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Baba is butch

Never simply late when I can be egregiously late, I am filing this mid-December response to Sinclair Sexmith’s call, posted at Sugarbutch in late October, for thoughtful responses to the following prompt:

What is butch? How do you define butch? What do you love about it? What does it mean to you?

It’s the opening gambit of a project she’s launching this month (link forthcoming when the light turns green The Butch Lab Symposium #1 link roundup’s here!), which will be guided by the following intent:

to promote a greater understanding of masculine of center gender identities, expressions, and presentations, through encouraging: 1. visibility, because we feel alone; 2. solidarity, because there are many of us out there, but we don’t always communicate with each other; and 3. an elevation of the discussion, because we have a long history and lineage to explore and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

I am so thrilled about each of those three intents (nearly as much as I am by Mr. Sexsmith herself, whose chivalry and generosity put a maraschino cherry the size of Brooklyn on my NYC trip last August), and I’m eager to participate in the conversation.

There’s no doubt my “betwixt and betweenness,” gender-wise, is something that I don’t write directly into this blog so very often: at one level, it’s merely something I take for granted, and thus find less need to articulate. At another level, though, I simply lack the time to step aside from the stream of continual parenting to lay it all out.  So long as I keep the blog title “Lesbian Dad,” I hope some portion of the explanation will be naturally imported with whatever associations one makes with that term.  ”Hmm. Not a mom. Whatever that means.” Which is true enough, and makes a good start.

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Baba, a name I call myself

images Part two of a six-part series of excerpts from “Confessions of a Lesbian Dad,” originally published in Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-biological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Ed. Harlyn Aizley. Boston: Beacon, 2006).

 

[Series intro and backstory here.]

A few months after I outed myself as a butchy lesbian not-mom at a family dinner party, my old grad school comrade was visiting. Susanne — German, feminist, hippie, vegetarian, and now New Orleans-based professor — is the classic Straight-But-Far-From-Narrow hetero ally. For years she resisted getting married — for solidarity purposes — until her lack of a green card was going to boot her out of the country. When she did marry, it was during the intermission of a Grateful Dead concert, and the service was conducted by a 19 year-old gal deputized by her mother, the local Justice of the Peace. Over ten years later she and David continue to call each other “partner.”

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Map-maker, map-maker, make me a map

steinbergexcerpt
[A slice of Saul Steinberg's endlessly riffed upon 1976 New Yorker cover, in which he depcits the westerly view through the prism of a stereotypically myopic New Yorker. Or, depending on your vantage point, through a good clear set of binocs. Nice little bit on it here on strange maps.]

Those of you who frequent the lesbian familial blogosphere — and I won’t make any presumptions; I know many of you do, but some of you probably don’t — will know that we’ve been having fruitful chit-chats of late about motherhoods, bio- and otherwise. I mean, we always do. We talk about motherhoods, bio- and otherwise, and about our kids, either hoped for, or in the hopper (whosever’s hopper that may be), or running around underfoot. What with the whole lesbian parenthood thing being defined by two women, in a couple, being parents together, you can imagine that the ongoing project of defining and supporting our motherhoods crops up often as a topic of conversation.

To this end, Trista posted a pithy piece, Advice for Bio Moms, on An Accident of Hope. I thought it so valuable a catalyst for thought that I couldn’t help but point at it from my Friday berth at LesbianFamily.org (Fridays I assay a little chit-chat over there). Then Trista (a fellow contributor to LesbianFamily.org), followed with this post rounding up more related conversational themes in blogs that list on LesbianFamily. If you’re a parent like me, reading these stories is just necessary. Like looking up and checking road signs as you drive. You do it all the time, so often you don’t even notice when you do.

Common themes emerge, helping us to separate what’s idiosyncratic from what’s lesbiansyncratic about our families. That stress and tension we’ve been having lately? Ah! Not alone! Happens to X, and Y, and Z lesbo families, too, when they confront the same issues. Hey, they get that crap, too? (/fall into that trap, too?) I thought we were the only ones. Oh, now there’s a great idea. Next time I run across that problem, I think I’m going to ______ (fill in wise notion or cunning hack culled from lesbian parent comrade’s blog, or the commentary thereon).

Online communities of all ilks engage in this stuff; at their best, they break down our isolation. Ours also feeds us vital coordinates. Watch out; the continent drops off there! Hey, don’t overlook the oaisis, tucked over there behind the stand of trees! Things of this nature.

