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Dumbledore is Gaaaay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sad,” he said. “Sad for Dumbledore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And his long beard,” I added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Worlds in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I wasn’t feeling like hypothetical mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which should, perhaps, have calmed me down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life would be a lot easier.


Our Social Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trains.”

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

“Trains.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, I think…Barbie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lazy Lesbian’s Guide to Sex-Ed for Kids

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

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

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

“These tentacles…” he started.

“Testicles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kris’s List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stripes and the Slippery Slope

A few days ago, I was hanging out in the backyard with my son, Waylon, and his friend, Mike. I was watering the garden; they were molding playdoh into fantastic, multi-colored monsters.

“Mama,” Waylon asked. “Do you like stripes?” Since my sartorial preference for striped shirts is a well-established fact, I didn’t think twice before answering “uh-huh.”

“Do you love stripes?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you marry stripes!?” asked Waylon, in the triumphant voice of a little kid who has just mastered a classic playground rejoinder.

“Silly, I’m already married to Mommy.”

“Well, why don’t you divorce Mommy and marry stripes?” he teased.

“I don’t want to marry stripes,” I said good-naturedly.

At this point, Mike decided to enter the conversation.

“Why not? You’re already gay,” he reasoned.

Although the tone of our talk was light and absurd, I have to confess that I was a bit surprised at how easily a six-year-old was able to summon the classic slippery slope argument.

Luckily, my combined experience as a rhetoric teacher and an activist has prepared me to answer this particular logical fallacy.

“Just because I’m gay, that doesn’t mean I think stripes would make a good partner,” I said as I turned off the garden hose. “Stripes can’t make dinner. They can’t rub my feet. They can’t even talk.”

And then, just to make sure I had the last word on the subject, I tickled them both soundly and then sent them inside to wash their hands.

Teaching Kindergarteners About Gay Marriage

I’ve been holding my tongue for a while now.

My son, Waylon, started kindergarten this past August. Until two weeks ago, his entire public school career had overlapped with the campaign against Prop 8. Although we live all the way across the country in Texas, we heard the rumors about focus groups in California: lesbian and gay families with children weren’t testing well and were asked to keep a lower profile while more palatable spokespeople made the case for our marriages.

Now that we know how well that strategy worked, I can finally talk about my latest obsession: insinuating gay marriage into the kindergarten curriculum.

As adults, I think we tend to repress the trauma of the first day of kindergarten. When we dropped him off in the cafeteria for the first time, Waylon looked like a deer in the headlights. One of his classmates was crying so hard that his tears literally made a puddle on the polished institutional tile.

Watching our baby navigate a new place, new people, and a new routine was heart wrenching for us too. For the first week, my wife, Katy, and I stood in the hallway every morning until his class trooped by in their single file line. We blew last-minute kisses, wiped away our own tears, and exchanged hugs of solidarity with the other parents.

With all of these emotions swirling around, we had little time to think about how conspicuous we were–nor could we spare much thought for how to instruct Waylon and his classmates in the virtues of gay marriage.

Luckily, Waylon’s first assignment was to create a “me” collage to introduce himself to the school. A demanding and opinionated artist, Waylon insisted on including a printout of his first ultrasound, when he was just a tiny bean in the womb, as well as a staged photo of himself standing next to the Obama sign in our front yard. He selected sandbox snapshots of his three best buddies, a formal portrait of our dogs, and two family photos: one from our annual outing to the Nutcracker and one from our vacation trip to the Space Needle.

Once this unapologetic propaganda for alternative lifestyles was adorning the halls, we didn’t have to wait long for our next point of entry. The second unit in the kindergarten curriculum was “family.” I’ll admit that we felt some trepidation about this topic – who wouldn’t, when conservative commentators are constantly reminding us that this embattled institution is the cornerstone of all civilization? Katy checked in with Waylon’s teacher, who encouraged us to supplement the classroom’s collection of family books. Being a bleeding-heart social worker, Katy went a little overboard; she donated books on adoptive families, interracial families, single parent families, and penguin families. How better to spread the gay agenda of inclusiveness?

