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Queer Rock Love

A Family Memoir

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Queer Rock News: Spring 2012

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

In this issue:

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

Interview at Bitch Media

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

Credit in the Straight World

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

My Favorite Reader Comments

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

maybe a new leaf wrote:

Found you recently and love your writing…

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

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

jvoor wrote:

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

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

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

I Have a Reading Coming Up in Chicago

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

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

John Cameron Mitchell Humped My Wife

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

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

We’re really big fans.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Incident

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

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

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

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

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.

The Little Zeus’s Room

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?”

“Good.”

“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.

Fear and Loathing at the Eye Doctor

Last month, we took our son to the optometry clinic at a large urban university. As it happens, it was the same clinic where I was treated as a child for amblyopia, AKA “lazy eye.”88090366_8.jpg

Although twenty-five years had passed, the cavernous lobby was unchanged. Settling into one of the hard, gray chairs was like biting down on a stale institutional madeleine. My mind was flooded with traumatic memories of corrective lenses and long, boring afternoons in dark exam rooms.

Perhaps that’s why, when the student intern stepped through the door and called my son’s name, I was distracted. I didn’t think to introduce myself or my wife, Katy.

The intern, a young woman in career slacks and spiky heels, was prepared for parents with lagging social skills. As she steered us into the exam room, she assigned us names.

“Mom and Dad, you can sit right over there.”

Maybe because I’m the more gender-conforming parent–or maybe because I used to be a professional spokesperson–I felt compelled to explain the situation.

“Actually, we’re Mom and Mom,” I said in my friendliest, isn’t-this-funny kind of voice. “I’m Paige and this is Katy.” Katy smiled on cue.

“I’m so sorry,” the intern said, looking flustered.

“Happens all the time,” Katy assured her. I could tell my wife was trying to be unintimidating, despite her muscles and tattoos.

The intern recovered from her embarrassment, and things went pretty smoothly for a while. It seemed like our biggest challenge would be helping seven-year-old Waylon sit still. The clinic specialized in pediatric optometry, but the exam chair and all of the equipment were adult-sized. Waylon’s feet couldn’t reach the footrest, which made him fidgety.

As he swung his legs back and forth below the chair, I noticed that he’d grown again. I wished that Katy had dressed him in pants that weren’t quite so high-watery. (Although Katy and I both come from middle class families, we have very different ideas about how to dress for encounters with medical institutions. I was wearing a gray dress with black suede boots. Katy was wearing an old pair of cut-off sweatpants and a KISS t-shirt.)

About an hour into the tests, the supervising doctor came in to check on our progress. She was energetic and well-maintained, with clunky enamel jewelry that matched her blouse. She quickly read the intern’s notes and asked Waylon to follow a pencil with his eyes.

“Well,” she said final78023925_8.jpgly, “your vision is good. But we may need to get your mom and dad to help you with some exercises to help your eyes work together.”

Barely pausing for breath, she turned to me and began to explain the diagnosis.

“Can I say something?” Waylon interrupted. The doctor didn’t seem to hear him, so he asked again.

“Can I say something?” He was sitting up on his knees, leaning toward the doctor.

“Yes?” the doctor turned her swivel chair back toward him.

“I don’t have a dad. I have two moms.”

The doctor turned away from Waylon and began to write in his chart with great concentration. “Faux pas, faux pas,” she said, not making eye contact. “Happens all the time.”

For a second, I just stared at the doctor’s blonde, bowed head, thinking what kind of person says faux pas to a seven-year-old? Then I looked at my son. He didn’t seem disconcerted by the doctor’s behavior. In fact, having successfully represented his family, he now seemed somewhat oblivious to the doctor’s reaction.

The doctor was far more frazzled. She exited the exam room tout de suite, promising to come back at the end. The intern continued to quiz Waylon on the legibility of different charts through different lenses.

“T…E…F, no…P,” Waylon read.

Why wasn’t I more proactive with the introductions?

“O, L…F, D, G,” he deciphered.

I bet “normal” parents don’t worry about introducing themselves and explaining how they’re related every time they go to the doctor.

“L…P…C…T…” He was squinting a bit.

