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Queer Rock Love

A Family Memoir

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A Few (More) Words About Breasts

Dear QRL Readers,

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.

* * * *

Katy performs with Raunchy Reckless.

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?
Man-chest!

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.

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.

Donor Duet, II

Before Waylon was born, I believed that my future child would not watch much television. On the rare occasions when he did watch television, I imagined, he would choose something that I liked – something witty and subversive like PeeWee’s Playhouse.

Apparently there’s a karmic debt to be paid for such hubris, because my son did turn out to like television, quite a bit. At age four, his favorite show was Thomas and Friends, a neo-Victorian boy’s tale about anthropomorphic steam engines who compete to be “a really useful engine” in the eyes of a pig-eyed industrialist called Sir Topham Hatt.

“Mom, can I watch just one more Thomas?” Waylon asked, his face a caricature of exaggerated yearning. We had spent the morning jumping waves and building sand castles and flying kites on the beach. We were exhausted and a little bit sunburned. We’d had a late lunch and a shower, I’d removed most of the sand from Waylon’s hair, and now we were lounging on the worn couch of our rented beach house, waiting for Katy and Brian to return from band practice.

“OK,” I said, cuddling him closer. “You can watch one more episode. But you have to turn it off when Uncle Brian gets back.”

Two days earlier, when Brian and his wife Kathy arrived at our house in Austin, Waylon had dutifully dispensed hugs and kisses before retreating to the safety of his toys. Today was our first full day at the beach, and Waylon was still a little shy around the newcomers.

I remembered what it was like to meet some relative whom your parents always talked about. You felt pressure to produce fond feelings, to fall in love with this new person. But it was awkward, even stifling, because the relationship was pre-defined. I was thinking about how to help Waylon feel comfortable (and succumbing to a familiar Thomas and Friends stupor) when I heard the sound of boots on the outside stairs. Katy came in first, walked over, kissed us both, and sat on the couch. Brian entered next, nodded in our general direction, and headed to the fridge for a beer.

Over the past 24 hours, Brian had become increasingly edgy and withdrawn. Today’s practice was the first of only three full rehearsals for the show. Some of the band members hadn’t touched their instruments for almost 20 years. From the look on Brian’s face, I guessed things hadn’t gone so well.

He brought his beer into the living room and sat across from us, looking pale beneath his five o’ clock shadow. He looked like a different man from the rocker in Katy’s old photos. His long, bleached hair was now short and dark. He wore cargo shorts and a baggy T-shirt. It was hard to believe that he’d once pranced around the stage in eyeliner and a jockstrap. Right now he looked like he’d prefer to crawl under a blanket and never come out.

“Waylon,” I said, “it’s time to turn off Thomas.” I was afraid that the minor dramas of the station house would push Brian over the edge.

For once, Waylon turned off the TV without complaining. While Katy and I chatted about band practice, he dragged Master the robot from behind the couch and began to play in Brian’s vicinity. I could see Waylon looking at this new grown-up from the corner of his eye. I guessed that he wanted to engage, but he wasn’t quite sure how to begin. He flipped Master’s switch on and off, over and over again.

“I-am-Master. I-sense-your-fear.”

“I-am-Master. I-sense-your-fear.”

“I-am…”

“Wait,” Brian said, coming out of his reverie, “What is he saying?”

Waylon repeated it for him slowly, “He says ‘I sense your fear.'”

“No,” Brian said, deadpan. “No.” Waylon looked confused, almost heartbroken.

“No,” Brian explained, “He says, ‘I-am-Master. I’ll-buy-you-a-beer.'”

Waylon cracked up. Apparently this was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard. He couldn’t stop repeating it, talking over Master’s mechanical voice, forcing the robot to buy endless rounds of cheer for everyone in the living room.

Read Part III here.

Donor Duet, III

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?”

Waylon shrugged.

“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?”

“No,” he said serenely. “I just am.”

Read Part IV here.

Donor Duet, IV

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.

Donor Duet

Originally published on The Bilerico Project in May 2011.

Two days before our sperm donor was due to arrive in Texas, my wife walked in the door with a bulging sack of secondhand toys.

“Waylon already has too many toys,” I said, shaking my head. “His birthday was a month ago! He’s barely four and he has enough stuff to fill two closets.”

