injustice to girls.

Me: Really, how so?

Waylon: Well, the girl Power Rangers always have to be pink or yellow, but the boy Power Rangers can be blue or red or green. It’s not fair that they have more colors.

Me: Don’t you think it’s injustice to the boys too, since they never get to be pink?

Waylon: Well yeah, but the girl action figures are always really skinny too. They don’t look like they could even fight very good. Why do they make them like that?

Finally, and most importantly, the gendery parenting paradigm would instill in children the belief that they will be loved and celebrated in all the complexity of their gender and sexual identities.

And that includes stilettos–now or later.


Our Social Experiment

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, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush. “But, Mama, I’m a seal,” he informed me, resting 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. 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 how the clerk was perceiving our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

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

As in, “well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”

“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”

Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.

***
When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”

“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.

What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.

“Trains.”

“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just fishing.

“Trains.”

Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at 3 am while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank around the track.

By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.

Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my child rearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy–the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings–develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.

***
One day, not long after Waylon made his Aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru–partly because of her preference for New Age shawls and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.

Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.

“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”

“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”

Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?

Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.

Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It is impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.

As queer parents, our blessing is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay–yet we know that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious gift to the world.

***
On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough Women’s Studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as Katy was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la,la, la, I can’t hear you!”

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at 2, 3, and 4–already miraculously masculine, already chaffing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texan masculinity was culturally pitch-perfect–and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology–and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie festival was the year when she appeared next to the Christmas tree in full Davy Crockett regalia. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”

***
Last December, we made a family trip to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Layla, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Layla would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.

“Umm, I think…Barbie.”

Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.

Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”

Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a phone call to Layla’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Layla was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not be solely responsible for introducing Layla to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.

***
A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that $200 a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took to for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way to the airport, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”

No to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.

“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said, confused.

“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.

My parenting manuals say that five years old is when kids begin to develop the capacity to empathize with other people’s emotions and experiences. According to that developmental timetable, Waylon was right on schedule.


Lazy Lesbian’s Guide to Sex-Ed for Kids

One night in the bath, my five-year-old son poked at his testicles. “What are these things called again?”

“They’re called testicles, but sometimes people call them balls,” I said.

He seemed momentarily satisfied, but the next night, on the toilet, he returned to the subject.

“These tentacles…” he started.

“Testicles.”

“Testicles,” he repeated. “What are they for?”

We’ve always talked about bodies and used correct language for anatomy. But this conversation felt different. Waylon’s questions were self-initiated and specific. After offering a hastily constructed answer, I consulted my parenting books. They counseled me to offer my child correct, technical, and honest information and to avoid overwhelming him with any information that wasn’t age-appropriate and that he didn’t need to know yet.

Sure, that sounds easy. Just like walking a tightrope. My son has the disposition of an attorney. His favorite questions are “Why?” and “What about…?”

I thought it would make things easier to keep the conversation factual and age-appropriate if I had some nice, feminist, LGBT-affirming book for talking to kids about their bodies. So I did the laziest thing in the world. I went to Amazon.com and searched for children’s books about sexuality.

My first search turned up several books from Concordia’s Learning About Sex for the Christian Family series and books from Navpress’s God’s Design for Sex series. These books featured dialogue like this line from Where Do Babies Come From?:

“It was God who thought of putting us into families,” Daddy said. “Wasn’t it a good idea?”

Christians, I realized, have been busy imagining the needs of parents and families and thinking about ways to meet those needs while simultaneously operationalizing their values about gender, sexuality, and the family.

But gender, sexuality, and the family are equally important and contested terrain for feminists. Critiques of patriarchal families and reproductive sexuality have been a feminist staple since the 19th century. Surely, I thought, some feminist authors have penned children’s books about bodies and sexuality that operationalize feminist values for parents and kids.

Scrolling through the secular offerings on Amazon, I found my way to, What’s the Big Secret? by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. School Library Journal calls this book “the gold standard for sex ed for young children.” I ordered a copy and read the first sentence with high hopes.

“From the moment your life begins, you are either a boy or a girl.”

Hmm. My partner, Katy–Waylon’s other Mommy–identifies as somewhere in the middle of gender. Waylon has grown up in a feminist, genderqueer community. He has aunties and uncles and auntie-uncles with multiple gender identities. The kid is a bigger critic of binary gender paradigms than most adults. (I’ve been trying to teach him old protest songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” but he won’t let me sing the line about “love between the brothers and the sisters” without throwing in a couple of other identities to make it more inclusive.)

To be fair, What’s the Big Secret? does spend several pages deconstructing gendered ideas about children’s play, clothing, and emotions. Ultimately, however, the book locates differences between boys and girls firmly in biology:

“Actually, the only sure way to tell boys and girls apart is by their bodies.”