Because the arrival of kids, whether they come pint-sized or prepubescent into our lives, is like the emergence of a big huge volcano where there once were only rolling hills at most. That, or like one continent bashing up against another. All of parenthood entails re-surveying and re-mapping the dramatic new contours of our lives. But the work of the lesbian parent — and any alternative, non-normative parent, for that matter — at this point in the history of the family includes some extra bushwacking. If the maps to our quasi-pioneer lesbian family lives were compared to maps of the known world, I think we’d find most are still no more accurate than those thought up by, say, Ptolemey. Or maybe a little more advanced. Columbus knew perfectly well what he would find if he sailed due west across the Atlantic from Europe (India, of course, you ninny!).

Which is why I so value our cartographic project here (online, through hundreds of conversations short and long, half-baked and well thought-out). Slowly, what’s emerging are maps of new, lesbian parent cultural practices, new language, new traditions or rituals, common refuges. If all goes well, our kids who go on to form their own families — lgbt or straight, nuclear or extended, traditional or non- — will find some of our maps useful, perhaps even take them for granted. Which, to a cartogrpaher, may be one of the most complimentary things they could do.

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We are family


GranBaba with the Lil Monkey.
Who’s GranBaba? My kid’s blood Gramma’s butchie lesbo sweetie, who else?

I was recently asked the following:

what’s your take on half siblings? other kids from the same donor.. not a part of your family.. who are such lil ppl to you.. or to lil monkey.. where is genetics in your scheme of the world?

I tried to answer succinctly, and of course couldn’t. So here I’ll try to answer somewhere between succinctly and loquaciously, in the at least it can be read over less than a cup of coffee range.

Ah, genealogy and kinship; ah, the half-sibling question. It actualy begs the question of what one calls or considers the kids who are biologically related to one’s kids via the donor. And it’s not necessarily “half-sibling.” Or rather, this would be the term that many may use, but it certainly defaults to biological ties as the determining organizing device. My particular familial grouping, however, defines our family by the social bonds in it far more than the biological ones. It helps that my partner has two siblings, one of which is technically a half sibling (different dad), the other of which is not biologically related at all (different “biodad” and “biomum,” in other words, adopted). Never does the fractionality of her blood relation to either of these people enter into any of their language regarding one another. Nor, at the core, does it influence who they are to one another. They are brother and sisters, with love and loyalty that runs as deep as the Mariana Trench.

When I was a kid, I referred to my parents’ closest friends as “aunt” and “uncle” (Auntie June and Uncle Slim, Australians, as it happens, by birth and by emigration). As a kid, I never wondered about what bonds connected them to my parents; their loving friendship was all I needed to see. Everyone in an extended family knows what this feels like; everyone who has been raised by people other than or in addition to their blood parents knows this. Long before the “gayby boom” queer people have created “chosen family,” both by necessity and by choice. But I believe it to be by far the most ordinary of familial weaves, the extended, mixed blood- and love-connected families, and I firmly believe that my own little clump of family is simply returning to an old-school version of family, far more than it is pioneering a new one.

I am in the process of reading Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, the better to be able to substantiate this educated hunch. It’s too rich a study to try to convey in a brief synopsis here, but suffice to say that Coontz’ scholarship helps bring every hazy notion of what a “traditional” family is or was into sharp focus. And at every turn, what’s romanticized is actually more likely to be a half-forgotten television series than a lived truth.

Much larger even than these kinds of families are those emerging from shared struggle, which engenders the language of “sister” so-and-so, and “brother” so-and-so for people utterly outside what most understand to be family ties. For over twenty years, dating back to my first deep exposure to the North American Civil Rights Movement, I have identified with this means of drawing kindred spirits together into the larger human family. And as a Buddhist, I actually believe that at some point or another we’ve all been each other’s brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and so on, many times over. So what’s in a name, I sez. That which we call kin by any other name would smell as sweet.

And finally, a few introductory words on our connection to the person and people who’ve helped the Lil Monkey come into our lives. We know our donor: he’s the partner to one of my oldest chums. I’ve known her for over twenty five years (!), and him for over a dozen (!). Both my old chum and I wrote about the conception process, she from her vantage point as partner to donor (in its entirety here), me from mine as partner to biomum (excerpt here). The connection I have to our Donor Chum (he favors “Donor Guy,” I think because of the close cognate to “Cable Guy”) is ineffable. One day I will try to eff it. Our two families are distinct, but woven together. But I would say we’re knit together even more by choice than biology. Which is to say, we’re knit together by a great deal of mutual, voluntary love and respect. We name our kids’ relationship by what’s most accurate, socially: they are cousins, special cousins, to be exact. The kids have different parents, which is part of what distinguishes cousins from siblings. But like cousins, a blood thread connects them.

