Tag Archives: genderqueer

We’re Expecting! And It Looks Like Twins!

Dear Reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to Queer Rock Love lately.

It’s not that I’ve run out of stories about our queer family life—far from it—It’s just that I’ve been needing to conserve my energies. Now, after months of intensive gestation, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m expecting a baby…a book baby!

The book version of Queer Rock Love will feature tons of never-before-released material, and it will be published by Transgress Press—an independent, trans-led press based in Oakland. Their current titles include Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and Hung Jury: Testimonies of Genital Surgery by Transsexual Men, which features a foreward by Shannon Minter.

This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I'd taken as truth. I like that in a book.

This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I’d taken as truth. I like that in a book.

We were in San Francisco earlier in the summer and were lucky enough to attend a reading for another Transgress Press book, Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves. It was exhilarating to hear many different stories from diverse transmasculine experiences and perspectives. As an added bonus, I got to meet face-to-face with my editor, Max Wolf Valerio.

Transgress Press donates 40% of book sale profits to social justice organizations that work to empower marginalized communities and save our planet. They also ask authors to donate part of their royalties to social justice organizations. Stay tuned for more on that front!

But Wait, That’s Not All
When I said “we’re expecting,” I wasn’t just being sloppy with my pronouns. Katy’s been incubating a project too. Her band, Butch County, has been writing a whole bunch of new material, and they’re getting ready to record their next album.

In the meantime, if you have a hankering for muscle-rock-meets-genderqueer-swagger, you can listen to a couple of their greatest hits on bandcamp. You can also see them perform live. This weekend they’re performing on Sunday at 4:30 as part of Stargayzer Fest. And next weekend, on September 20, they’ll be melting faces at 1pm at Austin Pride.

Total hottie.

Check out Butch County at Stargayzer Fest.


Genderqueer Family Trip to Japan

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

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

Waylon looks suspicious on the streets of Tokyo.

Waylon looks suspicious on the streets of Tokyo.


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

Statue of Guanyin at Sensoji Temple.

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

We are totally getting a Japanese bidet toilet some day.

We are totally getting a Japanese bidet toilet some day.


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

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

Family portrait at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

Family portrait at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

Sensoji photo credit: James Willamor.

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


What Makes a Baby

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

Me: Do you know how we made you?

Waylon: You got that thing from Uncle Brian.

Me: Sperm?

Waylon: Yeah.

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

Waylon: Yeah.

Me: So how are you related to Mommy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Uncle Brian kind of like my dad?”

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

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

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

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


Mommy in the Middle

A couple of years ago, I interviewed my wife, Katy Koonce, about life as a genderqueer mommy. Many things have changed since that initial interview: our son is in third grade, and Katy’s gender presentation is ever-evolving. In honor of Mother’s Day, I decided to post an updated conversation about mothering in the middle.

Barton Springs, April 2012

Paige: These days, it seems like half the strangers you encounter read you as a man and the other half read you as a woman. That’s a pretty good match for your identity, but it’s awfully unpredictable. What is it like to live with that uncertainty?

Katy: You know, it’s mixed. It feels exciting and right, but it can also be really hard. The other day, I was in GNC shopping for vitamins, and the sales guy started calling me “sir.” Then, about half way through our interaction, he seemed to change his mind. Before I left, he actually asked whether the masculine terminology was correct. I loved that! I told him I was very comfortable with both and that he “couldn’t get it wrong.” Poor guy. I think it was like a “Pat” moment and he was left more confused than before. I kinda want to go back and interview him about what made him question his assumption and where he got the nerve to ask. Part of me feels responsible, like I should try to ease his discomfort. But I also want to reinforce that it’s okay to ask. Cuz that’s how I roll.

Paige: Our son is in third grade, which has been the threshold of greater self-consciousness about his family. You volunteer in his classroom every week. What’s it like being the indeterminately gendered parent in that setting? How do you navigate that?

Glam Mommy

Katy: Several weeks ago, one of Waylon’s classmates, whom I have known for a couple of years, yelled “Waylon, your dad is here!” It surprised me so much. “Dad” does not resonate with me. I am Mommy! Luckily, about half the class responded “that’s Waylon’s mom” in unison.

