When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my mother told me that someday our TV would be a computer and she’d be able to leave messages on the screen.
My dad told me that someday there would be a woman president and maybe it would even be me.
No one ever predicted a lesbian rock band that would continue to electrify audiences when its lead singer was over 65. Back then, it seemed like women in their sixties were old ladies, grandmothers or old maids who drove too slow and carried purses full of Kleenex. If you had told me that old ladies could be sexy, powerful and creative—well, I think that human colonization of Mars would have seemed more likely.
In keeping with a 1970s-era vision of the future, the release of the new Star Wars movie has inspired a cultural conversation about women entertainers and aging. Everyone wants to weigh in about whether Carrie Fisher has aged well. Does she have too many wrinkles? Has she gained too much weight?
If this conversation seems very tiresome to you, then let me tell you a story about the Girls in the Nose reunion show last Tuesday night.
Let’s start with the way that lead-singer Kay Turner stands. Legs spread wide. Feet planted flat on the ground. Back straight. Hands wrapped around the mic until she grabs the stand and pulls it to her crotch on a song like “Sodomy.”
“Does Kay’s voice remind you of Iggy Pop?” I ask my wife.
“Patti Smith,” Katy answers, supplying the feminist canonical referent. But I resist. It’s true that there’s a lot of rock-n-roll priestess in Kay’s performance, but it’s more carnal than Patty. If I could pick one song for them to cover, it would be The Stooges’ “Dirt,” a song that makes me blush every time I hear it.
“Can I have a little less reverb on my vocals?” Kay asks. Noooooo, I think, because I’m enjoying the stadium-rock quality of it. But I’m glad that Kay and guitarist Gretchen Phillips keep asking the sound person for exactly what they want. I once stood in a crowded nightclub while the singer for Sebadoh quibbled with the sound guy for 45 minutes. It’s rare to even hear a female musician ask apologetically for a little more or less of something in her monitor.
There’s no need for apologies here. When Kay sings “Menstrual Hut,” she shrugs off the fact that the members of GITN are mostly post-menopausal now. It was always about hanging out with other women anyway. And when Girls in the Nose makes a reference to the women’s health movement in a song like “Breast Exam,” it’s with a sly, sexy wink. Are they really singing about breast cancer screening? Or are they instructing you in how to squeeze and tug a nipple for more nefarious purposes? Does it have to be an either/or? When percussion/keyboard player Joanna Lebow is cavorting with the Les Nez dancers, I forget to care.
Most reunions are about looking back, and there was a warm glow of nostalgia over the evening, but Girls in the Nose’s performance didn’t feel dated. It was as if—to quote another beloved queer Texas band—they were “sent to us in a time capsule from the future.”
When I grow up, I want to be Girls in the Nose.
There’s one more opportunity to see GITN reunite on January 8 at Cheer Up Charlies.
Welcome to my weekly post featuring photos that didn’t make it into Queer Rock Love, but probably should have.
This week’s image complements Chapter 28, “No Shortage.”
One afternoon, Waylon was engaged in an art project of his own devising, which involved gluing a bunch of sequins to a cork. As he was working at the kitchen table, I heard him singing a little song that went “God is inside of every thing, God is inside of everything, God is inside of everything!” The melody sounded a lot like the Ramones, but the lyrics gave me pause.
“Who taught you that song? Did you learn that in Sunday school?” I asked. I realized I had no clear idea what he learned when he attended the children’s activities at Trinity.
“No one taught it to me. I taught it to myself.”
“Oh, okay. That’s good.” I picked up a few stray sequins and put them back in his pile.
“Mom,” he said, still gluing.
“God is inside of this table.”
Ready to read more about a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South? Order the book or come to Naked Girls Reading Austin this Saturday to hear an excerpt read by a real, live naked girl.
This year, the organizers of Austin’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial have asked psychotherapists from the LGBT community to be available at City Hall for participants who may need support after the event.
Their request is a recognition that bearing witness to violence—both physical and systemic violence—can be emotionally devastating. It’s crucial for communities to come together, mourn their dead, and organize for the future. But how can members of a vulnerable community remember acts of violence without becoming re-traumatized?
More than 200 names will be read at 2014 DOR memorials all around the country. That’s 200 human beings, many of them trans women of color, who have died because of anti-transgender violence in the past year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No one knows how many deaths go uncounted.
“It’s a difficult event to attend,” says blogger Autumn Sandeen. “It’s a difficult event to plan.” In a recent article for San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, Sandeen wrote about the numbness that some long-time trans activists feel in response to the ongoing violence.
