Tag Archives: LGBT parent

Trans Family Story Featured in Parenting Mag

Howdy QRL readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100px-A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain3.svg

 

Image by ParaDox, found on Wikipedia.


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!


Days of Shirley Jackson

I remember the day I became obsessed with Shirley Jackson.

Photo credit: Laurence Jackson, Shirley’s son

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

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

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

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

New York Times, 1965 (obituary)

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

–Lenemaja Friedman, Shirley Jackson (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Can’t wait for fall.

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

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

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


Picturing Plaid Dad

My mom is in Mexico for a few weeks, so I think it’s safe to share this story.

Mom

A fragment from the family archive: my parents’ engagement announcement.

Two years ago, Mom’s dad died. My grandpa was an artist and entrepreneur, a small-time inventor who owned a custom picture framing shop. Over 65 years of marriage, he and Grandma amassed a large archive of slides and photographs that documented everything from their courtship to Grandpa’s business ventures and countless family camping trips.

My sister and I both flew to Phoenix for Grandpa’s funeral, but Kristen got there first. She spent an entire day immersed in the family archive, helping Mom select pictures for a coffin-side photo collage. Ever the social scientist, Kristen wasted no time in sorting through the evidence and identifying her own salient data. By the time I arrived, she had the slide projector set up in Grandma’s living room.

“There’s this picture you have to see,” she said, when we had a moment in private. “It’s Mom and Dad right after their honeymoon. They actually look kind of hip. It’s weird. I need to have it.”

Unfortunately, our mother had already sniffed out my sister’s fascination. She sighed when Kristen switched out the lights. Over the lumbering hum of the ancient projector, Mom performed a multimedia symphony of teeth-sucking and eye-rolling. She actually groaned when the post-honeymoon picture clicked into view. “Oh puhleeez.”

The more we delighted, the more she protested. “Mom, you look so beautiful…I love that dress… You guys were so cute… I wish my hair could look like that.”

“Oh, stop it,” she said. “Just stop.”

The problem was as clear as the Arizona sunlight. In the photo, my father is sprawled in a mid-century lawn chair in my grandparents’ backyard. His hair is slightly long, and he’s wearing Wayfarer-style glasses with black frames. Although my grandparents were teetotalers, Alex seems to be holding a scotch and soda. His lanky legs are crossed at the knee, and he’s wearing a pair of extremely loud plaid pants.

In other words, he looks like he should be having cocktails with Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. He looks like a great big gay.

Mom glamour shot.

Mom’s glamour shot.

The next day, after Grandpa’s funeral, we were too sad and tired to bother with the slides. Mom said her husband was going to digitize them all, so it seemed pretty certain that we’d be able to get a copy of The Photo, the one we really wanted.

A few weeks later, Kristen casually asked about the slides. Mom said she would send them. Instead, she emailed a copy of the glamour shot that she uses for her Facebook profile.

Beautiful, but not quite what we were looking for.

An outsider might find it difficult to sympathize with our singular passion for a snapshot. But when you grow up with a closeted parent, there’s a big part of your family history that’s missing. It’s not simply because people are guarding family secrets; the largest holes in the fabric of memory are worn by the unconscious effort of resisting what is already known.

As adults, my sister and I can spend hours analyzing a remembered word or gesture, trying to figure out where we came from and how it shaped us. It’s personal, sometimes it’s sad or frustrating or harrowing. But it’s also pleasurable. The truth is, we like being sleuths in the archive, putting the pieces together in different combinations, trying to see what stories we can tell.

For my parents, the photo elicits different feelings. In these black and white snapshots, they are literally exposed. What should I have known? What did I show? Who knew? Did I seem like a fool? A joke?

Last Christmas, Kristen raised the question of The Photo with our father. Since my dad came out in 1994, I have seen him wear some truly outrageous ensembles. My favorite was the time he showed up at a (Mormon) family reunion in shiny black pants with a chain mail belt. However, as Kristen began to describe the missing picture, he grimaced. It was as if somehow he already knew.

“Am I wearing funny pants in that picture?”

Yes, funnypants, we love you. And, for the record, my mom is at a language school in Mexico this month, and I know she’s rocking those irregular verbs, because she’s super smart.

Funnypants

Me and my dad, circa 1971.

Meta-portrait with Mom.


The Incident

A few months back, I wrote that my son had never been bullied at his Texas public school. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that Waylon is in third grade now, but a week or two later there was an incident.

The story unfolded over dinner at our favorite neighborhood Texmex restaurant. Waylon was well into his second bean and cheese taco when he broached the subject. “Mom, B– said that being gay is bad.”

B– is a familiar character in our dinner table conversations. He’s an older kid who attends Waylon’s after-school program. He has a prime position in the elementary school social hierarchy because his parents allow him to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Every day after school, B– captivates the children of our hippy dippy neighborhood with his encyclopedic knowledge of military weaponry.

