Tag Archives: parenting

“Should Waylon Have Two Mommies?”

Six-thirty comes early when you go to bed at two.

Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.

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Photo Credit: John Leach

On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.

blue_hair_selfieI roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk with PTA peeps.

After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.

Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.

At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.

Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.

I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.

CaptureI’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”

I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.

Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”

“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.

“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.

We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.

Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.

7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.

The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:

“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”

Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.marfasheetsThis post was originally posted under the title “The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale.”

P.S. A lot of people have asked for a link to the original “Should Waylon Have Two Mommies” article.

Butch County photo by John Leach of johnleachphoto.com. Used with permission.


Meet the Fam

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Have you ever wanted to pelt us with questions about how it feels to be a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in Texas? Well, now’s your chance!

Katy and I are doing a thing called “Partnering & Parenting Beyond the Gender Binary” at the upcoming Contemporary Couples conference in Austin on May 17.

I call it a “thing” because it’s not really a presentation or a workshop. Our plan is to interview each other in front of a live audience. I’ve been honing hard-hitting questions like “hey, hon, what’s up with your gender identity these days.”

(I’m actually really looking forward to this conversation, because Katy recently wrote a funny, heartfelt essay about her ever-evolving gender identity for an anthology called Letters to My Siblings. It’s a follow-up to the Lambda-nominated Letters to My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect from Transgress Press.)LFMB_cover-final-2013_06_28-v5_03

Anyone can attend the Contemporary Couples conference, AND many sessions will be especially useful for therapists who serve (or hope to serve) LGBT couples. Some of you may want to refer your therapist for some cultural competency training.

Our former couples therapist, bless her heart, I know I’ve already subjected her to caricature, but I’ll never forget the day that Katy and I were discussing our sex life and she said helpfully “Have you ever considered using a prosthetic?” I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard. (Yeah, we’ve considered that. From many angles.)

If you’d like to learn about the superstar speakers at the Contemporary Couples conference, check out my interview with keynote speaker Dr. Judith Stacey, author of Brave New Families. 

Speaking of families, the photo at the top of this post was taken by Erin Walter, who is part of our Butch County/Girls Rock Camp family. In addition to being a badass bass player with stage-presence galore, Erin is also a writer, activist and mom. Check out her sxsw wrap-up (including a super-cute picture of Erin with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!) at The Admiration Society.


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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What Makes a Baby

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

Me: Do you know how we made you?

Waylon: You got that thing from Uncle Brian.

Me: Sperm?

Waylon: Yeah.

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

Waylon: Yeah.

Me: So how are you related to Mommy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Uncle Brian kind of like my dad?”

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

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

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

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


My Favorite Things

Yesterday morning, I was tooling around on Oprah’s web site, trying to figure out how to submit a personal essay for O Magazine. Unfortunately, according to the terms of use, anything you submit online automatically becomes property of Harpo Industries, to be developed as they choose in any medium they see fit. (As much as I’d like to see a reality series based on a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to develop it, because I wouldn’t trust a casting agent to recognize low-femme nerd realness.)

Since I can’t come to O Magazine, I decided to bring a little bit of Oprah to the blog. Here are some of my favorite things. Picture me lavishing them upon you like an Oprah-style giveaway, because they are all cheap or free.

1) Tango, My Childhood Backward and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond

Justin Vivian Bond performed in Austin a few weeks ago, and I had the pleasure of reading this memoir while I could still hear the cadence of v’s voice, the way every sentence pulls up short, leaving half the meaning in the space between.

Here’s one of my favorite lines:

“But looking back, I think that a frosted pink is a perfect color for a little trans child in first grade.”

This book has (deservedly) great blurbs, including one from Michael Warner, who says that Tango “should be in the hands of every child who can read.” (For those of us with a queer theory background, it’s kind of delicious to speculate what else might be on MW’s recommended reading list for children.)

2) Sinead O’Connor Bathroom Shrine

I was having kind of a rocky time a few weeks ago, and the universe sent two signs from my personal savior, Sinead O’Connor. First, The Atlantic published a long biographical article titled “The Redemption of Sinead O’ Connor,” and then Justin Vivian Bond, Christeene Vale and Silas Howard played “Black Boys on Mopeds” at the aforementioned show. It reminded me to ask for solace and guidance at the Sinead shrine in my bathroom (and to listen to Faith and Courage, one of my favorite albums of all time).

I made the shrine with magazine clippings and mod podge.

3) Succulent Garden

My most recent fortune cookie said “time and nature heal all wounds.” Now that temperatures have finally dropped into the double digits, I’ve been healing myself in the beautiful golden light of Texas in October. My favorite puttering project is a succulent garden on our front porch. Most of the plants were originally gifts from friends, and others were pocketed from public places. (The great thing about succulents is that a single leaf can grow into a whole new plant. They just need “a touch of earth” as my friend Gretchen likes to say.)