My wife, Katy Koonce, has been attending Austin’s TDOR since the beginning. As a trans-identified psychotherapist, she has helped countless clients sort through their feelings after Day of Remembrance. I asked Katy for her tips on emotional self care for folks who are attending this year’s event. Here’s what she had to say:
1. Look around. This may be the most transgender people that you’ve ever seen in one place. Remember that, despite all the violence and discrimination, our community continues to grow and organize. They can’t keep us down.
2. Talk to people. Generally speaking, trans people like to help other trans people. If you’re new to all this, ask about what else is going on in your community. If you’re an old-timer, pay it forward.
4. Observe yourself with compassion. Take note of the things that trigger you. Sometimes the hardest thing about TDOR may be hearing from PFLAG parents and thinking about your relationship to your own family or hearing from trans youth and thinking about your younger self.
5. Remember to breathe. Take in the faces around you. Make eye contact. The anxiety you’re feeling is most likely not about the now. You’re here, surrounded by other people who have come out for similar reasons. Let yourself be in the moment.
Transgender Day of Remembrance
Thursday, November 20th, 2014
Austin City Hall, 301 W 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701
Last night was the final Sunday night at the Dog and Duck Pub on 17th and Lavaca.
My sweetie Katy and her best friend Nancy have been spending Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck Pub for twenty-one years.
That’s longer than my parents were married.
That’s longer than The Beatles were a band.
If Katy and Nancy’s Sunday night ritual was a person, it would be old enough to join them at the Dog and Duck for a drink.
Nancy and Katy actually met for the first time at the Dog and Duck. It was 1991, and Katy still had long, permed tresses a la Jon Bon Jovi. By chance, she happened to make the acquaintance of a group of gay girls from College Station. Katy was intrigued by these college-educated queers with their hairy armpits and Doc Martens and dark beer. She made plans to meet her new friends at the pub, and they showed up with Nancy in tow.
Flash forward a year. At the tail-end of a long and booze-soaked Pride weekend, Katy and Nancy were feeling the Sunday blues. They decided to meet for one last drink at the Dog and Duck, and the tradition stuck. Pretty soon, other people started to drop by every week too. The Dog and Duck was like Katy and Nancy’s living room. No need to call ahead or make a plan—if it was Sunday night, you could pretty much count on the fact that they would be there.
Sometimes people would come to the Dog and Duck regularly, and then life would pull them away. They might resurface years later and start attending the Sunday night sessions again without skipping a beat. I came along in 2001, which makes me somewhat of a newbie. Even after thirteen years, I still occasionally meet old-timers who are new to me.
The Sunday night tradition has outlived jobs, pets, apartments and more. Katy and Nancy both swear that more than one romance ended because of a girlfriend who didn’t respect Dog and Duck time. I’ll admit that when our son was a baby, I didn’t always relish the idea of Katy spending the difficult bedtime hours at a bar. But I’ve also felt pretty damn lucky to have a spouse who really nurtures her friendships. It takes a lot of pressure off when you know that you’re not your partner’s only means of emotional support.
Sunday night conversations at the Dog and Duck can range from raunchy to tearful. Last summer, when my family of origin was in crisis, the battered picnic tables in the courtyard were my refuge—a place where I could narrate the whole, complicated story without interruption and then ask for insights from my friends.
It would have been easy for the ritual to fall by the wayside when Nancy started traveling for work. These days, she’s out of the country almost as often as she’s home, and it takes more intention to keep track of the schedule, but Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck have remained the default.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that homosexuality wasn’t subversive as a way of having sex, it was subversive as a way of life. As queer people, one of our strengths is that we hold on to our subcultures and friendships. We don’t put away childish things, we weave them into the fabric of lives that don’t follow straight lines. But it’s not easy to maintain long-term relationships that aren’t legitimized by blood or matrimony or profit. (There’s a reason why we say gay couples who have been together for ten years are the equivalent of straight couples who have been together for twenty-five.) That’s especially true for adult friendships, because our culture lacks ritualized times and places that preserve and strengthen those bonds.
Last night, I raised a glass to Nancy and Katy, thanking them for making a time and a place for friendship in their own lives, and in the lives of so many others. Now the ground is shifting, but the roots are still strong. May we nurture them, and may they bloom wherever they are planted.
Last year, my son had an elementary school teacher who actually talked about gay people.
Last year, for the first time since kindergarten, Waylon’s classmates didn’t give him any flack about our unusual family. Fourth grade went by without an insult, an indignant question, or even a casual “that’s so gay.”
