Our Social Experiment
By Paige Schilt
Last Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush.
“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.
I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.
My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.
I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?
Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”
As in, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”
“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”
“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”
Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.
* * *
When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”
“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.
“What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.
“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just testing.
Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem-solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at three a.m. while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank Engine around the track.
By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.
Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my childrearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy—the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings—develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.
* * *
One day, not long after Waylon made his aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru—partly because of her preference for New Age shawls, and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.
Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.
“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”
“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”
Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?
Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.
Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It’s impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.
As queer parents, our gift is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay—yet we that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious blessing.
* * *
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson likes to refer to gay and lesbian families as an “untested and far-reaching social experiment.” For Dobson and his ilk, the essence of the good family is adherence to gender roles: Men and women have certain natural strengths, which are divinely ordained to complement each other. In this view of history, the blueprint for family gender roles was spelled out in Genesis and remained virtually unchanged until the lesbian baby boom.
But contrary to what the promoters of traditional family would have us believe, queer people are hardly the first to tinker in the laboratory of gender development. Back in 1962, Katy’s mother was determined to produce a baby girl. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.
This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the sex of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the power of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, where she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.
In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.
When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.
“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.
After the final push, Donna shouted, “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see it. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.
“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”
* * *
Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.
Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.
Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the first woman president.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as an antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.
The Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with a spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress and a baby on her hip. Her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the internal contradictions of mass culture.
Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife. My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.
* * *
On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough women’s studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.
Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”
In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.
Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at two, three, and four—already miraculously masculine, already chafing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.
Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texas swagger was culturally correct—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.
The highlight of the home movie festival was the moment when Little Katy appeared in buckskin hunting jacket and coonskin cap. She posed next to the Christmas tree, clearly delighted by her freewheeling duds, but she was distracted by a large, rectangular package in the pile of presents. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.
Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership … and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.
“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”
* * *
Just before our trip to the beach last December, we went to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Laila, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Laila would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.
“Umm, I think … Barbie.”
Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.
Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”
Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a quick phone call to Laila’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Laila was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not bear the responsibility of introducing our young friend to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.
* * *
A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that two hundred dollars a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”
Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass as male in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way home, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”
Not to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.
“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said.
“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.
Sitting in the front seat, I felt my heart swell. It wasn’t just because Waylon was giving Katy a precious gift of recognition. It was because he was so proud of his ability to consider someone else’s feelings. He is compassionate. He is kind. As far as I’m concerned, this social experiment is turning out just fine.
* * *
Author’s Note: This past Mother’s Day, Waylon made a homemade card for my mother. It read: “Dear Meemaw, when I am with you, a door in my heart opens like never before.” I was a bit taken aback by the heightened diction, but I remembered that his first-grade class had just finished a unit on poetry. “Did you hear those words in class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “my heart told it to me.”
Brain, Child (Fall 2010)
Paige Schilt is a writer and activist from Austin, Texas. Her blog, queerrocklove.com, chronicles the adventures of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.
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