Category Archives: Easter Dinner

We Learn that Lena Isn’t Straight

When I first started hearing from Lena that she thought she might be gay, I was simply confused. She had been forming mad crushes on boys since she was in preschool!—a sure sign, I was confident, that at least her sexual orientation wouldn’t pose problems for her in life. Besides, I had always known Lena to cleave to the continuum between divergent-thinking and oppositional-defiant (the latter not clinically diagnosed–just a matter of how she struck her parents). A perpetual outlier in terms of how she handled art, music, dance, exercise, schoolwork, fashion, friendship, she was nothing if not consistent. So, I figured that this latest wrinkle came from Lena’s deep impulse to situate herself on the outskirts of every established norm, whatever the cost.

In spite of our skepticism about her newest insights, Lena’s dad and I determined not to act as if we knew her better than she knew herself (however we may have secretly thought so). So, every Friday evening starting in eighth grade–when she had her first full-blown crush on a girl–we have driven her to a neighboring town for an LGBT youth group meeting.

Many of the kids at the Yardley-Avonsdale Youth Alliance aren’t exactly sure, just yet, what to call themselves sexually, and they don’t seem to mind if the designations they come up with change from one week to the next. (They are good models for living in the present.) One thing that unites them is that they either feel sexually marginal themselves, or have a sympathy or curiosity for kids who are; a second is their determination to remain impervious to the allure of social norms. At YAYA they enlist the support of other outsiders in resisting the current of sexual normalcy, sometimes in the face of breathtaking parental resistance. (I have made calls to Child Protective Services in several cases where Lena told me kids were contemplating suicide.)

When the YAYA-ans congregate, they also celebrate that each of them is unique, and the exhilarating range of choices available at the margins if spirit should so beckon.The terms they prefer in their discussions allow them to reach beyond the normative codes of the “sex-binary,” with their implications that outside subjectivities can be reasonably denied. Here is a partial list of those terms that Lena put together for me.

 

  • gynosexual: likes women
  • androsexual: likes men
  • pansexual: likes people
  • bisexual: likes two different genders
  • skoliosexual: likes gender non-binary people
  • cisgender: sense of gender agrees with birth sex
  • asexual: doesn’t feel sexual attraction towards anybody
  • demisexual: has to get to know somebody before they fancy them sexually
  • homosexual: (gay, lesbian) likes the same gender
  • homo/ heteroflexible: Likes the same or opposite gender but might once in a while fancy somebody out of that set
  • bicurious: straight but up for messing around a little with people of the same sex
  • gender flux: gender varies over time
  • gyno/ andro/ pan/ bi/ skolio/ a/ demi/ homo/ heteroromantic: same as all that, but with romantic attraction
  • heterosexual: likes the opposite gender

The Grandmother

During this time of casting about for identity, Lena declared her wish to come out as queer (a blanket term that encompasses most of the others on the list) to my octogenarian Eastern European immigrant mother. This created quite the quandary for me. This is why: As a child, I was unwittingly appointed the emotional protectress of my mother, who had in her own childhood survived genocide under Stalin, slave labor in Germany, watching her mother die under literally unspeakable (for her) circumstances. My mother did not have the opportunities childhood is supposed to present for developing emotional compass and strength. I learned very early to shield her from disappointment, fright, and danger, perhaps especially any that I might cause myself simply by liking what I liked and wanting what I wanted.

Among the many results of this, my mother has no idea who I really am, no more now than when I was a child.  I have felt myself to be a walking grenade, pin released and ready to blow up that fragile fortress built up around her should she ever be given access to my emotional life, my true desires, all the putative dangers of my wild imagination. It didn’t matter how small or large, how vital or life giving these seemed to me. And now, not only was Lena refusing to be enlisted to shore up that ever-crumbling fortress with the psychic equivalents of scotch tape and chewing gum—I imagined all the repercussions of her knocking it down with a sledgehammer in a single go and felt very afraid.

Would it really be a bad thing for Lena to show some empathy for my mother’s hopeless inflexibility toward unfamiliar ideas? Not that I was seeing her view of herself as truth, particularly. Truth was a destination, I tartly reasoned, and Lena had not arrived at that yet. I really didn’t understand how close to her heart Lena’s search for her very own sexual identity was, or her wish for closeness with a blood relative whom I had always judged as being incapable of that.

