“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 was forced to sport 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.”
Ready to read more about the journey from Playtex to man chest? Order the book.
Got a memory about butch boobs (or Katy’s mom)? Share in the comments below.
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.
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 swelling in my chest area. My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 24AA training bras to school for me in her lunch box. She could afford to be generous; as Susie never failed to remind me, she had moved on to bigger (and implicitly better) sizes.
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. As the years passed, I hitched my hopes to any old wagon, grasping at stories of short boys who grew an inch or more after age 18.
Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to happen. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra and learned to make light of my plight. I was a budding thespian, and my signature monologue was Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts,” which begins like this:
I have to begin with a few words about androgyny. In grammar school, in the fifth and sixth grades, we were all tyrannized by a rigid set of rules that supposedly determined whether we were boys or girls. The episode in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is disguised as a girl and gives himself away by the way he threads a needle and catches a ball — that kind of thing. We learned that the way you sit, crossed your legs, held a cigarette and looked at your nails, your wristwatch, the way you did these things instinctively was absolute proof of your sex. Now obviously most children did not take this literally, but I did. I thought that just one slip, just one incorrect cross of my legs or flick of an imaginary, cigarette ash would turn me from whatever I was into the other thing; that would be all it took, really. Even though I was outwardly a girl and had many of the
trappings generally associated with the field of girldom — a girl’s name, for example, and dresses, my own telephone, an autograph book — I spent the years of my adolescence absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I did not feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, outspoken, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees and my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted desperately not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things but instead just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink as a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.
While my adolescent self was not particularly athletic or rambunctious, Ephron’s essay resonated more than I let on. I believed that breasts were a 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 different. Katy 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 Jane Mansfieldian 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 highlighted femininity as awkward and unfortunate drag.
(Special thanks to Katy for digging up this picture and letting me post it. Despite the fact that she finds it slightly mortifying. I think the transgender butch shines through, don’t you?)
This past summer, our family vacationed in Hawaii. We spent a lot of time swimming, snorkeling, picnicking and thinking about where my wife, Katy, could use the restroom.
In our regular life in Austin, this is less of a problem. In Texas, Katy gets read as male about 50% of the time and as female about 50% of the time. Her Gender Attribution Average (GAA) is actually pretty close to her internal gender identity, which is cool – unless she needs to pee. Still, in her day-to-day routine, Katy is usually able to avoid unfamiliar public restrooms.
In Hawaii, however, Katy’s GAA was 100% male. This is not usually a problem either. When she’s in a highly gender-conforming context, it’s often easier for Katy to use the men’s restroom, because she experiences much less rubbernecking and gender policing.
The problem lay in the fact that we were on vacation with our 8-year-old son.
For the longest time, Katy and I were like the stereotypes of the overprotective lesbian parents. I took Waylon with me in the women’s restroom until…let’s just say recently.
Thus, the beginning of our vacation found me pacing anxiously outside a men’s room at LAX, possibly looking like some kind of creepy bathroom peeper, while I waited for Waylon. I was worried that this would turn out to be one of those labyrinthine airport bathrooms with multiple exits and that my baby would wander out into the wrong corridor and be swept onto the busy streets of Los Angeles.
It seemed like hour later, although I suppose it was only five minutes, when Waylon emerged, looking disturbed. “What happened?” I cried, expecting the worst.
He crinkled his nose. “It just smells like a bunch of URINE in there!”
Clearly we needed to try a littler harder to help our son adapt to the restrooms of his gender tribe.
Our hotel in Kauai was located on a breathtaking beach in a rocky cove. In the mornings, when mist hovered over the water, it made me think of Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn.” Waylon was going through a Greek mythology phase – not a casual “I enjoyed The Lightning Thief” kind of thing, but more of an “I’m crying because I realized that I’m reading an abridged version of The Odyssey” kind of thing.
He’d discovered a quiz that could determine which Olympian god a person most resembled, and he’d pegged Katy as Zeus and me as Athena. I was flattered that my son considered me to be the goddess of wisdom, but I was also uncomfortably aware that I was gay married to my own mythological father.
Still, the strangeness of our mythological May/December union paled in comparison to our queer presence at a swanky beachside resort. Katy’s cousin had generously given us a weeklong stay at her timeshare, which turned out to be Honeymoon Central. There were honeymooners in the hot tub, newlyweds at the bar, and humongous wedding parties posing for group photos next to the koi pond.