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I happened to be in the classroom on the day after President Obama’s inauguration address. The students were studying the Civil Rights Movement.
“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Hardwick began, “yesterday the President mentioned the march from Selma along with two other movements. Who can tell me what other equal rights movements he mentioned?”
Hands shot up around the classroom. I looked at Waylon. I knew he knew. When the POTUS mentions Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall in the same breath, you can bet your sweet lentil casserole that it’s going to be dinnertime conversation in our queer feminist home.
But Waylon didn’t raise his hand. He was waiting to see what his classmates would say.
Mrs. Hardwick called on the first student, a little girl who proudly answered “women’s rights.”
“Yes, that’s right!” the teacher said. “What else?”
At this point, Waylon looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head. It was a rare—perhaps unparalleled—moment in his education.
Fewer hands were raised now, but there were still some eager answerers. Mrs. Hardwick called on a little boy who was half perched on the back of his chair.
“Uh,” he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of what he was going to say. “Gay marriage?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Hardwick said. “The president mentioned the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.”
I looked at my son and saw relief mixed with wonder. His private home world had emerged into the classroom, and no one made any derisive remarks. It was just a simple connection between the course material and current events, the kind of thing that good teachers do all the time.
But it was a big deal, because the elementary curriculum in Texas is silent on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.
Currently, our district’s elementary anti-bullying initiatives tend to be what University of Texas Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler calls “pro-social” interventions. They focus on interpersonal conflict rather than intergroup bias and emphasize empathy and social skills over teaching students to name and critique inequality.
When it comes to gender and sexuality, these “pro-social” interventions may miss the mark. According to Dr. Bigler, kids who enforce gender norms don’t necessarily intend to be hurtful. Sometimes, they’re merely sharing what they believe to be true.
So the kid in first grade—the one who told Waylon that it wasn’t possible for two moms to have a child—she wasn’t trying to be mean. She was merely sharing what she believed to be true about gender and families. And the current K-5 curriculum wouldn’t leave her any wiser on that score.
In a soon-to-be-published paper, Dr. Bigler and her team compared students who received pro-social training to students who received pro-egalitarian training that named sexism and put it in a context of social inequality. They found that students who received the pro-egalitarian training were more likely to be able to critique sexist stereotypes in the media and more prepared to challenge gender-based exclusion and teasing among their peers than those students who received standard pro-social lessons that emphasized inclusion and kindness.
Clearly, I can’t prove a causal relationship between my son’s year without bullying and his teacher’s willingness to name gay and lesbian people and talk about their struggle for equality. But, as a mom and a former teacher, I know that kids are smart. If their classroom lessons are silent on the subject of LGBT people, they’re going to understand the underlying message that some people and families are less than worthy.
I’m urging my district to adopt the Welcoming Schools curriculum, which puts LGBT families in a broad context of diverse families and teaches elementary students to avoid gender stereotypes. Welcoming Schools offers a wide range of resources for school administrators and educators to support students who don’t conform to gender norms, and it has been successfully implemented in diverse districts across the United States. Read more about it, and talk with your principal and school district about a collaboration that can be tailored to meet your school’s needs.
Philip Koonce II, beloved husband, father and coach, passed away on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. He was born on October 16, 1926, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Dr. Philip B. Koonce, Sr. and Mabel Koonce. Philip is survived by his children: Philip Koonce, III and his wife Gail, Blaine Koonce and his wife Lynn, and Katy Koonce and her wife Paige; his grandchildren: Cody, Bryan, Brent, Haley, Andrea, Jenna, Stephanie, Dylan, and Waylon; and seven great-grandchildren.
I pulled up to Daddy Phil’s house just before the viewing. The family was already at the funeral home, but the garage door had been left open to reveal rows of folding chairs and card tables bedecked with vinyl tablecloths.
Inside the house, the kitchen counter was crowded with boxes of kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in throughout the evening and the next day. Friends and family would appear in an intricately choreographed dance, unloading ice and coolers, cookies and casseroles, sodas and red Solo cups.
Growing up in Carthage, Texas, Philip dreamt of becoming a famous country singer like Tex Ritter (another Carthage native son). His mother, the indomitable Mabel Koonce, wrote to Ritter for advice. The country music legend responded with a long letter that said, essentially, “It’s a hard life. Go to college. Explore your options.”