4) Used Record Player

I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when Katy pulled this portable turntable out of her mom’s best friend’s garage. Apparently I was underestimating the quality of a mid-1970s portable Sanyo, because this baby sounds amazing.

So much about this school year has been stressful—finding academic support for our dyslexic child—or boring—helping him plow through mountains of worksheets. It seems like there’s always something to do: eat vegetables, practice handwriting, brush your teeth, put your napkin in your lap, practice multiplication tables. Last night, I was cooking dinner and (between rounds of homework) I put B-52s on our new turntable. As cries of “hot lava” filled the kitchen, Waylon broke into spontaneous dance. He did the mashed potato and the twist and a funny little Mick Jagger dance with mincing feet and chicken wings. He grabbed a spatula and a serving spoon and danced until he cracked himself up, and I thought “when I think of this year I will remember this moment.”

5) Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education

If you would like to feel enthused about the Obama administration, I suggest that you re-read this 2010 letter from the Department of Education, which explains how federal civil rights law pertains to bullying based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability.

Here’s one of my favorite parts:

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.

6) The Gang

Waylon and I have been creating stuffed homemade stuffed animals from a pile of fleece blankets that our neighbor gave us. Originally we got the pattern from Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make, which was a gift from Uncle Rachael. Then we decided that we wanted to create on a slightly smaller scale, so I free-handed a pattern with a sharpie and a piece of copy paper.

Their names are Jean Pierre (he’s the one made out of a sock, which is way too difficult), Stripes and Jessie (inspired by the femme stylings of Jessie Dress.) There was another guy, with a jaunty bandanna, but we gave him away and now we’re sad.

7) Men Who Sew

I had a sweet sewing date with Waylon and his friend a few weeks ago. There’s something about a man who sews really captures my heart. Speaking of which, check out this needlepoint stocking created by Bil Browning, beloved editor of The Bilerico Project.

8) Indian-Inspired Pantry Dinner

I’ve been on a quest to use up odds and ends in my pantry and refrigerator. Here’s a recipe that can accommodate almost any combination of veggies and canned beans. The only mandatory ingredient is fresh ginger.

Step 1

Put some brown rice on to boil. Dice some fresh ginger, as much as you like. Dice onions and celery or whatever aromatics you have on hand. Sauté in olive oil until nicely browned. Add 1 tsp curry powder, 1 tsp cumin and ½ tsp crushed cumin seeds.

Remember to turn the rice down to a simmer.

Step 2

Add some more veggies. I used leftover chard, and I let it cook down a bit. Then I added a can of diced tomatoes with green chilies and a can of garbanzos. I had a little bit of tomato paste in the freezer, so I threw that in too. I let it cook until all the flavors got gay married and the rice was ready to eat.

Step 3

If you like it spicy, you could add some cayenne or crushed red pepper. Serve over the rice. Enjoy!


Howdy Queen

In my story Donor Duet, I mention that Katy was Brazosport High School’s 1976 Howdy Queen (an honor bestowed on the friendliest freshman girl) despite the fact that she was already kinda howdy kingly. The other day, Katy found her Howdy Queen sash (I didn’t even know such a thing existed), and Waylon proudly tried it on.

Waylon models the Howdy Queen sash.

As long as I’m sharing pictures, I wanted to post this one from earlier in the summer, when our family was featured in a story about Trinity United Methodist Church.

This interview caused me to vacillate wildly. The premise was marriage equality, and it was easy to answer the reporter’s questions about how long Katy and I have been together, when we got married, and when we had Waylon.  After I hung up the phone, I realized that I had inadvertently left out a huge swath our lives together, so I called the reporter back.

Do you have a minute? I forgot to say that my wife identifies as transgender–actually genderqueer, which is somewhere on a spectrum of masculine and feminine–and it’s important to mention that Trinity is also a trans-affirming church.

“Wait…but…are you guys gay?”

Poor man, I could tell he was worried that he’d wasted 20 minutes of his life. I felt bashful about leading him down the mazelike path of multiple identifications, but he did ask…sort of.

The interview wasn’t the end of my dithering. The worst part was my hair–my lovely lavender hair!  For some reason, I decided to dye it dark brown for the photograph, and then regretted it immediately. It’s taking forever to grow out, and I consider my many bad hair days as a lengthy object lesson. Next time I’m interviewed, I’ll remember to resist the magnet-pull of fake representativeness and respectability.

My lovely lavender hair is gone, and it’s all my own fault!


Days of Shirley Jackson

I remember the day I became obsessed with Shirley Jackson.

Photo credit: Laurence Jackson, Shirley’s son

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

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

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

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

New York Times, 1965 (obituary)

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

–Lenemaja Friedman, Shirley Jackson (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Can’t wait for fall.

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

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

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


Mommy in the Middle

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

Barton Springs, April 2012

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

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

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

Glam Mommy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to add?

