12/31/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Butch Moms, Bullies, Manternity and Love

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When my son was 8-12 years old, we attended some family events with a butch-femme social group comprised of both families and singles. In a sense, we were coming together with people who have little in common other than the external oppression their families endure. We were coming together based on our basic attractions, just as heterosexual people do in mixed-gender groups. Now that my son's older, I don't often attend these social groups on my own because they cast too wide a net. I find we don't have enough in common and would rather hang out among those with whom I share an avocation. When my son was younger, though, I thought, OK. Maybe this is worthwhile. He wasn't into explaining his parental gayness to friends from school, so here was a group of kids and parents where that didn't need to be explained.

Well, maybe a little explaining -- but this time, he felt like the expert, not the weirdo.

As 20 of us sat around the campfire with the sun setting, a few of us played Frisbee, hot dogs were roasting and families dined from paper plates and coolers. I overheard one kid ask another where he'd gotten the soda. The boy he asked was about 10 years old and he replied, "Oh, see that ice chest over there next to that guy? You can get one out of there."

My son leaned in to offer a clarification. "Oh, that's not a guy." He said. Then he waved his arm around to indicate our whole group. "Actually, ALL of the adults here are women."

The other two boys stared at him, incredulous, so he added with a sage expression, "No really. Trust me. I've seen a lot of this sort of thing."

And slowly, they looked around, probably putting the surroundings and company into context with their own mothers. They nodded in understanding. Then they all had a soda and threaded their hot dogs onto metal hangers.

It's true that gender non-conforming parents can be a freak-out for a kid. And also a pretty minor one, compared to all the other freak-outs involved in growing up. See, unless someone's picking on you about it, it's really a totally forgettable detail. I don't want to minimize harassment, but for most of us, we spend time with those who care for us and then work to minimize the trauma of the rest. We seek out community, or we make parenting groups in the communities where we live. There's nothing fancy about it, even though it's really amazing when it works out that somewhere feels like home.

Sometimes customizing language helps. I've heard the term "manternity" to describe masculine-of-center moms. As a "femme dyke" who primarily makes family with "butch dykes," I've often been the legible parent in venues like school gatherings. I'm the one who seems predictable as mom. When my son was growing up, my partner and I did a lot of gentle educating and experienced mostly good results. A lot of the work is done simply by being visible and kind.

Sometimes customizing language doesn't help. The terms "femme dyke" and "butch dyke" are in quotes above because, wow, we don't all share definitions. The meanings of terms like femme and butch are still pretty localized in the communities that use them. You can look a person, think you know something and be really wrong. That's true with queer and straight folks alike.

As with most things that make a kid feel different, it's easier to get by when you have reliable places where you feel understood. Keeping a clear head about bigotry helps too. My son grew up understanding that the bully doesn't lash out because your step-mom looks like a boy, or because your mom's fat or because grandma has a hairy mole on her nose. The bully attacks because the bully's in pain, confused, maybe misled. That's an important distinction. You're just you -- some will love you, some will hate you and mostly people go on about their own business.

The kind of parents you get, as long as they're doing their level loving best, are not the issue. The bully is the issue -- whether the bully's on the playground, in the staff room or on the school board or the senate. The bully's the issue -- not the non-conformer. That's why we need to find kindred groups -- and to help each other across issues that don't affect us like a knife in the heart.

That night at the campfire, my son pulled in close to me when a single butch with particular swagger sidled up to offer me a shot of tequila. I too was single at that point in our family life, and my son was keeping an eye on me, in his way. When we got back to the car that night, sandy, tired and smelling like campfire, he leaned in and imitated her deep-voiced introduction with dramatic affectation.

"The name's Brute," she had said with an outstretched hand. My son imitated, then laughed uproariously at the memory. I laughed too -- not at her so much as at his imitation, at the fact that gender performance is really quite absurd. And at the end of the day, it isn't actually very important to a kid. What's more important is that someone loves you. Someone takes care of you.

Kids know that, until they're told otherwise. That's the trouble -- so many people forget what's really important. It's a good thing life offers all kinds of opportunities to learn again -- what's important and how to make family, make community, make peace.