Tag Archives: LGBT parent

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.


How It Feels to Have a Dad

On Wednesdays, I pick Waylon up from school at 2:45. I have fifteen minutes to walk him to the car, feed him a snack, hydrate him, and deliver him to his occupational therapy appointment a mile away. If all goes exactly according to plan, we can just make it.

Last Wednesday, Waylon was in the backseat, munching a bagel. I had my right turn signal on and was waiting for an opening in the late afternoon traffic.

“Sometimes,” he said, apropos of nothing, “I just wish I could kind of, you know, ditch you guys and live with some other family.”

My first reaction was guilt. It’s the clutter, I thought. We’ve finally driven him crazy with all of our books and papers. Now he wants to live in a family with tidy surfaces.

“Well,” I said, grasping for equanimity, “Mommy and I would certainly miss you if you went away.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s just, sometimes I really want to know how it feels to have a dad.”

A car paused to let me in. I waved my thanks and went straight into fix-it mode. “Well, that’s one reason why we wanted you to spend so much time with Adam and Flynn this summer. So you could know what it was like to be around a dad.”

“I want to know what it feels like to have a dad at night,” he insisted.

“You’ve had sleepovers,” I countered. I knew I was grasping at straws. I couldn’t stop myself.

“I just want to know how it feels to have a dad love me like a dad,” Waylon said.

“Oh,” I said. I was chastened by his persistence and clarity. “I can understand that.”

Still searching for solutions, I did a quick mental inventory of Waylon’s grandfathers: (1) 83-year-old retired coach who never leaves the bed. Great for watching football and collecting photos of Waylon on his bureau. (2) Younger, gay grandpa. Affectionate and sweet as long as he’s not distracted with booze and boys. Prone to disappearing on mysterious “business” trips for weeks at a time.

“Waylon,” I said, turning left at a green arrow. “I can really understand how you feel. I used to sometimes wish I had different parents too.”

“You did?” he sounded excited, enlivened.

“Yes,” I said. “I think every kid wants to know how it would feel to have different parents some times.”

“They do?” he was suddenly chipper. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You know that part on Harry Potter Wii where Harry has to defeat the troll?”

We pulled into the parking lot of the occupational therapy center. Our journey was over, but I hoped that this conversation was not. I hoped I hadn’t silenced Waylon’s feelings with my knee-jerk problem solving. I wanted to do it all over, to ask Waylon what kind of dad he imagined, to let him know that his yearning was fine and wouldn’t hurt me.

Freud coined the term “family romance” to describe the childhood fantasy that your parents are not your real parents. He hypothesized that such stories are a normal way of dealing with separation and Oedipal jealousy. But a romance is also just a type of story. As a queer family, we’re making up our own story. I hope we can tell it in ways that make room for all kinds of feelings–even if it means we have to go back and tell it again and again.


Uncle Stacey

Sometimes I start thinking I’m an expert. I get to feeling like I’ve got things all figured out. And then, inevitably, parenthood brings me right back down to earth.landino.jpg

Take the time we told our son, Waylon, that his friend Stacey was embarking on a transition.

Waylon has spent much of his life around trans people. His genderqueer mommy had chest surgery when he was 18 months old. We’ve always spoken openly about the surgery and how it helped Mommy feel more comfortable in her body. As a toddler, Waylon developed his own four-coordinate gender system (boy, girl, boygirl, girlboy) to describe the gender diversity that he observed around him.

His experience wasn’t just limited to genderqueer people. Because my wife, Katy, is a therapist and activist in trans communities, Waylon has grown up around all kinds of trans folk. He can explain gender dysphoria and gender confirmation surgery in seven-year-old layman’s terms. He’s been to Gender Spectrum kids camp. He uses “hir” and “ze” as pronouns for God and certain stuffed animals.

So perhaps I can be forgiven for being a bit cavalier when I introduced Stacey’s transition as dinnertime conversation.

