"Do you have to use that word?" My mother made a face that looked slightly ill. I know my mother loves me, but she hates the word "queer" and really wishes I could be a little less odd too.
"What word? 'Queer'?"
She nodded, and her face looked like she was holding back a heartburn belch. "It's just so crude. And unkind. People think unkind things when they say that."
That can be true. And people think unkind things when they don't say that, and sometimes people make unkind comments and policies regardless of whether they ever articulate a word like "queer."
I understand what my mother is saying, though. The word "queer" has been used as an insult, the kind of thing a person says as he's kicking in your teeth. It could be hard to hear something like that said of your child, even if your child is the one saying it. I get it. And she has not "reclaimed" the word as I have. Not only does using the word positively deprive it of its negative power, but I think it's accurate: I am odd, and not just in terms of my sexual orientation. "Queerness" is defined relative to the way things are usually done, and sometimes difference is cause for celebration. I am queer, and the family I've created is queer too. Indeed, I hereby extend an invitation to you to engage in queer parenting. (See, it's true what the homophobes fear: I am here to recruit you.)
Let me be clear, though, lest my broadened definition of "queer" (as anything unusual) fails at clarity. I am a woman who creates romantic partnerships with people who are anatomically similar to me. I have one son who's in college (and because you might be curious, I'll share that he romances the ladies), and my son's father has been "married" to a man for more than a decade. (I use "married" in quotation marks because the stability of his relationship still affords him none of the 1,000-plus privileges currently offered to married heterosexual couples in our nation.)
I am indeed concerned with the specifics of making a family and raising children as a queer (meaning "homosexual") parent. I'm also very aware that sexual orientation is not always the queerest thing about my family.
Have you noticed how it's easier for some people to accept gayness if it looks like a traditional monogamous marriage focused on children and a mortgage? It's ironic not to be able to marry, because, really, when gay people marry, they don't seem nearly as scary. We also don't seem as fearsome when we're gender-normative (i.e., when the men look manly and the women look feminine). And privilege comes with looking normal. The less queer we seem, the easier it is to move through the world and not experience discrimination. Do you notice how that's true with a variety of forms of not fitting in?
And does that mean that we should always teach our children to take the path of least resistance? My (straight) friend once asked me if I was relieved that my son is heterosexual; he'll experience less discrimination that way, after all. Of course, I don't like the idea of him ever being harmed, and I think this question puts the focus in the wrong place. We need difference, and we need to learn how to be more respectful and appreciative of various ways of living too.
Gender difference is often the bigger act of queerness than just being gay. I'm a feminine woman; I am usual in my gender expression. Nevertheless, the women I date tend to be masculine women, and I don't mean Ellen DeGeneres masculine. Have you seen how masculine k.d. lang is looking these days? That's a good start. And then there are all the other ways that my family is queer. We didn't let our son watch a lot of television when he was small. And we value extended, non-blood-related family. My son didn't spend a lot of time in daycare or after-school programs; when he was 7, I arranged my work schedule so that I could be home for him after school -- unless I was traveling. We travel a lot, and he did an independent study program in high school so that he could have a broader range of experiences. We eat organic food, and we take up our civic duty by writing and speaking and demonstrating and boycotting in order to shape our social world.
We're a queer family. My partner and I being gay is just part of it. It's how we are gay -- and everything else. Do I want my son to be hurt by that? Of course not. And I don't want conformity to every mindless trend to diminish the brilliance of his life either. Here's the thing: We try to be as clear and upfront about who we are in the world as possible. I strive to take responsibility for the privileges I have, and to confront the oppressions I endure.
My mother may continue to cringe at the word "queer," but I invite you to consider the idea that queerness can be a pretty good thing. In the broad sense of the word, every person who has ever gone against social norms and values in order to improve them is queer. Anyone who persists despite disapproval, who considers consequences before buying, who hates when hate prevails, who fails to exclude others because of popular judgment, who builds family consciously, is queer. Gandhi was queer; Buckminster Fuller was queer; Bob Marley was queer. It's OK to be odd. Really. Just do your best to be queer for the sake of good, not evil.
It is my pleasure to offer stories and commentary on queer parenting, and I also invite you to encourage difference when it arises in your children, and in yourselves. In a world that values and rewards conformity, we need more models for uniqueness and compassion. Go ahead. Be as queer as you need to be -- at least until "queer" becomes a respectable way to live.
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