“What did you do when he said that?” I was trying to keep my voice calm. I was thinking do not freak out, do not freak out, do not let him see that you are kind of freaking out.

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.'”

Oh my god, he’s like a LAMB to the SLAUGHTER!! What CALLOUS IDIOTS taught our son to be so trusting and forthright?

“What did he say?” my wife, Katy, asked. She was using her professional therapist voice.

“He said that must be why I look like his dog when I smile.”

I’m not going to lie; I wanted to track B– down and shake him ’til his eyes rattled. Then I wanted to drag Katy in the next room and chew her out for convincing me to have a kid in the first place.

Instead, I said, “How did that make you feel?”

Which sounds like a stupid thing to say. But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn’t indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents. I knew this wouldn’t be the last incident, and I needed to convince him that I could handle the truth.

“I don’t know,” Waylon said, looking kind of vague. “Bad, I guess…”

“Well, I feel really mad,” I said. My voice was calibrated to convey approximately 10% of my actual rage. “It’s not okay for him to say that.” I felt I was walking a tightrope, trying to help him identify his feelings without turning the whole conversation into the Seething Mom Show.

“Do I need to kick his ass?” Katy asked.

Waylon looked shocked. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “Sort of.” He smiled. I could tell he was glad that his mom had his back against a bully, even though he knew it was a fantasy.

Katy is a former bully herself, a gender nonconforming kid who kept people from messing with her by being the meanest, toughest kid on the playground. I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they’re scared, how B– was probably parroting his parents, repeating some version of the messages he’d received about himself.

Waylon was absolutely clear that he did not want us to intervene directly with B–. He wanted to see if he could handle the situation on his own before he risked antagonizing a powerful older kid.

The next morning, I was on the phone with the director of the after-school program. I didn’t violate Waylon’s trust; I didn’t tell her the name of the kid or any identifying characteristics, but I did let her know what had been said.

The director promised to respond with a generic lesson about name-calling and respect. I suggested that a unit on family diversity might be more effective, and she made some vague placating noises. I sent her a link to a research-tested curriculum about different kinds of families. I’m sure she and her colleagues had a good laugh about that one.

This is, after all, Texas public school. No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays. Last year, I asked if our school could print the district’s nondiscrimination clause – which includes sexual orientation – in the school handbook. The principal deftly suggested that the school might run a statement in support of the nondiscrimination policy without actually printing the inflammatory words.

The next evening, when I picked Waylon up from aftercare, the head teacher approached me. He’d heard the details of the incident from his supervisor, and he wanted to assure me that they had a plan to respond.

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole bunch of worksheets for them. You’re probably going to hear Waylon complain about how boring it is for the next couple of days.”

Apparently, that’s our response to bias in Texas – bore the victim.

I was angry all over again. I coldly suggested that there might be a problem if he could predict in advance that his lesson would be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not, I explained, inherently boring material. Difference is actually pretty juicy.

But I knew I was barking up the wrong tree. The aftercare program is staffed by college students, and it takes training to facilitate the kind of conversation that these kids needed to have. It requires the freedom to acknowledge and describe all kinds of differences and the intense feelings they engender. I didn’t have much hope that kind of freedom was going to blossom from a worksheet.

As we walked to the car, I was feeling pretty low. I was ashamed of myself for snapping at the teacher. I felt guilty for being a self-employed writer who sends her son to low-cost after-school care. I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.

There’s nothing like parenthood for bringing out internalized homophobia.

Luckily, Waylon was in a talkative mood. “Did you see B–?” he asked. “I can’t believe he said I look like his dog!”

“I know,” I said. I stopped and looked him right in the eye. “I’m so sorry that that happened to you. I feel terrible.”

“Wait,” Waylon asked. “Why do you feel terrible?”

“I just think you’re so great, and I feel awful that someone would say something that made you feel bad about yourself.”

“Oh I don’t feel bad about myself,” Waylon said in a Mom-you-are-weird kind of voice. He opened the car door and tossed his backpack inside.

I’ve reviewed this moment many times. Was he feeling pressure to reassure me? Was he repeating something we’d said? Or could he really separate the slur from his own self-image?

When I was a kid, if people picked on me or called me names, I felt shame. I was afraid to tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to know that something was wrong with me. I thought it was my job to keep everyone happy with me at all times, which is probably why I didn’t come out until I was almost 30.

I’d like to believe that Waylon’s experience has been completely different. I hope he knows that the problem isn’t him – or even B–. It’s about whole systems of power and inequality, privilege and oppression, which we try to discuss in everyday words on everyday occasions.

In any case, we’ve lived through the incident, and I’m sure we’ll weather many more.

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.


