REVIEW: Killing Rage by bell hooks

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

I have been putting off writing this review for over a month. This is not because I don’t love Killing Rage or bell hooks’ mind—it is precisely because I love the book so much and respect its author so deeply that I’ve been nervous to write a review. After all, I’m just a rinky-dink writer living a rinky-dink life. Who am I to be critical (or praising) of bell hooks, a scholar and feminist I so absolutely admire?

Thus, a warning: this is less a critical review and more a pastiche of memories and a paean.

I first came across Killing Rage back in the day (in the early 2000s, about five or six years after the book had initially come out) when in PhD school and one of my classes read and discussed a chapter. I don’t remember who the professor was, or what the class or context happened to have been, or even which particular essay we read, but I do remember that I didn’t like it. Part of the problem was that I was raised a good Greek girl who was assiduously taught to be “nice” (not to ever raise my voice, raise a fuss, make a wave) and to look with distaste upon any woman who did so. I thought I had unlearned this teaching and fiercely resisted it, but it worked through me in quiet, invisible ways. As is so often the case with such insidious teaching (and by that I mean what we learn in service of keeping other people comfortable in their privilege), it had really wormed its way into my very deepest self.

The other, perhaps larger, part of the problem was that the professor who introduced the work and led the discussion clearly didn’t like hooks. Perhaps that prof, too, had absorbed that insidious teaching, or perhaps they directly benefitted from teaching it to the rest of us. Either way, the discussion was bent forcibly toward a negative conclusion.

(An aside: graduate school, I had thought, would be a haven of brilliant, open thinking and uplifting for this queer, disabled first-gen girl, but it was anything but. One professor used to point at me any time he said the word “gay.” I watched our class of six women—each of us some mix of queer/immigrant/first gen/Black/Asian/disabled, all of us quite smart and driven—be worn down by the environment of American academia and its determination to discourage people like us. Eventually, only two of us would finish the program with health and relationship intact.)

I remember not feeling hate—but neither love—for hooks’ text under those circumstances, but I did keep the book on my bookshelf for decades anyway (and even, in subsequent years, acquired more of hooks’ catalog). Recently, in the looming shadow of racialized police brutality (including numerous execustions) directed primarily at Black folks and the call to consciousness issued by, among other entities, the Black Lives Matter movement, in my grief, fear and despair, I picked Killing Rage back up and decided to reread it.

Boy, howdy, context changes everything.

It struck me most painfully how prescient this book is. First published twenty-five years ago, it seems to be speaking directly to the current moment. Of course, it is not so much that the book is prescient as that what the book addresses has not significantly changed since then. Conditions have, perhaps, become unburied, visible to so many more people than they were in 1995—it was much easier for many people then to ignore what so urgently, directly affected others and not oneself. Or perhaps it is me that has changed, since clearly hooks perceived conditions clearly, even if I did not.

This is all to say that, reading this book of essays about race and racism in the United States now was a mix of the painful, heartbreaking, vilifying, affirming and angering. I like the double (triple?) entendre of the title: it is about a rage that makes one feel like going on a murder spree in response to racist conditions, but it is also indirectly about the rage in others that makes them act/think consciously as racists (another murderous kind of anger), and also about the culture-wide effort to suppress/kill the rage which has the potential to fuel and electrify positive political movements (think: BLM and Act Up, for two examples).

Culturally, we’re taught that rage is ugly, politically useless, a nasty emotion. Consider the difference, for instance, between how Martin Luther King, Jr (leader of passive, loving resistance) has been elevated as more important and more culture-changing than Malcolm X, whose insistence that one must fight racist violence in all its forms (both cultural and physical) with strong resistance and refusal of violent victimization has been largely demonized as “reverse-racist” (ummm… what?) and dangerous. Think about the stereotype of the Angry Black Man (and here I think of lawyer Imani Gandi of the brilliant, sharp and irreverent podcast Boom! Lawyered, whose Twitter handle is @AngryBlackLady), or about the stereotype of the Aggressive Black Woman (again, I think with gratitude of Gandi). Think about the vilification from all sides that is the reward for Black queer feminists or Black trans women.

I’ve strayed: let me wind back to hooks’ wonderful book. It’s a huge collection of bite-sized essays (more than twenty essays, each only about ten pages) about race and racism in the U.S. and the effects of Black liberation and feminism as a counterpunch. It’s scholarly in its approach (carefully reasoned, backed up with facts, tightly crafted), but written in a voice to which everyone might cotton and connect (not that dry, scholarly language of self-important blahblahblah). Some of the essays help make plain the cultural workings of racism, workings which often depend upon effecting near invisibility or easy deniability (essays like “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media” or “Marketing Blackness: Class and Commodification”); other essays propose a way out (see “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” or “Moving from Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination”).