Luckily, our careers as LGBT activists and intellectual elites also give us the flexibility to volunteer in Waylon’s classroom. Katy’s favorite gig is field trip helper, and mine is guest reader. Just the other day, I brought in notorious gay author Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice. You should have seen all those five year olds, sitting in a circle and calling out the refrain of this unabashed paean to the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: a boy’s passion for chicken soup.

But, to paraphrase George W. Bush, where’s the accountability? How do I know that Waylon and his classmates are really learning about gay marriage? The answer is clearer than a standardized test. One fall evening, about six weeks into the semester, we were at the PTA’s backyard concert. Katy and I were setting up our lawn chairs next to the soccer field when we were suddenly surrounded by a roving band of five-year-olds. “Waylon’s Mom! Waylon’s Mom!” they called indiscriminately. Their questions betrayed an unwholesome interest in our marriage:

“Where’s Waylon?”

“Will you tie my shoe?”

“Can I have a dollar for a glow bracelet?”

“Where’s Waylon?”

Finally, one extremely promising pupil clarified the homosexual subtext of the entire exchange. “I know Waylon has two moms,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Because I have seen you both!”

Coming Out to My Gay Dad

When I was 20 years old, I met my Dad in D.C. for a weekend of sightseeing and shopping. My real agenda, however, was more serious.

I had rehearsed the words I needed to say for weeks: “I think I might be gay.” I wasn’t ready to venture a more affirmative statement. I was starving for external validation of what I knew, deep in my heart, to be true.

For two long days I waited for the right moment. On the last night of our trip, when we were seated at our favorite Georgetown restaurant, my throat felt tight and constricted. Each time I opened my mouth to speak the dreaded words, I felt like an invisible force was pushing them back down.

Looking back, I realize that the resistance I was feeling was more than just my own fear of conflict. Part of that invisible force was my dad’s unconscious resistance, rooted in his own hidden sexual identity.

Three years later, it was my dad who came out first.

His coming out process started slowly, but the clues were pretty obvious. He suddenly knew a lot about Marky Mark and Calvin Klein underwear. He stopped listening to John Cougar Mellencamp and started buying techno music. When he called me from a payphone just to say, “I’m in the Castro,” I couldn’t take any more insults to my intelligence. I wrote him a letter about not keeping secrets. He flew to Austin for another awkward restaurant dinner. But at the end of this meal, someone actually came out.

In the meantime, ironically, I had gone even deeper into the closet. I indulged my rebellious streak by getting married at 23, which nearly killed my feminist parents, although they were remarkably good sports about it.

But like many closets, mine was embarrassingly transparent to anyone who cared to look closely. I was studying queer theory in a department where brilliant lesbian professors attracted scores of lesbian grad students. I think I hoped that one day one of my professors would size me up and pronounce me queer with a flourish of scholarly authority. I was still waiting for the validation of my identity to come from outside.

Once my dad came out, being an ally and supporter to him became the cover story that explained my passionate interest in queer politics and LGBT rights. I spoke at rallies about how much I loved my gay dad. I was more involved in his liberation than he was. Internally, I wrestled with whether my deep attraction to queer culture was indicative of something more personal.

When I finally did come out in my late twenties, I don’t think anyone in my life was surprised. By that time, my dad had become much more comfortable with his own gayness and he took my coming out in stride–although he did say “your mother is going to kill me.”

I sometimes feel like having a parent who came out in my young adulthood slowed down my own coming out process. But I wouldn’t trade it. How many queer kids get to experience the unique pleasure of hearing their dad try out his first words of gay slang? I’ll never forget how proud he was when he was finally able to quote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the appropriate moment.

In the end, I came out when I was ready. For me, that meant maturing to the point that I wasn’t waiting for some outside authority to affirm me and give me a gold star for being queer. If I could speak to that 20-year-old me, I’d tell her- “listen to yourself. The validation you need is inside you.”

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