Stacey is my sister’s long-time partner. A talented artist with a low-key demeanor and a childlike capacity for silliness, Stacey has always been a favorite with Waylon. When Waylon developed a fondness for new wave music, Stacey made him mix CDs from his extensive music collection. When Waylon lost his first tooth, Stacey made him a stuffed animal shaped like an anthropomorphic incisor. And Stacey taught Waylon to play Plants vs. Zombies, a delightful video game that is only slightly less addictive than crack cocaine. So there was no question that Waylon would be interested when we told him over dinner that we had news about Stacey.

“You know how Stacey’s kind of like a boygirl?” I asked, using Waylon’s term for butches and masculine genderqueer types. He shook his head yes.

“Well,” Katy continued, “he’s realized that he feels all the way like a boy inside. He’s going to start taking medicine and changing his body so that he can make his body match the way he feels inside.”

Waylon paused for a moment. Then his face twisted into a tortured grimace and he began to sob. This wasn’t the phony cry he uses when he wants to be tucked in for the 27th time at night. This wasn’t the medium cry he uses when he’s scraped his knee or stubbed his toe. This was an anguished wail that made me gather him in my arms and hold his head against my cheek.

“I don’t want her to change, I don’t want her to change,” he bleated between sobs that shook us both.

My eyes met Katy’s across the table. She looked as scared and guilty as I felt. What had we done?

We tried to reassure Waylon by telling him that Stacey’s personality was not going to change. “He’ll still play with you,” I said. “He’ll still like stuffed animals and Plants vs. Zombies,” Katy added. “He’ll still be the same person.”

“No,” Waylon cried into my shoulder. “I don’t want her to change.” The tears showed no sign of stopping.

I tried a different tactic. “This is good for Stacey. This will make him happier.”

But every “him” was like fuel on flames. The crying just got louder and harder. Finally, Katy couldn’t stand it anymore. She reached for Waylon, and I transferred him to her arms. “Shhh shh shh,” she whispered as he rocked him. “It’s going to be okay.”

***

In retrospect, our biggest mistake was not realizing what a big shock this would be. As adults, we’d been able to read certain signs. But Waylon wasn’t picking up on the same clues. He wasn’t getting periodic updates from Stacey and my sister. He felt broadsided.

And while it’s true that Waylon has known quite a few trans people, they’ve mostly been post-transition or genderqueer. He’s never accompanied a friend through the journey of transition. He knew, theoretically, about the idea of transition, but he had no idea what to expect from his friend.

I can see, in hindsight, why I failed to anticipate his fears. As a feminist academic and a lover of complexly gendered people, I can be guilty of seeing gender as the most salient factor in almost any situation. From my perspective, Stacey was changing his outward position on a fluid gender spectrum. But Waylon wasn’t crying about gender. He was crying about losing a buddy. If I had it to do over again, I would speak to those feelings of loss and abandonment first and foremost.

***

After that first night, we hovered in an impasse. Waylon’s response to the whole topic was just plain “no.” I was teaching the short film No Dumb Questions in my class that semester, and I asked several times if he wanted to watch it with me. Waylon pointedly declined. I decided to let time work its magic.

At Christmastime, we all met up at my dad’s house. Stacey had sewn Waylon a giant pillow shaped like a fried egg. Waylon didn’t seem hesitant or shy. He followed Stacey around just like usual, talking a mile a minute, his speech liberally peppered with Stacey’s name: “Stacey, guess what? Stacey, look! Hey, Stacey…Stacey, watch this! Stacey!”

Stacey had started T just before Christmas. Now the whole extended family was trying their best to shift pronouns. We all made our share of slips. (Perhaps this is a blatant self-justification, but I swear it’s harder to shift pronouns when someone keeps the same name.) I tried to correct myself right away when I forgot. Occasionally I gently corrected Waylon too. He looked at me doubtfully, said “he,” and then moved on.

After Christmas, I asked Waylon about his experience of spending time with Stacey. He didn’t have much to say, which was unprecedented. Waylon is a chatterbox. He tends to talk nonstop about everything from the arcane plots of video games to the social dynamics of the lunch line. I was a little worried, but it wasn’t like he was avoiding Stacey. He just didn’t really want to talk about the transition yet.