But imagine all the aunts and grandpas and big sisters who probably bring kids in here too. Doesn’t the staff get any kind of training about family diversity?

“Z…D…B…F…E…O…”

This place sucks!

“F…C…L…”

“D…P…B….T…”

I should have been better on the introductions.

“E…….T…..O….I…” Waylon was getting squirmy.

But I have a right to be distracted. I had a lazy eye!

“B…Z…F, no, E…….” He was really straining to read the lowest row.

“That’s okay,” the intern said. “You don’t need to read that line.”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of tests, the doctor returned. I was curious to see how she’d handle the situation, whether she’d address her earlier assumptions or continue to avoid them.

Katy was sitting closest to the exam chair, holding Waylon’s hand. The doctor shined a penlight into Waylon’s eye and asked him to focus on Katy’s face.

“Just stare straight into his eyes,” she said. Waylon, confused, stared somewhere over Katy’s shoulder.

“We’re almost done,” the doctor said. “I just need you to look right into his eyes for a few more seconds.” She pointed in Katy’s direction. “Him” was Katy.

“Look into my eyes,” Katy said. “Just this one last test, buddy.”

Katy gets called “him,” “sir,” and all manner of other masculine appellations on a regular basis. It’s usually not a big deal. She identifies in the middle of gender, and she’s pretty happy to answer to either pronoun. But I had rarely seen anyone so determined to remain oblivious to the complexities of her identity, especially when they’d been schooled by a seven-year-old.

A couple of scenarios flashed through my mind. Perhaps she had understood that Waylon had two moms, but she just didn’t think that Katy was one of them? Maybe she thought Katy was just a friend who’d come along for a fun, three-hour pediatric eye exam? Maybe Katy’s masculinity was blowing her mind and she couldn’t bring herself to use a feminine pronoun? Or perhaps she was reading Katy as MTF and she was using masculine pronouns to be aggressive?

When we finally escaped to the car, Katy admitted that these same scenarios had been running through her mind. The three of us discussed the situation on the drive back to Austin. Katy and I couldn’t stop speculating about what the doctor was thinking, but Waylon seemed bored.

I worried about his lack of interest. Was it masking some emotional wound? Had the doctor’s refusal of recognition made him feel powerless? I had read that eight is an age when kids from nontraditional families sometimes began to feel self-conscious about their difference. I wondered if the experience at the eye clinic was hurrying that process along.

All of these questions were on my mind two weeks later, when I took Waylon to meet Dr. M, the local doctor to whom the clinic had referred us.

I was worried, above all, about Waylon’s vision. I didn’t want his experience to be like my childhood, which left me permanently fearful of volleyballs and other flying objects. However, Dr. M’s office eased my mind; it was smaller and brighter. It didn’t give me the lazy eye trauma like the other clinic did. Dr. M looked me in the eye and shook my hand.

“I’m Paige,” I said. “I’m Waylon’s mama.”

Sometimes I say, “I’m one of Waylon’s moms,” but sometimes that feels obnoxious, over-eager.

Dr. M looked at Waylon’s chart. She performed a few quick tests to confirm the clinic’s diagnosis. Then she spoke directly to Waylon.

“We need to help your eyes work better together,” she said. “I’m going to give you a few exercises that you and your mom can practice.”

Good doctor, I thought. She’s not assuming that I’m married. She’s not assuming anything about our family beyond what she’s seen and heard.

Waylon, however, was not satisfied.

“Can I ask a question?” he said. The doctor nodded.

“What about my other mom? I have two moms!” he said, in a tone of comic exasperation.

I held my breath as I waited for the doctor’s response.

“You do?” she said, and her face lit up. “Waylon, you are so lucky to have two moms!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious. I felt grateful for the magnitude of her response and grateful for my son’s dogged determination to see his family reflected in the eyes of the adults around him.

Photos licensed by Getty Images.

How It Feels to Have a Dad

On Wednesdays, I pick Waylon up from school at 2:45. I have fifteen minutes to walk him to the car, feed him a snack, hydrate him, and deliver him to his occupational therapy appointment a mile away. If all goes exactly according to plan, we can just make it.