Donor Duet, II

Before Waylon was born, I believed that my future child would not watch much television. On the rare occasions when he did watch television, I imagined, he would choose something that I liked – something witty and subversive like PeeWee’s Playhouse.

Apparently there’s a karmic debt to be paid for such hubris, because my son did turn out to like television, quite a bit. At age four, his favorite show was Thomas and Friends, a neo-Victorian boy’s tale about anthropomorphic steam engines who compete to be “a really useful engine” in the eyes of a pig-eyed industrialist called Sir Topham Hatt.

“Mom, can I watch just one more Thomas?” Waylon asked, his face a caricature of exaggerated yearning. We had spent the morning jumping waves and building sand castles and flying kites on the beach. We were exhausted and a little bit sunburned. We’d had a late lunch and a shower, I’d removed most of the sand from Waylon’s hair, and now we were lounging on the worn couch of our rented beach house, waiting for Katy and Brian to return from band practice.

“OK,” I said, cuddling him closer. “You can watch one more episode. But you have to turn it off when Uncle Brian gets back.”

Two days earlier, when Brian and his wife Kathy arrived at our house in Austin, Waylon had dutifully dispensed hugs and kisses before retreating to the safety of his toys. Today was our first full day at the beach, and Waylon was still a little shy around the newcomers.

I remembered what it was like to meet some relative whom your parents always talked about. You felt pressure to produce fond feelings, to fall in love with this new person. But it was awkward, even stifling, because the relationship was pre-defined. I was thinking about how to help Waylon feel comfortable (and succumbing to a familiar Thomas and Friends stupor) when I heard the sound of boots on the outside stairs. Katy came in first, walked over, kissed us both, and sat on the couch. Brian entered next, nodded in our general direction, and headed to the fridge for a beer.

Over the past 24 hours, Brian had become increasingly edgy and withdrawn. Today’s practice was the first of only three full rehearsals for the show. Some of the band members hadn’t touched their instruments for almost 20 years. From the look on Brian’s face, I guessed things hadn’t gone so well.

He brought his beer into the living room and sat across from us, looking pale beneath his five o’ clock shadow. He looked like a different man from the rocker in Katy’s old photos. His long, bleached hair was now short and dark. He wore cargo shorts and a baggy T-shirt. It was hard to believe that he’d once pranced around the stage in eyeliner and a jockstrap. Right now he looked like he’d prefer to crawl under a blanket and never come out.

“Waylon,” I said, “it’s time to turn off Thomas.” I was afraid that the minor dramas of the station house would push Brian over the edge.

For once, Waylon turned off the TV without complaining. While Katy and I chatted about band practice, he dragged Master the robot from behind the couch and began to play in Brian’s vicinity. I could see Waylon looking at this new grown-up from the corner of his eye. I guessed that he wanted to engage, but he wasn’t quite sure how to begin. He flipped Master’s switch on and off, over and over again.

“I-am-Master. I-sense-your-fear.”

“I-am-Master. I-sense-your-fear.”

“I-am…”

“Wait,” Brian said, coming out of his reverie, “What is he saying?”

Waylon repeated it for him slowly, “He says ‘I sense your fear.'”

“No,” Brian said, deadpan. “No.” Waylon looked confused, almost heartbroken.

“No,” Brian explained, “He says, ‘I-am-Master. I’ll-buy-you-a-beer.'”

Waylon cracked up. Apparently this was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard. He couldn’t stop repeating it, talking over Master’s mechanical voice, forcing the robot to buy endless rounds of cheer for everyone in the living room.

Read Part III here.


Donor Duet, III

Surfside Beach is connected to the mainland by a string of chemical plants. Vast plantations of pipes and cooling towers squat over the shallow waters of the bay. At night, illuminated by security lights, the plants were strangely beautiful. In the daytime, they made me think of cancer and three-headed fish.

We were traversing this no-man’s-land because Katy had a mission. She had found an old picture of Brian onstage, naked except for a cigarette, a fedora, and a strategically placed guitar. We were driving to the Brazosport Mall to get it transferred onto t-shirts for the show.

“I want a shirt too,” Waylon said from the back. “I want a shirt with Uncle Brian on it.”

“Hmm,” I said. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate.”

“Oh, what the hell,” Katy protested. “He wants a t-shirt of his donor.”

“Well, you can’t wear it to school,” I said, weakly. What the hell. It was a hilarious picture.

We were just coming over the bridge to the mainland, and Katy pulled over at a store called Buc-cee’s, which was a combination convenience store, surf shop, and t-shirt emporium. They sold diesel fuel, bikinis, flip flops, and blow-up rafts, along with hamburgers, chicken wings, chewing tobacco, beer, and homemade fig preserves.

