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Boys and Buddy Time

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

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

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

And the boys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t teach them by teasing and example.

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

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

Boygirls, Pillbugs, and Cool Dudes

Last week was spring break, so I got to spend a lot of time gardening with my four-year-old son, Waylon. He was really excited to capture his first roly poly bug of the season. The poor creature had curled up into a little protective ball, and Waylon was about to shove it in his pocket, but then thought better of it (ahem) with a little parental prodding. He decided instead to free it in a pot where we had just planted a little green succulent called “Mother of Millions.”

“Mom, I put that roly poly in the plant, and he or she—or if it’s a girlboy or a boygirl—is going to dig in the dirt and make it soft.”

Waylon, you had me at “he or she.”

As a feminist parent, I have experienced few greater joys than hearing non-sexist language carefully applied to a pill bug. But although I would love to take credit for Waylon’s refusal to assume the gender of the pill bug, it’s really his own creative adaptation to his context, just as “girlboy” and “boygirl” are categories he created to describe the people around him.

Now, when I was in college, my Child Development professor taught that children begin to consolidate their concepts of gender identity around three years of age, and that the process is often marked by heightened rigidity about gender norms. So I thoroughly expected Waylon to become a little gender cop when he hit three. He did go through a phase when he wanted to categorize everyone. One of his favorite games was a toddler form of people watching, where he would look at people in the park or in the grocery store and yell out “boy!” or “girl!” And while I wanted to support Waylon in whatever developmental thing he was working through, this game could be extremely socially mortifying. I would estimate that he was “right” (in that his attributions matched the gender identities of passersby) about 75% of the time.

Luckily it didn’t take Waylon too long to come up against the inadequacy of his binary categories. Another of his favorite games around this time was to ask, over and over, “Mama, are you a girl?” For me it was easy to answer with a straightforward “yes,” but for Katy things were not so simple. Since he asked this question about ten times a day for at least a month, she had plenty of time to formulate a good answer. “I’m kind of a mix of girl and boy,” she’d say. “I’m a mommy, but I look more like a boy than Mama does.”

Contrary to what child development specialists might predict, Waylon did not skip a beat. Before long, he was asking “Mommy, are you a boygirl?” ten times a day, and Waylon’s four-coordinate gender axis (girl, boy, boygirl, girlboy) was born. It may not be exhaustive (what gender system could be), but it has more descriptive depth than a binary. The first time we really saw this system in action was when our friend Kelly came to visit from San Francisco when Waylon was three. Kelly is a trans-identified butchy queer with blonde, boyish looks. She has tattoos of ships on her arms and endless patience for playing Thomas the Train, so Waylon adores her. One morning Kelly and Katy were taking Waylon and his best friend, Flynn, to the playground. Katy was driving, Kelly was riding shotgun, and Waylon and Flynn were strapped in their car seats in the back. Flynn leaned over to his buddy and said, in an astonished three-year-old stage whisper, “Waylon, is that a boy or a girl?”

“Silly, that’s Kelly,” said Waylon. “She’s a boygirl.”

Around that same time, Time published an editorial in which James Dobson condemned Mary Cheney’s decision to have a baby with her partner. “Love alone is not enough to guarantee healthy growth and development,” Dobson opined. “The two most loving women in the world cannot provide a daddy for a little boy–any more than the two most loving men can be complete role models for a little girl.” This week, as I’ve been pondering Waylon and his pill bug, I’ve been also been contemplating what the four coordinate gender axis does to Dobson’s notion of a “complete” gender role model.

When I was growing up, I had a family, and a father, that at least resembled Dobson’s prescription, but I still grew up only knowing one version of masculinity—my dad’s verbally-fluent, academic, leg-crossing, middle class version of masculinity. I rarely saw my friends’ dads (the 1970s in suburban America were not that different from the 1950s in terms of paternal involvement, as far as I can tell), but when I did, I always thought they must be mad about something, because I was so unaccustomed to their predominantly silent, aggrieved, inexpressive ways. (I distinctly remember seeing my friend Amy’s dad, who had just come back from Vietnam, open the fridge and drink milk from the carton, and it was such a disturbing breach of known fatherly protocol that I almost had to run home.)