Perhaps it was the overwhelming heterosexuality of all those honeymooners that predisposed people to read Katy as male. Whatever the cause, Katy’s Gender Attribution Average seemed impervious to the fact that Waylon called her “Mommy” every few seconds.
On our first full day in Hawaii, Katy and I lounged around the hotel’s enormous, flower-shaped pool while Waylon demonstrated 500 variations on the basic cannonball. “Hey, Mommy, Mommy, watch this! Did you see that one Mommy? Watch! Mommy, how big was my splash? Mommy!”
A polo-clad waiter appeared to check on Katy’s drink.
“Can I get you another beer, sir?”
“Mommy, Mommy, look at this!”
Katy had the deer-in-the-headlights look that means she’s afraid someone will revise their gender attribution in the middle of an interaction. It’s not that she cares so much how they read her; she just dreads the rollercoaster of confusion, embarrassment, and hostility that sometimes ensues. I decided to try to help her out.
“What is it, Waylon?” I asked, lowering my sunglasses.
“Not you! I’m talking to Mommy!”
Despite the fact that Waylon had blown Katy’s cover, the waiter continued to address Katy as “sir” for the remainder of our stay.
The highlight of our trip was a day spent snorkeling at a secluded hike-in beach on the north side of the island. At first Waylon was hesitant to swim out to the reef, so Katy wrapped her arm around him, and he clung to her like a happy submarine sidecar. As we approached the reef together, the sun burst through the morning clouds, illuminating brightly colored fish in all kinds of fantastic sizes and shapes.
By the time we hiked back to our car, afternoon rain clouds were beginning to gather, and Katy really needed to pee.
I think that there’s something particularly ominous about state park bathrooms. Maybe it’s the polished metal “mirrors,” which hint at violent acts of vandalism that the state has foreseen and precluded. Maybe it’s the latrine smell, which reminds me of Girl Scout camp and mandatory sports. Or maybe, as the partner of a transperson, I’ve begun to develop a sixth sense for locations where gender policing is likely to take place.
Whatever the reason, I could tell that Katy was not going to use the crowded bathrooms at Ha´ena State Park.
Later, I learned that Ha´ena is also referred to as the “end of the road” in Kauai. We were about as far as we could possibly be from our hotel, on an island where the average speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Katy got in the car with a grim look on her face.
As we passed through tiny towns, I could see Katy scanning for something. Each time we passed another unsuitable option, she grew a little bit quieter and grimmer. Waylon was in the back seat, loudly recounting one-liners from all the cartoons he had watched the day before. Katy gritted her teeth and turned up the radio.
“For god’s sake,” I wanted to cry, “just pull over and go behind a tree!” But I knew it was no use. My modest, pee-shy partner would never, ever be able to pee in the open.
Finally, just as I began to fear irreparable damage to Katy’s bladder, she spotted what she was looking for: a rundown gas station with single stall bathrooms that were accessible from the parking lot. She pulled the car over so fast it made my heart race, slammed it into park and jumped out without bothering to close the door.
Our perfect day was saved.
For the last night of our trip, we decided to splurge on the poolside buffet. In addition to his Greek mythology phase, Waylon was also going through a sushi phase. He’d been starring longingly all week at hotel posters touting an amazing variety of delicious-looking maki.
We all dressed up for the grand occasion. Even Waylon was wearing one of the preppy outfits that his gay grandpa likes to buy him at TJ Maxx. In his polo shirt and khaki shorts, he looked just like one of the waiters.
As soon as we had placed our orders, Waylon got a stricken look on his face.
“I have to go pee,” he said. I could tell it was urgent.
“I kind of need to go too,” Katy admitted.
“Let’s go together!” Waylon said.
Katy looked around at the other diners. Drunken honeymooners seemed completely oblivious to her plight. For the past seven days, every single stranger we’d met had read Katy as male. “Waylon,” she said, “if we go in the men’s room together, you can’t call me ‘Mommy’ all the time.”
“I know! I’ll call you Zeus!”
For the next five minutes, Waylon proceeded to say “Zeus” as often as he usually says “Mommy.”
“Come on, Zeus,” he said, shepherding her into the men’s bathroom like an old pro. “You take the stall, Zeus,” he added as he graciously headed to the urinal.