Waylon was immediately drawn to a large display of sand pails and shovels. Katy headed for the children’s clothes and started flipping through the racks for a size 4 black t-shirt. I decided to try on floppy sun hats. If you can’t beat the consumers, I figured, you might as well get something good.

“Mommy, Mommy, can I have this?”

Waylon was dragging an enormous plastic ship through the racks of bathing suits and trunks. When it was clear that he was addressing Katy as “Mommy,” everyone in the store, from the teenage girl in the bikini aisle to the trucker waiting for his food order, did a double take. I couldn’t tell if Katy noticed.

“Sure,” she said automatically. “Check out this t-shirt.” She held up a black t-shirt with an anchor on the sleeve that said “Surfside Beach.” It matched the tattoos on her arms.

“Yes!” Waylon exclaimed. They high-fived.

The line at the cash register was long. One vacationing family was buying snacks for a day on Surfside. But mostly it was chemical plant workers, grabbing coffee and donuts before reporting to shifts at Dow and Shintech. Katy scooped up Waylon and held him while we waited. “My boy,” she said, kissing his head. “My boy is going to get a shirt just like Mommy’s.” Waylon nodded enthusiastically.

“If anybody asks you who’s on the back, what do you say?”

Waylon shrugged.

“You say, ‘that’s my Donor!'”

***

That night, after practice, Brian was even more nervous. He sat silently through dinner, answering his wife’s cheerful queries about band practice with terse, one-word answers. Kathy’s daughter, Jessica, was visiting from college, and I felt bad, because Brian’s nerves were casting a pall over their mother-daughter time.

“We could build a bonfire on the beach tonight?” Kathy asked, hopefully. Brian shrugged and stared at his food. The silence was awkward, unbearable. All of the women, myself included, immediately began to fill it with airy small talk. But when Brian left the room, Kathy scraped his plate with barely contained fury, her lips pressed together in a thin line. After the dishes were done, she wiped the formica table in sharp, precise circles.

I hovered between helping and not helping. The whole scene was like a rerun of the family gatherings of my early adolescence. I knew the script by heart: men set the mood, women set the table…and cook, and clean up. As a teenager, I’d vowed to resist my assigned role in this drama. Now, stuck in the beach house, I felt angsty and oddly irritated with Katy. I didn’t sign on for this much heterosexuality! Why are you making me sit through this? I wanted to hold my hands over Waylon’s eyes. Don’t watch!

My angst was tempered by a guilty sense of sympathy. I guessed Kathy wasn’t used to seeing her husband this nervous. They had met long after he retired from Rokitt. In her world, Brian was a caseworker for people with developmental disabilities. I had seen him with some of his clients when we visited Michigan. He was relaxed, patient, sweet.

After dinner, Brian retired to the back porch to smoke. Everyone else gathered in the living room. It was clear that no bonfire was going to materialize.

“Mom, can I watch one more Thomas?” Waylon asked.

I felt ambivalent. I knew he was bored, but I didn’t want to be rude, hogging the TV with kiddie shows.

“Ask Uncle Brian if he wants to use the TV,” I answered. Just then, Brian walked in the door and started to cross the room. Waylon followed him across the linoleum floor.

“Can I watch TV?” he asked, tugging on Brian’s shorts.

“I don’t know,” Brian said, sullenly. His whole body recoiled from the responsibility that the question implied. “Ask your mom.”

***

The next day, Waylon and I escaped to the beach to jump waves. Every few minutes he yelled, “This is so fun!” as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck. I felt the same way. As a child, I would stay in the surf for so long that my body could feel the rise and fall of the waves in my bed at night. Now Waylon’s excitement was making me feel like we shared a special bond.

When he got winded, I held him on my hip and jumped for him. Waylon told me stories about preschool. I told him stories about childhood vacations. We talked until I ran out of stories, but he still wasn’t ready to go ashore.

“Are you excited for the big rock show tonight?” I asked.

“Uh-huh.” He shook his head. We’d been taking him to shows since he was a month old.

“Are you going to dance for Uncle Brian?” I asked.

“Yes, and I’m going to sing with the band. On the stage.” he informed me.

“Oh.” This was the first time I’d heard of this plan. I didn’t want to smash his dreams, but I also didn’t want him to be disappointed if it didn’t work out.

“Um, Sweetie, Mommy is singing with the band. Did anyone tell you that you were going to sing with the band?”

“No,” he said serenely. “I just am.”

Read Part IV here.


Donor Duet, IV

The sun is setting on the beach as we make our way down Surfside’s narrow, two-lane highway. When we pull into the sandy parking lot of Stahlman Park Recreation center, I’m relieved to see that the parking lot is fairly crowded. It helps that every third vehicle is a puffed-up Ford F150, which takes up one and a half regular parking spaces.

