Last week, I was interviewed by a Bay Area reporter who expressed surprise that we were making our queer, gender-nonconforming family in Texas.
I get it.
I agree with Molly Ivins that Texas often functions as the “national laboratory of bad ideas.” And now the Republican voters of this state have inflicted Ted Cruz on the rest of the nation. It’s not hard to understand why people in California might think we’re all just a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-hating homophobes.
Those kind of broad-brush assumptions about Texas are part of what motivated me to write Queer Rock Love. The story of LGBT community in the South is a story of chance alliances and unlikely bedfellows—and what could be more queer than that?
Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, I wanted to tell you about when Butch County met the Clyde band.
Long before I ever held an actual print copy of Queer Rock Love in my hands, I knew I wanted to have a book party in Katy’s home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. There was just one problem: how to find a venue. The main bookstore in Lake Jackson is the Hastings by the mall, and the events manager did not seem to be enthused about a queer memoir from a transgressive press in Californ-I-AY. In fact, he never returned my calls. Which was fine, because my dream was to combine my reading with a rock show featuring Butch County.
Eventually, a friend suggested the Bad “S” Icehouse, a honky tonk nestled among the creeks and bayous and chemical plants that line this part of the South Texas coast. The owner, Shauntae, was a fellow alum from Katy’s high school. She had a band booked for 9 that night, but we just needed to be off the stage by 8:15.
Unfortunately, not everyone shared Shauntae’s welcoming attitude toward a band called “Butch County” and a book called “Queer Rock Love.” When she submitted the listing to a local Country-music bar rag, the calendar editor called with a question: “I thought you were a honky-tonk?” It was hard to tell if it was the queerness or the literary nature of our event that made him suspicious.
On the day of the show, Shauntae had written “Book Reading – Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir” in neon rainbow letters on the board above the bar. As we milled about, waiting for our friends and audience to show up, I heard several regular patrons grumbling about a “book reading” in the same tone one might reserve for “taxes” or “colonoscopy.”
I was nervous. I made a mental note not to lead with my usual story about watching Katy perform in sexy Viking costume. I decided to stick to Lake Jackson stories—more specifically to stories about Donna Koonce, whom many in the audience had known and loved.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Soon Katy’s friends from high school poured in to the bar, surrounding us in a protective cushion of love. Their enthusiasm inspired Butch County to deliver a raucous, rollicking first set. I even forgot to be nervous because I was too busy dancing and enjoying the band’s onstage antics.
By the time I got on stage, my only worry was whether the crowd would be able to come down from their rock-n-roll rowdiness to be able to listen to me read. But as soon as I launched into my impersonation of Donna Koonce, I knew they were with me. The crowd really wanted to hear how this high-femme Southern diva had come to unconditional acceptance of her transgender butch daughter. It felt like they were hungry to have the best and most expansive sides of themselves reflected back to them. After the reading, I sold out of every copy of Queer Rock Love that I’d brought. Lots of people who swore they’d never attended a “book reading” in their lives bought a copy.
Some time during Butch County’s second-yet-equally-electric set, the guitarist from Clyde, the “porch stomp” band that was scheduled to go on at 9, showed up. Reportedly, Josh texted the other members of Clyde and told them to get on over to the club ASAP, because Butch County was tearing it up.
Now here’s where I have to admit my own small-mindedness, because several members of Clyde look like they’d fit right in on an episode of Duck Dynasty. Although I love country music and Americana, I did not immediately expect that Clyde and Butch County (a classic rock band) would form a mutual admiration society. However, we were all in the mood to celebrate, and Clyde’s songs—replete with wash tub beats and gospel-tinged soul—were the perfect soundtrack for a Lake Jackson-style love fest. Before long, the members of Butch County were turning to me and saying, “these guys are really good.”
What followed was a flurry of Clyde liking Butch County’s facebook page and vice versa. We listened to Clyde’s album all the way home to Austin, and “I Saw Jesus on My Tortilla” became Waylon’s new favorite song.
A few weeks later, Clyde asked Butch County to play their annual “life’s a carnival” show at the Carousel Lounge. So if you’re hungry for an antidote to Ted Cruz’s version of Texas values, come on out and let these unlikely buddies rock your world.
Saturday, February 20 @ 7pm
1110 E. 52nd St.
Clyde photo courtesy of Clyde. Other photos by Darryl Khoury.
When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my mother told me that someday our TV would be a computer and she’d be able to leave messages on the screen.
My dad told me that someday there would be a woman president and maybe it would even be me.