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

Paige: Happy Mother’s Day to you!


Queer Rock News: Spring 2012

I wish I was a newsy blogger. I know my editor at Bilerico, Bil Browning, wishes I would pump out a topical post now and again. But lately I’ve been forced to squander all my snappy, punctual prose on writing gigs that pay the bills. I saved up my Queer Rock Love news for this convenient digest.

In this issue:

  • Bitch Interview on Genderful Parenting
  • Credit in the Straight World
  • I Have a Reading in Chicago
  • My Favorite Reader Comments
  • John Cameron Mitchell Humped My Wife
  • Subscribe to Queer Rock Love via email

Interview at Bitch Media

Bitch Magazine
Malic White interviewed me for a series about “the end of gender” at Bitch Magazine online. He was interested in my philosophy of genderful (as opposed to gender neutral) child-rearing. You can read more about those ideas here.

Credit in the Straight World

A few stories about our family have been reprinted in venues that aren’t specifically queer! I was especially happy with the lively response to “The Incident,” at offbeatmama.com. And a new site called Role/Reboot: Make Sense of Men and Women ran “Think Pink” and “That Damn Family Unit.” (I don’t think my pieces have been such a hit there, perhaps because making sense of binary roles ain’t really my project. But I’m still super grateful for the chance to reach new readers.)

My Favorite Reader Comments

I wanted to call out a few stellar points from the comments section.

maybe a new leaf wrote:

Found you recently and love your writing…

I’m also glad to find someone writing about queer parenting who has an older kid (as in older than a toddler). Ours are 5 & 2, and the older the get, the less online company we feel like we have.

This is so true! Even though I’m working through a series about breastfeeding and chest surgery right now, I know a lot of readers (myself included) hunger for queer family stories that aren’t just about pregnancy, birth, adoption, and new parenthood. I’ve got some good stuff about third grade and chosen/extended family in the hopper, I swear.

jvoor wrote:

Have you heard about “What Makes a Baby?” It’s a book coming out in June I believe. You can check it out here on kickstarter. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1809291619/what-makes-a-baby

I don’t know how it treats gender, but I know it’s goal is to explain reproduction in a way that doesn’t assume a particular heterosexual two-parent family model.

Yes! I donated to this guy’s kickstarter campaign! I am really looking forward to this book. I’m hopeful that it will be a great gender-inclusive, sex-positive, nonheteronormative resource for early sex ed.

I Have a Reading Coming Up in Chicago

I’m doing a lunch-time reading and Q&A for the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago on May 17. It’s free and open to the public. I don’t know the exact time and location yet, but I’ll post more soon.

I’ll be reading a couple of stories and possibly talking about how my work reads overlaps with work by my sister, the brilliant and amazing Dr. Kristen Schilt. If you haven’t already, check out her book, Just One of the Guys: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality.

John Cameron Mitchell Humped My Wife

Finally, the biggest news of the season: Katy got to sing with John Cameron Mitchell at gaybigaygay!

You might think that I’m just name-dropping, but you have to understand: Katy and I had a Hedwig and the Angry Inch theme wedding. Our friends put together a band and played “Origin of Love” as we walked down the aisle.  I’ve taught the film in my classes for years. I wore out my CD of the movie soundtrack and my copy of the compilation tribute album. An entire section of our bathroom is collaged with pictures of Hedwig. We have a 4′ x 6′ oil painting of Hedwig in our living room.

We’re really big fans.

And we knew for a while that Hedwig’s creator, John Cameron Mitchell, was going to play at gaybigaygay, because our friends Deb and Keri and Kaia were asked to be his band for the gig.

I was super excited, but I somehow imagined that JCM was going to show up in a limo, play his two songs, and then disappear like a diva with his entourage. I NEVER, in my wildest dreams thought that he would be walking around our dirty queer fest, listening to bands, smiling, hugging, and generally acting beatific.

In fact, JCM showed up in time to hear the end of Katy’s new side project, Metal Fist. Then he invited Katy to come up on stage and sing back-up during Midnight Radio. During his set, he delivered a righteous punk rock oration about not experiencing life through the lens of your cell phone camera. And he was so right, because no recording can capture the epic power of his voice or the magic intimacy of that moment. By the time he jumped into the crowd and started body surfing, I was screaming uncontrollably, like a frenzied teenager in old footage of The Beatles.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, he jumped back on stage, pogoed over toward Katy, fell onto the ground, then jumped into her arms and wrapped his legs around her “like a fork shoved on a spoon.”

There’s video here, but it doesn’t really do it justice.

 

Subscribe

Hey, did you know you can be notified via email every time there’s something new on Queer Rock Love? Just scroll down to the very bottom of this page and click “follow blog via email.” I just got twitter too, @queerrocklove.


The Incident

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

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

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

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

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.


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