I release Waylon from the back of our Volkswagen. He looks adorable in his black t-shirt with Brian’s picture on the back.

“Are you ready to rock?” I ask.

“Yeah!” he yells.

“We’re going to dance and clap really loud, right?”

“Yeah, and I’m going to sing with Uncle Brian,” he assures me as we walk across the sandy parking lot.

“That’s a sweet idea,” I tell him, taking his hand. “But it’s not very likely, at least not tonight.” I know that I sound like a wet blanket. I just don’t want my baby to get hurt. Waylon breaks away and charges up the wooden ramp to the rec center. Outdoor floodlights illuminate the picture of Brian on his back. “Slow down!” I yell as he disappears through the swinging doors.

The danger of any kind of reunion is finding out that you’re just not that relevant to people’s lives. I have only heard about Rokitt from Katy, and she is Brian’s best friend. I don’t have a good sense of what Rokitt meant to other folks – until I walk into the bright, air-conditioned space of the rec center. The folding chairs are filled with old rockers and their teenage kids, chatting and eating in tidy rows of 10-foot banquet tables. I spot Waylon near the kitchen, where a team of women is setting out cookies. The buffet table is decorated like a high school prom, with plastic picture cubes that displayed Rokitt photos on all six sides.

By the time I cross the room, Waylon has a cookie in hand and is making his escape. He runs straight into his Tía Sandra, Katy’s other best friend, who catches him in a bear hug. As I make my way to where they’re standing, Sandra pretends to devour the “sugars” from Waylon’s neck, which make him laugh and squeal. When she finally hands him back to me, he is content to rest on my hip and eat his cookie.

“Sandra,” I ask, “did you know Brian when he was in Rokitt?” Sandra and I are the same age – nearly a decade younger than most of the people in the rec hall – and I’m curious to hear her perspective on the whole scene.

“I went to see them when I was in high school. Some of my rocker friends took me to their show at the KC Hall. The next day, everyone was wearing Rokitt t-shirts to class. You would have thought fuckin’ Motley Crue had come to town.”

I’ve seen pictures of Sandra from the eighties, when her black, curly hair was styled in a glorious Mexican mullet. Back then, she and Katy were both identified as “butches with hair.” Now she wears it close to her head in a crew cut. She has recently been hired as an operator at one of the plants that line the beach road. One of those big, puffy trucks in the parking lot belongs to her.

A white man with hands and neck like sunburned hams is approaching. Redneck alert! Redneck alert! I pull Waylon closer to me. As the ham man walks past, on his way to the cookie tray, he gives Sandra a subtle nod. “How you doin?” Sandra says, nodding back. I marvel at how my friend has taken her place in a world of men who work in the volatile chemical plants.

Suddenly, the band members take their places. There’s no stage, so they just walk, unceremoniously, to their instruments. A skinny guy with hair like Kenny G is speaking into the microphone. I think he’s the emcee, but the people in the audience don’t seem to notice. Brian is pacing in front of the drum kit, his movements cramped by nervousness. He’s wearing Katy’s tight black jeans and a t-shirt that says “I rock,” with a picture of an antique rocking chair. His face is deathly pale. I’m afraid he might puke before the end of the introduction. Finally, the emcee hands over the mic. The band starts to play. Brian lets out a feeble whoop. The audience stops talking.

From the back of the room, I realize that I’m holding my breath, and I force myself to breathe naturally. They sound okay. Brian’s voice is clear and tuneful. He’s still stiff, but he manages a jaunty kick at the end of the first song. I find an empty folding chair near Kathy. Waylon scoots onto my lap as the band dives into their second number, a Judas Priest cover. I sneak a peek at Kathy’s face. She looks happy and relieved and a little teary. Rokitt is loosening up now, and the crowd gives them hearty applause. In the next row, an elderly lady with white hair turns to her daughter. “Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law,” she quotes.

Brian is looking less frightened. “I just took some Geritol, and I’m waiting for it to kick in,” he jokes between songs. I wonder if anyone under 35 has ever heard of Geritol. “Feel free to dance, if you can find some room,” he adds. “Any time.”

I’m from Austin, where there’s an unspoken thirteenth commandment: thou shalt dance when thy friend’s band plays. At the Stahlman Park Recreational Center, the folding chairs dominate all but a tiny space in the very front. People are behaving like they’re at a church social – grabbing plates of potato salad and catching up with their neighbors while the band plays. Between the chatter and the bright lights and the absence of an actual stage, the whole thing is lacking a certain intensity. I’m worried about the energy of Brian and the other guys. I just want people in this room to bear proper witness to the miracle of middle aged men making music together.