This is a necessarily brief overview of what is by nature a complex, wide-ranging but sharply-honed collection of essays about anti-Black racism in the U.S. and how we must counter its workings. I haven’t nearly done it justice. In short, it’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting collection of essays. Not a collection, really. It’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting gut punch of essays at least as relevant today as when they were originally published.

REVIEW: Audre Lorde’s THE CANCER JOURNALS

lorde

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980

 

The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.

But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.

If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.

You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic.  Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.

Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.

“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”

She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:

“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”

Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.

I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.

 

REVIEW: Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Gorilla my loveGorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
First published 1960

I first read this collection of short stories when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. It stunned me so deeply, I’ve remembered it—especially the title story—for decades. I should write a letter of thanks to the college professor who first turned me on to it, but I no longer remember who it was. Well, I’m sending thanks out to the universe, anyway, because the stories of Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara have rumbled around my head, flavoring everything I’ve written and everything I’ve read since.

Fifteen short stories, each told in the first-person voice of a different character (or sometimes a 3rd-person limited omniscient, as if privy to the thoughts of a character), make up the collection. It feels as if all the characters are neighbors, all know each other, and are all talking smack about each other (though the collection isn’t set up that way).

What resonates most for me about these stories is, first, the voices and, second, the rhythm.

The voices seem so believably right. The title story, “Gorilla, My Love,” is told by a young girl (Hazel) who feels betrayed by the adults in her world. She goes with her brothers to see a film she thinks will be a gorilla movie (perhaps like King Kong, but even better), but is furious to find out she (and the entire audience of rowdy kids) has been tricked. “So the movie come on,” the narrator says, “and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff.” She and her brothers—and the whole audience—start a little popcorn-and-kicking riot, the harmless kind of tantrum one is inclined to throw in the face of powerlessness and betrayal.

Layered in an around this narrative is the story of the narrator’s loss of her Hunca Bubba, who gets married and starts going by his full proper Christian name (Johnathan Winston Vale). He’d promised, probably jokingly, to marry the narrator when she grew up, and was always the adult she could count on for friendship and understanding. Suddenly, he’s gone deep into the adult world and she’s left on the outside. Hazel has nobody but the other kids, all of them feeling the sting of the things adults promise but don’t really mean.

Every narrator’s voice feels true in this way, pulsing with the character’s needs, passions, anger. But it’s not a bitter collection in the least. It feels wistful. It feels true. It’s sometimes funny with a gentle, kind humor (the kind that doesn’t have to knock anybody down to make its mark).

As for the rhythm, I don’t simply mean the rhythm of the prose itself—though that is beautifully done. I remember when I was studying writing in college, and someone suggested to me that the major concern of poetry was at the level of the sentence and language, but the major concern of fiction was at the level of concept and story. I still think that’s wrong—good poets and good fiction-writers should always be concerned with both the big picture and the details. The best fiction writers, I think, compose every line of prose as if it were a line of poetry, that carefully. In Gorilla, My Love, words matter.

What I mean by “rhythm” is both the language-level rhythm (which, here, is masterful) and the ig-picture rhythm. Each story opens, build and closes in a sigh or a scream. The stories of the collection build upon one another to make a greater picture, so that the final story, “The Johnson Girls,” takes some of its effect from the momentum built by the stories that came before it. The last line—“’Right,’ say Gail, and lights my cigarette”—doesn’t sound particularly important until you’ve been carried to it by the story, by the whole book. Ending the collection on this line, then gives it extra weight, and I usually break into tears at the resignation it suggests.

I mean, you kinda have to be there (read it) to get it.

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…

Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.

Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.

Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.

This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.

The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.

I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?

What Use Is Violence?

I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.

In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?

The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.

In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).

I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.

I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.

I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.

At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.

Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.

A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” (http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/01/18/lynching.photography/index.html?_s=PM:US). In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.

Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).

In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.

 

 

 

Grow Up, Seriously Already

That title is ironic. Or it’s meant to be, anyway.

This afternoon, my wife and I drove down to Staten Island (about 1.5 hours away) to visit our friends, who have 3-year-old twin girls. I got home about three hours ago, and I need a nap. My wife just went to get a massage. Being around kids, even calm, well-behaved kids like these girls, is exhausting. This is an official shout-out to anyone who’s parenting actively: you are amazing.

