A lot of my friends are having kids. It’s that time. I’d been warned in my twenties that once my thirties hit, the same penniless miscreants with whom I used to shoot Jäger and eat 420 meals at Denny’s would suddenly morph into mostly together, mostly showered adults, but like most things I was told in my twenties, I didn’t believe it. Time is a fragile figurine and no one should shoot Jäger. Cut to! This new time is exciting and heart melting and I love getting to watch these tiny people grow into themselves and further reflect that which I love in their parents. I love when they start expressing themselves beyond their basic needs; when suddenly, one day, they turn to you with the gravity of an undertaker and declare with their little fists balled that they definitely DO NOT like dinosaurs anymore. At all. It’s bicycles now, you pedestrian clod, and why would you even mention dinosaurs. It’s equally thrilling for me to watch the friends I adore, many since they themselves were children, morph into these Great and Powerful Wonderpeople.
Last weekend my girlfriend and I went camping with our dear friends and their toddler, Emma. I’m obsessed with this kid and for whatever reason, the compassionate universe has made it mutual. We have a special bond and I revel in getting to hang out with her; to read her books and make up songs and play in the dirt until we’re tired and need a nap and a sippy cup. (I said “we” and I stand by it, STOP LOOKING AT ME.) Emma is blessed with rock solid parents; they adore her without pampering her, they listen to her when she expresses herself, and they constantly encourage her to grow. When we hoisted tiny Emma into the makeshift camping hammock we’d rigged between a boulder and a jeep (lesbian! joke! here!), she was thrilled. She squawked and squealed as we swung her back and forth and this moment, as with most moments of toddler joy, rendered each adult a powerless, cooing, play dough person. At one point, Emma attempted to sit up and as she did so, the hammock thrust her forward. Her mom, who I’m still convinced was a good thirty yards away, had her hands around Emma’s waist before she hit the ground. It was incredible. I felt like I was witnessing the most basic and beautiful expression of biology, this mother literally leaping and bounding to protect her child.
One of the guys in our group made a funny face at Emma to cheer her out of this scary moment, and she dissolved into giggles. For the rest of the weekend Emma looked at him lovingly; she laughed when he scrunched up his nose in faux anger, made sure to sit near him at meals, she demanded to know his whereabouts when he left the campsite. We weren’t sure, this guy and I, what we’d done to deserve the attention of Queen Emma but for whatever reason, she had singled us out as her favorite playmates. I’ve never won a Pulitzer, but I imagined this must be what it feels like - standing in the terrific sun of acknowledgement, an apex to which all others must fearfully muscle up. A few of the others, having witnessed this favoritism, joked that I was Emma’s “second mom” and that this guy must be Emma’s “first crush.” An innocent sentiment, but one that got me thinking.
I’m lucky to live in a community that is steadfast in their support and allyship; they have my back and I know that, as they continue to find their voice in this world, their kids do too. I see posts of empathy and outrage when legislation changes threaten my rights as a gay person. Pride flag profile filters litter my feed when an act of violence is committed against queer/trans communities. I hear, time and time again, “I would be thrilled if my child were gay!” The latter sentiment is mostly echoed from women who have, myself included, crafted years of self worth and social charisma on the patient backs of our cis, gay male friends. If I could have a litter of kids just like my friend Douglas, the man who used to dutifully assess my first date outfits as “on a scale of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane to Grace Kelley,” I would steal the first bicycle I could find and pedal to the nearest fertility clinic. But Douglas is one, multi-facetted person, and not the prototype for all gay people. (Douglas, if you’re reading this, you are my personal prototype for all gay people and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
But even still, there is a phenomenon I encounter right here in the culture of progressive, lefty coastal life that has always puzzled me: why, when our young children express interest in or affection for another person, do we differentiate between a “friend” and a “crush” according to gender? If a young child is excited by the funny jokes and gregarious laugh of an adult family friend, do they really have a “crush” on this man or are they just a prepubescent child enjoying laughing until they snot all over themselves (which seems to make them laugh further, a sequence that brings me great joy)? And if the laughs and jokes were coming from a family friend who identified as female, would we use the same language?
When I was five, you could have described my feelings for ham and cheese Lunchables as a crush; I thought about them constantly, I got excited to see them, and when we were apart I was utterly dismayed. But I didn’t yet have a romantic or sexual vocabulary, so my affections were simply seen as a preference. My point is, language matters. We hear your words, and so do your kids. I’m not saying you have to hand out a gender neutral crush survey to your five year old, because 1) I’m not a parent and I haven’t yet been burdened or blessed with any of the one trillion nuances inherent to raising a child in this world and 2) everyone hates surveys. But here’s what I am asking: think about your queer friends. The next time you’re tempted to ask a little girl if they have a crush “on any boys” at school, maybe just ask if they have a crush on anyone at all. Think about your queer and trans friends who grew up being told their best bud down the street must be their “little girlfriend” or that the hunky male movie star on the billboard must make them “all blushy.” This isn’t all our experience. It’s a heterocentric, binary-supportive construct that was modeled for us by older generations and we can do better.
Look, your kid may grow up to be as straight and cis as potato salad at a BBQ. That is a total possibility. And maybe, deep down, that’s what you would prefer. This isn’t an indictment, this is an understanding that we are all entitled to the personal liberty of our own ideals. But, just like I told my parents I was gay, yours will tell you what they are. I can’t tell you how to parent, and I don’t want to. I’m the first to admire the patience and impermeable will parenthood seems to demand. I stand in awe of that commitment, and I don’t think just anyone can do it. What I can tell you is what it’s like for a queer person to move through a very straight-presenting world. So many of my childhood friendships with boys were chalked up to empty, 1950s Hallmark sentiments about “being boyfriend and girlfriend.” Never mind the fact that I would ultimately realize I was a lesbian; this antiquated pairing-off leaves no room for a child to tell you what they feel. If you believe LGBTQIA people are perfect just as we are, then make space for us in the words that you use. Write us into your narrative. Don’t assume we are the alternative, know that we are an alternative. We need that from you.