It’s July 3, which means it is also three days after the end of Pride Month (recognized both informally since Stonewall [42nd anniversary on June 28th, folks!] and, for the last decade or so, in about as official a capacity as exists). And I messed up.
Instead of bringing the kids to the area Pride parade and festival last weekend, as was our original intention, my husband and I sent them away for a few days’ vacation at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Why? I was exhausted. I had to start a 16-hour shift at work later that afternoon. The money for gas and parking and food vendor concessions hadn’t been figured into our already-tight budget. Plus, I’m just gonna say it: the Pride festival makes me grumpy. It’s gotten bogged down with corporate-shilling-in-the-guise-of-goodwill; with political niceties and empty appeasements and pandering. (Dykes on Bikes do temper this harumph-ing, though. A little).
But the sum total of all these roadblocks doesn’t result in me being willing to let myself off the hook.
I’ve mentioned here on Pax (Ro)mama that I live in a small town in Western Wisconsin, the nearest major metropolitan area to which is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up in a more middling community, an hour’s drive east of my current digs, that was located just a smidge outside the “Minnesconsin” subsumption radius, and had a fairly distinct civic identity.
Since college, I’ve been gradually creeping eastward: first to the cute riverside commuter city where I did my undergraduate degree, and then, thanks to the real estate bubble at the end of the last decade that rendered all other options unaffordable, to the to the tiny village where my family has reluctantly put down shallow roots for three-years-and-counting.
Weirdly, the paths my husband’s and my professional lives have taken have had an inverse relationship with our homesteadin’ direction. My primary job is at a branch of a State agency in one of a handful of non-suburban, self-contained communities directly outlying the Twin Cities metro; and my husband works for a non-profit headquartered in an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged neighborhood in St. Paul.
For me, going home at the end of the work day often feels less like returning to my sanctuary than returning to my cell. I mean, it would conclusively feel this way were it not for the fact that I’m living in a age that affords me 24/7 access to an incomprehensible volume of information from the (relative) comfort of my own home. The internet also allows me to connect with others whose backgrounds, interests, challenges, and self-defined cultures are similar to or at an incredible remove from my own: freely, and at any hour of the day or night. It’s an incredible lifeline for taciturn, socially anxious and situationally isolated people like me.
But I’m an adult. I can make, with few limitations, choices about what information I seek out, what types of entertainment I consume and participate in, and with whom I associate. My kids, who are four and two, don’t have that luxury. Not just them: all young, pre-literate children. They still have to, by and large, accept what is handed to them; and what is handed to them subsequently becomes the foundation of their worldview. I wrote about the ridic level of psychic tension this has caused me — perhaps with greater hopefulness at the time — here.
It’s not all bad. In fact, because of the unfortunate reality that, in the U.S., kids are a cash cow of a demographic, if we want to rail against simple uniformity, we don’t really have to lift a finger. (Ni Hao) Kai Lan and Dora and the grand dame of them all, Sesame Street, have our backs (and our wallets). It’s clear to me that there has been a concerted movement, amongst children’s entertainment taste makers, to diversify offerings. Regardless of whether this is simply the result of revenue-motivated lip service, I think most people would agree that it is a step in the right direction.
There’s at least one big exception to the general trend, though, and it’s making me increasingly livid. Few in the field, or parents of the children that partake of this entertainment, seem to care much about heterosexism, homophobia, or cis essentialism. And even when they do, people tread lightly: myself, I’m sinkingly realizing, included.
When I was in high school, I had a lot of queer friends. Like, a lot (proportionally speaking). In my free time, I watched VHS tapes of Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki movies from the only (miniscule, independent) video rental place that shelved them, and borrowed Sarah Schulman books on inter-library loan. I tend to play my cards pretty close to the chest; so people who meet me as an adult — and ohmygod especially those who have only known me as a “mom” — are either unaware of my nearly-20-year-deep history as an unlikely stakeholder in the LGBTQ-what-have-you (we’ll talk about acronym-pain another time) movement , or suspect I’m working some angle but can’t quite isolate my motives.
