“Who’s the real mom?”
My wife and I and our 1-year-old son had just gotten out of the car when a perfect stranger approached us with this question.
The woman looked like she could have been my mom. She was in her 60s, skinny, with shoulder-length curly brown hair, sporting tapered jeans. Her tone was decidedly more dinner gossip than Spanish Inquisition.
“We both are,” my wife and I said in harmony.
“But, I mean, whose kid is he?” she asked, stepping even closer to us in the strip mall parking lot.
We had ventured out of the city to a suburb of New York that weekend afternoon with all intentions of zero engagement with other human beings while we bargain-hunted for home goods and apparel at Marshall’s until either I (who hates shopping) or our son (said toddler) got cranky and retreated home.
We could have told her to mind her business. We could have pretended she didn’t exist and walked silently past her and into the store. We could have lobbed profanities her way, making clear her comments were homophobic or, at best, heterosexist. We could have shaken a finger in her face and told her that assumptions like hers molded the world into a cold and ugly place where people like us — unapologetically queer — became casualties of ignorance.
We could have asked her whether she was a real mom.
Instead, I calmly said, “He’s both of ours,” and tipped my head ever so slightly to gesture that I was confused by her question.
“I mean, whose egg did he come from? He came from one of your eggs, right?” she dared to clarify, digging even deeper into her inquiry.
I’ve been witness to a great number of bizarre utterings and activities from strangers in my lifetime. I grew up in New York City, after all. I once witnessed a woman wearing an inner tube squat between moving subway cars to defecate. I’ve seen men expose themselves in broad daylight in Midtown. I saw Danny DeVito riding a Segway down the middle of Van Dam Street (with no cameras rolling) and someone dressed as a clown walking down Fulton Street backward singing “Happy Birthday” on a loop. A person once tried to kiss me on a subway platform. Another lovely New Yorker once followed me for three blocks yelling in Spanish that she wanted to kill me.
Still, this was by far the most intimate, invasive question I had ever received from a perfect stranger. No one had ever stood boldly in a parking lot and asked me about my reproductive organs.
“I carried him, but he’s very much our son,” I replied.
My wife and I remained incredibly patient. I credit our baby. Before he was born, I would generally reply to comments or questions about my sexuality with a choice finger or a blunt quip. Even when we were pregnant, I tended to have a low threshold for ignorance.
“No one had ever stood boldly in a parking lot and asked me about my reproductive organs.”
“Are you having a boy or a girl?” people would ask.
“Yes,” I’d reply, and smirk at their confusion.
Really, though, I didn’t want to impose rigid binary gender labels on my child before they were even born. And I didn’t always want a confrontation.
Why was it my responsibility to educate others? Just because I wear the “other” badge, does that mean I have to play teacher? We’ve heard time and again from people of color and others who inhabit minority identity categories that “some of us just don’t want to talk to you. We don’t trust you with our stories. We don’t trust you with our emotions. We don’t trust you with our truths.” How would my words alone help further someone along on their journey from ignorance to understanding, anyway?
Still, I knew that old tropes were true, that honey was more likely to attract flies than vinegar. The woman in the parking lot wasn’t out to kill or maim us; she didn’t want to cause harm. She was simply uninformed. She approached us because she wanted to learn, to get it right.
In the same way that a co-worker who would normally never dare touch you reaches to rub your belly because you’re pregnant, as queer parents we are frequently subjected to a disproportionate amount of interrogations because we don’t fit “The Partridge Family” mold. We are exotic, confusing. We look different, therefore we must be worthy of scrutiny. The truth is that we couldn’t be any more mundane, parking our economy vehicle in the suburban lot on a Saturday afternoon to shop for dish drains and discount pillowcases.
Because our gender expression and presumed genitalia don’t align with the majority’s sense of what it takes to make a baby, strangers feel empowered to pile on questions they wouldn’t dare ask their neighbors, their friends, maybe even their own family.
“How’s your uterus doing?” I wanted to ask this woman, because I was sure she would be appalled by the question, and then it might sink in how inappropriate it was to ask strangers about the origins of their presumed children.
I didn’t, though. Instead, I calmly explained to her how our family-making process came to be. I walked through what options same-sex and LGBTQ parents have from a medical, legal and logistical perspective. I answered her follow-up questions with patience and grace. I hope she went on to Chipotle and then the rest of her life better informed and better equipped to synthesize respectfully the next time she sees someone who doesn’t fit into her boxes.
I will never blame those who feel they should put their elbows out and keep it moving, that a few words imparted in a parking lot won’t make a discernible difference. As a Real Talk post on Medium articulated, “We don’t owe you friendship, loyalty or respect. We damn sure don’t owe you what little energy we have leftover from fighting a system designed to keep us oppressed.”
For now, I am committed to mustering up what energy I have left after fighting injustice and raising a toddler to try to change hearts and minds by employing restraint, empathy and a whole lot of patience. If nothing else, I hope my example helps my son grow to be the kind of human who employs compassion as he works to create a better world.
At the very least, I hope he’ll become the type of adult who doesn’t ask strangers stupid questions in parking lots.