And, like a lot of the secular children’s books I looked at, What’s the Big Secret? explains binary gender as natural and necessary to reproduction. In fact, the section called “Why Boys and Girls Differ” is subtitled “A Little Lesson in Reproduction.”

I knew this book was not going to work for my queer family (we made Waylon with a friend, a plastic syringe, and a Mason jar). And it probably wouldn’t work for other LGBTQ families either. Moreover, as a queer feminist dedicated to questioning biological narratives about the naturalness of gender and reproduction, I was hoping for something more.

At the very least, I was hoping for a children’s book about bodies that didn’t assume heterosexual reproduction as the alpha and omega. Was that too much to ask?

The time had come to do something slightly less lazy. I visited my local feminist bookstore, Bookwoman.

At Bookwoman, I found several copies of A Very Touching Book by Jan Hindman. Written from the perspective of preventing sexual abuse, this book has several things to recommend it. It’s body and sex positive. Using touch as the central concept, the book leads children through decision-making processes about good and bad touching. In the process, it discusses physical attributes without resorting to reproduction as the ultimate explanation.

In fact, A Very Touching Book does not reference reproductive sex at all. Rather than explaining adult sexuality as a function of reproduction, Hindman (who passed away in 2007) defines adult sexuality in terms of safety, pleasure, and informed decision-making:

“The second reason that the sharing of those parts is such a big deal is that grown-ups need to spend a lot of time thinking about who the special person will be that they decide to share their bodies with.”

Throughout the book’s discussion of adult sexuality, Hindman uses gender-neutral language. In the text and the pictures, heterosexuality is not assumed. With a few slight adaptations, this book could work for my family.

There are, however, a few things I don’t love about A Very Touching Book. The illustrations are distractingly busy. The jokes are cheesey. And Hindman sometimes illustrates her points with longish analogies (like the one comparing private parts to Christmas) that detract from the main point.

Although I don’t expect to find the perfect book, I was curious whether other feminist writers had addressed the need for children’s books about bodies and sexuality. In keeping with my lazy mode of inquiry, I decided to have lunch with a feminist librarian. So I made a date with Dr. Kristen Hogan, an expert on women’s bookstores and feminist publishing.

The woman brought a bibliography to our lunch date. I really, really love that.

Kris’s book list, which I will reproduce below, helped me see that feminist authors and presses are producing books about bodies and sexuality for young people. However, the majority of these books were for children approaching puberty. In the category of books for young children, Kris suggested the book I’d found at Bookwoman, A Very Touching Book, and a book about sexual abuse, Not in Room 204.

Kris’s List

Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation
Kathleen O’Grady and Paula Wansbrough
Second Story Press, 1997

Growing Up: It’s a Girl Thing: Straight Talk about First Bras, First Periods, and Your Changing Body
Mavis Jukes and Debbie Tilley
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1998

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow!: A ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ Book for Younger Boys
Lynda Madaras
Newmarket Press, 2008

My Body, My Self for Boys
Lynda Madaras
Newmarket Press, 2007

Not In Room 204
Shannon Riggs and Jaime Zollars
Albert Whitman & Co., 2007

Your Body Belongs to You
Cornelia Maude Spelman and Teri Weidner
Albert Whitman & Co., 2003

Changing Bodies, Changing Lives
Ruth Bell
Three Rivers Press, 1998

I’m still thinking about why children’s books about bodies and sexuality have been such productive terrain for religious conservatives and (seemingly) neglected terrain for feminists. I suspect it comes back to what’s viable in the publishing industry. In the introduction to Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine talks about her struggles to publish an adult book about cultural anxieties surrounding children’s sexuality. In the arena of children’s publishing, narratives about reproductive families and child protection function to contain discomfort about children’s sexuality.

Although we never found the perfect book, I think my partner and I are managing to answer my son’s questions about his body through improvisation, recurring dialogue, and a mish-mash of the available resources. But the lazy part of me still hopes that feminist, queer-affirming, sex-positive children’s writers will add more and more options to the available resources.


The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale

6:30 comes early when you go to bed at 2. 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.

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.

I 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 about my hairdo with friendly straight people.

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.

I’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.


Prologue: Think Pink

Katy’s mother, Donna Koonce, wanted a baby girl.

The year was 1962. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the secondary sex characteristics of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the science of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, so she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper, knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vagina and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

***

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the hospital, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and German cars may seem worlds away from Donna Koonce’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the First Woman President.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore her baby in a pack on her back. She had a calico maxi-dress, and her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the contradictions of pop culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife. My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

***

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the 60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough Women’s Studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “La,la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at 2, 3, and 4–already miraculously masculine, already chaffing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texan masculinity was culturally pitch-perfect–and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with anatomy–and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie footage was the year when Katy appeared next to the Christmas tree in full Davy Crockett costume. Freed from the confines of fussy dresses, she sprawled on the floor next to a large, oblong package. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership…and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”


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