“I know, I know,” she replied, looking sheepish. “But he’s going to be the only kid at the beach this weekend.”

This is one of our most familiar family dynamics: Katy indulges, Paige worries, Waylon gets the loot. But for once I wasn’t worried about my son’s consumer character. I was more concerned about my wife’s impulse to play Santa in July.

On the surface, her justification for the new toys was entirely plausible. We were about to embark on the kind of trip down memory lane that only the middle-aged can appreciate. Katy’s best friend Brian, Waylon’s sperm donor, was coming to Texas to play a reunion show with Rokitt, his hair metal band from the ’80s. But rather than the gritty Texas blues clubs that they played in their prime, this time Rokitt was planning to electrify their die-hard fans from the fluorescently-lit comfort of the Stahlman Park Recreation Center on Surfside, a tiny island south of Galveston.

Surfside Beach is not exactly the Riviera of the Texas coast. But Waylon wasn’t exactly a beach snob. He played in the sand all day long at his preschool, digging holes and tunnels and rivers. Every night at bath time, he reluctantly parted from a personal reserve of sand. Despite Katy’s worries, there could be no doubt that he was looking forward to a vacation that involved beaches full of unlimited sand.

When it came to the ocean, however, Waylon’s expectations were as murky as the waters off the Texas coast. We had taken him to the Gulf of Mexico a few times before, but it wasn’t clear that he remembered. When I asked if he was looking forward to playing in the waves at Surfside, Waylon remained vague. “Uh huuuuuh,” he murmured, looking off into the middle distance.

It was pretty much the same situation when I asked if Waylon was looking forward to seeing “Uncle” Brian. They had only met once, when Waylon was about 18 months old, and I knew Waylon didn’t remember. Brian called him at Christmas and birthday time, and Waylon communicated with the harassed politeness that children everywhere extend to long-distance relatives.

With the Rokitt reunion on the horizon, Katy had been pulling out old pictures and trying to enlist Waylon’s enthusiasm for the band and its sperm donor front man.

“Waylon,” she said, holding out a picture from an amateur photo shoot circa 1987, “Do you know who this is?”

Waylon looked up from his blocks, scanned the picture of a man in a ripped tank top and lace tights, and shook his head.

“That’s Uncle Brian!” Katy explained, in a sing-song Barney voice. “Remember, he gave us the seed that we needed to make you?”

This line about the seed was what we’d been telling Waylon ever since he was old enough for us to tell him something about the way we made him. I worried at times that it was too euphemistic, but it was technically accurate. Thus far, although Waylon loved to hear stories about how his parents met and decided to have a baby, he hadn’t expressed interest in the mechanics of conception. From what I could tell, it hadn’t yet crossed his radar that his moms couldn’t make a baby on their own. Whatever we were saying about seeds just seemed extraneous.

Regardless of what Waylon understood, Katy’s enthusiasm for her best friend and his erstwhile band was hard to resist. Over the last few days, Waylon had begun to recognize the guy in the pictures and to look forward to seeing Rokitt play. I was getting excited, too. But I was also scared.

Brian wasn’t part of our queer milieu of chosen family. He had a wife, an ex-wife, and a son in high school. The few times that we’d met, I hadn’t been able to decipher his dudely, understated manners. From my vantage point, it wasn’t clear if Brian was really down for new and complicated family ties. I worried that this vacation would prepare Waylon to expect a relationship that would never materialize.

When I wasn’t fretting about too little connection, I worried about too much connection. I imagined Waylon, fifteen and leather-jacketed, leaving home in a storm of adolescent angst. “You just don’t understand me,” he yelled as the backdoor slammed shut. “I’m going to live with my Dad.” Dad. Dad. Dad. In fantasy, the forbidden D-word lingered in the air as Katy and I huddled in the kitchen, broken apron strings dangling limply at our sides. What if Waylon and Brian had some kind of mystical masculine bond? What if Waylon decided to abandon his moms? Could Brian love and support our son without trying to supplant us? Was Katy secretly worried about this, too? Was that the real explanation for her toy store shopping spree?