Last Wednesday, Waylon was in the backseat, munching a bagel. I had my right turn signal on and was waiting for an opening in the late afternoon traffic.

“Sometimes,” he said, apropos of nothing, “I just wish I could kind of, you know, ditch you guys and live with some other family.”

My first reaction was guilt. It’s the clutter, I thought. We’ve finally driven him crazy with all of our books and papers. Now he wants to live in a family with tidy surfaces.

“Well,” I said, grasping for equanimity, “Mommy and I would certainly miss you if you went away.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s just, sometimes I really want to know how it feels to have a dad.”

A car paused to let me in. I waved my thanks and went straight into fix-it mode. “Well, that’s one reason why we wanted you to spend so much time with Adam and Flynn this summer. So you could know what it was like to be around a dad.”

“I want to know what it feels like to have a dad at night,” he insisted.

“You’ve had sleepovers,” I countered. I knew I was grasping at straws. I couldn’t stop myself.

“I just want to know how it feels to have a dad love me like a dad,” Waylon said.

“Oh,” I said. I was chastened by his persistence and clarity. “I can understand that.”

Still searching for solutions, I did a quick mental inventory of Waylon’s grandfathers: (1) 83-year-old retired coach who never leaves the bed. Great for watching football and collecting photos of Waylon on his bureau. (2) Younger, gay grandpa. Affectionate and sweet as long as he’s not distracted with booze and boys. Prone to disappearing on mysterious “business” trips for weeks at a time.

“Waylon,” I said, turning left at a green arrow. “I can really understand how you feel. I used to sometimes wish I had different parents too.”

“You did?” he sounded excited, enlivened.

“Yes,” I said. “I think every kid wants to know how it would feel to have different parents some times.”

“They do?” he was suddenly chipper. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You know that part on Harry Potter Wii where Harry has to defeat the troll?”

We pulled into the parking lot of the occupational therapy center. Our journey was over, but I hoped that this conversation was not. I hoped I hadn’t silenced Waylon’s feelings with my knee-jerk problem solving. I wanted to do it all over, to ask Waylon what kind of dad he imagined, to let him know that his yearning was fine and wouldn’t hurt me.

Freud coined the term “family romance” to describe the childhood fantasy that your parents are not your real parents. He hypothesized that such stories are a normal way of dealing with separation and Oedipal jealousy. But a romance is also just a type of story. As a queer family, we’re making up our own story. I hope we can tell it in ways that make room for all kinds of feelings–even if it means we have to go back and tell it again and again.

Uncle Stacey

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.landino.jpg

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.

“Stacey?”

“Yes?”

“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.”

***

For useful resources about talking to a child about a transition, check out COLAGE’s Kids of Trans resource guide.

Photo credit: Amanda Fulk. You can see a short film and more images of Stacey’s transition at http://www.lamiscelanea.org/ (Enter the site and scroll all the way to the right.)

What I Mean When I Say “Family”

Last month, my hometown of Austin, Texas, had two separate pride celebrations–Austin Pride 2010, organized under the auspices of the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and QueerBomb, a counter procession dedicated to reclaiming pride’s radical, carnal, noncommercial, and transgressive lineage.

qbombhunk.jpgTo this writer, it seemed like the organizers of Austin Pride 2010 were bumbling bullies straight from central casting. Early on, one of the board members publicly queried why “transvestites and bisexuals” couldn’t just stop “pissing on our parade.” Later, they ousted Sandra Bernhard from the roster of official pride events for being “too vulgar.” According to several sources, a local leather group interpreted the march’s rules about “good taste” to mean that they could only participate if they agreed not to wear leather or even vests.

Why, you ask? Why would anyone want to see leather men marching in their business casual attire? Well, the organizers of Austin Pride were quick to answer their critics. They’re doing it for the kids, of course. For the families. To ensure that Austin Pride remains a “family-friendly” event.

As someone who has a family in the sense that these people mean when they say “family” (i.e. a reproductive family), I get mad when people use me and my kid as a cover for exclusion and censorship. When “family” is just a convenient screen onto which they project their internalized transphobia, homophobia, and sex phobia, it makes me feel…dirty.