Today I went to our younger special cousins’ graduation from preschool. As she trotted in and saw me and the Lil Monkey, she whispered to her friend, “Those are my cousins.” Which, I note, included me, too. This little sweetie, a few years back, regularly alternated he and she in reference to me, in the same sentence. As in, “She wears his hair short under that baseball cap.” Both misnomers—the he/she misnomers, and the blurred familial title misnomer—are actually pretty accurate. She has the main point, which is that whoever we are, we are family.

Further food for thought: this piece by a fourteen-year-old writer, under the same title.

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Voyage of the Bagel

This morning the Little Monkey looked up from her bagel and saw a bird out the window on the deck railing. I said, “Look, sweetie! Do you see the birdie?” To which she replied, “Cal-a-for-nya Tow-hee.” To which I toppled over backward off my chair.

Mind you the wee mite is still shy of two years here. I knew she knew what a house finch was, and a raven. But those are two-syllable birds. Needless to say I promptly scrambled past her to the bookshelf, hauled out my handy pocket guide to local birds, and ran through the ornithological splendors waiting to reveal themselves the moment she’s capable of discerning them. As she pointed and asked about other birds (“Whassis? Whassis?”), I got to thinking about the vast taxonometric capacities she and all children have.

Somewhere between the barn owl and the great horned owl, my thoughts drifted to what at first seemed to be a paradox: she’s clearly keen to distinguish not just bird, but kind of bird, and yet I know that at the moment she doesn’t care what kind of parent I am. Right now it’s just names: Mama is Mama, and I am Baba. She hasn’t begun to parse parent into its various sub-categories. We will surely come upon the point when she will notice that others refer to me (kindly! and I appreciate it!) as her mother. At some point she’s likely correct them (“That’s not my mother, that’s my Baba.”). She’ll ask us about family relations, and learn that her cousins have a Mama and a Papa, and that’s what most people have. But some people have one mama or one papa. And some have two papas. And some, like her buddies from our parents’ group, have two mamas. In the folk taxonomy she’ll be developing, she’ll place me. Order: parent; Family: mother; Genus: lesbo mother; Species: baba, also known as lesbo father. We will likely eventually get to the point that a lot of the papas she sees on the street and in books might remind her of her Baba, and that’s because her Baba is a Baba kind of papa, too. At which point she either her brain will be twisted up into a pretzel, or it will all make intuitive sense to her. Or maybe both.

These thoughts are early, rough passes at the whole explanatory rigamarole, of course. Eventually we’ll develop simple, digestible responses to her questions, to those of other kids, to other parents, to strangers, to other caregivers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Like all non-normative parents. Fortunately, all that explaining will come in due time. Just like pregnancy gives you nine months to gear up to the tectonic shift that parenthood brings, so the actual rearing of the child develops incrementally. At first, though they need an enormous amount of care and tending, the little buggers can’t even move themselves off the dang bed. They’re like turtles on their backs. Then they move around, but only bit by bit, and the flow of verbal understanding develops at a similar trickle. (Which of course has its challenges. A friend’s doctor dad told her once that pediatric medicine is more like animal husbandry: the best you can do is get them to stomp their hooves to indicate pain here or there.) Still and all, there’s a grace to the gentle pace of it all, which I, for one, appreciate.

But back to taxonomy. What may from a distance seem to be a paradox in my child’s brain (classification matters when it comes to birds, but not when it comes to parents), may actually be something else. It may simply be that, based on her keen powers of observation, our Little Monkey has a capacity to make a finer distinction than the simple dualistic construction of (A) Mother or (not-A) Father. I would posit that it’s this keen observational power that is behind kids’ tendencies to see people so honestly. Perhaps for kids, the taxonomies we adults use so constantly, so unconsciously—the better to understand the world, ostensibly—haven’t yet ossified into blinders. What a challenge to carry forth as we grow: to use a means of classifying to understand the world we see, yet be willing to discard it, or better yet enlarge it, when we encounter something for which we don’t yet have a category. What a job Darwin had.

Don’t get me wrong. Distinguishing something that’s out of the ordinary, and thus might be dangerous, is a critical survival instinct. An equal survival instinct, though, would be the ability to recognize something that might be fairly camoflaughed to others, but to oneself is vital. Like food, say, or your very own, special kind of parent.

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Who’s the daddy?