Katy’s up at the front, bouncing and head-banging, but she’s interrupted every few minutes by someone who wants to catch up on old times. Katy was elected “Howdy Queen” at her high school, an honor bestowed on the friendliest freshman girl. However, even as Howdy Queen, Katy didn’t look like a girl. I’ve seen the coronation photos, and she looks like a football player in half-hearted drag. Throughout high school, Katy’s mom outfitted her daughter with Jane Mansfield-style bras that made Katy’s boobs loom in front of her like alien orbs. Twenty-five years later, she has a surgically flattened chest and can wear her clothing of choice: jeans and a muscle shirt. Her body is still ambiguous. And her warmth and enthusiasm still have the power to charm people who would otherwise be frightened by the mystery.

It doesn’t hurt that she’s the daughter of a football coach. When Katy comes up to sing with Brian, the little old lady in the front whispers something to her daughter. I imagine it’s along the lines of “Who’s that tattooed dyke?” Her daughter answers and the lady shakes her head excitedly. “Oh, that’s Katy Koonce.” She taps her husband on the shoulder. “That’s Katy Koonce!” she yells in his ear. He shakes his head too. People here remember the days when Brazoswood High went to the state championship. Katy ran onto the field with her dad after every game.

I figure the people must have some kind of fond memories of Katy, because the crowd is cheering as Katy humps Brian’s leg through the chorus of “Talk Dirty to Me.” It’s hard to believe that the Stahlman Park Recreation Center is bearing witness to such a queer spectacle. These two old friends feed each other’s energy, and their duet shifts the mood in the room. Waylon, for one, is out of his seat and dancing. As the band makes its way through original numbers like “Sweet Sixteen” and “You Make Love Too Tough,” he bounces and bangs his head. Occasionally he throws in some Kung Fu moves and King Tut poses. Every time he gets too close to the band, I have to run up in front of the folding chairs and drag him out of the spotlight. “That’s Katy Koonce’s lesbian lover,” I imagine the old woman saying to her husband. “And their gay love child!”

After the tenth time that Waylon rushes the band, I pull him aside for a little talk.

“Mommy was singing with the band because they invited her,” I explain. “You can’t keep going up there and getting in their way. It’s Uncle Brian’s big night.”

Waylon nods obediently, and then runs away. An old friend of Katy’s stops to talk to me, but I’m distracted, trying to spot Waylon in the crowd. By the time my eyes find him, he’s already back at the front. He’s somehow managed to take apart one of the plastic picture cubes, and he’s holding a handful of old photos. As the band launches into the final song, Waylon crawls up to the microphone and carefully lays the pictures at Brian’s feet.

“You show us everything you’ve got,” Brian growls into the mic. “And baby, baby that’s quite a lot.”

Waylon is jumping up an down, elated. He knows this song! Brian leans down toward him for the chorus.

“I wanna rock and roll all night,” he growls.

He extends the microphone to Waylon. Waylon contemplates it for a beat.

“And party ev-er-y day!” he squeals in his high, four-year-old voice.

Brian leads into the chorus again, and Waylon sings his part. He’s on the beat now, and people in the room are beginning to laugh and look at one another like, “Who is that kid?” By the time the second chorus comes around, the two have fallen into an easy call and response: first phrase low and gravelly, second phrase high and squeaky.

“I wanna rock and roll all night,” Brian calls.

“And party ev-e-ry day!” Waylon answers, looking proud. Every time he hits his line, people in the crowd hoot and clap. It’s a magical moment, the kind that you wish would never end because you can’t quite believe it’s real.

Katy comes up and puts her arms around me. I can feel her tears sliding down my neck. I look around the room and see Sandra against the back wall. She’s smiling and crying big butch tears too. Sandra helped raise two nieces in this community. Now she and her girlfriend are thinking about having a baby of their own.

Brian nods to the band to play the chorus one more time. “I wanna rock and roll all night.”

“And party every day!” They sing the last line together. Then Brian hangs up his microphone and sweeps Waylon into his arms. Waylon throws his arms around Brian’s neck, and they hug for a long time. Brian turns to the audience and makes the devil horns. Waylon painstakingly folds his middle fingers down to imitate Brian’s heavy metal salute.

The crowd is shouting and clapping and calling for an encore. They’re honoring Rokitt and honoring their youth. It feels like they’re honoring our queer family, with all of its twists and unexpected turns. For the moment, I’m so glad that we decided to step into this particular unknown.


Donor Duet

Originally published on The Bilerico Project in May 2011.

Two days before our sperm donor was due to arrive in Texas, my wife walked in the door with a bulging sack of secondhand toys.

“Waylon already has too many toys,” I said, shaking my head. “His birthday was a month ago! He’s barely four and he has enough stuff to fill two closets.”

“I know, I know,” she replied, looking sheepish. “But he’s going to be the only kid at the beach this weekend.”

This is one of our most familiar family dynamics: Katy indulges, Paige worries, Waylon gets the loot. But for once I wasn’t worried about my son’s consumer character. I was more concerned about my wife’s impulse to play Santa in July.