Luckily, the organizers of QueerBomb refused to fall for the divisive politics of family. Queer Bomb provocateur Silky Shoemaker made this refusal explicit in her remarks to the 1,000+ crowd at the alternative pride celebration:

We will be told again and again to make ourselves presentable, to hide behind closed doors, to button up, butch up, hush up, pay up – to sell out our values for mainstream acceptance. BUT this is wrong! And it’s also BORING!

They will say we should do it in the name of normalcy or decency or that it’s the only way to get it done. And especially they will say, “Do it in the name of families.”

But my family is right here. I’m reclaiming that word. (Again!) Because my family is built around respecting and honoring each other in our many facets, in the beauty and dignity of our varied experiences.

My family is right here. As I looked around the crowd of freaks and rabblerousers, I saw my mentors, teachers, sisters, and co-conspirators. I saw people who have helped me through hard times and people who have helped me have a lot of fun.

queerbombstreet.jpgqbombfriends.jpgSometimes it’s easy for queers with kids to lose track of this larger meaning of family. They buy into the narrative that growing up means turning homeward, buying stuff, and leaving behind our queer subcultures. They start to fall for the message that one type of family is more valuable and deserves more space.

So, in the spirit of QueerBomb, I want to affirm that, when this dyke mama says “family,” I mean both/and, not either/or.

I mean daddies who are leather daddies.
I mean people whose family is at the bar.
I mean friend family and circles of lovers and exes.
I mean people whose family is their cat.
I mean genderqueer mommies and trans mentors.
I mean gaybies and fairy godchildren.
I mean gay brothers-from-another-mother and lesbian bromancers.
I mean people who make art, justice, outrage, and love together.

It’s not just that I couldn’t live without this queer family; I wouldn’t want to live without this queer family. If I had to choose…well, luckily, I don’t. Those who would pit one family against the other are creating a false dichotomy.

queerbombcatguy.jpgqbombstilts.jpgqbombpaul.jpgqbombsilky.jpgqbombrudy.jpgqbombcouple.jpgQueerBomb crowd and speaker photos by Bruce Wiest. Man with cat and Paige & Katy photo by P.J. Raval. All other photos by Katy Koonce.

Creating Change with a Kid

Long before my son was born, my dear mother turned to me and said, “your kids are going to turn out so conservative.” I think this was her special way of saying that 1) my activist lifestyle is a little kooky, and 2) kids inevitably rebel against parental extremes by becoming the opposite.

While I tend to disagree with her on the first point, I have met plenty of families who seem to prove the second point. Now that I am a parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to share my values in a way that’s helpful rather than oppressive. Whatever Waylon grows up to be, I want to bequeath him all the best tools from the queer survival toolkit: building community, making art, acting up in the public sphere, valuing difference. I want him to remember his activist childhood fondly.

So last week we took Waylon to Dallas for Creating Change, the Task Force’s National Conference on LGBT Equality. Will he remember it fondly? That remains to be seen.

Creating Change is one of my favorite conferences. I love the emphasis on multi-issue politics and alliance building. I love the leading role played by youth and people of color. I love the sense of camaraderie. I love the playfulness. And I think Sue Hyde is totally hot.

Last year, I saw a woman at Creating Change with a young child, and I realized that childcare was available for conference participants. Childcare at activist events is one of my favorite second wave feminist interventions, and it seemed like yet another indication of CC’s awesome intersectional politics.

As it turns out, however, the childcare in Dallas was a bit of a mixed bag. At six years old, Waylon was one of the oldest kids in the room. And the services were really just traditional babysitting: there were some toys and books and movies, but nothing really engaging or interactive. After the first morning, Waylon was bored and didn’t want to go back.

To be fair, our expectations were high because Waylon has had great experiences attending the Gender Spectrum kids camp at Gender Odyssey and participating in COLAGE-sponsored programming at other activist events. Those programs focused on getting kids to interact and express themselves and make stuff.