In 1944, Philip enrolled at the University of Texas. He played football and (at Mabel’s insistence) interned for a state senator. Drafted at the end of the war and stationed in the Philippines, Philip found an unusual niche. At 19, he was recruited to coach and quarterback a football team for the Air Core. He also helped organize entertainment for the USO. In a letter, he told Mabel that it was “the kind of a job I’ve always wanted and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
After the war, Philip attended the University of Houston. He walked on to the football team and eventually won a scholarship. He met his future wife, earned a master’s degree in education, got married, and moved to Texas City to begin his career as a high school football coach.
The Koonces are a musical people. Katy’s mother, Donna, wrote volumes of rhyming verse. Her couplets could be simultaneously sappy, pointed and inspired. She might wax poetic about a mother’s love, but she was equally likely compose an epic guilt trip.
Katy’s oldest brother, Phil III, has been known to rhyme as well. His ode to Father’s Day, “A Few Things I Remember About Dad,” hung on the wall above the old man’s bed.
As lead singer for Butch County, Katy growls her rhymes. They’re less sentimental, more sexual, filled with fictional characters and intricate rhetorical acrobatics.
Katy’s middle brother, Blaine, is the kind of musician who can play anything with strings. He’s been in all kinds of bands, from bluegrass to gospel, but his real genius is improvising songs for any occasion, which he delivers in a charismatic comic deadpan.
Despite his reserved demeanor, Daddy Phil had a beautiful voice, which he shared in rare performances at anniversaries and family gatherings.
On the evening of his funeral, friends gathered around the card tables in the garage. They came to eat and talk, to comfort and commiserate, but mostly to listen and to sing.
Sandra and April brought a cooler full of ice.
Pammie brought pasta.
Leigh Ann and Redonda brought King Ranch casserole.
Dede brought paper products, including extra t.p.
Someone brought shrimp slaw and made sweet tea.
Someone else wrote it all down on a yellow legal pad in the kitchen.
Blaine held court with his guitar. As the night wore on, he and his friend Victor played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The mourners overflowed into the driveway and coalesced around the beer coolers. In the darkness, the warm yellow light of the garage was like amniotic fluid, enveloping and protecting the dearly beloved. I put my arm around my queer-as-shit wife and sang along about “kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.”
I had hoped to see Katy’s nephew, Bryan Koonce, hip-hop impresario and aspiring MC. After Katy’s mom’s funeral, he had delivered a manic, virtuosic description of what it was like to smoke salvia. I was curious what more I might learn.
I found him inside the house with his two sisters, Andrea and Jenna. They were sitting on the family room couch, texting, seemingly separate from the rest of the party.
“Do you remember me?” I asked, plopping down on the rocking chair. “I’m Paige, Katy’s wife.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Bryan answered, friendly but distracted by his phone. All three siblings have young kids, and all three live together at their mom’s house. His sister said something under her breath. They seemed to be sparring in real time and via text simultaneously.
“We’re kind of the Jerry Springer side of the family,” Bryan said, bashfully.
I gazed at the family photos on the opposite wall. If they had captions, they’d read like a rolodex of reality show plots: “Addiction Killed My Mama,” “The Brother I Never Knew I Had,” “My Daughter Looks Like a Man.”
“Which side isn’t the Jerry Springer side?” I asked, sweeping my arm around the room and including myself.
“True,” he laughed. I’m not sure if he registered the irony that I, the unlawfully wedded wife of the prodigal daughter, was awkwardly trying to reassure the first-born son of the first-born son.
In 1969, Philip moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to work with at Brazoswood High School. For 16 years, Koonce served as Assistant Head Football Coach and Defensive Coordinator, helping to guide the Brazoswood Buccaneers to eight district titles and to the state championship in 1974. Former players remember him as stern and disciplined yet compassionate, an introvert with a sense of humor and a talent for storytelling.
I did not grow up in a close-knit community. I never learned to anticipate the needs of grieving neighbors, nor did I know the spiritual comfort that these small gestures give.
I have been honored to write obituaries for both of Katy’s parents, and I have rarely felt so purposeful, rarely known such a fit between the task at hand and my humble tools.
I can’t spin rhymes, can’t keep a tune, but I’m lucky to cast my lot with people who know how to sing and to grieve.
As I was writing this, I found an apropos video by Bryan Koonce. Sample some Koonce family rhymes:
And the soul that I have will lay next to Dodie
Sippin’ on some scotch and listenin’ to oldies
Credits: Kolache photo by Chmee2; Tex Ritter photo from Capitol Records (public domain). All other photos courtesy of Koonce family.
This fall, as elementary-age kids head back to the classroom, some transgender students are returning with more than just new school supplies. For these children, the beginning of the academic year is an opportunity to introduce a new name, new pronouns, and a new social identity.