Then, last spring, Stacey and my sis came to Austin for a brief visit. Stacey was recovering from chest surgery, but he and Waylon were still able to make a quick run to the store in search of the small bunny-shaped action figures that they both collect. Afterward, I asked if Stacey seemed different. Waylon thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I think maybe he seemed shorter.”

This was progress! Waylon had used a masculine pronoun without coaching. And, apparently, he had turned the corner from seeing Stacey as an average-sized woman to seeing him as a short man.

***

This summer, my sister and Stacey agreed to keep Waylon for a week while Katy and I took our first solo vacation in seven years. We were a bit anxious about being apart from our baby for so many days, but Waylon was pumped about his independent vacation plans. My sweet sis, Waylon’s doting “Auntie,” had planned an action-packed week of theme parks, aquariums, and museums. She and Stacey stocked up on mac-n-cheese. They moved an air mattress into the bedroom of their loft and researched kid movies on cable. They bought sticker books and Sponge Bob snacks.

The night before we left, the four of us had dinner at a restaurant near their house in Chicago. Waylon asked to sit between Auntie and Stacey. As we waited for our food, Waylon and Stacey were amusing themselves with Waylon’s brand new book of Lego stickers. I was talking to my sister when I heard Waylon engaging Stacey in conversation.

“Stacey?”

“Yes?”

“Well…how did your surgery feel? Did it hurt?”

Stacey assured Waylon that the surgery hadn’t hurt too badly because he had been asleep. And then, in the blink of an eye, Waylon’s talk switched back to Legos.

The next morning, Katy and I said our nervous goodbyes and hit the road. In the evening, we called to say goodnight and to tell Waylon that we missed him already. “Mom,” Waylon said, “you and Mommy are my best friends. You and Mommy and Auntie and Stacey are my best friends.”

***

For useful resources about talking to a child about a transition, check out COLAGE’s Kids of Trans resource guide.

Photo credit: Amanda Fulk. You can see a short film and more images of Stacey’s transition at http://www.lamiscelanea.org/ (Enter the site and scroll all the way to the right.)


Dumbledore is Gaaaay

The trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has arrived. In order to convey the excitement that this news generated at our house, I have to confirm one of fundamentalist Christianity’s most apoplectic fantasies: the Harry Potter series is like the Bible in our queer home.

Dumbledore-s-Got-Style-albus-dumbledore-2477503-600-653.jpgI wish you could have seen my son’s face when we told him that J.K. Rowling had outed the series’ eccentric éminence grise, Albus Dumbledore. Waylon paused for an uncharacteristically long time, his little eyes blank with surprise. Then a slow grin crept across his face, until he was positively beaming.

For all of his short life, we’d been trying to help Waylon feel good about his family by telling him about famous queers who made a difference: Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Eleanor Roosevelt. But here was someone who was actually famous in Waylon’s world. Here was a gay who made a difference to five-year-olds.

Which was why it was so painful that Dumbledore should be the subject of the first anti-gay taunts that Waylon ever heard.

It was a few months into kindergarten. We were sitting around our battered rattan dinette, discussing Waylon’s hectic social schedule of afternoon playdates. Suddenly he looked down at his lap and frowned.

“I don’t want to play with V,” he mumbled.

“Why not?” I asked. “Did you have a fight?”

“No,” Waylon shook his downturned head. “It’s just that, I told him Dumbledore is gay, and he was making fun of Dumbledore.”

“What did he say?” Katy asked. I could tell she was straining to sound casual.

“He was running around the playground saying ‘Dumbledore is gaaay, Dumbledore is gaaay,’” said Waylon, mimicking his friend’s jeering singsong.

“Are you sure he meant it in a mean way?” I asked, hoping against hope that there had been some misunderstanding.

“Yes,” Waylon replied, shaking his head with certainty.

At this point, gentle reader, you might imagine a number of raw emotional responses that were wrestling inside my motherly bosom: wishing I could throttle this kid for crushing Waylon’s joy, wanting to call his parents and give them a ration of shit, vowing to devote my life to homeschooling my son and protecting him from haters.