My approach to the elementary school setting is very specific to my personality. I am just plain old counter-phobic. I used to be afraid of heights, so I bungee jumped and skydived. At Waylon’s school, I often find myself being extra charming and behaving as if no one should be shocked when I casually mention that I am identified as transgender and then ask them if I can pick their kid up next week for a play date at our house.

Paige: Sometimes you say you feel tempted to transition simply because the pressure of staying in the middle is too much. When do you feel that most?

Katy:
BATHROOMS! Also at the mall when they “sir” me the whole time and then, when I am giving them my money, they ask for my name and address so they can send me spam.

Paige: How has being a parent affected the way you inhabit your body?

Katy: In every way possible. Waylon likes to be on me. It appears I am very comfortable to “lay” on. (In Texas, we say “lay down.”) He likes to grab my belly and knead it. It can be a challenge, because I come from a fat phobic family and my belly has typically been a source of shame and discomfort. But I really feel that he loves every inch of my menopausal body, wrinkles and all. In response to this, I have felt shame just completely transform. I can’t say it’s completely gone, but it is different, no doubt about that.

Paige: What’s your favorite thing about being mommy?

Katy: Even in a room full of people who think I am a dude, it still makes me so happy to hear “mommy, mommy look!” I love the way he loves me. I love that he knows I am the mama bear that will protect him at all cost.

Paige: Hey, I’m the mama bear! You are the mommy bear. Step off my nomenclature!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Katy: Yes. Happy Mother’s Day to the best co-parent a girl/boy could ever ask for. You really are the best!

Paige: Happy Mother’s Day to 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.


Passing (Or Not) at the Pool

It feels like 95 degrees in the shade. We’re standing in line at the municipal pool. The mom in front of us has three kids and a tattoo on her cleavage that says “Ivan” or “Juan,” I can’t tell which. My hand moves reflexively toward the “Katy” on my own arm. Before I can solve the mystery of Ivan/Juan, the woman moves on. Now it’s our turn to pay the pasty teen behind the concrete counter.

Once inside, we walk past dilapidated metal bleachers and spread our towels under a giant oak tree. By this time in the summer, we know where to sit to avoid fire ants. This is our Sunday afternoon family ritual: I swim laps while Katy takes our six-year-old son, Waylon, to the recreational side of the pool to play with his neon orange Nerf football.

I always feel like I’m getting away with something.

Why should I get to exercise in peace while my spouse does solo parenting duty? But, despite my qualms, I’m mostly superfluous to their fun. Childhood nearsightedness has left me with a permanent fear of flying objects. Katy, on the other hand, is the child of a football coach. She’s serious about passing on her athletic heritage. Waylon can already send the football soaring in a slow, perfect spiral. Each week she expands his vocabulary to include moves like “stiff arm” and “stripping the ball.”

I try to keep an eye on them from the lap lane. They’re usually easy to spot, because Katy makes dramatic, splashy dives for the ball and then stages elaborate fumbles so that Waylon, his head bobbing a few inches above the water line, can intercept. Before each pass, she feints in seven different directions, her face a cartoon of shifting intentions.

Lots of parents use the pool as cheap day care. A fun, involved parent in the water is like an underwater kid magnet. It’s not unusual to look up and see Katy running for the ball with two or three random kids clinging to her broad back, trying in vain to tackle her.

On this particular Sunday, I was just getting used to the rhythm of my breath in the water when a flash in the shallow end caught my eye. I had to stop, mid-lap, and remove my goggles for a better look.

All her life, before and after chest surgery, Katy has worn a t-shirt in the pool. In the water, the shirt gets loose and heavy, which makes it difficult to swim. Out of the water, the shirt gets cold and clingy, which makes it difficult to relax.

Now, some four years after her surgery, Katy had decided to take off her shirt. The flash was the blinding whiteness of her heretofore unexposed skin. It created a high-contrast canvas for the tattoo across her chest, an image of Siva Shakti, the father-mother deity who represents the transcendence of dualities.

When I saw her bare chest from across the pool, I felt a surge of happiness. I hoped she was feeling comfortable, physically and emotionally.