The real story is … there is no story. And I think that’s what paints me as a curiosity for some, and has made me question, on many occasions, whether my support is even appropriate or desired.
By way of quasi-explanation, then, here’s where I’m coming from:
- I identify as, and probably read as, a straight, cisgender woman; but I’m not wrapped up in this identity. Nor anyone else’s identity. Whether a person wants to firmly stake their claim in an incredibly specific way , or stays pretty flexible: it matters not one whit. I should also mention that I’ve been partnered with a cis man for 12 years.
- I never had an epiphanic moment that guided me to “embrace teh Gay.” There’s no pat narrative. Many similarly-inclined heteros are like, “[Such-and-such close friend or family member] came out, and so I dedicated myself to the cause on their behalf.” I got nothin’. Except …
- I’ve always been alienated from the (broadly-defined) Mainstream for reasons difficult to pin down, and have endured truly cruel, baseless bullying. So my empathy barometer is sensitive. I’m also culturally Catholic; my extended family is — frequently in practice, but universally in a philosophical sense — social-justice oriented and knee-jerk moderate-liberal. Is this the recipe that yields a straight, Midwestern girl who is fluent in the oeuvre of David Wojnarowicz, though? Eh.
- And, no, I didn’t and don’t have any “sexually non-threatening gay male quasi-boyfriend” fantasies, or a desire to seem outre and rebellious, or a hope to be praised for my “progressive” attitude, or an anthropological sense of curiosity.
Lots of people and events and writings and works of art have informed, modified, and refined my attitudes. But, fundamentally, I continue to be motivated by the queasiness I feel when I think about queer youth — especially those who are still largely invisible, in rural areas or conservative, religious enclaves — trying to eke out a life without knowing whether their subsistence needs will be met, or if they will be safe from physical, emotional, and psychological harm, should anyone correctly speculate about their identity. For all the internet’s powers of connection-beyond-borders (be they geographical or cultural), in this case it may be (1) giving some vulnerable kids a false sense of security; and (2) allowing adults to feel all “mission accomplished” when the work is, in fact, not finished.
Ergo, when I became a parent, I knew I was being presented with a new opportunity to set things right in my own, small way. After all, the only anti-queer argument that appears to be given any non-fringe-legitimacy these days is, to quote Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t someone think of the children?!”
It’s a total strawman, of course, because clearly the people putting it out there don’t universally “think of the children” (with regard to educational opportunities, health care access, adequate nutrition, safe housing, et cetera).
Yet, somehow, we still allow it to retain trump card status.
Well, screw that, I thought. I’m a person with children. I want them to know that they can love and partner with whomever they choose, and so can everyone else. (I have had to break it to my four-year-old that marrying Grandma isn’t a possibility).
It’s recently dawned on me, though, that non-exclusivity isn’t the same as inclusivity, particularly if we’re dealing with a child’s developing consciousness. When I wrote about the call for accepting (traditionally) gender-normative behavior while still promoting gender-diverse parenting practices, I suggested,
If taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?
The always-amazing and oft-cited Arwyn (my bloggy hero!) from Raising My Boychick responded,
While there’s a very big and important difference between anticonformism and nonconformism …, the cultural indoctrination around gender (among other things) is so very strong that to a certain extent, we need to lean far the other way just to make a difference in the overall trajectory of our children’s lives — and in part because we unconsciously, will we or nil we, aim them toward the gender typical ourselves.
Point well taken. And, when I applied the lesson to my so-called efforts to ensure that my kids’ outlook didn’t have a heteronormative “default” (without exotifying or othering queerness [okay, so that sounds like an oxymoron]), it was apparent that I had set the bar way too low.
Unfortunately, I also learned that there were relatively few resources to help me raise it.