On the surface, her justification for the new toys was entirely plausible. We were about to embark on the kind of trip down memory lane that only the middle-aged can appreciate. Katy’s best friend Brian, Waylon’s sperm donor, was coming to Texas to play a reunion show with Rokitt, his hair metal band from the ’80s. But rather than the gritty Texas blues clubs that they played in their prime, this time Rokitt was planning to electrify their die-hard fans from the fluorescently-lit comfort of the Stahlman Park Recreation Center on Surfside, a tiny island south of Galveston.

Surfside Beach is not exactly the Riviera of the Texas coast. But Waylon wasn’t exactly a beach snob. He played in the sand all day long at his preschool, digging holes and tunnels and rivers. Every night at bath time, he reluctantly parted from a personal reserve of sand. Despite Katy’s worries, there could be no doubt that he was looking forward to a vacation that involved beaches full of unlimited sand.

When it came to the ocean, however, Waylon’s expectations were as murky as the waters off the Texas coast. We had taken him to the Gulf of Mexico a few times before, but it wasn’t clear that he remembered. When I asked if he was looking forward to playing in the waves at Surfside, Waylon remained vague. “Uh huuuuuh,” he murmured, looking off into the middle distance.

It was pretty much the same situation when I asked if Waylon was looking forward to seeing “Uncle” Brian. They had only met once, when Waylon was about 18 months old, and I knew Waylon didn’t remember. Brian called him at Christmas and birthday time, and Waylon communicated with the harassed politeness that children everywhere extend to long-distance relatives.

With the Rokitt reunion on the horizon, Katy had been pulling out old pictures and trying to enlist Waylon’s enthusiasm for the band and its sperm donor front man.

“Waylon,” she said, holding out a picture from an amateur photo shoot circa 1987, “Do you know who this is?”

Waylon looked up from his blocks, scanned the picture of a man in a ripped tank top and lace tights, and shook his head.

“That’s Uncle Brian!” Katy explained, in a sing-song Barney voice. “Remember, he gave us the seed that we needed to make you?”

This line about the seed was what we’d been telling Waylon ever since he was old enough for us to tell him something about the way we made him. I worried at times that it was too euphemistic, but it was technically accurate. Thus far, although Waylon loved to hear stories about how his parents met and decided to have a baby, he hadn’t expressed interest in the mechanics of conception. From what I could tell, it hadn’t yet crossed his radar that his moms couldn’t make a baby on their own. Whatever we were saying about seeds just seemed extraneous.

Regardless of what Waylon understood, Katy’s enthusiasm for her best friend and his erstwhile band was hard to resist. Over the last few days, Waylon had begun to recognize the guy in the pictures and to look forward to seeing Rokitt play. I was getting excited, too. But I was also scared.

Brian wasn’t part of our queer milieu of chosen family. He had a wife, an ex-wife, and a son in high school. The few times that we’d met, I hadn’t been able to decipher his dudely, understated manners. From my vantage point, it wasn’t clear if Brian was really down for new and complicated family ties. I worried that this vacation would prepare Waylon to expect a relationship that would never materialize.

When I wasn’t fretting about too little connection, I worried about too much connection. I imagined Waylon, fifteen and leather-jacketed, leaving home in a storm of adolescent angst. “You just don’t understand me,” he yelled as the backdoor slammed shut. “I’m going to live with my Dad.” Dad. Dad. Dad. In fantasy, the forbidden D-word lingered in the air as Katy and I huddled in the kitchen, broken apron strings dangling limply at our sides. What if Waylon and Brian had some kind of mystical masculine bond? What if Waylon decided to abandon his moms? Could Brian love and support our son without trying to supplant us? Was Katy secretly worried about this, too? Was that the real explanation for her toy store shopping spree?

All of these questions were swirling in my mind when Waylon came home from preschool and gravitated to the big bag of toys. Katy told him he could pick one now and save the rest for the beach, so he closed his eyes and plunged his hand into the bag, feeling around until he located the largest toy: a three-foot plastic robot with a helmet and a ray gun. (Apparently, my feminist, nonviolent shopping criteria were the first casualty of Brian’s visit.) Waylon was in heaven. Grinning, he searched for the “on” switch. And then there was sound:

“I-am-Master,” the robot announced. “I-sense-your-fear.”

Read Part II here.

Photo by Steve Keys is covered by a Creative Commons licence. Some rights reserved.


That Damn Family Unit

Family-Tree-Poster---Englis.JPGIt’s that time of year again. For Texas families with elementary-aged kids, back to school season means the obligatory curriculum on families.

My son, Waylon, is in third grade, so we’ve been around this thorny mulberry bush a few times before. But this year the path took a new turn.

