Friday, September 30, 2011

So why DOES my black son wear pink shoes?

          Earlier this month I learned about the sudden death of an old high school friend.  His family is holding a Celebration of Life in his memory today, and I wish I could be there to remember him with the gaggle of folks who knew him well back in the day.  But even more, I wish I could be there to hear from those who have known him well since, those who will tell me about the part of his life where there was room for him to be himself: to love and be loved.  That’s the story I’m dying to hear.
          My friend was not out in high school, of course.  No one was.  Twelve years after we graduated same-sex marriage was legal in our fair-minded state, and there were Gay Straight Alliances in public schools from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.  But in 1992, in the woods of Central Massachusetts, none of that had happened yet.  There was no room to be gay, so no one was.  Instead, my friend was brilliant.  And creative.  Hilarious.  Really well dressed.  And always that generous stash of biting sarcasm there in his neatly arranged book bag, ready to ward off anyone who got too close. 
          It didn’t take long, once out of the woods, to figure out I was gay, and that he was too.  I never saw him again after graduation, but I’ve worried about this friend who worked so hard to protect himself all those years.  Because once we know enough, we worry about our gay friends.  Those faces of young boys on our internet screens, one after the next, bullied, tormented, then dead.  We worry.  And I knew he was no longer fourteen and in the woods.  I’d heard he was maybe living in New York, maybe had a partner.  And I’ve seen the public service videos.  I have a life of my own.  So I know: “it gets better.”  But sometimes “it gets better” isn’t enough.  Sometimes those bruises run so deep we don’t recover from them even after it does get better.  So I’ve looked for him here and there.  Hoped he might be at a reunion.  Typed in his name on Facebook every few months.  But part of me always worried I would be too late: that the next time I saw his name, he would be dead.
          And he was.  Dead from a car crash in Germany, where he was on vacation with his partner of many years.  The news is horrific.  He is someone’s life love.  He is someone’s child.  Someone’s brother, uncle, friend.  And he is gone.  A nightmare.  To be overseas and have to return home, without your partner; home, where he will never be again; home, to plan his funeral, and figure out how you will keep living each minute, each hour, and then the rest of your life.  And still, as desperately sad as it is, there is a part of me that is choked with teary joy that my friend--my friend with that contagious laugh and protective perimeter--made it through.  He survived long enough to get to the part of his life where it does get better.  Where there is room.
          So I’ve been thinking about this old friend a lot this month.  And in particular I have been remembering him as I consider some of the response to a recent piece of mine called, My Black Son’s Pink Shoes.  It’s about how Moon Boy has these pink sandals that he likes to wear to school, and how the other kids had what to say about it, and how his teacher challenged me to think about the limitations on my black sons’ freedom.  And then I was all mad, and then I learned a little something, and then we got him a pair of black sandals so now he can assess what he’s up to dealing with on any given sandal-wearing day, and choose his footwear accordingly.
          And this comes with mixed feelings.  Because I’m nothing if I’m not a feminist.  I want my kids, boys and girl, to have choices.  I mean I really want them to have choices.  I mean, I want the cells in their brains to form around the notion that anything can be theirs without question: pink sandals, football, baby dolls, the presidency.  Anything.  And I’ve had some teary conversations with white feminist friends who have told me how sad they feel about the pink shoes story.  Because they don’t want to give up this dream either.   And I’ve had black women commenters say, “you have given him important tools going forward and for that I applaud you. Life isn't fair and knowing that makes life a heckuvalot easier.”  And I feel bolstered by both of these communities, by the women who can help me stay focused on these critical aspects of parenting that are at the core of what I want most for my children.
          But there is one comment that keeps reappearing in my mind, especially as I think about my friend who died earlier this month.  And that’s the woman who asked if Moon Boy wears pink sandals because he’s gay. 
          It surprised me.  (Silly, I know.  But it did.)  And I suppose she’s just trying to clarify what I’m getting at.  When I say I want there to be room for my son to wear pink sandals, am I really saying I want there to be room for my son to be gay?  She wants me to be clear on my point.  That’s not so much to ask.  But the stubborn part of me--or maybe the smug part of me--wants to say, “uh… no.”  Or maybe, “did you read the part where I say my son is three, and that he was wearing his sandals at preschool.”  Or how about, “I don’t know if my son is gay!  I know he likes to bang on drums, and dance, and grab things out of his little brother’s hands, and drink rice milk, and wear things that are bright and fun and comfortable like his yellow t-shirt with the monster chomping on an apple or his pink sandals.  How would I know if he’s gay?!”