This is where living in a small town really complicates matters. As does, I guess, the fact that both my husband and I have (multiple) outside-the-home jobs, which means that the kids are with non-family caregivers for much of their day. (Although I hardly need an excuse to induce further guilt, there). Due to Stuart’s and MaryAlice’s homogeneous surroundings, diversity awareness is something that has to be actively facilitated: and facilitated in a way that doesn’t favor the lens of the Dominant. (E.g. A children’s book about a Hindu family celebrating Diwali would be preferable to a story about a white, Christian kid going to his neighbors’ house to participate in their Diwali celebration and learn about the holiday).
As I mentioned earlier, this is now a breeze — requiring little-to-no effort — when it comes to fostering an understanding of differences in ethnicity, religion, ability, and socioeconomic privilege. But look for child-aimed literary, cinematic, and, most especially, television representations of queer people and it’s largely … tumbleweeds.
Perhaps even more so because of the caveat that’s always at the front of my mind. I demand that these representations be unspectacular.
There are a handful of good children’s books (I am not aware of any widely available movies or television shows for preschool and early-elementary school-aged kids, although I do harbor suspicions about Victor and Pedro on Clifford the Big Red Dog), like King and King and 10,000 Dresses , that address non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities in an Issue du Jour way (and, I should add, with the hetero/cis parents portrayed as kind of assholish); or, like Daddy, Papa, and Me and Mommy, Mama and Me , that talk about families with same-sex parents. But I’ve been hard pressed to find titles where these factors are totally incidental to the “real” story. The one in our pretty extensive home library that most closely fits the bill is And Tango Makes Three. Which is about penguins.
(By the way, if you want to have an idea of what sort of conversations make me prickly-slash-hysterical, check out any of the unfavorable reviews for the aforementioned books).
In 2005, the PBS children’s animated/live-action hybrid television show Postcards From Buster (about a globe-trotting, anthropomorphized cartoon rabbit who meets kids and learns about their lives) notoriously attempted just the sort of casual approach to LGBT inclusivity that I advocate. And everything went kablooey.
In an episode called “Sugartime!”, Buster learned about … (gasp!) maple syrup harvesting and sugaring in Vermont. Some of the real kids featured on the episode had parents who were lesbians. Witness the horror.
PBS decided not to distribute “Sugartime!” to its member stations; in fact, the then-Secretary of Education sent out a missive warning against airing it, later explaining, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.”
We took Stuart to a maple-tapping demonstration last March. Should we be expecting a visit from Child Protective Services?
The conclusion I’ve drawn from all this ruminating is that, unless I want to awkwardly use my friends and their lives as object lessons for Stuart and MaryAlice (Um, no. Besides being inappropriately entitled, going that route would also mean I’d need to leave my house more frequently [snerk]), the Pride festival is pretty much all there is for us. A less-than-perfect, once-a-year event, an hour’s drive away.
That. Is. Pathetic.
See, while I know the statistical likelihood is that my kids are (or will be) straight and cisgender, they are also my stand-ins for all the other children their age who aren’t. My ultimate vision is not that, in ten years or so, Stuart and MaryAlice and/or their peers won’t have any qualms about coming out to their parents, relatives and loved ones, but that the idea of coming out at all will be anachronistic. No one will care anymore, one way or the (/an) other. The kids will moon over stupid celebrities and shuffle through awkward proto-dates and openly sulk about unrequited crushes. And the parents will furrow their brows about more important things. That’s my hope.
The chance to realize this wish may be quickly evaporating for today’s children, as our adult-governed culture of fear is allowed to continue to use the supposed “best interest of youth” as a smokescreen. It’s more than discouraging; and, try as I might, I can’t buoy my optimism by thinking, Well, maybe my grandchildren’s generation, then. Just 30 more years, and then — then things will really be different. Forever, this time.
Because how many kids are we going to needlessly lose in those intervening years? And, when the sea change finally does come, how will I answer the question, “What took you so long?”