It was kind of hard to readjust to regular life after our glamorous vacation in Kauai, but I was glad to settle into our regular bedtime routine again. Katy and I usually spend a few minutes lying down with Waylon before he goes to sleep. It’s a time for us to talk about whatever’s on our minds, and I had a question that I needed to ask.
“Waylon, what did you think about using the men’s room with Mommy?”
“I mean, how did it feel to call her another name besides Mommy?” I asked, trying to dig a little deeper.
“It was okay.” he said, elliptically. “But I wouldn’t want to do it all of the time!”
Photo from yukihiro m.’s flickrstream. Shared under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
Sometimes I start thinking I’m an expert. I get to feeling like I’ve got things all figured out. And then, inevitably, parenthood brings me right back down to earth.
Take the time we told our son, Waylon, that his friend Stacey was embarking on a transition.
Waylon has spent much of his life around trans people. His genderqueer mommy had chest surgery when he was 18 months old. We’ve always spoken openly about the surgery and how it helped Mommy feel more comfortable in her body. As a toddler, Waylon developed his own four-coordinate gender system (boy, girl, boygirl, girlboy) to describe the gender diversity that he observed around him.
His experience wasn’t just limited to genderqueer people. Because my wife, Katy, is a therapist and activist in trans communities, Waylon has grown up around all kinds of trans folk. He can explain gender dysphoria and gender confirmation surgery in seven-year-old layman’s terms. He’s been to Gender Spectrum kids camp. He uses “hir” and “ze” as pronouns for God and certain stuffed animals.
So perhaps I can be forgiven for being a bit cavalier when I introduced Stacey’s transition as dinnertime conversation.
Stacey is my sister’s long-time partner. A talented artist with a low-key demeanor and a childlike capacity for silliness, Stacey has always been a favorite with Waylon. When Waylon developed a fondness for new wave music, Stacey made him mix CDs from his extensive music collection. When Waylon lost his first tooth, Stacey made him a stuffed animal shaped like an anthropomorphic incisor. And Stacey taught Waylon to play Plants vs. Zombies, a delightful video game that is only slightly less addictive than crack cocaine. So there was no question that Waylon would be interested when we told him over dinner that we had news about Stacey.
“You know how Stacey’s kind of like a boygirl?” I asked, using Waylon’s term for butches and masculine genderqueer types. He shook his head yes.
“Well,” Katy continued, “he’s realized that he feels all the way like a boy inside. He’s going to start taking medicine and changing his body so that he can make his body match the way he feels inside.”
Waylon paused for a moment. Then his face twisted into a tortured grimace and he began to sob. This wasn’t the phony cry he uses when he wants to be tucked in for the 27th time at night. This wasn’t the medium cry he uses when he’s scraped his knee or stubbed his toe. This was an anguished wail that made me gather him in my arms and hold his head against my cheek.
“I don’t want her to change, I don’t want her to change,” he bleated between sobs that shook us both.
My eyes met Katy’s across the table. She looked as scared and guilty as I felt. What had we done?
We tried to reassure Waylon by telling him that Stacey’s personality was not going to change. “He’ll still play with you,” I said. “He’ll still like stuffed animals and Plants vs. Zombies,” Katy added. “He’ll still be the same person.”
“No,” Waylon cried into my shoulder. “I don’t want her to change.” The tears showed no sign of stopping.
I tried a different tactic. “This is good for Stacey. This will make him happier.”
But every “him” was like fuel on flames. The crying just got louder and harder. Finally, Katy couldn’t stand it anymore. She reached for Waylon, and I transferred him to her arms. “Shhh shh shh,” she whispered as he rocked him. “It’s going to be okay.”
In retrospect, our biggest mistake was not realizing what a big shock this would be. As adults, we’d been able to read certain signs. But Waylon wasn’t picking up on the same clues. He wasn’t getting periodic updates from Stacey and my sister. He felt broadsided.
And while it’s true that Waylon has known quite a few trans people, they’ve mostly been post-transition or genderqueer. He’s never accompanied a friend through the journey of transition. He knew, theoretically, about the idea of transition, but he had no idea what to expect from his friend.
I can see, in hindsight, why I failed to anticipate his fears. As a feminist academic and a lover of complexly gendered people, I can be guilty of seeing gender as the most salient factor in almost any situation. From my perspective, Stacey was changing his outward position on a fluid gender spectrum. But Waylon wasn’t crying about gender. He was crying about losing a buddy. If I had it to do over again, I would speak to those feelings of loss and abandonment first and foremost.