In actuality, I felt shocked, unprepared. I know V’s mom. She’s a friend and one of the most ardent straight allies I’ve ever known. During our first tentative weeks in the kindergarten community, she was the one who made my tattooed genderqueer freak of a wife feel welcome in the circle of fieldtrip chaperones and classroom helpers. Wherever V had learned that gay was weird or wrong, it certainly wasn’t from her.

Moreover, V had spent tons of time at our house. He knew we were gay, and he liked and trusted us. Despite the hurtful impact of his words, I doubted that it had been his intention to wound.

Which somehow made the whole thing worse. It would have been easier to write the whole thing off as the ignorance of some redneck outliers.

In the moment, however, there was little time to think about the origin of the situation. Our son was looking despairingly into his mac-n-cheese. As with so many other parenting challenges, this one required a delicate balance between thoroughly responding to Waylon’s feelings and making the incident into a big, traumatic deal.

“Whoa,” Katy said. “That sounds disappointing. You were excited to tell V about Dumbledore, and then he made fun.” Waylon nodded. He looked like he was going to cry.

“How did that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” he said. “Sad for Dumbledore.”

Sad for Dumbledore. The powerful parental figure whom he had idolized was suddenly vulnerable. It was hard not to see Dumbledore as a symbol for Mommy and Mama. Although we had talked with Waylon about homophobia, this was the first time he’d actually experienced the kinds of negative reactions that people might have toward his parents–albeit in an indirect form.

It felt like a lot for a five-year-old to have to deal with. Before Waylon was born, I knew there would be moments when he was teased or excluded because his family was different. I knew he’d have to discover that his parents’ identities were stigmatized, devalued. But knowing something and experiencing it are two different things. And he was so young! My head was a swirl of guilt, anger, and fear. It took every ounce of restraint to stay present with Waylon’s feelings instead of retreating into my own. In my turmoil, I reached for the most basic explanation that I know, the one we’ve used since Waylon was a toddler.

ToddParr.jpgTodd Parr’s It’s Okay to Be Different is as different from the rococo excesses of Harry Potter as a children’s book can be. The drawings are colorful stick figures. A few simple sentences fill each page. But its core message, so baldly announced in the title, has served as an explanatory rubric and family value ever since we first read it when Waylon was two.

“You know how we believe that it’s okay to be different?” I asked Waylon. He shook his head yes. “Well, some people don’t believe it’s okay to be different. Sometimes people are really, really afraid of any kind of difference. And because they’re afraid, they freak out if kids show even a little sign of being different. They might tease them or even punish for being different. And that makes kids scared and teaches them to tease and punish people who are different.”

Waylon looked like he was tracking, so I kept going. “And that’s sad for them,” I said, because they ‘re scared and acting out of fear.”

“Yeah, that’s sad for them,” Waylon concurred, sounding slightly cheerier.

“But we know it’s okay to be different, and we like Dumbledore for being different,” I concluded.

“Yeah,” Katy chimed in. “We like his purple suit.”

“And his long beard,” I added.

“And that he’s the greatest wizard of all time,” Waylon concluded, before turning back to his dinner.

The conversation was far from over. In the year and a half since the teasing happened, Waylon has continued to bring it up every few months. Each time, we help him re-tell the story, hoping that he’s making sense of it in a way that feels healing.

Right now, we’re about to finish reading the seventh Harry Potter book aloud. It’s the end of a family project that began when Waylon was four. Traditionally, each time we finish a book, we have a Potter Feast, which, for some reason, means eating chicken legs and drinking cream soda (AKA butter beer). Potter Feast number seven will happen some time in the next week.

We were planning our upcoming celebration after dinner the other night. Waylon was perched precariously in his chair, eating an ice cream bar while his parents cleared the table. “Remember when V made fun of Dumbledore?” he asked.

There’s a part of me that cringes every time he brings it up, because it confirms that the incident made such a big impact on his little mind. And there’s a part of me that’s actually glad when he brings it up, because at least he’s talking about it. At least he knows that his parents are not too fragile to help him deal with the emotional injuries of the playground. I hope that confidence will serve him later, when kids say meaner things that really are intended to hurt or shame.