All of these questions were swirling in my mind when Waylon came home from preschool and gravitated to the big bag of toys. Katy told him he could pick one now and save the rest for the beach, so he closed his eyes and plunged his hand into the bag, feeling around until he located the largest toy: a three-foot plastic robot with a helmet and a ray gun. (Apparently, my feminist, nonviolent shopping criteria were the first casualty of Brian’s visit.) Waylon was in heaven. Grinning, he searched for the “on” switch. And then there was sound:

“I-am-Master,” the robot announced. “I-sense-your-fear.”

Read Part II here.

Photo by Steve Keys is covered by a Creative Commons licence. Some rights reserved.

That Damn Family Unit

Family-Tree-Poster---Englis.JPGIt’s that time of year again. For Texas families with elementary-aged kids, back to school season means the obligatory curriculum on families.

My son, Waylon, is in third grade, so we’ve been around this thorny mulberry bush a few times before. But this year the path took a new turn.

“Mom,” Waylon asked, “how come some people don’t have kids?” He was hanging on the back porch door and swaying in and out of the house in a fidgety eight-year-old kind of way.

I was in the middle of draining a boiling pot of noodles into a colander, but I still wanted to provide a wide-ranging answer. It came out something like this: “Maybe-they-don’t-want-to-or-they don’t-have-the-money-or-the-support-or-the-interest. Maybe-their-pet-is-their-baby-or-their-work-or-their-art…or something else.”

“But what about carrying on the generations?” Waylon asked.

Perpetuating the ancestral line is not something we discuss much in our donor-inseminated domestic domain. As far as I am concerned, my family’s dominant genetic traits are early baldness, alcoholism, and a propensity for moles. If the Schilt line had stopped with me, the chief mourners would be rich dermatologists.

It didn’t take me long to surmise that Waylon’s preoccupation with generation was a by-product of the classroom curriculum on families.

As a teacher, I can understand why a unit on families makes sense at the beginning of the school year. Getting students to talk about their backgrounds creates opportunities to examine similarities and differences. Direct talk about differences (and similarities across differences) is one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes and create real community in a diverse setting.

A unit on families is also a way to encourage students to connect to their cultural heritage. The other day, in the middle of a play date, Waylon’s friend Jimmy solemnly asked me if I would like to hear his cultures. He listed them on his fingers:

“Hopi, Cherokee, German, Polish, Canary Islander, Spanish…oh, what’s that one, oh, oh, um…French…”

All in all, Jimmy reported eight different “bloods.” Waylon was extremely disappointed that we did not have a similarly compelling list for him. He refused to be mollified by the fact that his great great grandfather was a polygamist with two wives, because Canadian Mormonism could not be distilled into a specific bloodline.

I was happy for Waylon’s buddy because I could tell that their classroom unit on families had given him a sense of confidence and pride. Theoretically, the family curriculum could work the same way for kids from nontraditional families, including kids from LGBT homes.
In reality, however, we live in Texas.

In a state where nontraditional families are decidedly outside the official curriculum, classroom discussions about family structure can be a source of anxiety instead of pride.

jocks.jpgThe beginning of third grade has meant the dawning of a new self-consciousness for Waylon. Last year he told us, “I love being from an odd family.” This year he told us that he wasn’t going to correct kids who assumed that his genderqueer mommy was his dad.

He’s more strategic about how he comes out to other kids now. He prefers to wait until he’s established a level of comfort and trust before he tells them that he has two moms. A few weeks ago, he let us know that he was planning how to break the news to an older kid in his after-school program. When the deed was done, Waylon expressed relief. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to stop being my friend or anything.”

Luckily, Waylon has never experienced anything more malevolent than skepticism (“that’s weird”), or incredulity (“that’s impossible.”) But I suspect that will change as he gets older. And, if the school curriculum continues to feature families at the beginning of the year, I suspect it will continue to be in tension with his desire to come out about his family at his own pace.

(On a side note, if I could ask one thing from traditional families who want to be allies, it would be that you talk with your kids about all kinds of family structures – including single parents, divorced parents, gay parents, trans parents, absent parents and multigenerational families – so that little kids from nontraditional families don’t have to bear the burden of educating their peers.)

At the end of the unit on families, Waylon had to interview family members and write a paragraph about his family heritage. I tried to suggest a few questions, but – as usual – Waylon had his own agenda for inquiry.