After that first night, we hovered in an impasse. Waylon’s response to the whole topic was just plain “no.” I was teaching the short film No Dumb Questions in my class that semester, and I asked several times if he wanted to watch it with me. Waylon pointedly declined. I decided to let time work its magic.
At Christmastime, we all met up at my dad’s house. Stacey had sewn Waylon a giant pillow shaped like a fried egg. Waylon didn’t seem hesitant or shy. He followed Stacey around just like usual, talking a mile a minute, his speech liberally peppered with Stacey’s name: “Stacey, guess what? Stacey, look! Hey, Stacey…Stacey, watch this! Stacey!”
Stacey had started T just before Christmas. Now the whole extended family was trying their best to shift pronouns. We all made our share of slips. (Perhaps this is a blatant self-justification, but I swear it’s harder to shift pronouns when someone keeps the same name.) I tried to correct myself right away when I forgot. Occasionally I gently corrected Waylon too. He looked at me doubtfully, said “he,” and then moved on.
After Christmas, I asked Waylon about his experience of spending time with Stacey. He didn’t have much to say, which was unprecedented. Waylon is a chatterbox. He tends to talk nonstop about everything from the arcane plots of video games to the social dynamics of the lunch line. I was a little worried, but it wasn’t like he was avoiding Stacey. He just didn’t really want to talk about the transition yet.
Then, last spring, Stacey and my sis came to Austin for a brief visit. Stacey was recovering from chest surgery, but he and Waylon were still able to make a quick run to the store in search of the small bunny-shaped action figures that they both collect. Afterward, I asked if Stacey seemed different. Waylon thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I think maybe he seemed shorter.”
This was progress! Waylon had used a masculine pronoun without coaching. And, apparently, he had turned the corner from seeing Stacey as an average-sized woman to seeing him as a short man.
This summer, my sister and Stacey agreed to keep Waylon for a week while Katy and I took our first solo vacation in seven years. We were a bit anxious about being apart from our baby for so many days, but Waylon was pumped about his independent vacation plans. My sweet sis, Waylon’s doting “Auntie,” had planned an action-packed week of theme parks, aquariums, and museums. She and Stacey stocked up on mac-n-cheese. They moved an air mattress into the bedroom of their loft and researched kid movies on cable. They bought sticker books and Sponge Bob snacks.
The night before we left, the four of us had dinner at a restaurant near their house in Chicago. Waylon asked to sit between Auntie and Stacey. As we waited for our food, Waylon and Stacey were amusing themselves with Waylon’s brand new book of Lego stickers. I was talking to my sister when I heard Waylon engaging Stacey in conversation.
“Well…how did your surgery feel? Did it hurt?”
Stacey assured Waylon that the surgery hadn’t hurt too badly because he had been asleep. And then, in the blink of an eye, Waylon’s talk switched back to Legos.
The next morning, Katy and I said our nervous goodbyes and hit the road. In the evening, we called to say goodnight and to tell Waylon that we missed him already. “Mom,” Waylon said, “you and Mommy are my best friends. You and Mommy and Auntie and Stacey are my best friends.”
It feels like 95 degrees in the shade. We’re standing in line at the municipal pool. The mom in front of us has three kids and a tattoo on her cleavage that says “Ivan” or “Juan,” I can’t tell which. My hand moves reflexively toward the “Katy” on my own arm. Before I can solve the mystery of Ivan/Juan, the woman moves on. Now it’s our turn to pay the pasty teen behind the concrete counter.
Once inside, we walk past dilapidated metal bleachers and spread our towels under a giant oak tree. By this time in the summer, we know where to sit to avoid fire ants. This is our Sunday afternoon family ritual: I swim laps while Katy takes our six-year-old son, Waylon, to the recreational side of the pool to play with his neon orange Nerf football.
I always feel like I’m getting away with something.
Why should I get to exercise in peace while my spouse does solo parenting duty? But, despite my qualms, I’m mostly superfluous to their fun. Childhood nearsightedness has left me with a permanent fear of flying objects. Katy, on the other hand, is the child of a football coach. She’s serious about passing on her athletic heritage. Waylon can already send the football soaring in a slow, perfect spiral. Each week she expands his vocabulary to include moves like “stiff arm” and “stripping the ball.”