The fact is that there have always been multiple masculinities, multiple genders, and queer families probably have even better resources in terms of introducing their children to a range of genders and gender expressions. And, although Dobson might like people to believe it, we’re not raising our kids in a test tube—we have families and communities. For masculine role models, Waylon has his (now openly gay) grandpa, who takes him for rides in his Corvette and lets Waylon throw an endless supply of pebbles in his pool. He has “Uncle Brian,” his donor, an old working class rocker who found his calling as a social worker with mentally retarded people. Most importantly, he has Mommy, who created her own uniquely Texan brand of female masculinity from her cowboy big brothers and her football coach dad.

Our extended family “village” also includes the teachers at Waylon’s school, Habibi’s Hutch. I don’t know if it’s because childcare is so undervalued (and under-compensated) in our society, or if it’s the remnants of the 1980s daycare sexual abuse hysteria, but daycares with male directors and male teachers seem relatively rare. Habibis’ has both a male director and a gender balanced staff of committed teachers, many of whom have been teaching there for more than a decade. Waylon has loved all of his teachers, but the dudes have played a special role in his life.

When Waylon was first potty-trained, his lesbian mothers thought it would be great if he kept sitting down to pee for a long as possible, thus saving our bathroom floors from his errant stream for as long as possible. I’m pretty sure it was the male teachers at Habibis who intervened to save him from parentally-programmed dorkiness, and before long he could hit the bowl like a pro. Several months later, Waylon was peeing at home and I was sitting on the edge of the tub, talking to him. He stopped mid-stream, adjusted his pants a little further down, and resumed his pee. Then he turned to me and said, with casual confidence, “It’s called choking your balls.”

“What?!?”

“When your underwear goes up too high while you’re peeing. It’s called ‘choking your balls.’”

I would never have known.

As I write this post, I’m mourning the fact that this will be Waylon’s last spring at Habibi’s. He’ll start kindergarten in the fall, and then his preschool teacher, Mike Esparza, won’t be as much a part of our daily lives. Mike has taught at Habibi’s for fifteen years. He usually sports long hair, a moustache and goatee, tube socks, and black plastic glasses. He looks a bit like a Mexican Jad Fair, but more handsome and coordinated. He rides a BMX bike to work, and he regales the kids with tales of death-defying bike adventures, as well as yarns from his childhood with a rotating cast of characters like his friend “Fat Jason” and his “dumb uncle.” Mike tends to speak in aphorisms that get repeated like the sacred word around our house. I can always tell when I am about to get a dose of Mike wisdom, because of the reverential tones in Waylon’s voice before he enlightens me.

“Mom, if you’re looking for something, and you stop looking for it, then you’ll probably find it.”

“Mom, people who say ‘stupid’ a lot probably are stupid.”

“Mom, the headliner is usually the best one.”

Some of the male teachers at Habibi’s are really warm, fuzzy, nurturing guys. If Waylon is having trouble with the morning transition, then hands-down it is Andrew he wants to go to. Andrew hugs him and tells him, “I’m so glad you’re here,” in the sweetest, most sincere voice imaginable. Mike’s style of nurturing is different, but not indifferent. There’s a little more distance there, but it’s an interested distance, one that lets the kids have their own process and make their own discoveries. I appreciate it, because I want Waylon to grow up comfortable with lots of different styles of masculinity and lots of different versions of “role model.” I know Waylon appreciates it too. When I asked him to describe Mike, the usually loquacious Waylon would only say, “he’s cool.”

Prologue: Think Pink

Katy’s mother, Donna Koonce, wanted a baby girl.

The year was 1962. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the secondary sex characteristics of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the science of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, so she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper, knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vagina and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

***

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the hospital, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and German cars may seem worlds away from Donna Koonce’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the First Woman President.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore her baby in a pack on her back. She had a calico maxi-dress, and her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the contradictions of pop culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife. My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

***

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the 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 she 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!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

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 anatomy–and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie footage was the year when Katy appeared next to the Christmas tree in full Davy Crockett costume. Freed from the confines of fussy dresses, she sprawled on the floor next to a large, oblong package. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership…and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

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

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