“Where did I get my blonde hair?” he asked. It was a logical kind of “where did I come from” question, because neither Katy nor I are natural blondes.

“I think you got your blonde hair from your grandfather,” I replied. “Or maybe from Uncle Brian,” I added, referencing Waylon’s sperm donor. (Waylon has a dazzlingly handsome blonde donor sib.)

“But what about from Mommy’s side? What did I get from my Koonce blood?”
Back to blood again! I was torn between being factually accurate and honoring the spirit of our queer family tree.

“Well, you don’t technically have Koonce blood… but you’re definitely a Koonce!” I hastened to add.

“I know I’m a Koonce,” he retorted, as if I’d just said the most obvious thing in the world. “And I do have Koonce blood in me.”

“Oh really,” I said cautiously, “tell me about that.”

“When you and Mommy kissed, some of her blood got inside you. And then it got inside of me when you made me.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling thoroughly enlightened and instructed.

Third grade is definitely a turning point. I remember it as the year I looked up every single cuss word in the dictionary. The year I learned what “virgin” meant and realized that I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. It was also the last year I really believed in Santa Claus.

Maybe it’s wrong, but I hope he’ll keep believing in his own magical version of his family “blood” for just a little while longer.

(Poster image from the LGBTQ Parenting Connection. They have a whole host of inclusive alternatives to typical family tree assignments. Check it out.)

Two Worlds in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I wasn’t feeling like hypothetical mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which should, perhaps, have calmed me down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life would be a lot easier.


My Mother-in-Law

When Donna Koonce went into the hospital, I kept telling everyone that “Katy’s mom” was having bypass surgery. I didn’t want to give the state of Texas too much credit for recognizing my relationship to this extraordinary woman.

By the time Donna was moved to the ICU, I needed the shorthand of “mother-in-law.” I spoke the words into the intercom, and the nurses buzzed me into the locked ward. (Every time I said, “I’m here to see my mother-in-law,” I had to remind myself that I wasn’t fudging: Katy and I are legally married–in California and the eight other states that recognize our marriage. But that legal status is pretty theoretical when you’re stuck in a small southern town.)

Donna Schley Koonce.jpg

Now that Donna is dead, it feels strange to use a stuffy matrimonial label to describe her. For one thing, she was terribly vain and would not abide any appellation that made her sound old. (Her own grandchildren were forbidden from using the dreaded G word.) For another thing, saying “mother-in-law” inevitably reminds me of our first wedding and how Donna Koonce, grand southern diva that she was, nearly derailed it.

Donna’s presence, and her disapproval, could be formidable. In 1981, when Katy came home for Christmas with a “friend,” her mother “accidentally” discovered their love letters in Katy’s bag. Donna called the girls to the living room, where she presided over the house from a throne-like velour recliner. Trembling, Katy and her girlfriend awaited judgment on the couch. Mom stared the girlfriend down.

“Do you love her?” she asked, finally.

“Yes,” said the young woman, sneaking a glance at Katy, “I do.”

“Well, good,” Donna answered, taking a drag on her cigarette. “You better.”

This was the era of panic over the new “gay cancer.” Only three years earlier, Anita Bryant and her minions had campaigned to remove anyone who supported gay rights from positions in California public schools. Donna’s husband was a high school football coach–a position of considerable visibility and social standing in small Texas communities. The Koonce family lived on the Gulf Coast, in Lake Jackson, a historically segregated community for white employees of Dow Chemical. But even a “chemical corridor” town like Lake Jackson was cosmopolitan compared to the place where Donna was raised: Carthage, Texas, near the notorious Piney Woods of East Texas.

As its ancient namesake might suggest, Carthage is located in one of the more violent parts of the Deep South. The names of other East Texas cities resonate with histories of racial discrimination and terror: Paris, Tulia, Jasper. So how did a privileged white woman from Ku Klux Klan territory come to unquestioning acceptance and support for her butch lesbian daughter? I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I have a few answers: she was extraordinary, she was full of love, and she didn’t give a fig for what other people thought.