Last night, Katy was telling Waylon about another silver-haired gay icon: Lady Gaga. “Waylon, between almost every song she said something about how much she loves the gays!”

Waylon, who has been known to shout “pa-pa-paparazzi” like a magical incantation, was listening avidly to Katy’s account of the concert. Then he broke into a chant of his own devising: “Gay is good! Gay is good! Gay is good!” It was irresistible; we had to start chanting along. And then somehow, I can’t quite remember how, the words shifted into a hearty and affirmative “Dumbledore is gay! Dumbledore is gay!”

And then we went upstairs to read.
Image credit for Dumbledore’s Got Style: tomscribble on fanpop


Two Worlds in Texas

I recently returned from a visit with the Mormon side of my extended family–an experience that I’m processing by obsessively watching Big Love on DVD.

I should hasten to say that the Mormons on Big Love don’t actually remind me of my family. In fact, it’s kind of like watching the L Word, because the people on the series are so much richer and skinnier than any of the people I know. Nevertheless, Big Love is addictive, and lately I’ve been pondering which of the show’s three wives I resemble most.

I wish I could say I identify with Barb, the smart and sexy first wife. Or Margene, the young and spunky third wife. But, in my heart of hearts, I know I’m most like Chloe Sevigny’s character, Nicolette–the cranky middle wife who is passionately attached to her otherness and suspicious of integrating into mainstream society.

Which is why, when my son emerged from his first grade classroom last week wearing a Cub Scouts sticker, I ripped it off him like it was the mark of Satan.

“Hey, why’d you do that?” Waylon asked, looking stricken. “I want to go to Cub Scouts. You get to shoot BB guns and bows and arrows.”

Perhaps a cooler, more experienced mom would have taken a deep breath at this juncture. Perhaps hypothetical mom would have asked her son a few questions and then backed off, waiting to see whether the desire to join Cub Scouts was more than the passing whim of a seven-year-old with a short attention span.

But I wasn’t feeling like hypothetical mom.

I was feeling like an edgy, sleep-deprived lesbian mama who just returned from an Arizona family funeral where everyone treated her as if she were a slightly suspect single mother.

“You can’t join the Cub Scouts,” I said, marching him down the sidewalk towards the car. “They don’t allow families like ours to participate and they discriminate against gay kids.”

“Well maybe we could pretend to be straight,” Waylon said. “Because Mommy is both, a boy and a girl.” The crossing guard gave us a funny look.

“Waylon! Even if Mommy and I were straight, we still wouldn’t let you join because they discriminate against gay kids,” I scolded as I opened the car door. “They’re injustice,” I added, trying to appeal to his comic book sense of ethics.

Waylon began sobbing in his car seat. I felt like the meanest mommy in the world.

Back home, I emailed the parents of Waylon’s close friends to find out whether every other boy in his class would soon be sporting a yellow kerchief. My hands shook and my heart raced as I typed. I was outraged that public school children would be recruited into an organization that discriminates against whole classes of kids and adults. I was angry that much of the situation was beyond my control. I was scared that Waylon was going to feel excluded because of his family. And I was ashamed for losing my cool and making him cry.

In a testament to our community of straight allies–or at least to the laidback ethos of South Austin–none of Waylon’s friends’ parents were jazzed about Cub Scouts. And once Waylon realized that his buddies weren’t joining up without him, the sting was gone. By dinnertime, he had transitioned from wanting to join the Cub Scouts to wanting to “destroy” the Cub Scouts. And I had transitioned from a nay-saying harpy to a warm, compassionate mother who calmly counseled him to respect other people’s choices and to refrain from visiting superhero-style vengeance upon people with different beliefs.

But, despite my calm façade, I was rattled. My son had been beguiled by an organization whose leadership believes that people like his parents are unfit role models for children. My feelings of anger, vulnerability, and fear grew as I attempted to follow up with the principal, the Campus Advisory Council, and the Cub Scout recruiting lady.