Over the past several years, resources for transgender elementary students and their families have grown rapidly. They now include multiple mainstream media reports (with varying levels of accuracy and sensationalism), new organizations such as TYFA and Gender Spectrum, and innovative medical protocols to delay the onset of puberty. While access to these resources is by no means universal, it is becoming increasingly possible for elementary-age children to begin their transition before the maelstrom of middle school.
However, as Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith suggest in their recent Huffington Post article, most elementary school teachers and administrators have not been trained in strategies for create an inclusive learning environment for gender nonconforming and transgender students.
As an elementary parent and an educator, I am passionate about welcoming schools. Katy Koonce and I recently had the privilege of creating a training for teachers and staff at a local elementary school. There are stellar materials available, and I wanted to share our outline and some of the things that we found most helpful.
Establishing a developmental timeline
As Payne and Smith point out, “Americans think of young children as ‘innocent’ and ‘asexual,’ so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms.”
Children are perceived as ‘too young’ for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ into the ‘innocent’ elementary school space and is thus dangerous.
The first task of our training was to reorient teachers and administrators with accurate information about gender and child development. We used Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child, specifically chapter three, “Developmental Stages and the Transgender Child,” which contains a detailed breakdown of gender identity at different ages. (If you don’t have access to the book, there is a version of this timeline available on the Gender Spectrum website.)
Information about developmental stages (hopefully) speaks to elementary educators in the language of their professional education. Our next step was to introduce them to the words and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elementary students. (Again, our overarching concern at the outset of our presentation was to convince listeners that “this really happens at the elementary level.”)
To this end, our training included excerpts from Queer Youth Advice for Educators, which is based on interviews with LGBT youth from across the nation and includes several personal stories about elementary school experiences. This book is available as a PDF download from What Kids Can Do, and hard copies are available for $9.95. I give copies to school counselors and administrators whenever I can.
Establishing the costs of inaction
Once we had established that gender identity is within the purview of elementary education, we wanted to briefly highlight the social and emotional costs of unprepared schools. The personal narratives from Queer Youth Advice for Educators continued to be helpful on this point, especially when paired with GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Based on the 2007 National School Climate survey, this report speaks to educators in their language, linking harassment and lack of safety to poor educational outcomes.
In our case, we felt it prudent to follow the carrot of educational outcomes with the big stick of federal antidiscrimination law. Presumably most educators are already familiar with Title IX, the section of the Education Code that prohibits gender discrimination. We were excited to learn about a 2010 letter from the Department of Education that interprets Title IX as applying to gender-based discrimination that targets transgender students.
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.
Special thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality for making this letter available as a PDF on their blog.
Outlining best practices
At this point, we felt it was important to move into practical, proactive policy recommendations. For this particular educational context, our recommendations included the following:
Honoring preferred name and pronouns
Staff and faculty training
Addressing gender inclusion in the curriculum
Our recommendations were based on personal experience as well as three excellent resources:
Initially, making suggestions for gender-inclusive curriculum seemed like the tallest order. After all, we live in Texas, a state that’s not exactly known for its progressive curriculum. Luckily, my friend Abe Louise Young alerted me to Gender Doesn’t Limit You: A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Grades, which was developed by the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas and distributed through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. While not explicitly designed to speak to transgender issues, these detailed lesson plans include case studies and rhyming scripts to help young children learn to analyze and respond to gender-based bullying, and many of the examples involve behaviors that don’t conform to rigid gender norms. As an added bonus, the rhyming scripts can be useful for teachers who need words to respond to gender bias and bullying on the spot in everyday classroom contexts.
We learned a great deal from our first training with elementary educators, and we hope to continue to work with more schools and to share resources with other people engaged in similar projects. Personally, I’d like to write some case studies based on experiences of elementary students who have transitioned at school. Do you have other suggestions for other resources or ideas to help us improve?
Paige Schilt has taught college students for 18 years and served as Interim Assistant Dean of Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University in 2011-2012. Katy Koonce is a former school social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice.
The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies.Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more!xoxox
As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.
It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.
All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.
By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.
Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.
My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.
It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.
Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.
Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.
When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.
The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.
By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.
* * * *
Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.
“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.
“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”
Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.
Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.
* * * *
The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:
All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.
We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.
* * * *
A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.
With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.
Suddenly, someone was saying my name.
“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”
S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.
“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”
Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.
* * * *
Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.
I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.
What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.
A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.
When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.
I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?
Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.
“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.
* * * *
Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.
I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.
We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.
In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.
To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.
We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.
I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.
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.
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.
“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.