My daughter Emma identifies as a gay man. She has always known she was a straight female. And she’s comfortable and confident with both these parts of her identity. But she likes gay men, and wants to be included among their tribe. She has all her friends and teachers call her Brian
The other day, she and her flamboyant, 6’1” friend Hannah were coming home. Hannah wore a chiffon party dress, 8” black platform boots, and miscellaneous chains. She was made up, as usual, like a whore on crack. She was, not surprisingly, mistaken for a drag queen, and someone on the train propositioned her. Her instant response was to look horrified and exclaim, “How could you say that in front of my boyfriend?” Emma, who was wearing tight corduroys and has 70s-style, feathered hair, does make a pretty convincing fag.
Recently, students in Emma’s English class began to make anti-gay comments, and the teacher either ignored them, or laughed nervously. Emma and several friends approached the teacher and expressed their outrage, and he agreed to attend to the issue. But the problem continued and Emma, who has a teensy tendency to drama, alternately wept and raged about the injustice.
I, then, find myself in the delicate position of approaching her teacher. I am a lesbian and an English Professor. Therefore, I have some feel for the delicate issue of policing class discussion, while encouraging speech and thought. But I work with college kids, who can be expected to navigate humor, sensitivity, and minority issues with some degree of grace. We can discuss stereotypes without employing them. And we can discuss sex, desire, and fear without someone’s parent going on a rampage.
Naturally, the teacher assumes that Emma is not straight, or that she’s questioning her gender assignment in some way. I try to convince him that girls named Brian are not gay, but other invisible people probably are. That I am. Because sometimes you need to see a body before you to believe what you already know.
Being a lesbian raising two daughters has been a series of such adventures. My sexual identity is inseparable from my maternal one. My daughters’ emerging identity is informed by my process of self-discovery.
My younger daughter Leah made a new friend in second grade. Leah had short hair that she was in the process of growing out. It was still short in the front and sides, longer in the back – kind of mullet-ish, to be honest. I overheard this new friend telling Leah that she looked like a gay boy. Leah denied this allegation, saying “No. I do not look like a gay boy. I’ve been down Commercial Street in Provincetown, and I can tell you . . . .You look like a gay boy.”
Predictably, Leah was right. Her friend had long, blonde, frizzy curls with bangs that stood somehow up and out. Through informed eyes, she resembled nothing as much as the queens scootering up and down Commercial Street promoting their drag shows.
Both my daughters have been “in the life” for so long that it seems somehow invisible and natural to them. Before ninth-grade English, there were very few instances where this caused trouble. We live in Hyde Park — an academic enclave within a liberal city within a very blue state. Words of acceptance, mouthed even if not always meant, are standard. And advocacy and community often go much deeper than that.
One parent-teacher conference, I was sitting outside Emma’s classroom, chatting up another mom who I thought might be gay, and who I knew was fabulous. The teacher finished with his current parent and, checking the list, said it was my turn. Seeing Kristina there, he said she should come in too and, naturally, she obliged. After our chat, he turned to her and asked if she wanted to add anything. Even as she identified herself as the next parent on the list, we all laughed, knowing that we had just fingered each other as members of a semi-visible tribe. Unplanned and mutual, it was a fun outing.
Unlike this teacher’s, my job is a comparatively easy place to be out. First of all, I’m a University Professor. So I work independently and autonomously in classrooms where my only contacts are with people over whom I wield ultimate and arbitrary power. Of course, I don’t use this situation to punish bigots. But since I could, they tend to keep quiet. I tell who I want to tell, but in some settings, it just never comes up.
Ironically, that’s the same justification that Emma’s teacher used for not explicitly raising the issue of homophobia in his classroom. He argued that if the topic grew out of class readings he would address it, but otherwise, the conversation felt artificial to him.
Makes sense. At the same time, it seems to me that he (and the school system in general) has selected a curriculum in which that issue never appears. Therefore, the conversation will never happen unless it’s raised artificially. The teacher seemed to accept this point, and asked me what I wanted him to do. My reply was that I hoped he would say the words gay and lesbian in class. Preferably announce that there were probably gay and lesbian students present who were remaining silent for their own safety and sanity, and that these students deserved the same care and respect granted to other minorities. At a minimum, say the words gay and lesbian, thereby turning the classroom into a space where these were descriptive terms, and not insults. Words that named reality.
The following day, I took Emma on a shopping trip. Unregenerate American that I am, I saw this as a prime way to get and hold her attention. I tried to get her to see how hard this conversation would be for him, and thereby to lower her expectations for classroom transformation.
And indeed, Emma seems satisfied. She announced that it was sweet to see him try. He chose the term homosexual, and personalized the conversation by telling the class that he had been discouraged from writing his master’s thesis on Oscar Wilde because of the notorious obscenity trial. Did he explain to the students that his advisor probably thought he might be found “guilty by association,” and therefore unemployable? Did he describe the process whereby boys learn to reject and despise the feminine in order to achieve unchallenged access to male privilege?
I’m guessing not, but he didn’t have to. He just had to accept that a female student named Brian who is not a lesbian, needed to believe in a safe and noble world. A world where she, and everyone else, can love whoever they chose.
And inevitably Emma is in love. As I imagine this boy being romanced by a very self-assured, absolutely gorgeous, sapphire-eyed and brilliant freshman who he knows only as Brian, I feel new hope for gender justice in this world. Just don’t ask me who the gay boys are.
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