“Extraordinary” is shorthand in our family for Donna’s tendency to behave like minor royalty. When Donna went to the bank to make a deposit, she refused to deal with anyone below a Senior Vice President. If she made reservations for a restaurant, she asked to speak with the manager before dropping her own name: “Dhis is Donna Koonce, do you have a good table for me tonight?” If Donna sent you to the Kroger for a cut of meat, she’d remind you to “tell ’em you’re a Koonce.”

If a Koonce was gay, then, by Donna’s logic, gay was good.

She didn’t really care what other people thought, just as long as they were paying attention. As a forty-something mother of three, she wore mini-skirts and go-go boots and Angie Dickinson wiglets. At the Junior Civic League variety show, she played Mae West, but threw in some Sophie Tucker jokes for maximum shock value. On the golf course, she was known as “Dirty Donna” for her foul mouth. “Goddamnit, Donna,” her introverted husband would say at the end of a party, “it’s time to go home.” “Oh shit, Phil,” she’d habitually reply. “You go on home.”

She loved a lengthy public prayer. Before any family meal, she’d gather kids, grandkids, friends, and spouses into a circle. When everyone had joined hands, she’d begin, “Lord, thank you for allowing us to be together once more.” And then, depending on her mood, she would go on, mentioning those who were absent, those who had come before, those whose financial foresight to invest in natural gas had paid for this meal we were about to consume. The length and superciliousness of the average Donna Koonce prayer could cause respectable grown-ups to be seized with fits of giggles. If anyone dared to make eye contact across the prayer circle, it was all over.

For private prayers, Donna preferred moonlight. When the moon was full, she’d slide on her house shoes and shuffle out to the moist swath of grass behind the house. There, with a Carlton 120 in one hand, she’d unload her troubles to a personal god–a confection of Father, Son, and pagan moon goddess. She prayed for all her many grandchildren (including the ones conceived outside of marriage, who occupied a special place in her heart). She prayed for patience with her husband. She prayed for the social life of her cross-dressing neighbor. For the success of her housekeeper’s daughter’s quinceañera. Most of all, she prayed for her adult children, that they would find peace and stability before she had to leave them.

Saying your prayers to the moon is pretty risqué stuff in a town where the Baptists still believe that Methodists go to hell. But Donna wasn’t shy about it. If the moon was particularly big and beautiful, she’d come inside, pour another drink, and then call friends and family. It wasn’t unusual to hear the phone ring at 11 pm. “I want you to go outside and look at that moon,” she’d evangelize. Then she’d fill your ear with everything she’d been praying about–especially if it had to do with you. Just in case her intercession with the moon didn’t work, she was going to take the earthly opportunity to let you know exactly what she thought you should do with your life.

As you might imagine, I was full of trepidation the first time I met Donna. I’d heard stories of previous girlfriends who’d suffered Donna’s frank appraisal–which grew more frank throughout the evening as Donna consumed her customary cocktail–scotch and water in a 24 oz styrofoam cup. At the time, I had 3/4″ hair that was dyed old-lady silver. I wore round black glasses that made me look like a raccoon. I was nerdly. I could not pull off a convincing “y’all.” I had never tasted gumbo with oysters. I was a Yankee.

I could tell you that we bonded over the crossword puzzles that she completed every day. I could say it was Donna’s gumbo or her cornbread dressing, which I ate with relish and appreciation. Or our shared love of vintage fashions from the 1950s and 60s. But the truth is, it felt like she loved me before any of these things.

It’s a cliché to say that your in-laws make you feel like one of the family–and yet, that’s exactly what Donna did by being herself. I still remember the first time I saw her get into an argument with Katy. It all happened so quickly; one minute they were talking about taxes and the next minute they were digging into buried reserves of anger and reproach. I wanted to melt into the couch. “That’s it,” I thought, “the visit’s ruined. We’ll have to go home.” But while I was mentally packing the suitcases, mother and daughter had moved on to some lighter topic and were once again enjoying each other’s company. I couldn’t believe it. Watching them taught me about myself, how unrooted I was, how every little storm could make me feel like I’d been felled.

Although I found Donna’s emotional volatility a bit scary, I learned that I could trust the authenticity of her emotions. When she hugged me goodbye at the end of a visit, I could honestly feel the love flowing towards me. It wasn’t unusual for her to cry a little and to tell me how very, very grateful she was that Katy had found me. “Thank you, Darlin,” she’d whisper in my ear. “Thank you.”