Luckily, I’d done a little background research on fun stuff for kids in the Dallas area. My partner, Katy, and I were able to make a deal with Waylon: he would spend a few hours at the childcare each day and each day we’d leave the conference for a few hours to do something that he wanted to do, like visit the aquarium or shop at the Lego store.

Our compromise with Waylon meant that I missed most of the plenaries. Since I didn’t get to go to those big sessions, I missed some of the feeling of community that I’ve loved about Creating Change in the past. I didn’t get to go to as many workshops as I normally do. I didn’t have the same feeling of cruisiness that usually makes CC so fun. I was in bed by 9pm almost every night.

On the other hand, the diversity of ages and bodies at Creating Change sparked some great conversations with Waylon about ableism and how to talk about physical characteristics without using value-laden words.

Waylon: “I just meant ‘weird’ as in different, not ‘weird’ as in bad.”

Mama: “Then just say different.”

[Later] Waylon: “Mommy, you look…different.”

We had other important discussions as well. Coming to a compromise about the childcare gave me the opportunity to explain why it was important to me to be at the conference in the first place. And after we left, Waylon initiated an on-going conversation about African American cultural traditions that led us into talking about histories of slavery, cultural appropriation, and resistance.

For me, the best part of the entire conference was attending the Sunday plenary brunch with my immediate and extended families. From the moment I first read the conference program, I was super excited to see that Vogue Evolution would perform. Waylon loves to dance and loves to watch dance. I knew that voguing was going to blow his mind.

In the end, the closing event was even better than I could have imagined. The members of Vogue Evolution are activists and historians, committed to documenting the origins of voguing in African American communities going back to the 1920s and earlier. I teach some of this history in my LGBT film class when we watch Tongues Untied. I was deeply moved to know that several of my former students were there in the audience too, learning more and seeing that history in motion.

Feeling their youthful presence, and knowing that my young son has a near-photographic memory for dance moves, I felt so grateful to be part of the relay of queer generations, the passing on of the queer survival toolkit.

Just now, I asked Waylon to recount his favorite things about his weekend in Dallas. They were 1) the Lego store, 2) the aquarium, 3) the picture he colored at dinner Friday night, and 4) “the dancing.”

Sick and Wrong

It had to happen sooner or later.

When we sent our son, Waylon, to school, we knew that eventually some kid would tell him

that it’s sick and wrong

to be

fat.

Apparently, some denizen of the playground has taken it upon himself to inform Waylon that he has “fat cheeks.” Now, whenever Waylon looks in the mirror, he sucks in his cheeks like a six-year-old Zoolander. Suddenly he shuns his puffy coat. The other night at dinner, when I told him he needed to eat his chicken for a little protein and fat, he looked at me with panic in his eyes. “I don’t want to be fat!”

I find these developments more than a little disturbing. Before Waylon was born, my wife, Katy, and I made one solemn vow: no fat talk in front of the kid. Whatever our private struggles, we promised to abstain from negative body talk about ourselves, other people, and especially our son.

It may seem strange that we prioritized body-positive parenting before, say, saving for Waylon’s college fund. But it’s all a question of context. To say that our families were fat phobic is a little like saying that Fred Phelps has a problem with gay people. Katy grew up hearing “lose some weight” as the one-size-fits-all response to every dilemma. When she became addicted to speed in the eighties, her mother was initially blinded by her miraculous weight loss. There’s actually a picture of Katy in the family photo album, looking skeletal and vacant, with the breezy caption “a size six!!!!”

My parents’ attitudes toward weight were similarly disordered. They approached dieting with punitive, penitential fervor. At one point, when I was 13, my dad was exercising two hours a day and subsisting entirely on raisins, grapes, and bagels. “You don’t want to be unattractive,” he’d say when he dropped in between workouts to admonish me and my sister for eating junk. “Unattractive” was the code word for fat. Its connotations were lazy, undisciplined, stupid, feminine, and self-indulgent.

These kinds of messages, which mistakenly equate physical attributes with moral qualities, were shaming and insidious. Luckily, I had one natural ally in sniffing out hypocrisy: my metabolism. I have a fairly fast metabolism. Whether I eat a lot or a little, whether I eat healthy food or junk, my weight stays within the same 10-pound range. By the time I reached adulthood, I had realized that the social approbation I received for being thin had nothing to do with self-discipline or moral righteousness. It was just genes and pure, dumb luck.