“Mom,” Waylon asked, “how come some people don’t have kids?” He was hanging on the back porch door and swaying in and out of the house in a fidgety eight-year-old kind of way.

I was in the middle of draining a boiling pot of noodles into a colander, but I still wanted to provide a wide-ranging answer. It came out something like this: “Maybe-they-don’t-want-to-or-they don’t-have-the-money-or-the-support-or-the-interest. Maybe-their-pet-is-their-baby-or-their-work-or-their-art…or something else.”

“But what about carrying on the generations?” Waylon asked.

Perpetuating the ancestral line is not something we discuss much in our donor-inseminated domestic domain. As far as I am concerned, my family’s dominant genetic traits are early baldness, alcoholism, and a propensity for moles. If the Schilt line had stopped with me, the chief mourners would be rich dermatologists.

It didn’t take me long to surmise that Waylon’s preoccupation with generation was a by-product of the classroom curriculum on families.

As a teacher, I can understand why a unit on families makes sense at the beginning of the school year. Getting students to talk about their backgrounds creates opportunities to examine similarities and differences. Direct talk about differences (and similarities across differences) is one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes and create real community in a diverse setting.

A unit on families is also a way to encourage students to connect to their cultural heritage. The other day, in the middle of a play date, Waylon’s friend Jimmy solemnly asked me if I would like to hear his cultures. He listed them on his fingers:

“Hopi, Cherokee, German, Polish, Canary Islander, Spanish…oh, what’s that one, oh, oh, um…French…”

All in all, Jimmy reported eight different “bloods.” Waylon was extremely disappointed that we did not have a similarly compelling list for him. He refused to be mollified by the fact that his great great grandfather was a polygamist with two wives, because Canadian Mormonism could not be distilled into a specific bloodline.

I was happy for Waylon’s buddy because I could tell that their classroom unit on families had given him a sense of confidence and pride. Theoretically, the family curriculum could work the same way for kids from nontraditional families, including kids from LGBT homes.
In reality, however, we live in Texas.

In a state where nontraditional families are decidedly outside the official curriculum, classroom discussions about family structure can be a source of anxiety instead of pride.

jocks.jpgThe beginning of third grade has meant the dawning of a new self-consciousness for Waylon. Last year he told us, “I love being from an odd family.” This year he told us that he wasn’t going to correct kids who assumed that his genderqueer mommy was his dad.

He’s more strategic about how he comes out to other kids now. He prefers to wait until he’s established a level of comfort and trust before he tells them that he has two moms. A few weeks ago, he let us know that he was planning how to break the news to an older kid in his after-school program. When the deed was done, Waylon expressed relief. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to stop being my friend or anything.”

Luckily, Waylon has never experienced anything more malevolent than skepticism (“that’s weird”), or incredulity (“that’s impossible.”) But I suspect that will change as he gets older. And, if the school curriculum continues to feature families at the beginning of the year, I suspect it will continue to be in tension with his desire to come out about his family at his own pace.

(On a side note, if I could ask one thing from traditional families who want to be allies, it would be that you talk with your kids about all kinds of family structures – including single parents, divorced parents, gay parents, trans parents, absent parents and multigenerational families – so that little kids from nontraditional families don’t have to bear the burden of educating their peers.)

At the end of the unit on families, Waylon had to interview family members and write a paragraph about his family heritage. I tried to suggest a few questions, but – as usual – Waylon had his own agenda for inquiry.

“Where did I get my blonde hair?” he asked. It was a logical kind of “where did I come from” question, because neither Katy nor I are natural blondes.

“I think you got your blonde hair from your grandfather,” I replied. “Or maybe from Uncle Brian,” I added, referencing Waylon’s sperm donor. (Waylon has a dazzlingly handsome blonde donor sib.)

“But what about from Mommy’s side? What did I get from my Koonce blood?”
Back to blood again! I was torn between being factually accurate and honoring the spirit of our queer family tree.

“Well, you don’t technically have Koonce blood… but you’re definitely a Koonce!” I hastened to add.

“I know I’m a Koonce,” he retorted, as if I’d just said the most obvious thing in the world. “And I do have Koonce blood in me.”

“Oh really,” I said cautiously, “tell me about that.”

“When you and Mommy kissed, some of her blood got inside you. And then it got inside of me when you made me.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling thoroughly enlightened and instructed.

Third grade is definitely a turning point. I remember it as the year I looked up every single cuss word in the dictionary. The year I learned what “virgin” meant and realized that I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. It was also the last year I really believed in Santa Claus.

Maybe it’s wrong, but I hope he’ll keep believing in his own magical version of his family “blood” for just a little while longer.

(Poster image from the LGBTQ Parenting Connection. They have a whole host of inclusive alternatives to typical family tree assignments. Check it out.)


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