While my daughter and I were out walking the dogs recently, I called a neighborhood 3rd-grader by the wrong name. This wouldn’t have been a huge error, except that I’ve known this kid since she was a toddler, she has lesbian moms, and while our families are not close, we are connected through the lesbian mom web.
Some newcomers to Oak Park don’t believe me when I say there are a lot of lesbian moms in our neighborhood, because most of the time this is an invisible web. But the morning after an elementary school in our district came under fire for offering LGBT sensitivity training to its teachers, all the lesbian moms in our neighborhood walked their kids to school – both moms, not just one. We didn’t speak out or wear signs or engage our straight peers in heated conversation. Strangely, we didn’t even exchange knowing glances with one another as we did it – but the truth is, whole families rarely walk to school. One parent is usually sufficient. But this particular morning, we walked as a family, all of us – without phoning each other or texting or Facebooking about this desire to stand up and be counted. We just did it. A short time later, when civil unions suddenly passed out of the Illinois State Legislature, we all high-fived and grinned and asked each other personal questions usually reserved for grandmas and aunties – “Are you getting a civil union?”
More important, however, than the lesbian mom web is this: The kid whose name I mis-remembered is fairly androgynous – maybe the word is “tomboy,” or maybe she resists gender classification, like so many (older) people I know. The point is, her name is not gender neutral, but the name I chose to call her was gender-neutral. She was sitting on the front steps with one of her moms, eating dinner. My daughter held the leash of our dachshund in one hand, and in her other hand, she held onto a roll of Smarties she got for helping her 1st grade teacher earlier in the day. I asked the girls if they knew each other. They did not. I introduced them to each other by name. The girl’s mom corrected me. The girl pet our dachshund, and my daughter and I continued on our walk.
As we rounded the corner in absolute silence, my daughter asked, “Were you embarrassed when you forgot that kid’s name?” “Extremely,” I replied. “Why does she have a girl’s name?” my daughter asked. “Because she’s a girl.” I thought I should say more, but what does one say after such an obvious show of bias? What does one say to a seven-year-old whose opinions and judgments you still hope to help shape? What I said, to address her quiet confusion, was, “Most of the time, you can tell if someone’s a boy or a girl – but sometimes you can’t.”
“Why were you embarrassed?” she asked. “Because I should know better,” I told her.
The truth is, sometimes we just don’t.
Just like our well-meaning friends and colleagues who want to know who in our family is like the dad, or whether we’ve told our girls we’re gay with each other, or if our daughter – who was born in Guatemala and immigrated to the U.S. at six months old – still speaks Spanish. I hope that as my embarrassment passes (it is still very present, by the way), I will find a way to feel generous with my fellow humans. Can’t hurt, right?