Tag Archives: gender

Sissy Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he’ll live to flap another day.

Seal photo: Marcel Burkhard

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Trans Family Story Featured in Parenting Mag

Howdy QRL readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image by ParaDox, found on Wikipedia.


ABCs of LGBT: Why We Need Inclusive Elementary Schools

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

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

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

change1life


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.


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.

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*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.”


A Few (More) Words About Breasts

Dear QRL Readers,

The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies. Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more! xoxox

As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.

It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.

All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.

By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.

Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.

My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.

Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.

Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.

When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.

The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.

By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.

* * * *

Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.

“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.

“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”

Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.

Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.

* * * *

Katy performs with Raunchy Reckless.

The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:

All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Man-chest!

Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.

We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.

* * * *

A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.

With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.

Suddenly, someone was saying my name.

“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”

S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.

“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”

Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.

* * * *

Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.

I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.

What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.

A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.

When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.

I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?

Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.

“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.

* * * *

Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.

I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.

We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.

In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.

To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.

We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.

I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.


Breast/Chest

As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.

It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.

All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of swelling in my chest area. My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 24AA training bras to school for me in her lunch box. She could afford to be generous; as Susie never failed to remind me, she had moved on to bigger (and implicitly better) sizes.

By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup. As the years passed, I hitched my hopes to any old wagon, grasping at stories of short boys who grew an inch or more after age 18.

Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to happen. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra and learned to make light of my plight. I was a budding thespian, and my signature monologue was Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts,” which begins like this:

I have to begin with a few words about androgyny. In grammar school, in the fifth and sixth grades, we were all tyrannized by a rigid set of rules that supposedly determined whether we were boys or girls. The episode in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is disguised as a girl and gives himself away by the way he threads a needle and catches a ball — that kind of thing. We learned that the way you sit, crossed your legs, held a cigarette and looked at your nails, your wristwatch, the way you did these things instinctively was absolute proof of your sex. Now obviously most children did not take this literally, but I did. I thought that just one slip, just one incorrect cross of my legs or flick of an imaginary, cigarette ash would turn me from whatever I was into the other thing; that would be all it took, really. Even though I was outwardly a girl and had many of the
trappings generally associated with the field of girldom — a girl’s name, for example, and dresses, my own telephone, an autograph book — I spent the years of my adolescence absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I did not feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, outspoken, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees and my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted desperately not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things but instead just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink as a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.

While my adolescent self was not particularly athletic or rambunctious, Ephron’s essay resonated more than I let on. I believed that breasts were a magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy–not just about my attractiveness–but about my identity.

Katy as a teenager. No doubt this picture was posed by her mother, the inimitable Donna Koonce.

My wife’s experience was quite different. Katy inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jane Mansfieldian bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras highlighted femininity as awkward and unfortunate drag.

More later…

(Special thanks to Katy for digging up this picture and letting me post it. Despite the fact that she finds it slightly mortifying. I think the transgender butch shines through, don’t you?)


Fear and Loathing at the Eye Doctor

Last month, we took our son to the optometry clinic at a large urban university. As it happens, it was the same clinic where I was treated as a child for amblyopia, AKA “lazy eye.”88090366_8.jpg

Although twenty-five years had passed, the cavernous lobby was unchanged. Settling into one of the hard, gray chairs was like biting down on a stale institutional madeleine. My mind was flooded with traumatic memories of corrective lenses and long, boring afternoons in dark exam rooms.

Perhaps that’s why, when the student intern stepped through the door and called my son’s name, I was distracted. I didn’t think to introduce myself or my wife, Katy.

The intern, a young woman in career slacks and spiky heels, was prepared for parents with lagging social skills. As she steered us into the exam room, she assigned us names.

“Mom and Dad, you can sit right over there.”

Maybe because I’m the more gender-conforming parent–or maybe because I used to be a professional spokesperson–I felt compelled to explain the situation.

“Actually, we’re Mom and Mom,” I said in my friendliest, isn’t-this-funny kind of voice. “I’m Paige and this is Katy.” Katy smiled on cue.

“I’m so sorry,” the intern said, looking flustered.

“Happens all the time,” Katy assured her. I could tell my wife was trying to be unintimidating, despite her muscles and tattoos.

The intern recovered from her embarrassment, and things went pretty smoothly for a while. It seemed like our biggest challenge would be helping seven-year-old Waylon sit still. The clinic specialized in pediatric optometry, but the exam chair and all of the equipment were adult-sized. Waylon’s feet couldn’t reach the footrest, which made him fidgety.

As he swung his legs back and forth below the chair, I noticed that he’d grown again. I wished that Katy had dressed him in pants that weren’t quite so high-watery. (Although Katy and I both come from middle class families, we have very different ideas about how to dress for encounters with medical institutions. I was wearing a gray dress with black suede boots. Katy was wearing an old pair of cut-off sweatpants and a KISS t-shirt.)

About an hour into the tests, the supervising doctor came in to check on our progress. She was energetic and well-maintained, with clunky enamel jewelry that matched her blouse. She quickly read the intern’s notes and asked Waylon to follow a pencil with his eyes.

