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Deep Thoughts with My Kids

I’m stalling today. I desperately want to do a dozen things, all of which are distractions from the novel I’m supposed to be working on. I’ve also charged myself with writing a blog post a week that isn’t WIPpet Wednesday or a ROW80 check-in, so at least this particular distraction is legitimate.

I played around with several topics, including throwing in my two cents on the whole Mark Driscoll fiasco that exploded this week. (I’m rejecting that one on the grounds that I have no real dog in that fight and there are much, much better people to listen to on that subject. Here and here are two of my favorites, if you care to find out what I’m talking about.)

I mentioned needing to write a post to a friend in an exchange that went like this:

Me: I need to do a blog post some time. But I need a topic first. LOL!

She: Why open conversations with children are necessary to the betterment of their lives and yours.

I did chuckle a little at that because yesterday, I had one such conversation with my kids over lunch. I had just come back from J’s appointment with his ADHD doctor. At the appointment, I mentioned that the bullying J experienced at school was largely of the “you’re not boy enough” variety. What was sad to me was how unsurprised his doctor was, although I was pleased when he said, “That should bother us on so many levels.”

When we returned home, J brought it up again, and he, S, and I started talking about what makes a person a girl or a boy. It’s interesting to me that people feel we can’t talk to kids about gender identity because they’re “too young to understand.” Let me assure you that my kids have a very good idea about gender identity, and talking with them was not difficult.

We talked about a lot of things, including how girls can often get away with being “tomboys” and wearing their brothers’ clothes but it doesn’t go the other way. I suggested that needs to change, and both kids said, “Yeah! That’s not fair!” We continued talking about the full range of identity and expression, and at no point did either of them act confused or upset.

Throughout the conversation, they were at the helm. I did very little other than answer questions and let them say what they wanted. Interestingly, both of them said they truly feel—inside and out—like a boy and like a girl, respectively. But apparently they already know kids who don’t feel the same.

This is why we need to talk about it. I am one hundred percent happy to talk with my own kids, to reassure them that whoever they are, they are loved by their dad and me. They are free to express themselves any way they choose. But that’s not the only reason to open that conversation. Surely over time, they will have friends who defy what society says is acceptable—not just gender or sexuality but many other things that are part of a person as a whole.

When that happens, I want my kids to be the sort of people who are loving, open, and understanding with all people. I want them to be able to tell their friends that if they don’t feel accepted in other places, they are always welcome in our house. Here, they will find people who don’t merely “tolerate” or even “accept” them but who actively take an interest and care about them.

Having these conversations with our children is absolutely not just about us or our kids. It’s about making a better world for everyone.

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Unrecognizable

What happens on a rainy Tuesday with nowhere to go when a writer is stalling on her edits? Why, reading Facebook, of course. That’s how I came across this article, linked by several friends. It’s photos of people—correction, women—without makeup and then made up so they are unrecognizable. I think most people found it amazing; I was a little disturbed.

The photos on the left in each set look to me like normal, everyday people. They seem like the people I might meet at church or in the grocery store. They are people who might be my friends. They look approachable, women I would talk to without feeling ashamed of the way I’m dressed or have my hair styled or how little/much makeup I’m wearing.

The second set, on the right, all intimidate me. They look unreal, unattainable. I’m quite sure if I had professionals do my hair and makeup I would look like that too. The question is, would I even want to?

No. No, I wouldn’t.

What I didn’t like was the way those women ceased to be themselves. They were made to look ideal, glossy, even photoshopped. The problem I have with that is that it’s the expectation for women. There is so much pressure, starting when girls haven’t even hit puberty, to look exactly right. Don’t be yourself, be someone else’s idea of beautiful. But that’s not the only thing wrong there.

We have those expectations for men, too. Be athletic. Be strong. Have a perfect physique. Be manly (whatever the hell that means; I think it’s probably something like “be the opposite of what we just told women to be”). Or, failing that, then be less manly, but do it in a culturally acceptable way. For example, be a skinny, pale guy in glasses, but make sure you’re into math, science, computers, gaming, comics, or some other pursuit we can mock you for but that’s still considered guy territory.