I try to keep an eye on them from the lap lane. They’re usually easy to spot, because Katy makes dramatic, splashy dives for the ball and then stages elaborate fumbles so that Waylon, his head bobbing a few inches above the water line, can intercept. Before each pass, she feints in seven different directions, her face a cartoon of shifting intentions.
Lots of parents use the pool as cheap day care. A fun, involved parent in the water is like an underwater kid magnet. It’s not unusual to look up and see Katy running for the ball with two or three random kids clinging to her broad back, trying in vain to tackle her.
On this particular Sunday, I was just getting used to the rhythm of my breath in the water when a flash in the shallow end caught my eye. I had to stop, mid-lap, and remove my goggles for a better look.
All her life, before and after chest surgery, Katy has worn a t-shirt in the pool. In the water, the shirt gets loose and heavy, which makes it difficult to swim. Out of the water, the shirt gets cold and clingy, which makes it difficult to relax.
Now, some four years after her surgery, Katy had decided to take off her shirt. The flash was the blinding whiteness of her heretofore unexposed skin. It created a high-contrast canvas for the tattoo across her chest, an image of Siva Shakti, the father-mother deity who represents the transcendence of dualities.
When I saw her bare chest from across the pool, I felt a surge of happiness. I hoped she was feeling comfortable, physically and emotionally.
But, of course, taking off her shirt created a whole new set of conundrums. Once she had revealed her man-chest, she was de facto male at the pool. As a genderqueer dyke, she’s used to funny looks and even belligerent bathroom confrontations, but now the women’s changing room felt completely off-limits. And this isn’t some swanky pool with a gender-neutral “family” restroom. She started changing in the car, even on days when she still wore her shirt in the water.
Last Sunday, the t-shirt was on. A sociable four-year-old named Dylan was watching Katy and Waylon play. Katy was throwing Waylon really high in the air. He shrieked with joy on the ascent and cried “again, Mommy, again,” each time he came up for air.
Before long, Dylan sidled over and asked Katy to throw her up in the air too. Katy sent her to ask her mother, who was reading in the shade. Mom gave the thumbs up, doubtless relieved that someone else was entertaining her child.
Once Dylan had been tossed in the air a few times, Waylon got jealous and wanted to play catch instead. Dylan was too tiny to handle the football, so she turned her attention to the puzzle of Katy’s gender.
“You look like a boy,” she said, smiling.
“Yep,” Katy said, smiling back at her.
“You look like a boy because of your hair…and because you have so many tattoos.”
“Yeah, I do,” Katy answered, still smiling.
“Mommy, Mommy, throw it to me,” Waylon shouted. Katy threw it to him.
When I swam up and Waylon started calling me “Mom” too, Dylan looked like her head was going to explode. Still, she couldn’t tear herself away. She kept swimming to the side and then swimming back and asking to be tossed in the air again. I checked to see if her mother was alarmed that she had attached herself like a barnacle to a tattooed and gender ambiguous personage, but mom appeared to be completely absorbed in her book.
Finally, after several rounds of “just one more time” in the air, it was time for us to leave. We said goodbye to Dylan and told her maybe we’d see her next weekend. Katy and Waylon headed to the car to change. I went to the women’s changing room to rinse my hair in the shower.
Dylan followed me in, her mother close on her heels.
“I just want to see if she’s a boy or a girl!” she shouted.
My immediate thought was thank god Katy’s in the car. This is the kind of scene she dreads. My next thought was what’s going to happen now? I was fascinated that Katy’s illegibility had rendered me illegible as well.
Dylan’s mother, looking mortified, scooped her up just as she reached the showers.
“Oh, she has nail polish, she’s a girl,” Dylan concluded.
I had to smile that my 34A bust is apparently not the most salient aspect of my gender presentation.
Later, I would realize the extent to which privilege was shielding me from fear and shame. I sometimes feel a bit queer in the changing room, but, as a gender-conforming cis woman, I still feel a sense of unconscious entitlement.
Perhaps because I felt safe, and because the whole interaction seemed curious rather than hostile, I wasn’t quite ready to be read. As Dylan’s mother dragged her reluctantly away, I couldn’t help troubling the waters one more time.
“Boys can wear nail polish too!” I said, in my friendliest singsong voice.