“Well,” she said final78023925_8.jpgly, “your vision is good. But we may need to get your mom and dad to help you with some exercises to help your eyes work together.”

Barely pausing for breath, she turned to me and began to explain the diagnosis.

“Can I say something?” Waylon interrupted. The doctor didn’t seem to hear him, so he asked again.

“Can I say something?” He was sitting up on his knees, leaning toward the doctor.

“Yes?” the doctor turned her swivel chair back toward him.

“I don’t have a dad. I have two moms.”

The doctor turned away from Waylon and began to write in his chart with great concentration. “Faux pas, faux pas,” she said, not making eye contact. “Happens all the time.”

For a second, I just stared at the doctor’s blonde, bowed head, thinking what kind of person says faux pas to a seven-year-old? Then I looked at my son. He didn’t seem disconcerted by the doctor’s behavior. In fact, having successfully represented his family, he now seemed somewhat oblivious to the doctor’s reaction.

The doctor was far more frazzled. She exited the exam room tout de suite, promising to come back at the end. The intern continued to quiz Waylon on the legibility of different charts through different lenses.

“T…E…F, no…P,” Waylon read.

Why wasn’t I more proactive with the introductions?

“O, L…F, D, G,” he deciphered.

I bet “normal” parents don’t worry about introducing themselves and explaining how they’re related every time they go to the doctor.

“L…P…C…T…” He was squinting a bit.

But imagine all the aunts and grandpas and big sisters who probably bring kids in here too. Doesn’t the staff get any kind of training about family diversity?

“Z…D…B…F…E…O…”

This place sucks!

“F…C…L…”

“D…P…B….T…”

I should have been better on the introductions.

“E…….T…..O….I…” Waylon was getting squirmy.

But I have a right to be distracted. I had a lazy eye!

“B…Z…F, no, E…….” He was really straining to read the lowest row.

“That’s okay,” the intern said. “You don’t need to read that line.”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of tests, the doctor returned. I was curious to see how she’d handle the situation, whether she’d address her earlier assumptions or continue to avoid them.

Katy was sitting closest to the exam chair, holding Waylon’s hand. The doctor shined a penlight into Waylon’s eye and asked him to focus on Katy’s face.

“Just stare straight into his eyes,” she said. Waylon, confused, stared somewhere over Katy’s shoulder.

“We’re almost done,” the doctor said. “I just need you to look right into his eyes for a few more seconds.” She pointed in Katy’s direction. “Him” was Katy.

“Look into my eyes,” Katy said. “Just this one last test, buddy.”

Katy gets called “him,” “sir,” and all manner of other masculine appellations on a regular basis. It’s usually not a big deal. She identifies in the middle of gender, and she’s pretty happy to answer to either pronoun. But I had rarely seen anyone so determined to remain oblivious to the complexities of her identity, especially when they’d been schooled by a seven-year-old.

A couple of scenarios flashed through my mind. Perhaps she had understood that Waylon had two moms, but she just didn’t think that Katy was one of them? Maybe she thought Katy was just a friend who’d come along for a fun, three-hour pediatric eye exam? Maybe Katy’s masculinity was blowing her mind and she couldn’t bring herself to use a feminine pronoun? Or perhaps she was reading Katy as MTF and she was using masculine pronouns to be aggressive?

When we finally escaped to the car, Katy admitted that these same scenarios had been running through her mind. The three of us discussed the situation on the drive back to Austin. Katy and I couldn’t stop speculating about what the doctor was thinking, but Waylon seemed bored.

I worried about his lack of interest. Was it masking some emotional wound? Had the doctor’s refusal of recognition made him feel powerless? I had read that eight is an age when kids from nontraditional families sometimes began to feel self-conscious about their difference. I wondered if the experience at the eye clinic was hurrying that process along.

All of these questions were on my mind two weeks later, when I took Waylon to meet Dr. M, the local doctor to whom the clinic had referred us.

I was worried, above all, about Waylon’s vision. I didn’t want his experience to be like my childhood, which left me permanently fearful of volleyballs and other flying objects. However, Dr. M’s office eased my mind; it was smaller and brighter. It didn’t give me the lazy eye trauma like the other clinic did. Dr. M looked me in the eye and shook my hand.

“I’m Paige,” I said. “I’m Waylon’s mama.”

Sometimes I say, “I’m one of Waylon’s moms,” but sometimes that feels obnoxious, over-eager.

Dr. M looked at Waylon’s chart. She performed a few quick tests to confirm the clinic’s diagnosis. Then she spoke directly to Waylon.

“We need to help your eyes work better together,” she said. “I’m going to give you a few exercises that you and your mom can practice.”

Good doctor, I thought. She’s not assuming that I’m married. She’s not assuming anything about our family beyond what she’s seen and heard.

Waylon, however, was not satisfied.

“Can I ask a question?” he said. The doctor nodded.

“What about my other mom? I have two moms!” he said, in a tone of comic exasperation.

I held my breath as I waited for the doctor’s response.

“You do?” she said, and her face lit up. “Waylon, you are so lucky to have two moms!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious. I felt grateful for the magnitude of her response and grateful for my son’s dogged determination to see his family reflected in the eyes of the adults around him.

Photos licensed by Getty Images.


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.


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