But, of course, taking off her shirt created a whole new set of conundrums. Once she had revealed her man-chest, she was de facto male at the pool. As a genderqueer dyke, she’s used to funny looks and even belligerent bathroom confrontations, but now the women’s changing room felt completely off-limits. And this isn’t some swanky pool with a gender-neutral “family” restroom. She started changing in the car, even on days when she still wore her shirt in the water.

Last Sunday, the t-shirt was on. A sociable four-year-old named Dylan was watching Katy and Waylon play. Katy was throwing Waylon really high in the air. He shrieked with joy on the ascent and cried “again, Mommy, again,” each time he came up for air.

Before long, Dylan sidled over and asked Katy to throw her up in the air too. Katy sent her to ask her mother, who was reading in the shade. Mom gave the thumbs up, doubtless relieved that someone else was entertaining her child.

Once Dylan had been tossed in the air a few times, Waylon got jealous and wanted to play catch instead. Dylan was too tiny to handle the football, so she turned her attention to the puzzle of Katy’s gender.

“You look like a boy,” she said, smiling.

“Yep,” Katy said, smiling back at her.

“You look like a boy because of your hair…and because you have so many tattoos.”

“Yeah, I do,” Katy answered, still smiling.

“Mommy, Mommy, throw it to me,” Waylon shouted. Katy threw it to him.

When I swam up and Waylon started calling me “Mom” too, Dylan looked like her head was going to explode. Still, she couldn’t tear herself away. She kept swimming to the side and then swimming back and asking to be tossed in the air again. I checked to see if her mother was alarmed that she had attached herself like a barnacle to a tattooed and gender ambiguous personage, but mom appeared to be completely absorbed in her book.

Finally, after several rounds of “just one more time” in the air, it was time for us to leave. We said goodbye to Dylan and told her maybe we’d see her next weekend. Katy and Waylon headed to the car to change. I went to the women’s changing room to rinse my hair in the shower.

Dylan followed me in, her mother close on her heels.

“I just want to see if she’s a boy or a girl!” she shouted.

My immediate thought was thank god Katy’s in the car. This is the kind of scene she dreads. My next thought was what’s going to happen now? I was fascinated that Katy’s illegibility had rendered me illegible as well.

Dylan’s mother, looking mortified, scooped her up just as she reached the showers.

“Oh, she has nail polish, she’s a girl,” Dylan concluded.

I had to smile that my 34A bust is apparently not the most salient aspect of my gender presentation.

Later, I would realize the extent to which privilege was shielding me from fear and shame. I sometimes feel a bit queer in the changing room, but, as a gender-conforming cis woman, I still feel a sense of unconscious entitlement.

Perhaps because I felt safe, and because the whole interaction seemed curious rather than hostile, I wasn’t quite ready to be read. As Dylan’s mother dragged her reluctantly away, I couldn’t help troubling the waters one more time.

“Boys can wear nail polish too!” I said, in my friendliest singsong voice.


Genderqueer Mommy

Lately, when I’ve been blogging about my wife, Katy Koonce, it’s been about her role as dynamic front man for the “silicone cock rock” band Butch County. In honor of Mother’s Day, I asked her to talk with me about mothering from beyond the gender binary. In the course of our conversation, we touched on t-ball, chest surgery, field trips, and bathrooms.

Paige: Although people on the street tend to call you “sir,” around our house, you’re known as “mommy.” Can you talk about your identity and how motherhood figures in?

Koonce: My identity is trans-genderqueer-butch-dyke-mommy. “Mommy” is the word I used as a kid to describe the person who could take all the pain away or support me when I needed it. To say “I want my mommy” meant “I want a kind of omnipotent force to swoop down and take care of this problem.” So, when our son Waylon was born, I chose “Mommy” as a name because I loved the idea of being that force for someone in this crazy world of ours. When I found myself really attached to the idea of being someone’s mom, I realized that my gender identity was–at least for this time–landing squarely in the middle and I really love it that way. I love to hear the word “mommy” and to be called “mom” sometimes. But that has no real bearing as to how I feel in my body. For I am often not at home there.