And heaven forbid a boy or a man wants to try out the same thing those women did in the photos.

I see so much these days about empowering women when it comes to things long considered men’s arenas. Everything from Girl Scout campaigns for girls in math and science to GoldieBlox to women in geek culture has us talking about how wide open the world is for women. Even here in my house, I’ve taken great pains to make sure my daughter knows she doesn’t have to restrict herself because she’s a girl.

Sadly, after seeing the extreme makeup photos, I tend to think we’re not even close as a society to women being more than pretty faces. We’re enthralled with the Ugly Duckling concept, the idea of taking women perceived as “plain” (or photographed in a way that makes them look plain) and turning them into swans. We don’t really have an interest in those women as people.

But what about our boys?

It is still a sign of rampant misogyny that boys who want to break free from social gender-norming are considered less than, weak, unmanly. That’s not about their hobbies or interests—it’s about being perceived as feminine and how terrible it is for a man to not be masculine enough. We don’t care about men as people either.

I would love for men to break that down. You know what? Go do it—go get made up like the women in the photos until you’re not recognizable. What an interesting experiment it would be to see the reactions. I’ll bet a small subset of us would be wowed by it (I personally think men look very nice made up). But the rest? I can only imagine the reactions. I doubt most people would refer to them as “stunning” or “amazing.” I wouldn’t be able to bear the comments on such an article; I’d have to stop at the first violent threat.

How long is it going to be before women and men alike will be allowed to do what we want without the threat of violence hanging over us because we couldn’t complete the Real Man/Real Woman checklists? How long until a woman’s value isn’t tied to her appearance? How long until being a woman is considered to be such a good thing that no one is mocked or threatened for enjoying “feminine” pursuits? How long until no one dies for making her outside match her inside and presenting as a woman?

Lord, I hope it’s not long. I’m desperate for that change.

Lilacs

The whole park smells wonderful. I love the scent of lilacs. The timing is perfect this year; there are thousands of them in bloom.

I walk along the path to the greenhouse. I always like to see what’s growing in there. Lost in the pleasure of the warm spring air and the beauty of life bursting before me, I almost run into the people coming the other way.

“Oh, excuse me,” I say.

But as I go to pass them, I get a good look at one of the men. He sees me too, and his face morphs into a puzzled expression. “I’m sorry,” he says, hesitation tugging at his voice, “but you look familiar.”

I study him for a moment, and then it registers. “Oh my god. Jay Weingart? It’s me, Shel Harrison.”

He smiles. “How long has it been? More than ten years.”

Thirteen, I want to say. Nearly thirteen years since you left.

“You look really…different,” Jay comments.

I’m sure that I do. My hair is much longer, for one thing, and I wear makeup now. I’ve given up hiding my body under overly large t-shirts with rock band logos. I do a lot of things I never would have done back then, including having uncomfortable run-ins with old boyfriends.

There are three other people with him. The girl with honey brown hair and eyes the color of the ocean in winter can’t be anyone else but his daughter. Her face is sweet and honest. She smiles shyly. The other man looks familiar, but I can’t place him. Actually, he resembles no one so much as Mr. Clean. He is entirely bald, although it looks more like he shaves his head that way to hide his receding hairline. He’s compact and muscular. I can see a tattoo peeking out of his shirt sleeve, but I can’t tell what it is. There’s also a slender black-haired girl who stands to the side as though she would prefer not to be noticed.

“I don’t think you’ve ever met my daughter, Alison,” Jay’s saying. He puts his hand on the brown-haired girl’s shoulder, pressing down slightly in affection. “This is Bill.” He gestures to the other man without giving any further context for This-Is-Bill. He doesn’t tell me the black-haired girl’s name.

I feel the lump pressing on my throat. Forcing a smile, I nod politely. I swallow, hard. “Nice to meet you,” I say.

“Likewise,” he says, extending a hand.  He arches an eyebrow, and I can tell he knows—or thinks he knows—something about me.

“Bill graduated a couple years ahead of us. I don’t know if you remember him.”

Ah, now the familiarity made sense. But he’d had hair back then. I think I make a non-committal sort of noise.

“How’s Julie?” I ask.