          But then one day on the way to preschool this fall, Moon Boy helped me figure out the answer to her question.  See I wrote the Pink Shoes story last Spring, at the end of the school year.  And we did indeed get him a pair of black sandals so he could have a second option.  And then we got him another pair because we lost the first.  And then right before school started this Fall the second pair broke.  We gave Moon Boy the choice of wearing Ankle Biter's sandals (blue and orange), which he did for a few days, but then one morning he put on the pink pair.  And now, you know, I’ve published this piece saying I’m committed to making sure he’s ready to handle what comes his way when he wears those pink sandals, so I have something to live up to.  And so on the way to school we did some role-playing:
          “Why are you wearing girls’ shoes?” I asked.
          “Because I want to,” he replied happily.
          I was expecting something a little more political, a little more didactic, a little more defensive. Something like, “They aren't just for girls.” Or, “Anyone can wear pink.” I thought about talking to him about these alternatives, or doing a little feminism 101 review. But luckily, in the time it took me to think of what I might say, I realized the power in the peacefulness of his statement.
          When I picked him up that afternoon a little boy asked me if Moon Boy is a girl or a boy.
          “A boy,” I said. “Are you asking because he's wearing pink sandals?”
          “Yes,” said the child. “Why is he wearing pink sandals?”
          “Because I want to,” Moon Boy said, with the same happiness.
          “Oh,” said the boy. “I like to play with my sister's wand.”
          And that’s when I realized why my son wears pink shoes.  He doesn’t wear pink shoes because he’s gay.  He wears pink shoes because your son might be gay.  My son is making room for yours.  Right?  I mean, my son has two moms whether he wants to or not.  (And he’s black, and Jewish, and adopted.)  He cannot disguise these things.  Room or not.  But your son, your son can blend.  If there’s no room, then fine.  He can wear his hunter green, his navy blue, his burgundy.  He can slide under the radar for a while, but then sooner or later he’s going to need the room.  Because he’s going to stick out.  And it’s my son who will be there, making that room.
          And isn’t that what we all should be doing?  Isn’t that what we’re committing to when we turn our Facebook pictures purple and pass around celebrity It Gets Better video clips.  When we say we are saddened to the core by sissy bullying, and gay bashing, and its deadly consequences.  Isn’t that what we’re committing to, doing what my three year old son is doing: making room? 
          But purple profile pictures or not, it’s hard to unload this baggage we’ve been carrying for a life time.  And so I hear it in on the playground, around the neighborhood, in the hallway at school.  “I’ve got boxes of clothes waiting for you,” one mom says to another.  “I hope your baby’s a girl ‘cause I’ve got so many sweet things I could never put on my son.”   And it’s hard to imagine how we can hold these things in our brains at the same time.  How we can be sticking like crazy to these arbitrary gender rules, even for infants, and then saying we’re committed to ending anti-gay-bullying in schools.  Because that’s what anti-gay bullying is: picking on kids who cross the lines.  And who are the first people to draw those lines?   Who are the first to tell our sons they can’t wear pink?  To insinuate that no boy should wear pink?  We are.  Even before they are born.  Listen carefully while I say that again: we start training our kids to bully their gay peers even before they are born.
          So I get that my kids have a lot at stake.  I get that an African American male has less freedom than most anybody in this country.  And if there is a God, may God grant my black sons the luck to never be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Because black men die YOUNG in my neighborhood.  Young, young, young.  And my boys need options other than pink shoes.
          And I also get this: gay kids die young too.  Because even though equal marriage exists in six states, and even though kids can come out in high school these days, and even though there are Gay Straight Alliances,  and even though everybody from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Joe from New Jersey has made an It Gets Better video: there still isn’t enough room.  Because kids are still dying.
          But then look.  Look at the beauty of my son’s pink sandals.  They made room for another boy to admit he likes playing with his sister’s wand.  And if there’s room in that classroom for a boy with pink sandals and a boy who plays with a wand, then there will be room for something else.  And someday, kids won’t have to live through hell before it gets better.  Because it will be.