Paige: You had top surgery when our son was 18 months old. It strikes me that there are still so few resources for transgender parents, and especially few stories about parents who transform their bodies without the goal of full transition. Can you talk about what it was like to get chest surgery as a mom?

Koonce: Well, getting chest surgery was way more anti-climactic than I anticipated. Waylon did not look up and say, “Are you my mommy?” There were no marked changes in the amount of “sirs” I receive. My psychotherapy clients did not decompensate without the breasts; they seem to have stayed latched on to the metaphorical breast. The biggest change has been the absence of my private bathroom struggle with the mirror. Tight t-shirts are now my friends and my happiness with my physical presentation has by far made me a happier mommy.

Paige: What is it like being genderqueer in places like elementary school hallways or the t-ball field?

Koonce: Now we are getting into space that feels challenging. My extroverted, jovial personality, which earned me the title of Class Clown in high school, has served me well in uncomfortable situations. Before I was ever conscious of being an outsider, I was defending with humor. So, the elementary school and t-ball field are challenges that I meet in a counter-phobic way, by diving in to what seems least comfortable. I am the field trip chaperone for Waylon’s class. I help coach his t-ball team. Waylon loves this. He seems to actually (so far anyway) love how I stand out from the crowd. Lately, he relishes in literally trying to expose my “soft under-belly,” by pulling up my t-shirt in public, to see if I feel shame. He wants to know I stand strong in who I am even though I have shortcomings like everyone else. He needs reassurance that I/he can tolerate our self-perceived flaws and celebrate our differences. This is why, in a queer, gender diverse family, a trip to the ball park is really always a social experiment. My usual defense is to act like I belong and laugh a lot. The song in my head is from Dreamgirls, “You’re gonna love me!” All in all I suppose it is challenging but pretty awesome.

Paige: But I think you’re doing more than seeking acceptance. By being present and involved, you’re actually transforming people’s assumptions and expanding their gender vocabulary. Just to cite one funny example, I know Waylon’s friends like to create genderqueer characters when they play video games now.

We’ve done a fair amount of LG family events and activism. What is it like to participate in those events where the paradigm is “same gender” parents?

Koonce: I really think I am blessed to feel comfortable as someone who transgresses or transcends gender. Other people might be freaking on me but they can’t sway my feeling of belonging in these spaces.

Paige: Since Mother’s Day was originally an activist holiday, will you say a little bit about your recent activism?

Koonce:
Lately I am have been working with staff at local Austin inpatient mental health facilities to improve access and quality of care for trans people. And I just testified to the Texas legislature about adding gender identity and expression to the hate crimes act. Last but not least, I still use the women’s restroom. Word!

Paige: Thanks for sharing from your personal experience. Happy Mother’s Day, baby!


My Family Gender Odyssey

Lesbian and gay family events are not always comfortable spaces for me and my fam.

That’s partly because some folks don’t know what to make of my genderqueer sweetie, with her man-chest and her female pronouns. It’s partly because the “same-gender parenting” paradigm may or may not describe us, depending on the situation, our moods, and the alignment of the planets. But it’s mostly because there aren’t always other trans parents and partners at gay family events, and the programming doesn’t always reflect our interests and needs.

So I was ecstatic last year when I read the Gender Odyssey program and saw a workshop titled “Fierce Dyke Seen Doing Husband’s Laundry.” Here, finally, I would find folks whose passions and preoccupations were–if not exactly the same as mine–at least in the same neighborhood. While I processed with other partners about identity and inference, Katy found her niche in sessions like “What’s the Rush?” where participants explored new paradigms and time-lines for transition.

But the most amazing thing about Gender Odyssey is that it’s fun for the whole family–even the kids.

Last year was the first year that Gender Odyssey shared time and space with the Gender Spectrum Family conference for people raising gender variant children and transgender teens. The brilliant folks at Gender Odyssey and Gender Spectrum decided to organize a kids camp for children whose parents were attending either conference. Which means that, while I was sitting in the town hall meeting on Dyke/FTM Community Relations, my son, Waylon, was happily gluing googly eyes on a family of sock puppets.