Like most lesbian parents, I think a lot about fatherhood. I think about fatherhood, and about masculinity, not just around the occasion of Father’s Day, but all the time. I think about what my own father has offered me, distinct from what my mother has; I think about what his father gave him, and what he didn’t.

Father’s Day is an important day in my family, certainly, because my partner and I both love and are deeply indebted to our fathers. After all, it was my Pops who taught me how to dance, how to banter, how to charm the ladies — and how to be an optimist. But when we celebrate our own generation, Father’s Day is important for different reasons than you’d find in a two-parent, hetero one. Fathers are always present, even in their absence, and more so for us who, by eschewing men as significant others, raise a few more eyebrows — or hackles — than do straight single mothers by choice.

Lesbian families are walking paternity questions, in a way. We ask each other “Who’s the daddy?” all the time, though it’s usually more like “Who’s the donor?” We ask because the answer to the who question entails a big how answer, and how we got to our parenthood is a big deal for most of us. When others who aren’t queer ask me the paternity questions (usually with the graciousness that accompanies questions that are, after all, good-naturedly voyeruistic) I, for one, answer with the cheery, practiced diplomacy of a museum docent. And with no resentment. I get it that that’s what I am at this point in the history of the American family: docent to the early 21st century lesbian wing of it, and it behooves me to enlighten everyone who shares my child’s world.

Father’s Day is important to my partner and me because we couldn’t have done this alone, couldn’t have graduated from “relationship” (the two of us) to “family” (the three of us and counting) if it weren’t for the generosity of a man we know and now most certainly love. So on Father’s Day we thank him — but not for being the father of our kid; he’s plenty occupied with his own two delightful daughters. We thank him, rather, for enabling me to do so. Be the father of our kid, that is. Because in our family, on Father’s Day, we celebrate me.

Oh, I share some paternity with our donor. His “fatherhood” is strictly biological, though, and while its impact is life-long, in the genetic memory of our child, the work he put into it was relatively modest. My “fatherhood” of our child is strictly social, invisible to the state until petitioned for as a would-be “second parent,” and marginally visible to many even afterwards. But it is the result of an accretion of daily work on my part, ever-changing and, I pray, lasting my entire life. The older our daughter gets, the more I’ll learn about what my sort of lesbian fatherhood means, to me and to her. Right now, it’s not so complicated.

Right now, I’m simpy “Baba,” a term or diminutive for father borrowed from at least a half-dozen other languages. When my partner and I read with her, we randomly alternate between Baba and Papa when we name what’s written as the father (though, blessedly, Grace Lin has a written and illustrated a series of books depicting a Chinese American family that uses the Chinese word “Baba” for the Dad; needless to say we have ‘em all). Precocious little monkey that she is, our daughter will soon be able to notice that “Daddy” is what’s written in most books, not Baba. At that point we’ll have choice number one, of the dozens and dozens we’ll face in the Baba vs. Papa pantheon. We could simply stop checking out books from the library and only buy our own, which we’d mug on the way home from the bookstore and hastily graffiti with “Baba” all over the “Dad” parts. As time and circumstances permit, we might even keep a packet of those little electronic labeller printouts handy. Armed with scores of pre-printed “Babas,” we could affix the proper term neatly on any printed surface, whenever needed.

But who knows how much we’ll really need it? I’ve found that kids are far less derailed than we grown-ups are by the inter-gendered truths that they experience. At least the kids who know me all understand that Baba means “parent midway between Mother and Father.” I overheard my youngest nephew correct his dad when he heard him referring to the child of the two lesbian parents across the street. His dad said something to the effect of Norrie having “two moms,” to which Clayton immediately demured, “No, Daddy; Norrie has a Mama and a Baba.” Which happens to be true; Norrie calls Angela “Baba.” My brother-in-law smiled right away and said, “You’re right, Clayton. I stand corrected.”

In fact, Clayton, who is six, asked just a few weeks ago what will we do for Father’s Day. I got to beta test my Father’s Day spiel. Here we are in front of the dirama, here I am with arm extended, palm up, in the direction of the display. “Well, Clayton,” I said, “in our family we celebrate Baba’s Day on Father’s Day. In fact,” I hazarded, getting a little carried away with myself, “it’s internationally celebrated as Baba’s Day, for parents like me.” I paused to consider the impact of yet another, fairly typical bald-faced exaggeration, as he gave me that sweet, open, “Really?” look. “Okay, well, not yet. But one day maybe. And for now, at least in our family.” And that’s true. One family at a time, one year at a time. Nearly a hundred years ago, in Spokane, Washington, that’s how Father’s Day began. I’m patient.

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