My mother's name is Michelle, and that is important, because it comes from her mother's favorite song, the Beatles' "Michelle." Michelle, my mother, is a slightly taller woman, with blonde hair, green eyes, and a laugh that sounds shockingly similar to mine. She has four kids, is currently not married, and does research on scientific topics that I have yet to understand. She is smart, beautiful, a Southerner, and white. The white part is where things get tricky. If you scroll back up to the photo at the beginning of this post, or maybe just look at the top-left corner of your screen, you will see that either I am not white or someone had too much fun in Photoshop.
Before I was born my mom committed one of the worst sins of her era, especially in good ole' Tennessee: She married a black man. I remember growing up and hearing stories from both my parents about how hard it was to live in Tennessee as an interracial couple. The stories ranged from run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan to bad fights with family members who didn't understand their love to facing open discrimination in public places. Loving each other wasn't the easiest thing, not only because love is hard but because the world made it hard. I think some folks out there understand this today.
Eventually my parents separated, like many parents do these days, which was good for them. I began to spend many weekends and every summer with my mom. Those times with her were some of the most important moments for me. In those moments I began to see how the world saw differences, and how it didn't like when things that it thought shouldn't be together came together -- things like a white woman and her interracial children, one of them an effeminate little boy. I always looked forward to my weekends and summers with her, because they were escapes from all the stuff I dealt with at school. I don't think I need to go too deep into what LGBT youth are facing in Tennessee right now, but it is rough. I was pretty obviously gay (clue: I wanted to be a fashion designer), even if I didn't identify that way at the time, and the kids were ruthless. Looking back, I don't blame them much; if anything, I blame the parents, the education system, and the church, but that's for another post.
My weekends and summers with my mom were my escape from the realities I faced Monday through Friday, and I cherished them, but during those times with her I learned so much about life. My mom and I do not look very much alike, color-wise, and to this day, when we are out together, most people don't realize we are mother and son, assuming instead that I'm just her young, gay, brown friend. I have friends around my mom's age, so that isn't too much of a stretch, but in my early teens I had a hard time understanding why people didn't see us as related, and it happened frequently.
Growing up I was an avid tennis player, and during the summer I always seemed to be at tournaments or practices. By this time my mom had remarried and moved to an affluent, predominantly white town in Tennessee. At the tennis courts it was pretty obvious that I was the only person of color within several square miles, and I didn't really notice, because that was just how it went.
One summer afternoon I had just finished a match against another boy who was a little older than I was. I had lost, he had won, and his mother was so proud. When I went to meet my mom under the awning after the match, a woman who'd been sitting with the winner's mom came up to us, and without a real "hello" she interrupted our conversation, saying, "I just wanted to say thank you!''
My mom looked confused. "I'm sorry, but what are you thanking me for?" she asked.
"For adopting," the woman said. "I am an adopted child, and it just means the world to us to know someone out there cares!" This woman looked so excited; I still remember her pink sweater, which looked like it had come from the latest J.Crew catalog.
"What? They aren't adopted. They are my kids," my mother responded curtly. This wasn't the first time she'd had to defend the maternity of her little brown kids.
"But they don't look like you," the woman pressed. "Where is their father from?" She now seemed aggravated, posing the question like she hoped to trick my mother into saying, "Oh, you got me! They can't possibly be my children."
"Believe me, both came right out of me. I am quite sure of that," my mom replied.
With that the woman said, "Sorry, my apologies," and went back to her friends on the other side of the awning.
This happened a lot, and when I say a lot, I do mean a lot. It happened at restaurants, gas stations, tennis courts, you name it. Some of the times we encountered racial tension were much worse than this instance; people would say and do the most hateful things. But I think this specific story is important, and it's something I think about a lot in regard to my relationship with my mother. It was one of many moments when I knew that my mother not only loved me but would fight for me. I learned from these experiences that she would take ownership of me in public and tell people that I was her child, no matter what other people thought.
We hear so many stories of LGBT youth being afraid to come out because they fear family rejection, violence, being thrown out of their homes, or other negative repercussions. These youth are uncertain whether their mothers and families will still love them if they share their whole identity with them. My race wasn't something I could hide; it was the first thing people saw, and it made life a battle for me. My obvious gayness would begin to blossom as I got older, making things even harder for me in the world. However, in those moments when my mom argued with other moms over the maternity of her children, I saw that no matter what I told her, no matter whom I became, she would always love me, and she would always fight for me. And she has done that.
To my mom: This Mother's Day I want to say "thank you!" I want to hug you, and I want to celebrate you for being you. I am so grateful to have you, and I am so grateful that you are willing to fight. We need fighters in the world, and you showed me that growing up.
With that said, I find it fitting to end with some lyrics from the song after which you were named, because I feel that they best convey how I feel. You will always be Michelle, "ma belle":
I love you, I love you, I love you.
That's all I want to say.
Until I find a way,
I will say the only words I know
That you'll understand.
Loving you always,
Follow Zach Stafford on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zachstafford