This year, Katy and I proposed a workshop for parents. The conversations in our session were wide-ranging — more often than not, the group’s parenting concerns were not related to gender at all. But while the topics might have been similar in any parenting workshop, it was such a relief that we didn’t have to explain our family or worry about other people’s assumptions. Talking about child-rearing in that context, with other trans parents and partners, was like finding something I didn’t really know I was missing.

Now I’m hooked. I can’t wait for Gender Odyssey 2009, but I’m also interested in broadening my horizons. I hope readers will use the comment space below to suggest other trans family events or to plant the seeds for new ones.

P.S. This year at Gender Odyssey, Waylon made two stick puppets named “Sweetie” and “Smiley,” who seem to have a penchant for scolding George Bush and John McCain in chirpy little voices.


Boygirls, Pillbugs, and Cool Dudes

Last week was spring break, so I got to spend a lot of time gardening with my four-year-old son, Waylon. He was really excited to capture his first roly poly bug of the season. The poor creature had curled up into a little protective ball, and Waylon was about to shove it in his pocket, but then thought better of it (ahem) with a little parental prodding. He decided instead to free it in a pot where we had just planted a little green succulent called “Mother of Millions.”

“Mom, I put that roly poly in the plant, and he or she—or if it’s a girlboy or a boygirl—is going to dig in the dirt and make it soft.”

Waylon, you had me at “he or she.”

As a feminist parent, I have experienced few greater joys than hearing non-sexist language carefully applied to a pill bug. But although I would love to take credit for Waylon’s refusal to assume the gender of the pill bug, it’s really his own creative adaptation to his context, just as “girlboy” and “boygirl” are categories he created to describe the people around him.

Now, when I was in college, my Child Development professor taught that children begin to consolidate their concepts of gender identity around three years of age, and that the process is often marked by heightened rigidity about gender norms. So I thoroughly expected Waylon to become a little gender cop when he hit three. He did go through a phase when he wanted to categorize everyone. One of his favorite games was a toddler form of people watching, where he would look at people in the park or in the grocery store and yell out “boy!” or “girl!” And while I wanted to support Waylon in whatever developmental thing he was working through, this game could be extremely socially mortifying. I would estimate that he was “right” (in that his attributions matched the gender identities of passersby) about 75% of the time.

Luckily it didn’t take Waylon too long to come up against the inadequacy of his binary categories. Another of his favorite games around this time was to ask, over and over, “Mama, are you a girl?” For me it was easy to answer with a straightforward “yes,” but for Katy things were not so simple. Since he asked this question about ten times a day for at least a month, she had plenty of time to formulate a good answer. “I’m kind of a mix of girl and boy,” she’d say. “I’m a mommy, but I look more like a boy than Mama does.”

Contrary to what child development specialists might predict, Waylon did not skip a beat. Before long, he was asking “Mommy, are you a boygirl?” ten times a day, and Waylon’s four-coordinate gender axis (girl, boy, boygirl, girlboy) was born. It may not be exhaustive (what gender system could be), but it has more descriptive depth than a binary. The first time we really saw this system in action was when our friend Kelly came to visit from San Francisco when Waylon was three. Kelly is a trans-identified butchy queer with blonde, boyish looks. She has tattoos of ships on her arms and endless patience for playing Thomas the Train, so Waylon adores her. One morning Kelly and Katy were taking Waylon and his best friend, Flynn, to the playground. Katy was driving, Kelly was riding shotgun, and Waylon and Flynn were strapped in their car seats in the back. Flynn leaned over to his buddy and said, in an astonished three-year-old stage whisper, “Waylon, is that a boy or a girl?”

“Silly, that’s Kelly,” said Waylon. “She’s a boygirl.”

Around that same time, Time published an editorial in which James Dobson condemned Mary Cheney’s decision to have a baby with her partner. “Love alone is not enough to guarantee healthy growth and development,” Dobson opined. “The two most loving women in the world cannot provide a daddy for a little boy–any more than the two most loving men can be complete role models for a little girl.” This week, as I’ve been pondering Waylon and his pill bug, I’ve been also been contemplating what the four coordinate gender axis does to Dobson’s notion of a “complete” gender role model.

