Shortly after my last post, I took my kids off on a trip to eastern Tennessee — our ultimate destination was a homecoming service at a church where my mother had been a child. But I didn’t figure I could get away with taking a six year-old and a four year-old on a seven-hour car trip in order to go to a two-hour church service. So we left a few days early and worked our way westward, staying in the cheapest hotels I could find with indoor pools and stopping at various places.
One of the coolest places we went was to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum. The kids loved the two-level space ship, the castle with a built-in slide, and the life-size doll house. I loved all the historical information about everything from early mountain life to coal mining to Oak Ridge’s role in World War II. It was feeling almost like a personalized museum for me, considering my folklorist’s love for traditions (the videos of horse-shoeing, basket weaving, and plank cutting were mesmerizing), and my family’s Appalachian roots, including coal miners and workers at Oak Ridge. So I laughed out loud when I came across this little display in the “At Home in Appalachia” exhibit:
Much of the territory we were traveling is family stomping grounds on both my mother’s and father’s side — I tried the best I could to transmit the sense of connection and amazement I feel when I see a house my mother lived in as a girl, or when we see historic photos of the town my father lived in as a boy. At one point I told the kids, “You’re too young to appreciate this now, I know. But someday you’re going to be really grateful that you were here and saw this.” My son responded, “You know, Mom, you’re right . . . . We are too young to appreciate it.”
It was an odd combination — while we were in places very connected and personal to our family, we were also anonymous. Until church on Sunday, unless we stopped at a relative’s house, no one there knew us. When I was packing I had asked the kids if there was anything particular they wanted me to include, and my son said, “Lots of dresses.” His little sister delights in telling strangers who mistake his gender, “He’s my BROTHER!” or “Girl AND boy!” Here in Liberal Bubbleland that’s one thing, but I was just imagining the responses from waitstaff and hotel clerks in Newport, TN. It reminded me of the evening I spent with a friend who was getting ready to drive himself to college in the Midwest for the first time. His family wanted my help figuring out how to get from NC to Iowa in the safest possible way for a young black man traveling alone. (Hmmm, would you pick Kentucky or West Virginia?) He and I jokingly decided that Google Maps needs a “driving while black” feature where you can input variables — age, hairstyle, car make — and it will plan the safest route.
We were in an area that wasn’t our turf, outside a major city in a more rural environment, and among folks we perceived as intolerant of gender-queer folks (whether that perception is deserved or not), and I had the instinct to lay low. So on the way to a Cracker Barrel for breakfast, I announced that it was his decision whether to correct people, and that since no one here knew us, frankly I would advise letting them think whatever they want. He agreed, and so, for the first time that I know of, our son intentionally passed as female. All weekend kind clerks and ticket-takers said, “Hello, girls,” and “This way, ladies,” and “You have beautiful daughters.” And the three of us just smiled, or said thanks and went on our way. I have yet to hear any feedback from him about that experience. I just felt relieved that he could be who he wanted to be without me feeling like I had to gird myself for battle.
When Sunday morning dawned, it was time to get back to boy-land. We had already negotiated that he could wear his gold gladiator shoes if he wore a suit to church. So he got his hair brushed, put on his snazzy suit, red shirt, tie and matching pocket square. (The pocket square was super-important to this deal!) And zipped up the backs of his sandals. The kids – my two and my cousin’s child – were angels, making it through a two-hour service and even singing along occasionally. Afterwards, we headed over for the dinner on the grounds, table after table groaning with more dishes than there were members of the church. We counted nine different kinds of deviled eggs! And after we ate, the children of the church invited ours to play. One girl was very friendly, chatting up my kids and encouraging them to come outside. She took my son in stride immediately, saying, “Oh yeah, my brother is seventeen and he has hair even longer than yours.” But some of the other girls just could not puzzle it out. I heard the first girl telling a younger one repeatedly, “No, he’s a BOY,” and “it’s HE, not she.”
Finally, the younger girl came up to me and asked, “Excuse me, is she a boy?”
“Yes, he is,” I replied.
“Then why isn’t he dressed like a boy?” she asked.
“Well,” I pointed out, “he’s wearing a suit and a tie.”
She turned and looked at him, clearly puzzled, for some time. It was as though she was slowly processing what I had said — yes, in fact, he is wearing a suit and a tie. But she just couldn’t get her eyes and her mind to align to see him as a boy. Finally, she gave up, and ran off to rejoin tag.
He says he doesn’t want to be considered a boy who likes girl things, because he doesn’t think there should be “boy” things and “girl” things to begin with. There should just be things, and people should get to like what they want.