Jay shrugs casually. “Fine, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” I glance at Jay’s wedding band.

He notices. “We’ve been divorced for a long time. Julie lives in California. I haven’t seen her in years.”

Ah, remarried, then. I desperately want to get out of this awkward conversation. I make some excuse about needing to be on my way. Jay cheerfully waves over his shoulder as the three of them continue on the path.

I no longer feel much like looking in the greenhouse. My insides feel stretched. I wander through the park, trying not to think, without much success.

He acted as if nothing had ever happened. As if we were never more than old classmates. As if he didn’t remember all those days spent fooling around in his bedroom after school when his parents were still at work. As if it was insignificant making each other feel good and pretending, just for a little while, that we were free.

Thirteen years since he’d told me Julie was pregnant. He said he planned to “do the right thing” and marry her. Back then, I thought he was cheating on me with her. It turned out I was his dirty little secret. And now where is she? He’s married to someone else. Someone who should have been me but never could have been.

I was so sure I was over him before today. But as I walk, my hands deep in my pockets, I think maybe I’m not. Except that I’m not in love with him; I’m only in love with the memory of us. But why, oh why, can’t I get those eyes out of my mind?

I stop along the path to listen to a group of musicians. They’re playing a familiar folk song, one I like. Only one other person is listening—an old man sitting on the bench across the path from them.

There are two women and two men. One of the women is playing the violin. She has the longest hair I’ve ever seen; it’s down past her hips, hanging in dark waves that ripple as she fiddles. The other woman plays hand drums and the two men are playing guitar and some kind of pipes.

I hum the tune softly, closing my eyes. My parents used to bring me to some music festival when I was a kid. There would be all these people, playing and singing, making music together. We would camp there for most of a week. The park musicians are playing one of my mother’s favorites.

The song ends. I open my eyes to find the musicians smiling at me. The guitar player catches my eye and winks. I feel my face heating up.

“You sing?” he asks.

“I used to,” I admit. I wasn’t bad. I don’t know why I gave it up. Real life, I suppose.

He mentions a song. “You know that one?”

“Yeah, my parents used to sing that one all the time,” I say.

“Well, come on then, we could use a voice,” Guitar Guy says.

Feeling self-conscious, I join them. Guitar Guy is still watching me, his face unreadable. I can feel my heart rate increasing.

He tilts his head to the side and gives me a smirk. “What’s your name?”

“Shel. Shel Harrison.”

“Well, Shel Shel Harrison, you ready?”

And suddenly, I think maybe I am.

Betting on It

Author’s Note: This story takes place in roughly the same “world” as several other ones on this blog.  They’re not entirely related (that is, the same characters don’t necessarily appear in every story), but in my head, they all live in the same general location.  Just thought you’d like to know.

This story is included in the Creative Buzz Hop.  The theme for the week is “gender.”  To participate, visit Muses from the Deep or PenPaperPad and add your voice.

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It all started with a bet.

Tyler could never remember later whose idea it really was. It might have been Matty’s because he’d had a ginormous crush on Justine starting in fourth grade. Or it might have been Justine’s; she liked to see Tyler and Matty squirm. It might even have been Tyler’s—a stupid reaction to stupid Matty’s stupid teasing.

It didn’t really matter anyway.

The only important thing was that six days into the school year, Tyler was sitting in the top row of the bleachers in the Old Gym (which hadn’t been “old” since 1962) waiting his turn to try out for the seventh grade cheerleading squad. Matty was on his right and Justine was on his left. Somehow, it didn’t make him feel any better.

If he went through with it, he got eight dollars and Matty’s copy of Super Mario Zombies, and Justine would find out if Carly Dunbar liked him, liked him. If he didn’t, he had to make copies of his social studies notes for a week—for both Matty and Justine, neither of whom appreciated Mr. Connolly’s habit of outlining the whole text book.