When I was growing up, I had a family, and a father, that at least resembled Dobson’s prescription, but I still grew up only knowing one version of masculinity—my dad’s verbally-fluent, academic, leg-crossing, middle class version of masculinity. I rarely saw my friends’ dads (the 1970s in suburban America were not that different from the 1950s in terms of paternal involvement, as far as I can tell), but when I did, I always thought they must be mad about something, because I was so unaccustomed to their predominantly silent, aggrieved, inexpressive ways. (I distinctly remember seeing my friend Amy’s dad, who had just come back from Vietnam, open the fridge and drink milk from the carton, and it was such a disturbing breach of known fatherly protocol that I almost had to run home.)

The fact is that there have always been multiple masculinities, multiple genders, and queer families probably have even better resources in terms of introducing their children to a range of genders and gender expressions. And, although Dobson might like people to believe it, we’re not raising our kids in a test tube—we have families and communities. For masculine role models, Waylon has his (now openly gay) grandpa, who takes him for rides in his Corvette and lets Waylon throw an endless supply of pebbles in his pool. He has “Uncle Brian,” his donor, an old working class rocker who found his calling as a social worker with mentally retarded people. Most importantly, he has Mommy, who created her own uniquely Texan brand of female masculinity from her cowboy big brothers and her football coach dad.

Our extended family “village” also includes the teachers at Waylon’s school, Habibi’s Hutch. I don’t know if it’s because childcare is so undervalued (and under-compensated) in our society, or if it’s the remnants of the 1980s daycare sexual abuse hysteria, but daycares with male directors and male teachers seem relatively rare. Habibis’ has both a male director and a gender balanced staff of committed teachers, many of whom have been teaching there for more than a decade. Waylon has loved all of his teachers, but the dudes have played a special role in his life.

When Waylon was first potty-trained, his lesbian mothers thought it would be great if he kept sitting down to pee for a long as possible, thus saving our bathroom floors from his errant stream for as long as possible. I’m pretty sure it was the male teachers at Habibis who intervened to save him from parentally-programmed dorkiness, and before long he could hit the bowl like a pro. Several months later, Waylon was peeing at home and I was sitting on the edge of the tub, talking to him. He stopped mid-stream, adjusted his pants a little further down, and resumed his pee. Then he turned to me and said, with casual confidence, “It’s called choking your balls.”

“What?!?”

“When your underwear goes up too high while you’re peeing. It’s called ‘choking your balls.’”

I would never have known.

As I write this post, I’m mourning the fact that this will be Waylon’s last spring at Habibi’s. He’ll start kindergarten in the fall, and then his preschool teacher, Mike Esparza, won’t be as much a part of our daily lives. Mike has taught at Habibi’s for fifteen years. He usually sports long hair, a moustache and goatee, tube socks, and black plastic glasses. He looks a bit like a Mexican Jad Fair, but more handsome and coordinated. He rides a BMX bike to work, and he regales the kids with tales of death-defying bike adventures, as well as yarns from his childhood with a rotating cast of characters like his friend “Fat Jason” and his “dumb uncle.” Mike tends to speak in aphorisms that get repeated like the sacred word around our house. I can always tell when I am about to get a dose of Mike wisdom, because of the reverential tones in Waylon’s voice before he enlightens me.

“Mom, if you’re looking for something, and you stop looking for it, then you’ll probably find it.”

“Mom, people who say ‘stupid’ a lot probably are stupid.”

“Mom, the headliner is usually the best one.”

Some of the male teachers at Habibi’s are really warm, fuzzy, nurturing guys. If Waylon is having trouble with the morning transition, then hands-down it is Andrew he wants to go to. Andrew hugs him and tells him, “I’m so glad you’re here,” in the sweetest, most sincere voice imaginable. Mike’s style of nurturing is different, but not indifferent. There’s a little more distance there, but it’s an interested distance, one that lets the kids have their own process and make their own discoveries. I appreciate it, because I want Waylon to grow up comfortable with lots of different styles of masculinity and lots of different versions of “role model.” I know Waylon appreciates it too. When I asked him to describe Mike, the usually loquacious Waylon would only say, “he’s cool.”


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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