When my ten-year-old son is excited, he flaps his hands like a limp-wristed seal.
He makes the same move when he’s happy, or when he’s being ironic, or when he’s delivering the punch line of a joke.
It’s the kind of gesture that can be endearing or annoying—depending on how many times it occurs in a given conversation—but it always fills me with a sense of pride. In a culture that allows boys such a narrow range of expression, I’m pleased to be raising a son who talks with his hands.
Still, there have been many times when I’ve locked eyes with my spouse above our flamboyant flapper. How long, we wondered silently, before someone rains on this hand parade?
There was a time when I was more optimistic. When Waylon was three, I introduced him to the soundtrack of my own childhood, Free to Be You and Me, but I purposely skipped the classic “William Wants a Doll.” Waylon didn’t yet know that boys who played with dolls were called sissies, and I didn’t want to introduce what I hoped were outmoded ideas.
It didn’t take long before Waylon’s peers proved me wrong. Even though he attended the most progressive preschool in town, a place where boys and girls alike wore nothing but briefs and body paint through much of the summer, he still caught flack. Other kids reacted in horror when he wore pink clothes or painted his toenails or carried an orange backpack with a peace symbol.
Katy and I searched for a way to help him think critically and stay safe in his social world. We explained that some families have very different rules for what boys can do and what girls can do. Some parents enforce these rules very strictly because they’re afraid of being different.
“It’s okay to be different,” we told him. “If someone gives you a hard time, you can tell them we don’t have those same boy rules at our house.”
I’m not sure he ever uttered those words, but our talks seemed to make him feel better, and he loved to come home with exasperated stories about the gender stereotypes he encountered.
“Did you know that some people think boys are not allowed to like the color purple?” he’d ask over dinner, rolling his eyes.
Given his critical perspective on gender expectations, you might think that he would be a bit of a rebel. But Waylon didn’t like to rock the boat. When he encountered resistance, he tended to retreat. By first grade, he wasn’t wearing pink shirts or painted nails.
I thought maybe he had too much at stake, being a kid with queer parents. Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with social hassles, or maybe those things just weren’t part of his evolving identity.
Then the flapping emerged as a major feature of his conversational schtick. It seemed so undeniably Waylon, such an expression of his personality, but I wondered if he’d retreat from that too, once he realized how other people perceived it.
The other night we were eating ice cream in bed and watching the Olympics.
“Do you want to hear something sexist or uh, racist or whatever?” Waylon asked during the commercial break.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Some people call this ‘sissy fighting,’” he said, flapping his arms in his usual way.
“Who says that?” Katy and I asked in instant unison.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged mysteriously. “But what does it mean?”
“It’s a stereotype that men who move their arms like that are gay,” Katy said.
“’Sissy’ is a word that people use to tease boys who don’t follow their idea of how boys are supposed to act,” I said. “It’s sexist and homophobic.”
“I know that,” Waylon said, as if my labels were belaboring the obvious.
That was it, end of conversation, he was ready to turn back to the TV. I snuggled next to him, my mind a swirl of conflicting emotions.
It’s painful to watch your child bump up against the world’s negative judgments. Whether or not Waylon keeps flapping, I know he’ll never be as free as he was before, and I resent it. But I feel hopeful too, because he didn’t seem ashamed. The way he framed it, the problem was other people’s bias, not the angle of his wrist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My mom is in Mexico for a few weeks, so I think it’s safe to share this story.
Two years ago, Mom’s dad died. My grandpa was an artist and entrepreneur, a small-time inventor who owned a custom picture framing shop. Over 65 years of marriage, he and Grandma amassed a large archive of slides and photographs that documented everything from their courtship to Grandpa’s business ventures and countless family camping trips.
My sister and I both flew to Phoenix for Grandpa’s funeral, but Kristen got there first. She spent an entire day immersed in the family archive, helping Mom select pictures for a coffin-side photo collage. Ever the social scientist, Kristen wasted no time in sorting through the evidence and identifying her own salient data. By the time I arrived, she had the slide projector set up in Grandma’s living room.
“There’s this picture you have to see,” she said, when we had a moment in private. “It’s Mom and Dad right after their honeymoon. They actually look kind of hip. It’s weird. I need to have it.”
Unfortunately, our mother had already sniffed out my sister’s fascination. She sighed when Kristen switched out the lights. Over the lumbering hum of the ancient projector, Mom performed a multimedia symphony of teeth-sucking and eye-rolling. She actually groaned when the post-honeymoon picture clicked into view. “Oh puhleeez.”
The more we delighted, the more she protested. “Mom, you look so beautiful…I love that dress… You guys were so cute… I wish my hair could look like that.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said. “Just stop.”
The problem was as clear as the Arizona sunlight. In the photo, my father is sprawled in a mid-century lawn chair in my grandparents’ backyard. His hair is slightly long, and he’s wearing Wayfarer-style glasses with black frames. Although my grandparents were teetotalers, Alex seems to be holding a scotch and soda. His lanky legs are crossed at the knee, and he’s wearing a pair of extremely loud plaid pants.
In other words, he looks like he should be having cocktails with Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. He looks like a great big gay.
The next day, after Grandpa’s funeral, we were too sad and tired to bother with the slides. Mom said her husband was going to digitize them all, so it seemed pretty certain that we’d be able to get a copy of The Photo, the one we really wanted.
A few weeks later, Kristen casually asked about the slides. Mom said she would send them. Instead, she emailed a copy of the glamour shot that she uses for her Facebook profile.
Beautiful, but not quite what we were looking for.
An outsider might find it difficult to sympathize with our singular passion for a snapshot. But when you grow up with a closeted parent, there’s a big part of your family history that’s missing. It’s not simply because people are guarding family secrets; the largest holes in the fabric of memory are worn by the unconscious effort of resisting what is already known.
As adults, my sister and I can spend hours analyzing a remembered word or gesture, trying to figure out where we came from and how it shaped us. It’s personal, sometimes it’s sad or frustrating or harrowing. But it’s also pleasurable. The truth is, we like being sleuths in the archive, putting the pieces together in different combinations, trying to see what stories we can tell.
For my parents, the photo elicits different feelings. In these black and white snapshots, they are literally exposed. What should I have known? What did I show? Who knew? Did I seem like a fool? A joke?
Last Christmas, Kristen raised the question of The Photo with our father. Since my dad came out in 1994, I have seen him wear some truly outrageous ensembles. My favorite was the time he showed up at a (Mormon) family reunion in shiny black pants with a chain mail belt. However, as Kristen began to describe the missing picture, he grimaced. It was as if somehow he already knew.
“Am I wearing funny pants in that picture?”
Yes, funnypants, we love you. And, for the record, my mom is at a language school in Mexico this month, and I know she’s rocking those irregular verbs, because she’s super smart.