No one ever predicted a lesbian rock band that would continue to electrify audiences when its lead singer was over 65. Back then, it seemed like women in their sixties were old ladies, grandmothers or old maids who drove too slow and carried purses full of Kleenex. If you had told me that old ladies could be sexy, powerful and creative—well, I think that human colonization of Mars would have seemed more likely.
In keeping with a 1970s-era vision of the future, the release of the new Star Wars movie has inspired a cultural conversation about women entertainers and aging. Everyone wants to weigh in about whether Carrie Fisher has aged well. Does she have too many wrinkles? Has she gained too much weight?
If this conversation seems very tiresome to you, then let me tell you a story about the Girls in the Nose reunion show last Tuesday night.
Let’s start with the way that lead-singer Kay Turner stands. Legs spread wide. Feet planted flat on the ground. Back straight. Hands wrapped around the mic until she grabs the stand and pulls it to her crotch on a song like “Sodomy.”
“Does Kay’s voice remind you of Iggy Pop?” I ask my wife.
“Patti Smith,” Katy answers, supplying the feminist canonical referent. But I resist. It’s true that there’s a lot of rock-n-roll priestess in Kay’s performance, but it’s more carnal than Patty. If I could pick one song for them to cover, it would be The Stooges’ “Dirt,” a song that makes me blush every time I hear it.
“Can I have a little less reverb on my vocals?” Kay asks. Noooooo, I think, because I’m enjoying the stadium-rock quality of it. But I’m glad that Kay and guitarist Gretchen Phillips keep asking the sound person for exactly what they want. I once stood in a crowded nightclub while the singer for Sebadoh quibbled with the sound guy for 45 minutes. It’s rare to even hear a female musician ask apologetically for a little more or less of something in her monitor.
There’s no need for apologies here. When Kay sings “Menstrual Hut,” she shrugs off the fact that the members of GITN are mostly post-menopausal now. It was always about hanging out with other women anyway. And when Girls in the Nose makes a reference to the women’s health movement in a song like “Breast Exam,” it’s with a sly, sexy wink. Are they really singing about breast cancer screening? Or are they instructing you in how to squeeze and tug a nipple for more nefarious purposes? Does it have to be an either/or? When percussion/keyboard player Joanna Lebow is cavorting with the Les Nez dancers, I forget to care.
Most reunions are about looking back, and there was a warm glow of nostalgia over the evening, but Girls in the Nose’s performance didn’t feel dated. It was as if—to quote another beloved queer Texas band—they were “sent to us in a time capsule from the future.”
When I grow up, I want to be Girls in the Nose.
There’s one more opportunity to see GITN reunite on January 8 at Cheer Up Charlies.
Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.
On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.
I roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk with PTA peeps.
After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.
Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.
At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.
Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.
I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.
I’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”
I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.
Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”
“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.
“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.
We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.
Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.
7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.
The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:
“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”
Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.This post was originally posted under the title “The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale.”
P.S. A lot of people have asked for a link to the original “Should Waylon Have Two Mommies” article.
Butch County photo by John Leach of johnleachphoto.com. Used with permission.
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
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.
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.
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.
Hey, did you know you can be notified via email every time there’s something new on Queer Rock Love? Just scroll down to the very bottom of this page and click “follow blog via email.” I just got twitter too, @queerrocklove.
The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies.Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more!xoxox
As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.
It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.
All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.
By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.
Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.
My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.
It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.
Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.
Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.
When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.
The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.
By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.
* * * *
Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.
“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.
“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”
Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.
Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.
* * * *
The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:
All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.
We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.
* * * *
A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.
With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.
Suddenly, someone was saying my name.
“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”
S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.
“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”
Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.
* * * *
Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.
I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.
What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.
A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.
When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.
I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?
Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.
“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.
* * * *
Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.
I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.
We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.
In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.
To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.
We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.
I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.
Surfside Beach is connected to the mainland by a string of chemical plants. Vast plantations of pipes and cooling towers squat over the shallow waters of the bay. At night, illuminated by security lights, the plants were strangely beautiful. In the daytime, they made me think of cancer and three-headed fish.
We were traversing this no-man’s-land because Katy had a mission. She had found an old picture of Brian onstage, naked except for a cigarette, a fedora, and a strategically placed guitar. We were driving to the Brazosport Mall to get it transferred onto t-shirts for the show.
“I want a shirt too,” Waylon said from the back. “I want a shirt with Uncle Brian on it.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate.”
“Oh, what the hell,” Katy protested. “He wants a t-shirt of his donor.”
“Well, you can’t wear it to school,” I said, weakly. What the hell. It was a hilarious picture.