(Cub Scout lady, I know you don’t read LGBT blogs, but I just want to use this forum to apologize for trying to explain my objections to your organization in the school corridor. That was inappropriate. And here’s a tip: in the future, if you want to calm an outraged lesbian mama, don’t tell her that your policy for gay kids is “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

In response to my initial inquiries, I learned that the Boy Scouts’ presence in public schools is federally protected. Back in 2002, when schools with nondiscrimination policies were banning Boy Scout troops from their campuses, the Bushies slipped the “Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act” into No Child Left Behind. (Ah, the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind–two gifts from Texas that just keep on giving.)

Luckily, the Boy Scouts’ federally protected status only mandates that they have “equal access” compared to other extracurricular activities. I was assured that other extracurricular programs were not allowed to market directly to kids during the school day and that this kind of thing would not happen in the future.

Which should, perhaps, have calmed me down.

However, most everyone I spoke with persisted in likening the Cub Scouts recruiting visit to other recent “controversies,” like the sticker machines in the school lobby. Their failure to make an ethical distinction between discrimination and the distribution of Pokemon decals made me crazy.

The Cub Scouts recruiting visit didn’t shake me up because I have some intellectual or political disagreement with their policies. Rather, their federally protected presence in the school reminded me how perfectly respectable it is to insist that queer folks have no business being around children. That’s essentially what their policy says. And it cuts right to the heart of my fitness to raise a child. My fitness to be Waylon’s mom.

I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m sending my kid to public school in Texas, a state that just made Phyllis Schlafly a mandatory part of the social studies curriculum. On television, right-wing pundits have been waging a witch hunt against Kevin Jennings, President Obama’s openly gay appointee to the Department of Education. And hate groups like the Traditional Values Coalition have been inciting moral panic over transgender teachers as a major tactic in their battle against ENDA. What else did I expect?

Intellectually, this is pretty much what I expected. Emotionally, I’m having one of those moments when my defenses have been stripped bare and every little bump leaves a bruise.

If I was unprepared for how personal something like Cub Scouts in public schools would feel, it’s partly because, in most of my day-to-day life, I’ve managed to carve out my own queer social world. I’ve worked in LGBTQ professions. I attend a gay and trans-affirming church. I volunteer for queer and feminist organizations. My friends are queer. Heck, three out of four people in my family of origin are queer.

Public school is challenging for me because it’s the only significant institution in my day-to-day life where queers and allies are not woven into every fiber.

I know the stock recommendations for LGBT parent involvement in their kids’ schools. Get involved. Join the PTA. Volunteer. Work extra hard to build credibility and goodwill so that you can try to create a supportive environment for your child. But, although I am something of a community junkie, I sometimes find myself avoiding opportunities to be involved in Waylon’s school. When it comes to how I’m going to apply my civic energies, I’d rather do it in a context where I don’t have to deal with other people’s ignorance and discomfort around LGBT issues.

Don’t get me wrong–I value the culture shock of public school. I want Waylon to grow up around kids from different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. I want him to grow up knowledgeable about other ways of life and comfortable around all kinds of people. I want him to have options in terms of how he lives his own life. In my dreams, public school is a place where he can learn the skills to play and communicate and collaborate with people who are different from us.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about that hippy school on the edge of town where lots of my friends send their kids. Waylon wouldn’t be the only kid in his class with gay and trans parents. He could read books about families like his, and the rest of the class would read them too. There’d be no Boy Scouts. No “don’t ask, don’t tell.” No forms that ask for “mother’s name” and “father’s name.” No shuttling between two worlds before 7:45 each morning.

Life would be a lot easier.



Creating Change with a Kid

Long before my son was born, my dear mother turned to me and said, “your kids are going to turn out so conservative.” I think this was her special way of saying that 1) my activist lifestyle is a little kooky, and 2) kids inevitably rebel against parental extremes by becoming the opposite.

While I tend to disagree with her on the first point, I have met plenty of families who seem to prove the second point. Now that I am a parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to share my values in a way that’s helpful rather than oppressive. Whatever Waylon grows up to be, I want to bequeath him all the best tools from the queer survival toolkit: building community, making art, acting up in the public sphere, valuing difference. I want him to remember his activist childhood fondly.