We know some really not-good parents: they’re so tired, or so wrapped up in their own selves, or so mystified about how to handle tough situations with their kids that they just check out. The result is, often, rather ugly; we had one nine-year-old in our house throwing a tantrum because she hadn’t learned to occupy herself for an hour while her parents talked to other adults. (There were books here, and dogs and a cat, plus she had a car’s load of her own toys, and there is a big, fenced-in back yard… Plus a sink full of dishes and several loads of laundry that needed doing… I’m only sort of joking.) Her mother tried bargaining with her while her father ignored the whole ordeal entirely.

We know some really great parents, too. The parents we hung out with today, for instance, are great: they pay attention to their kids, but also manage to let them know that sometimes their attention will be on other people. They teach their kids how to amuse themselves (puzzles, books, coloring, playing with their dog–not plunking them in front of the TV, either).

My wife and I have chosen not to have children. Neither of us is so inclined, though both of us like our friends’ children and both of us have worked for 20 years with college-aged kids. But we know we just don’t have the energy or desire to devote to raising kids of our own, and since we’re monogamous lesbians, having kids would most likely be an active choice on our parts, one we’re able to categorically decide against. I like being an auntie instead–I’m “auntie” to several kids, and many more of my former students keep me around as some sort of friend-mom combo. I get all the fun parts of being around kids and young adults, with minimal poop and tantrums and guilt. (I’m not saying whose poop, tantrums or guilt it is… make your own assumptions, but I’ve watched enough parents to know the answers are probably not as obvious as you might assume. Also, please note that I have never been pooped on by one of my former college students–with them, it’s mostly the guilt and maybe the occasional tantrum.) I’ve had to give a few sex education talks and have spent more than one evening in an emergency room or at a hospital bedside. (Once, I had a student who had sickle cell anemia, and visiting him in the hospital during one of his more severe attacks was the hardest, most heart-breaking thing I can remember. My heart goes out to his parents.)  I do the worry thing, and the caring thing, and I get lots of rewards, but all parts of it, I imagine, are quite a bit less than they would be if I were a parent. Plus, with the older ones, I get to be a friend (one to whose advice they tend to listen), which means most of that stuff is given to me, too.

When my wife and I first got “married” (maaaaaaany years before we were legally married, of course, since that only just became a possibility, hence the quotation marks), several people asked us whether we were going to have kids. My wife has never wanted children, so the answer was pretty quick and easy to give. But we both began to feel really frustrated, because lots of people didn’t take us seriously because (1) we were not legally “married” and (2) we were non-reproductive (two uteruses, no testicles) and (3) we did not intend to bring children into our relationship at all. In many peoples’ eyes, you’re not an adult (and not in a “real” relationship) until you have children.

The combination of these 3 factors meant that, in many peoples’ eyes, we were not a “real” couple, even if those folks considered themselves enlightened enough to imagine a lesbian couple as potentially “real.” My wife has never wanted kids, and when she would say this when she was very young, everyone would tell her to wait until she was older, because her mind would change. It didn’t. From knowing young folk, I found out that a young woman in many states cannot get a doctor to tie her tubes until she is 25, because doctors do not want to help her make that decision “too early.” (Meanwhile, it’s fine for you to go into the armed services and kill people, sweetie, but we need to make sure there is at least the potential that we can knock you up.)

When you’re a lesbian, there’s an odd combination of sexism and homophobia (often called “heterosexiusm”) that comes to bear down on you. People assume because you are a woman you must have/want to have children, and if you are in a non-reproductive relationship, it is not real and, furthermore, you would have kids if you only could find a man to give you some genetic material with which to do it.

Understand: I am not vilifying anyone who chooses to have children. I know many, many fabulous parents who are making the world better by raising great kids. I am vilifying the notion that a woman must have kids, and if she does not, she is not a “real” woman and to be suspected of green-faced witchcraft; I am vilifying the notion that any relationship that is non-reproductive is not “real.”

My relationship with my wife has lasted longer than my parents’ (straight, reproductive, legal from day one) marriage.

I could go on for a long time and list out the relationships denegrated as not legit (non-monogamous, polygamous, non-reproductive, non-hetero, and in many cases, non-white and non-upper-middle class), but you can figure that one out on your own. I would, in tryin to make an exhaustive list, inevitably leave something out.

Points are:

  1. If someone defines their relationship or their being as important, then you best step to and respect it.
  2. Having kids is great, but not everyone needs to (or should) do it.
  3. Liking your friends’ kids doesn’t not equate to wanting your own.
  4. I like not having a lock on my toilet.