We were just coming over the bridge to the mainland, and Katy pulled over at a store called Buc-cee’s, which was a combination convenience store, surf shop, and t-shirt emporium. They sold diesel fuel, bikinis, flip flops, and blow-up rafts, along with hamburgers, chicken wings, chewing tobacco, beer, and homemade fig preserves.
Waylon was immediately drawn to a large display of sand pails and shovels. Katy headed for the children’s clothes and started flipping through the racks for a size 4 black t-shirt. I decided to try on floppy sun hats. If you can’t beat the consumers, I figured, you might as well get something good.
“Mommy, Mommy, can I have this?”
Waylon was dragging an enormous plastic ship through the racks of bathing suits and trunks. When it was clear that he was addressing Katy as “Mommy,” everyone in the store, from the teenage girl in the bikini aisle to the trucker waiting for his food order, did a double take. I couldn’t tell if Katy noticed.
“Sure,” she said automatically. “Check out this t-shirt.” She held up a black t-shirt with an anchor on the sleeve that said “Surfside Beach.” It matched the tattoos on her arms.
“Yes!” Waylon exclaimed. They high-fived.
The line at the cash register was long. One vacationing family was buying snacks for a day on Surfside. But mostly it was chemical plant workers, grabbing coffee and donuts before reporting to shifts at Dow and Shintech. Katy scooped up Waylon and held him while we waited. “My boy,” she said, kissing his head. “My boy is going to get a shirt just like Mommy’s.” Waylon nodded enthusiastically.
“If anybody asks you who’s on the back, what do you say?”
“You say, ‘that’s my Donor!'”
That night, after practice, Brian was even more nervous. He sat silently through dinner, answering his wife’s cheerful queries about band practice with terse, one-word answers. Kathy’s daughter, Jessica, was visiting from college, and I felt bad, because Brian’s nerves were casting a pall over their mother-daughter time.
“We could build a bonfire on the beach tonight?” Kathy asked, hopefully. Brian shrugged and stared at his food. The silence was awkward, unbearable. All of the women, myself included, immediately began to fill it with airy small talk. But when Brian left the room, Kathy scraped his plate with barely contained fury, her lips pressed together in a thin line. After the dishes were done, she wiped the formica table in sharp, precise circles.
I hovered between helping and not helping. The whole scene was like a rerun of the family gatherings of my early adolescence. I knew the script by heart: men set the mood, women set the table…and cook, and clean up. As a teenager, I’d vowed to resist my assigned role in this drama. Now, stuck in the beach house, I felt angsty and oddly irritated with Katy. I didn’t sign on for this much heterosexuality! Why are you making me sit through this? I wanted to hold my hands over Waylon’s eyes. Don’t watch!
My angst was tempered by a guilty sense of sympathy. I guessed Kathy wasn’t used to seeing her husband this nervous. They had met long after he retired from Rokitt. In her world, Brian was a caseworker for people with developmental disabilities. I had seen him with some of his clients when we visited Michigan. He was relaxed, patient, sweet.
After dinner, Brian retired to the back porch to smoke. Everyone else gathered in the living room. It was clear that no bonfire was going to materialize.
“Mom, can I watch one more Thomas?” Waylon asked.
I felt ambivalent. I knew he was bored, but I didn’t want to be rude, hogging the TV with kiddie shows.
“Ask Uncle Brian if he wants to use the TV,” I answered. Just then, Brian walked in the door and started to cross the room. Waylon followed him across the linoleum floor.
“Can I watch TV?” he asked, tugging on Brian’s shorts.
“I don’t know,” Brian said, sullenly. His whole body recoiled from the responsibility that the question implied. “Ask your mom.”
The next day, Waylon and I escaped to the beach to jump waves. Every few minutes he yelled, “This is so fun!” as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck. I felt the same way. As a child, I would stay in the surf for so long that my body could feel the rise and fall of the waves in my bed at night. Now Waylon’s excitement was making me feel like we shared a special bond.
When he got winded, I held him on my hip and jumped for him. Waylon told me stories about preschool. I told him stories about childhood vacations. We talked until I ran out of stories, but he still wasn’t ready to go ashore.
“Are you excited for the big rock show tonight?” I asked.
“Uh-huh.” He shook his head. We’d been taking him to shows since he was a month old.
“Are you going to dance for Uncle Brian?” I asked.
“Yes, and I’m going to sing with the band. On the stage.” he informed me.
“Oh.” This was the first time I’d heard of this plan. I didn’t want to smash his dreams, but I also didn’t want him to be disappointed if it didn’t work out.
“Um, Sweetie, Mommy is singing with the band. Did anyone tell you that you were going to sing with the band?”