In spite of her love for me, Donna Koonce disrupted my wedding.

PaigeandDonna.jpgIt was a balmy July evening in Austin, Texas. The elegant oak trees and simple pine plank fences were strewn with tiny white lights. More than 150 people had gathered for a backyard ritual designed to acknowledge our friends and family, our queer village and social support network. Twenty of our most special people were seated on the patio behind us, with Donna on the front row.

Our celebrant was Gretchen Phillips, singer, songwriter, and inveterate marriage skeptic. Katy and I had needed to break through a lot of resistance to convince her to unite us in unholy matrimony. Now, just as Gretchen was about to deliver the words she’d crafted for the occasion, Donna stood up and grabbed the mic. There was a gasp from the audience. “Your turn is coming,” Gretchen admonished. Donna, undeterred, pointed to the sky. Then she spoke, slowly and Southernly, into the microphone.

“I. Want. You…to look at that Moon!” Thus instructed, the entire audience gazed skyward and gasped again. A giant silver orb, a spectacular full moon, was shining its blessing on our nuptials.

Eight years later, I was hurrying back to the hospital in Lake Jackson. It was day six of Donna’s hospital stay. Her blood pressure had never returned to normal after the bypass and her vital organs were failing. The surgeon had offered the possibility of exploratory surgery, but cautioned that Donna was unlikely to survive another procedure. The family thoughtfully declined. Now the nurses said she wouldn’t last another night.

I had taken our son, Waylon, to stay with friends and was anxious to rejoin the rest of the family. Stuck at a stoplight, I felt something looming in my peripheral vision. The moon. It was a spectacular golden dinner plate pasted on the sky. I texted Katy: “look at that moon.”

Back at the ICU, Katy held Donna’s hand and told her about the beautiful spring moon. Then she spoke with the nurse. The doctor had given permission to stop the blood pressure medicine that was Donna’s last artificial tie to life.

When I arrived, Katy stepped out of the room to call her brothers. It was the first time in six days that I’d been alone with Donna. With everyone else gone, I didn’t feel self-conscious about taking her hand and putting my face next to her ear.

“Donna,” I said, “it’s Paige.” I had to try to project over the sound of the respirator. “Thank you for always being so sweet to me,” I said. “Thank you for always loving Waylon like he was any other grandchild,” I sobbed. And then, just as a wave of emotion was swelling inside me, I felt something equally strong and real emanating from Donna. Her emotional response hit me like a tidal wave. Her presence was so strong, I was almost reeling, but I stood my ground and stayed in close.

“I learned so much from you,” I said. My throat was tight with emotion. “It’s Paige,” I added. “I know you might not recognize my squeaky voice.” But, even as I said it, I knew she knew me. “I love you and I’ll miss you.”

Still touching her arm, I sat back down on the stool by the bed. The fullness of her presence had subsided now, but I could feel it resonating inside me.

Katy came back from calling her brothers. She took her mother’s hand. “I just called Phil and Blaine, Mommy. It’s okay, you can let go if you need to.” She kissed her mother and settled in to wait.

It was hard to look at Donna’s beautiful face disfigured by swelling and tubes. We stared at the blood pressure monitor, which produced a new reading every 15 minutes. Katy busied herself by making sure her mom still had the crumpled tissue that she habitually clutched for comfort.

There was little sign of change until the heart monitor began to beep. We watched the lines on the screen grow slower and farther apart. Donna did not labor or rasp. Because she had a DNR order, the nurses walked calmly into the room. One put a stethoscope to Donna’s chest. Then she handed it to the other. They agreed that the last heartbeat had happened at 12:13 am.

Except for the screaming of the heart monitor, the difference between life and death was barely evident. Then the nurses turned off the respirator and she was still. The respiratory therapist came and rolled the machine away.

I waited with Katy until her brother Phil arrived. Then I stepped outside to give them some time alone with their mama. Phil’s wife was in the hallway and we made small talk. Donna was gone, but the intensity of our moment together was so great that she didn’t feel all the way gone to me. The body in the room seemed insignificant now, because a small part of her spirit had migrated to my heart. I can still feel it right now, as I’m writing these words. It fills my chest and buoys me up.

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