Lena and I had more than a few heated discussions about this topic over the course of several years. Though I presented my position as wise and unassailable, Lena’s determination was like water against rock, molding me over time to see the beauty of her wish. Through the grace of that determination I saw that, by shielding my mother from everything I imagined would be uncomfortable to her, I nourished a place within myself that harbored her darkened view of life. That view strained against the influence of my own hard-earned and joyous truths:  for example, that everyone is entitled to the sexual orientation of their choice (so long as no one is harmed); and that children are entitled to the unconditional love of their parents, and to be spared the violence of being squeezed into an unsympathetic mold while they are so pliable.

Yet Lena, trying courageously to find her own path of joy, had been hearing from me that supporting the sick thing I had going with my mother was more important! Two and a half years after our first discussion, I issued Lena a mea culpa and assured her of my blessing to have whatever conversation with my mother she wanted.

Easter Dinner

Most of the family is out of town. Only Lena and I, my mother, and a man who has always been like an uncle to me, Mr. H_, are sitting together at the Easter holiday table this particular year. I am entertaining a delightful reverie over which delicacy to sample first from among the titillating mounds on my plate, gloriously different in color, texture, sheen. “So, Baba” (grandma), I hear, and my reverie begins to shatter. “Do you know what transgender means?” The moment I have been dreading has arrived—and, to further my horror, a big smile keeps welling from some depth in spite of my strained efforts. Does it well from relief? Bemused horror? Glee? Pride? I don’t exactly know, but for now I find refuge in remaining riveted to those delicacies.

My mother is very hard of hearing (the quinine used to treat her malaria when she was a kid did this). When she doesn’t hear something clearly, she habitually tries to imagine what is being said rather than asking a person to repeat herself. Trasden-her?  Trangen-? “No, Baba, TRANS  GENDER.” Lena says it slowly, very loudly, with diction unmistakable even for someone 90% deaf. She doesn’t always speak up with her baba but she does now and the word is unmistakably clear. As for me, I remain under the mesmerizing sway of my plate.

My sixteen-year-old next tells her baba that she is dating a transgender boy (born female, identifies as male) and that she herself is bisexual. There is a pause, mercifully brief. My mother and Mr. H_ , it seems to me, remain much calmer than if a child, not a grandchild, had just told them this. I feel relief from the civil tones in which they now recite their litany of predictable objections.

They are concerned that “such a relationship” can never be serious. (Lena replies by referring to qualities her boyfriend possesses that are admirable in any human being: his kindness, civic mindedness, intelligence, drive as evidenced by his admission to Brown.) They wonder what would become of the world if everyone were allowed to engage in alternative sexual practices. (Lena calmly assures them that the vast majority of people will never be sexually interested in prospective partners, including sheep, with whom creating a new life would not be a possible outcome.) They promise Lena that in God’s view, to be homosexual or transsexual is simply wrong.

That last assertion jolts me from my willful reverie over the piles of food. I am awed by what I have just watched my daughter do with such patient and unswerving determination, and deeply touched by her insistence on drawing her line in the sand. She will not live a life of apologizing for being who she is, or hiding it. She doesn’t care that today’s truth might end up changing by tomorrow. She lets it be known that this day she wishes to be seen by the people who are supposed to love her, as she is right now. Overwhelmed with pride, I make a final shift to the side that has always pulled my spirit. I am relieved by the words that finally pour out of me to say exactly what I mean.

I assure my elders that, like the vast majority of parents (and following their particular example), I had always been most anxious for my kid to fit in. I had thought it my job to point her toward a life where good things, including unqualified acceptance from others, came to her with ease. I point out what is now eminently clear but had remained largely unacknowledged by the family–that my kid is not the kind that the vast majority of parents hope for and even bend their children into being. Actually, and in spite of many wonderful qualities, she is the kind that makes parents afraid, and not just her own. But I wonder aloud if that fear, and everything it protects, is simply something to obey? And, if I decide that my job as a parent is to love my child whatever version of her sexuality she now represents as authentic, fear be damned—haven’t I received a blessing from the One Who Cultivates Unconditional Love In Us?

Aren’t she and the kids of YAYA a blessing to all of us in that respect?

It was after this answer (Lena’s brief lecture about the politics of vaginas by now having mercifully receded into the slightly more distant past) that we enthusiastically resume our celebration of Easter through the sacrament of culinary enjoyment. On this holiday of rebirth, miraculous healing, and reunion with the Divine I am exuberant at the civility with which the dreaded conversation has taken place, and in that blessed state completely novel ideas begin to gaily effervesce. I note that a fissure has formed in the wall that separates me from my mother, and I see and acknowledge within her a source of love that I have spent my life denying.

I ask myself: Is protecting someone from their capacity to love ever a choice made from anything but fear?