The sun is setting on the beach as we make our way down Surfside’s narrow, two-lane highway. When we pull into the sandy parking lot of Stahlman Park Recreation center, I’m relieved to see that the parking lot is fairly crowded. It helps that every third vehicle is a puffed-up Ford F150, which takes up one and a half regular parking spaces.
I release Waylon from the back of our Volkswagen. He looks adorable in his black t-shirt with Brian’s picture on the back.
“Are you ready to rock?” I ask.
“Yeah!” he yells.
“We’re going to dance and clap really loud, right?”
“Yeah, and I’m going to sing with Uncle Brian,” he assures me as we walk across the sandy parking lot.
“That’s a sweet idea,” I tell him, taking his hand. “But it’s not very likely, at least not tonight.” I know that I sound like a wet blanket. I just don’t want my baby to get hurt. Waylon breaks away and charges up the wooden ramp to the rec center. Outdoor floodlights illuminate the picture of Brian on his back. “Slow down!” I yell as he disappears through the swinging doors.
The danger of any kind of reunion is finding out that you’re just not that relevant to people’s lives. I have only heard about Rokitt from Katy, and she is Brian’s best friend. I don’t have a good sense of what Rokitt meant to other folks – until I walk into the bright, air-conditioned space of the rec center. The folding chairs are filled with old rockers and their teenage kids, chatting and eating in tidy rows of 10-foot banquet tables. I spot Waylon near the kitchen, where a team of women is setting out cookies. The buffet table is decorated like a high school prom, with plastic picture cubes that displayed Rokitt photos on all six sides.
By the time I cross the room, Waylon has a cookie in hand and is making his escape. He runs straight into his Tía Sandra, Katy’s other best friend, who catches him in a bear hug. As I make my way to where they’re standing, Sandra pretends to devour the “sugars” from Waylon’s neck, which make him laugh and squeal. When she finally hands him back to me, he is content to rest on my hip and eat his cookie.
“Sandra,” I ask, “did you know Brian when he was in Rokitt?” Sandra and I are the same age – nearly a decade younger than most of the people in the rec hall – and I’m curious to hear her perspective on the whole scene.
“I went to see them when I was in high school. Some of my rocker friends took me to their show at the KC Hall. The next day, everyone was wearing Rokitt t-shirts to class. You would have thought fuckin’ Motley Crue had come to town.”
I’ve seen pictures of Sandra from the eighties, when her black, curly hair was styled in a glorious Mexican mullet. Back then, she and Katy were both identified as “butches with hair.” Now she wears it close to her head in a crew cut. She has recently been hired as an operator at one of the plants that line the beach road. One of those big, puffy trucks in the parking lot belongs to her.
A white man with hands and neck like sunburned hams is approaching. Redneck alert! Redneck alert! I pull Waylon closer to me. As the ham man walks past, on his way to the cookie tray, he gives Sandra a subtle nod. “How you doin?” Sandra says, nodding back. I marvel at how my friend has taken her place in a world of men who work in the volatile chemical plants.
Suddenly, the band members take their places. There’s no stage, so they just walk, unceremoniously, to their instruments. A skinny guy with hair like Kenny G is speaking into the microphone. I think he’s the emcee, but the people in the audience don’t seem to notice. Brian is pacing in front of the drum kit, his movements cramped by nervousness. He’s wearing Katy’s tight black jeans and a t-shirt that says “I rock,” with a picture of an antique rocking chair. His face is deathly pale. I’m afraid he might puke before the end of the introduction. Finally, the emcee hands over the mic. The band starts to play. Brian lets out a feeble whoop. The audience stops talking.
From the back of the room, I realize that I’m holding my breath, and I force myself to breathe naturally. They sound okay. Brian’s voice is clear and tuneful. He’s still stiff, but he manages a jaunty kick at the end of the first song. I find an empty folding chair near Kathy. Waylon scoots onto my lap as the band dives into their second number, a Judas Priest cover. I sneak a peek at Kathy’s face. She looks happy and relieved and a little teary. Rokitt is loosening up now, and the crowd gives them hearty applause. In the next row, an elderly lady with white hair turns to her daughter. “Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law,” she quotes.
Brian is looking less frightened. “I just took some Geritol, and I’m waiting for it to kick in,” he jokes between songs. I wonder if anyone under 35 has ever heard of Geritol. “Feel free to dance, if you can find some room,” he adds. “Any time.”
I’m from Austin, where there’s an unspoken thirteenth commandment: thou shalt dance when thy friend’s band plays. At the Stahlman Park Recreational Center, the folding chairs dominate all but a tiny space in the very front. People are behaving like they’re at a church social – grabbing plates of potato salad and catching up with their neighbors while the band plays. Between the chatter and the bright lights and the absence of an actual stage, the whole thing is lacking a certain intensity. I’m worried about the energy of Brian and the other guys. I just want people in this room to bear proper witness to the miracle of middle aged men making music together.