Tyler sighed. There was nothing for it. He had no intention of losing this bet; he cared far less about the winnings than his pride. Anyway, it wasn’t as though he couldn’t do it. Tyler was pretty sure he stood a better chance than half the girls. He’d taken several years of gymnastics until his parents decided it was too expensive. At that point, he switched to hip-hop. That was considered respectable, though Tyler always secretly wished he’d been allowed to take some of the other dance classes. That was the fun part about being a preacher’s kid in a not-so-big town; there was pressure on his dad to make sure he grew up right. There was no way he was going to tell his father that he’d tried out for cheerleading—especially if he didn’t make it.

After suffering through several out-of-sync routines, the coach finally called Tyler’s name. There were a lot of poorly-concealed snickers. Even the coach looked like she thought Tyler wasn’t serious. He performed the skills she asked for and watched her make checks on her clipboard, her eyebrows slowly climbing her forehead. She dismissed him with an “I’ll let you know” and moved on to the next person.

“You so owe me,” Tyler said when they were out of the gym.

“Whatever.” Matty was scowling. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it. I was looking forward to sleeping through Connolly’s class.”

“You wish. Just think, now you can play Super Mario Zombies at my house.”

***

Two weeks later, Tyler was standing in Coach Pepper’s office, fiddling with his backpack while she talked.

“…just don’t see how it’s possible,” she was saying. “I mean, we don’t have a uniform for you or anything. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Tyler, but this isn’t going to work out. I’m sorry.”

Wait just a minute. Was Coach Pepper really saying Tyler couldn’t be on the squad because he was a boy? “Coach, that’s not fair! It’s discrimination.”

She glared at him. “Boys can’t have everything. Some things just naturally belong to the girls.”

He let his mouth hang open for ten seconds before he turned and marched out. No way was he going to stand for this. People staged protests all the time, right? Why not for keeping boys off the cheer squad? Time to take some action.

Without telling his parents.

That turned out to be easier said than done. By the time Tyler had organized a protest at the first soccer home game, put on one of the mini-skirt uniforms, passed out fliers at every lunch period (earning two detentions for cutting class), and called the local paper, his parents were well and truly informed.

Tyler was unprepared for the media circus that ensued. Apparently, the tiny town of Morton Ponds hadn’t seen this much excitement since the high school baseball team won the state championship back in the early eighties. Everyone took sides, including most of the teachers—and Tyler’s own family.

It didn’t help that every single one of them had an opinion. Helen thought he was attention-seeking. Charlotte said she was proud of him for sticking The Patriarchy in the eye, whatever that meant. His parents said they would support him, but it didn’t sound entirely sincere. Only Colby said he was staying out of it.

When all was said and done, Coach Pepper was forced to accept boys on the cheer squad, provided they could demonstrate the skill level she expected. There was a big press conference, and Tyler had to make a speech about how wrong it was to keep kids from doing what they wanted just because they were the “wrong” gender. He didn’t know how to answer the question about whether girls should play football; Morton Ponds didn’t even have a football team.

Afterward, Colby took Tyler out for ice cream. Colby was pretty cool, for a college guy. They sat outside the Dairy Queen eating Dilly Bars and not actually talking. That was okay with Tyler; he didn’t have anything else to say. Eventually, they tossed their sticks and got back in Colby’s car.

“Well, at least you made the team,” Colby finally said.

“Um.”

Colby glanced at Tyler. “What?”

“I didn’t actually want to be a cheerleader. I just wanted Matty’s copy of Super Mario Zombies.”

For six heartbeats, Colby said nothing. Then he roared with laughter, buckled his seat belt, and drove them both home.

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For those of you heading to SS in a couple of weeks (you know who you are), I’m auctioning a collection of stories that includes Betting on It and several others from this blog as well as a few new ones.

Being the Girl

I’m continuing my countdown to the official launch of A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans.  (I know; I’m like a kid at Christmas.  I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I first read about it.)  Since I can’t offer a full review (having yet to finish the book), I will sustain you with other topics related to womanhood (Biblical or otherwise) until then.  Today: Our obsession with gender roles.

Have you ever experienced that awkward moment when someone asks, “So, are you the girl in your relationship”?  Yeah, me neither.  See, that’s because for most of us heterosexual cis-women, that question doesn’t even make sense.  Well, okay, I think I’d rather be thought of as a woman than as a girl, since I’m an adult.  But otherwise, I can’t think of a single time when I’ve been asked such a stupid question.