So last week we took Waylon to Dallas for Creating Change, the Task Force’s National Conference on LGBT Equality. Will he remember it fondly? That remains to be seen.

Creating Change is one of my favorite conferences. I love the emphasis on multi-issue politics and alliance building. I love the leading role played by youth and people of color. I love the sense of camaraderie. I love the playfulness. And I think Sue Hyde is totally hot.

Last year, I saw a woman at Creating Change with a young child, and I realized that childcare was available for conference participants. Childcare at activist events is one of my favorite second wave feminist interventions, and it seemed like yet another indication of CC’s awesome intersectional politics.

As it turns out, however, the childcare in Dallas was a bit of a mixed bag. At six years old, Waylon was one of the oldest kids in the room. And the services were really just traditional babysitting: there were some toys and books and movies, but nothing really engaging or interactive. After the first morning, Waylon was bored and didn’t want to go back.

To be fair, our expectations were high because Waylon has had great experiences attending the Gender Spectrum kids camp at Gender Odyssey and participating in COLAGE-sponsored programming at other activist events. Those programs focused on getting kids to interact and express themselves and make stuff.

Luckily, I’d done a little background research on fun stuff for kids in the Dallas area. My partner, Katy, and I were able to make a deal with Waylon: he would spend a few hours at the childcare each day and each day we’d leave the conference for a few hours to do something that he wanted to do, like visit the aquarium or shop at the Lego store.

Our compromise with Waylon meant that I missed most of the plenaries. Since I didn’t get to go to those big sessions, I missed some of the feeling of community that I’ve loved about Creating Change in the past. I didn’t get to go to as many workshops as I normally do. I didn’t have the same feeling of cruisiness that usually makes CC so fun. I was in bed by 9pm almost every night.

On the other hand, the diversity of ages and bodies at Creating Change sparked some great conversations with Waylon about ableism and how to talk about physical characteristics without using value-laden words.

Waylon: “I just meant ‘weird’ as in different, not ‘weird’ as in bad.”

Mama: “Then just say different.”

[Later] Waylon: “Mommy, you look…different.”

We had other important discussions as well. Coming to a compromise about the childcare gave me the opportunity to explain why it was important to me to be at the conference in the first place. And after we left, Waylon initiated an on-going conversation about African American cultural traditions that led us into talking about histories of slavery, cultural appropriation, and resistance.

For me, the best part of the entire conference was attending the Sunday plenary brunch with my immediate and extended families. From the moment I first read the conference program, I was super excited to see that Vogue Evolution would perform. Waylon loves to dance and loves to watch dance. I knew that voguing was going to blow his mind.

In the end, the closing event was even better than I could have imagined. The members of Vogue Evolution are activists and historians, committed to documenting the origins of voguing in African American communities going back to the 1920s and earlier. I teach some of this history in my LGBT film class when we watch Tongues Untied. I was deeply moved to know that several of my former students were there in the audience too, learning more and seeing that history in motion.

Feeling their youthful presence, and knowing that my young son has a near-photographic memory for dance moves, I felt so grateful to be part of the relay of queer generations, the passing on of the queer survival toolkit.

Just now, I asked Waylon to recount his favorite things about his weekend in Dallas. They were 1) the Lego store, 2) the aquarium, 3) the picture he colored at dinner Friday night, and 4) “the dancing.”


Sick and Wrong

It had to happen sooner or later.

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

that it’s sick and wrong

to be

fat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Then I read the last line of the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Really, how so?

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

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

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

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

And that includes stilettos–now or later.


Our Social Experiment

Last Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush. “But, Mama, I’m a seal,” he informed me, resting his front flippers on the marble floor.

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

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

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered how the clerk was perceiving our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trains.”

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

“Trains.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, I think…Barbie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lazy Lesbian’s Guide to Sex-Ed for Kids

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

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

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

“These tentacles…” he started.

“Testicles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kris’s List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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