Katy’s up at the front, bouncing and head-banging, but she’s interrupted every few minutes by someone who wants to catch up on old times. Katy was elected “Howdy Queen” at her high school, an honor bestowed on the friendliest freshman girl. However, even as Howdy Queen, Katy didn’t look like a girl. I’ve seen the coronation photos, and she looks like a football player in half-hearted drag. Throughout high school, Katy’s mom outfitted her daughter with Jane Mansfield-style bras that made Katy’s boobs loom in front of her like alien orbs. Twenty-five years later, she has a surgically flattened chest and can wear her clothing of choice: jeans and a muscle shirt. Her body is still ambiguous. And her warmth and enthusiasm still have the power to charm people who would otherwise be frightened by the mystery.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s the daughter of a football coach. When Katy comes up to sing with Brian, the little old lady in the front whispers something to her daughter. I imagine it’s along the lines of “Who’s that tattooed dyke?” Her daughter answers and the lady shakes her head excitedly. “Oh, that’s Katy Koonce.” She taps her husband on the shoulder. “That’s Katy Koonce!” she yells in his ear. He shakes his head too. People here remember the days when Brazoswood High went to the state championship. Katy ran onto the field with her dad after every game.
I figure the people must have some kind of fond memories of Katy, because the crowd is cheering as Katy humps Brian’s leg through the chorus of “Talk Dirty to Me.” It’s hard to believe that the Stahlman Park Recreation Center is bearing witness to such a queer spectacle. These two old friends feed each other’s energy, and their duet shifts the mood in the room. Waylon, for one, is out of his seat and dancing. As the band makes its way through original numbers like “Sweet Sixteen” and “You Make Love Too Tough,” he bounces and bangs his head. Occasionally he throws in some Kung Fu moves and King Tut poses. Every time he gets too close to the band, I have to run up in front of the folding chairs and drag him out of the spotlight. “That’s Katy Koonce’s lesbian lover,” I imagine the old woman saying to her husband. “And their gay love child!”
After the tenth time that Waylon rushes the band, I pull him aside for a little talk.
“Mommy was singing with the band because they invited her,” I explain. “You can’t keep going up there and getting in their way. It’s Uncle Brian’s big night.”
Waylon nods obediently, and then runs away. An old friend of Katy’s stops to talk to me, but I’m distracted, trying to spot Waylon in the crowd. By the time my eyes find him, he’s already back at the front. He’s somehow managed to take apart one of the plastic picture cubes, and he’s holding a handful of old photos. As the band launches into the final song, Waylon crawls up to the microphone and carefully lays the pictures at Brian’s feet.
“You show us everything you’ve got,” Brian growls into the mic. “And baby, baby that’s quite a lot.”
Waylon is jumping up an down, elated. He knows this song! Brian leans down toward him for the chorus.
“I wanna rock and roll all night,” he growls.
He extends the microphone to Waylon. Waylon contemplates it for a beat.
“And party ev-er-y day!” he squeals in his high, four-year-old voice.
Brian leads into the chorus again, and Waylon sings his part. He’s on the beat now, and people in the room are beginning to laugh and look at one another like, “Who is that kid?” By the time the second chorus comes around, the two have fallen into an easy call and response: first phrase low and gravelly, second phrase high and squeaky.
“I wanna rock and roll all night,” Brian calls.
“And party ev-e-ry day!” Waylon answers, looking proud. Every time he hits his line, people in the crowd hoot and clap. It’s a magical moment, the kind that you wish would never end because you can’t quite believe it’s real.
Katy comes up and puts her arms around me. I can feel her tears sliding down my neck. I look around the room and see Sandra against the back wall. She’s smiling and crying big butch tears too. Sandra helped raise two nieces in this community. Now she and her girlfriend are thinking about having a baby of their own.
Brian nods to the band to play the chorus one more time. “I wanna rock and roll all night.”
“And party every day!” They sing the last line together. Then Brian hangs up his microphone and sweeps Waylon into his arms. Waylon throws his arms around Brian’s neck, and they hug for a long time. Brian turns to the audience and makes the devil horns. Waylon painstakingly folds his middle fingers down to imitate Brian’s heavy metal salute.
The crowd is shouting and clapping and calling for an encore. They’re honoring Rokitt and honoring their youth. It feels like they’re honoring our queer family, with all of its twists and unexpected turns. For the moment, I’m so glad that we decided to step into this particular unknown.