On the other hand, I can think of plenty of times when people have thought it was appropriate to ask me that question about my friends.

I’m not kidding.  I have a disproportionate number of non-het and non-cis friends for someone of my religious background.  For whatever reason, on more than one occasion and regarding more than one friend or family member, I have been asked which of my friends represented “the girl” in their relationships.  This usually happens after I’ve introduced them to someone, say, at a party.

What the heck is the obsession with figuring out what presumed gender roles a couple takes on?  I mean, when I’m with my friends and family, I don’t waste my precious minutes with them contemplating a) what their “roles” are in their relationship or b) whether or not they even have them.  I’m actually not sure why I should care.  Even back in my pre-ally days I never considered that sort of thing.

What surprises me even more is that it’s often people who don’t seem themselves to conform to strict gender-based societal norms who ask such nosy/inappropriate questions.  One of my less Hollywood-style-feminine friends suggested that her lesbian friend’s preferences for dresses must mean that she’s the “girl” in her relationship with her partner.  Resisting the temptation to ask whether this friend’s husband is the “girl” in their relationship, I politely suggested that I didn’t think that was the way it worked—both of them are women, not girls, and they are not role-playing at 1950s husband and wife.

It occurs to me that this is part of what bothers so many people about anything that isn’t heterosexual or cis.  I think it might be at the root of why so many strong women are often referred to as “bitchy,” “shrill,” or “emotional.”  Those are all things that challenge our long-established notions about what it means to be women.  Sometimes, we feel we have to know who’s the girl because we want to revert to something we can understand, something familiar.

How about we make some effort to become more comfortable with the unfamiliar?  I appreciate my friends who fail to conform to anyone else’s idea of what they ought to be or do.  It makes me feel far less of a failure at being a “real” woman when I see that non-conforming women are successful, happy, and fulfilled in who they are.  One day, we can let go of the notion that there are only two ways of being—”boy” or “girl”—and accept that there’s a whole lot more variety than that, even among those of us who consider ourselves entirely straight and cis.

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Be sure to check out the essay contest here on the blog, and don’t forget to order your copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood!

The Breastfeeding Father

This is part of a synchroblog on the topic of Queer Theology. You can visit Anarchist Reverend’s blog for more posts on the theme. The synchroblog subject is “The Queer God.”

I have always found it difficult to relate to the image of God as Father. I don’t have an especially healthy relationship with my earthly father, and could not make the leap to an understanding of a “better” heavenly one. Nor have I found it easy to relate to God as Mother, though I was close with my own until her passing. Perhaps that is because God as Mother is often only about nurturing and care giving, neither of which I associate with myself as a mother (or even mothers generally).

As I spent time contemplating what I would write for this synchroblog, I realized that I’ve been locked into binary thinking about who God is (or even could be). I began to imagine something different about God: A God who isn’t binary. One who is not either Father or Mother, but both, and neither, and everything in between, all at once. I noticed that there is a growing trend to identify God in pronoun form not as He, but as They. It’s fitting for a God who Themselves identified in the plural, right from the beginning.

This is a God who spoke into the uninhabited Earth and said, “Let us create people in Our image.” God cannot be contained in a singular pronoun, neither a He nor a She, and God cannot contain this image in merely male or merely female created beings.

This is a God who inspired his Apostle Paul to write that there are neither male nor female in Christ. No longer must we be constrained by the bodies with which we were born in order to relate to God, to love and be loved by the Creator.

This is a God who calls Philip to teach and baptize a eunuch, that the Good News might be spread further. The message isn’t only for people who fit the prescribed roles and bodies dictated by societal norms.

This is a God who is a breastfeeding father—called Father by Jesus, but likened to a nursing mother by the psalmist.

The idea of God as Father/Male permeates all our religious thinking. It’s in our hymns, our scripted prayers, our conversation. Sometimes, we might compare God to a mother for instructional purposes. Other times we liken the Holy Spirit to God’s “female” aspect. But in all things, we still hold tight to the image that God is our version of Male/Masculine.

