Tag Archives: masculinity

We’re Expecting! And It Looks Like Twins!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total hottie.

Check out Butch County at Stargayzer Fest.


Sissy Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he’ll live to flap another day.

Seal photo: Marcel Burkhard

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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.


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

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.


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.


Boys and Buddy Time

Yesterday I spent the morning perched on a tiny plastic chair, observing my son Waylon’s yoga class. Although I have studied yoga for years, kindergarten yoga was most enlightening. For instance, I learned that the lotus position can also be called “criss-cross applesauce.” And kindergarten apparently presents an exception to the ancient injunction that yoga must be performed barefoot. (I suspect that convincing a group of five-year-olds to put their shoes back on would challenge the inner calm of even the most accomplished yogi.)

But the most fascinating lesson occurred when the class paired up for “buddy time.”

The girls ran to their girlfriends with wide eyes and huge smiles. They hugged and swayed and held hands while they waited for the teacher to call out the next pose.

And the boys?

Same exact story. From the looks of joy on their faces, buddy time might have been Christmas morning. I watched as Waylon and his friend Charlie wrapped their arms around each other’s waists. Between poses, Charlie rested his head on Waylon’s shoulder.

I checked the other pairs of boys and found that they, too, were beaming and clinging to one another. Their happiness was infectious, but it also made my heart hurt. I took a deep breath and tried to stay in the moment, but I found myself already anticipating a future when this easy intimacy between boys would disappear.

Waylon is my first child, so I can’t say exactly when it might happen–second grade? fourth? middle school?–but I fear that, far too soon, the majority of these boys will have internalized the implicit and explicit rules of our culture’s version of masculinity. No more lounging with their head on their buddy’s shoulder, no more looking deeply and directly into his eyes.

Watching their little bodies lean against each other in supported bridge pose, I grieved for all that they might lose: the sense of trust and openness, the comfort of a friend’s touch. Girls have their own real and harrowing challenges in our culture, but I don’t think they are expected to eschew intimacy with same-sex friends as a rite of passage.

As adults, we sometimes defend against the awfulness of this loss by telling ourselves that these gender differences are inevitable, natural, even biological. But I defy any observer of kindergarten yoga to tell me that boys do not have the capacity to develop close, nurturing friendships with other boys. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that it is cultural forces–namely sexism and heterosexism–that threaten to impoverish the emotional lives of our sons.

At the end of class, the instructor asked the kids if they remembered the intention that they had set at the beginning. “To be happy!” they called in chaotic harmony.

As I walked out the door, I wanted to collar every parent in that class and plead with them:

Don’t teach your sons that boys can only touch when they are fighting or playing sports.

Don’t teach them to hold themselves stiffly and keep their eyes to themselves.

Don’t teach them by teasing and example.

Don’t do it for their future friends and lovers.

Don’t do it because you want them to be happy and because it diminishes the sources of comfort and support that are available to them in this hard and crazy world.


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