Thus, when Waylon was born, Katy and I were determined to disrupt old family patterns. As a baby, Waylon demonstrated a marked preference for well-cushioned bodies. This was most apparent when we traveled to France and decided to save money by holding him in our laps for the 11-hour flight. When I held him, Waylon would toss-and-turn, trying to find a comfy way to rest his head against my bony clavicles. Again and again, he’d give up and reach for Katy’s more comfortable belly.

As a toddler, Waylon preferred to rest on Katy’s belly while we read bedtime stories. He could fit his body between the crook of her neck and the cradle of her hips. Before he tottered off to bed, he’d squeeze her and bestow rows of tiny kisses. “Belly, I love you! You are the most comfortable belly in the whole world.”

Of course, raising a fat accepting child turned out to be easier said than done. Although Katy and I had vowed to eschew negative body talk, that didn’t mean that we’d successfully jettisoned all of our negative baggage about our bodies. One summer, when I ventured to the pool in a new two-piece bathing suit, Waylon patted my midsection. “Hey,” he said, in a tone of pleasant surprise, “your belly looks kind of fat in that.” I resisted the urge to shroud myself in a giant beach towel, but I can’t say that my reply, “thanks a lot,” wasn’t shrouded in sarcasm.

When you’ve grown up in a fat phobic family, it’s pretty hard to leave all those old habits behind. I came up listening to my mother bemoan her wide thighs and child-bearing hips. I know I’ve slipped up once or twice and said disparaging things about my own body within earshot of my son. And although we try our best to love the bodies we’ve got, it’s not like we don’t watch what we eat. Katy’s a performer, and she has a target weight that makes her feel more comfortable on stage. When Waylon first realized that she was dieting for an upcoming show, he was absolutely stricken. “Please Mommy,” he begged, “please don’t get rid of your fat.”

It was perhaps the first time in her life that Katy had to assure someone that her diet would not be too successful.

But the most challenging thing about raising a fat accepting child has been helping him make sense of the social stigma attached to fat in our culture. The necessity of introducing some context became clear when Waylon was three and we took him to our favorite pizza place. The waiter came to our table, and Waylon greeted him with a cheerful “Hi Fat!” The young man blushed and avoided my eyes for the rest of the evening, which was excruciating. I wanted to tell him that Waylon’s words weren’t meant to wound, but I doubted my ability to explain our parenting philosophy quickly and convincingly enough to avoid causing the man further mortification.

When I talked to Waylon about that incident, I tried to explain it in children’s terms. Being fat doesn’t make someone bad, but calling someone fat can make that person feel bad. It’s complicated and contradictory, but I think he gets it. Just to make sure, I backed it up with some good, old-fashioned parental guilt: “If I ever hear you call someone fat in a mean way, I will be very, very upset,” I told him.

“I know, I know,” he said, in the impatient voice he uses when I tell him something obvious.

These days, when I see Waylon sucking in his lovely round cheeks, I wonder if we’ve succeeded at all. It’s easy to see his self-consciousness about his appearance as an external manifestation of my inner demons, a reflection of my own not-fully-expurgated fat phobia. I think, if only I hadn’t said that thing about my butt, if only we’d never told him that Katy was dieting…

But part of me recognizes that there’s no way to shelter Waylon from the prejudices in the world around him. And fat is hardly the only issue where there’s a gap between our family worldview and the ideology of the larger culture. The other day, one of his classmates told him it was “strange” that he had two moms. Yes, we had to tell him, kids are going to say that. Not everybody knows gay people. Some families don’t know that it’s okay to be different.

As a parent, I have to trust that Waylon can encounter other people’s assumptions without losing touch with our family’s core values: justice, compassion, and self-acceptance. But today he still doesn’t want to wear his bulky winter coat. Still, yesterday he hugged Katy’s middle and said, “you are the best belly in the whole world.” I hope that, eventually, the same love will extend to his cheeks, his belly, and every other part of his beautiful, perfect body.

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