“Mama, what does queer mean?”
“Queer is very special. It’s kind of like the word gay…” She sits in my lap on the floor playing with the parts of the carpet the cat has clawed at. My partner bounces the baby in the arm chair next to us.
“Like kids that have two moms and two dads?”
“Yes exactly. Families that have two mamas, or two dads; families that have people who are trans; families where the girls don’t always look girly or the boys don’t always look boyish. Did you know we’re a queer family?”
After a long silence she looks at us and asks: “I am queer?”
“Well we don’t really know yet. Maybe?” I shrug my shoulders and smile. I try to play it cool and ignore all the politics running through my head. “What we do know is that our family is very special and YOU are very special.”
She smiles and starts to paw through the books. She’s satisfied with the conversation and ready to move on but I have to add one caveat I hope she understands… “Just so you know, not everyone uses the word queer, it’s a very special word. Most people just say gay.”
“Can I use it?”
“Yes, you can use it, but only if you are saying kind things like: ‘I love my queer family’. It’s okay to say in our house but some families don’t use it.
“Well some people don’t like the word or think the word is bad, but in our family it’s awesome…”
I could have gone on. I could have gone into her gender and my gender. I could have talked about sexuality and how it’s different from gender. I could have explained queer as an umbrella term for a rainbow of identities she’ll come across in her life… I especially wanted to go on about privilege, power, oppression because so far she is cisgendered and has a lot of power in that way… but I kept it simple. I just wanted to plant some seeds. In the past I have waited for her to bring things up, but in order to prepare her for our family vacation at Provincetown’s Gay Family Week I brought it up this time when we were all sitting together.
When we told SMUC and her baby sister about our vacation plans she was excited about camping, s’mores, and swimming*. We were excited for her (and us) to be exposed to other queer families. What happened in Provincetown was amazing. Beyond just getting to run around the beach and campground with her friends, SMUC got to experience a week of solid, queer pride.She existed in a community where her family was the norm. Her cisgender girly girl style was a minority in many situations and she was forced to consider gender as a choice beyond the traditional binary. She got to admire drag queens on Commercial Street and sit in the audience while young people spoke about their queer families. And after all the discussion and exposure to different genders, she still stood firm in her cisgender “girly girl” identity while admiring and supporting gender-creatives all around her.
“Look there’s another boyish girl!” She’d say excitedly. “She’s wearing those clothes because she likes them and she’s not the dad, she’s the mama too.”
Later she played pretend with her stuffed animals: “This Mermaid has two parents. One is a mama mermaid and one is a trans dad merman…”
I couldn’t have been more proud of her.
Family week offered a venue for conversations we weren’t quite sure how to begin at home. People say to talk to your kids in “age appropriate” ways and let them “lead the conversation”. But this week I think I realized that I’ve been misinterpreting that idea and closeting my identity from my kids sometimes because they just haven’t learned about queerness. I thought these topics were off limits and too complicated for them to understand, but now I know that even young kids have a place in queerness.
Kids are smart. Just because we needed college courses in gender studies to figure this stuff out, doesn’t mean they need that. I realized at family week that SMUC only sees the world in terms of boys and girls. She knew choosing gender was a choice, and she knew that some girls dressed kind of “boyish” and some girls were “girly girls”, but she didn’t have a sense that gender was more than just a binary. At family week, I watched her start to realize that gender is creative expression, performance, and how you behave, think, and feel about yourself. She soon started to read (presumably) butch parents on the street as more than just boy dads, but rather as people and parents that choose masculinity. She began to see the drag queens as men performing femininity and having fun with gender.
This was the biggest take-away for our first family week. We intend to go back not only because their are great family activities (swimming, parades, camp fires, beach time, library, dance parties) and kid workshops (ocean science, crafts, movies, talent shows), but because over the years it will enforce what we say at home all year long. We can say that boys can wear dresses if they want to all year, but the fact remains that there are no boys in her class that feel safe enough to wear a dress to school. At family week, she got to see them. She got to play with boys who like dresses and relate to them about their love for femininity.
*I will say that a lot of families stay at nearby hotels but we stayed at the Dune’s Edge Campground to make the experience much more affordable. The campground was clean, kid-friendly, and within walking distance to Commercial Street.