This is not the true God. I want to hold the picture of the non-binary God in my heart, the picture of God that transcends cultural expectations and boundaries. Not a God who is sometimes fatherly and sometimes motherly, but always and inextricably all.

We, in our human limitations, can only experience this in part. But God, in the form of the breastfeeding father, is fully, completely whole. And it is good.

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Here are the other posts in the synchroblog:

the Anarchist Reverend shares his thoughts on the Queer Christ over on the Camp Osiris blog.

Peterson Toscano shares “The Lost Gospel of Thaddeus.”

Shirley-Anne McMillan writes about Mother Christ.

Adam Rao shares why he is not participating in today’s synchroblog.

Kaya Oakes writes about God, the Father/Mother.

Brian Gerald Murphy talks about A God Bigger Than Boxes.

Clattering Bones writes about The Queer God.

Daniel Storrs-Kostakis writes writes about An Icon of God.

Jack Springald writes about Avalokitesvara and queering gender.

Amaryah Shaye Armstrong writes about Inclusion and the Rhetoric of Seduction.

That which makes us men (and women)

Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), Sicilian dress (a boy disguised as a girl). Taormina, circa 1895.

Over the weekend, I read two blog posts, both of which contained phrases that made me cringe a little.  Overall, I liked the posts.  I thought both writers had good things to say.  So my desire is not to be critical of the bloggers or their opinions.  And I do understand the place they were coming from, given the fact that it’s really hard to think outside a small circle of personal experience.  I also want to be sensitive to this issue of privilege, especially after turning my critical eye on a fellow blogger for how she treated the problem.

But here it is: Both blog posts had obviously cisnormative bias in their writing.  Probably unintentionally so.

In the first, About a Boy, Meg Lawton talks with her son about the harsh words used against him at school.  It is otherwise a beautiful, wise, gentle post both about the nurturing of our children and about the feelings we as parents experience when our children are hurting.  But it contained the unfortunate phrase,

The only thing that makes you a boy, is your penis.

The second post was The church is not feminised – blow your noses on your man sized tissues and get over yourselves!  The blogger, Jenny, writes about the tendency of some men (ahem) to complain that the church has been emasculated.  I don’t entirely agree with her theology, but she makes a good point:  Since men still have the bulk of power in the church, they can’t complain about it becoming “feminized.”  This post, too, had a phrase that bothered me:

If you have a penis you’re a man.

Not to sound like I’m obsessed with penises, but what the heck, people?

Neither of the statements made by these bloggers is strictly true.  Certainly, it’s true most of the time.  But not all.  It isn’t the penis that makes one a man.  There is more than one reason a man might not have a penis, and more than one reason a person with a penis might not be a man.

As I said, I can entirely understand the bias of the writers.  In their experience, the people around them are likely to be cisgender, and they are probably unaware of anyone whose medical condition necessitated the removal of the penis.  They probably don’t know (or don’t think they know) anyone intersexed.  So of course they are going to speak from that perspective.  And in the case of the first post, Ms Lawton was also dealing with how to help her non-gender-conforming children process the world around them, which in itself is admirable.

In reading these posts, it occurred to me that I don’t have any idea what makes us men or women.  Obviously, I personally don’t believe it’s the presence or absence of certain genitalia.  Nor do I think it has anything to do with our interests.  I have two non-conforming children, yet both of them (at least at this point) seem pretty clear that their outsides match their insides in terms of gender.  So what does make us men or women or both or neither?

I don’t think I could tell you, even for myself.  Because I’ve never had to struggle with this personally, I’ve never even had to think about it.  I am the possessor of breasts and a uterus; I also just feel like a woman.  Yet I wouldn’t be any less of one if I lost my breasts or uterus to cancer.  I might miss those parts, but not because I had suddenly become a man without them.

It’s probably something worth considering, especially if I want to be able to understand how others think and feel.  It’s worth figuring out why I feel so distinctly womanly, in the same way it was worth thinking about why I feel attracted only to men.  (I think this exercise is worth it for any area of our lives in which we differ from someone else, in order to better understand their experiences.)

If anyone wants to chime in, feel free.  When you think about your masculinity/femininity, what makes you feel that way?  Is it just a matter of “knowing” who you are, or is there something specific?