Twelve years ago my fiancée Tracie coaxed me out of San Francisco and into a three-bedroom house on a suburban street that looked eerily similar to the cover art from Fun with Dick and Jane. For a lesbian couple a move like this amounts to a monumental cultural shift: from a city where LGBT folks are, like Alamo Square's Painted Ladies, a celebrated part of the scenery, to a neighborhood where we stood out like Van Gogh's white iris, begging for interpretation.
The interpretations were many: Are you sisters? Are you friends? Are you roommates? And my particular favorite, barked at us from an octogenarian walking past as we hacked dried-up shrubs out of our front yard: Where's the man? Eventually, either because we are, generally speaking, nice people or because we upped our fixer-upper's curb appeal in a way that made others feel good about their property values, our neighbors decided to like us.
So after a few months, Tracie was no longer self-conscious about kissing me goodbye on the driveway, I no longer worried that the teenagers who congregated next door would vandalize our home, and when we hosted our wedding in our backyard, we invited everyone to drop by for the reception. Utopia, right?
Though we'd befriended our neighbors, homeownership brought with it another kind of vulnerability: opening our doors to the crew of contractors and technicians we enlisted to keep our house from crumbling. Sometimes we hand-picked these folks, hiring friends of friends, but other times we had no choice. When the water heater breaks or the sewer clean-out backs up, the home warranty company doesn't exactly provide a list of lesbian-friendly technicians. They send the guy (and it was always a guy) who's available.
So I've done my fair share of welcoming strangers into my home, not knowing how they will react when, walking down the hallway toward our ailing bathtub drain or cracked shower tiles, they see our kiss-the-bride wedding portrait hanging on the wall. For all my nervousness, though, none of these encounters had broken badly. Some technicians said nothing, others told me stories about their gay siblings, and still others expressed their live-and-let-live attitudes. And then we met Dick.*
In 2005, having hatched one baby and preparing for the arrival of a second, Tracie and I heard the seams of our 1,200-square-foot house ripping, so we moved. The inspection report on the new house included a laundry list of minor repairs, which the selling agent promised to arrange. Enter Dick, the Mormon fix-it-guy. Dick with the brown overalls and barrel chest. Dick with the high-blood-pressure-red face and tendency to pontificate on anything from epoxy to education policy.
In hindsight, the fact that Dick flashed the Mormon card on his first visit should have been a warning -- I mean, isn't discussing religion on the job considered unprofessional? But Tracie, so much more tolerant than I was, had taught me that a general policy of rejecting people because they're religious is no better than a general policy of rejecting people because they're queer.
So after Dick completed the realtor's to-do list, over the next year, as we grew from a family of three to a family of four, I called Dick whenever something needed fixing. After all, he did good work for a reasonable price. As long as our conversations stuck to home repair and not homo-repair, we'd be fine.
Besides, maybe introducing Dick to the inner workings of my rainbow family would open his mind to the community in general? I know, I know: painfully naïve, overly-optimistic, terminally hopeful. But aren't these the qualities that fuel many relentless agents of change?
Anyway, back to Dick. He balanced our ceiling fan, repaired our kitchen faucet, installed a water filter, and replaced the trim around our roofline.
And then he criticized my parenting.
While Dick and I were in the backyard, discussing a termite problem in our barn, my 2-year-old son tripped over a piece of wood, skidding onto his bare knees on a gravel path. Instantly, his face morphed into a replica of Munch's Scream, signaling the onset of the siren cry.
"Oh, sweetie!" I said, scooping him up to assess the damage. As I nestled my sobbing toddler onto my lap, examining the pebbles embedded in his raw skin, the blood seeping around them, Dick stood over me, making that "tsk, tsk, tsk" noise no one makes any more.
Assuming this was a sound of empathy (again, terminally hopeful), I looked up at Dick, who said (I kid you not), "If you keep babying him like that, he'll never grow up to be a strong man." Really? What was this? A 1950s PSA?
"I couldn't disagree more," I said and carried kiddo into the house for medical attention.
Standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing my son's knees, what tempered my incredulous rage? Tolerance. "Dick's a product of the 'Buck up, son!' generation," I told myself. "It's not his fault he's woefully misguided. Didn't he just offer to seal the seams on the leaking skylight for free? Why would I fire him?"
By the time Dick had written an estimate for termite eradication, my toddler had recovered from his trauma, and my newborn had woken from his nap. With one darling in my arms and another figure-eighting a Matchbox car between my feet, I stood at the front door, plumbing the depths of my politeness to offer Dick a pleasant farewell.
That's when he did it. Dick reached down to tussle my 2-year-old's hair, then stood up to full height, puffed his chest up like the Pillsbury Doughboy, and sighed, "A boy really needs to have a father in his life."
Oh, the mama-rage. "My children," I said through clenched teeth, "have two loving parents and a slew of positive male role models. They're wanting for nothing."
With that, I fired Dick, not because he was Mormon but because he was unprofessional and disrespectful, and because, at some point, even the terminally hopeful must accept that you just can't change a Dick.
*Not his real name.