How Do I Talk To My Children About Heteronormativity?

How do I explain to my kids that there’s a whole lot of heteronormativity and monogamous expectation in the world? They’ve been raised a-religiously, around a lot of queer, alternative relationship structures and around people who are gender variant, and thus far haven’t absorbed the idea that there’s a whole world of “relationships are one born-man and one born-woman.”

I’m at a loss to explain in an age-appropriate fashion. They’re 7 and 5.

Transgressive Mom at the Crossroads.

Dear Transgressive Mom,

If you just want to be sure they eventually get the information, trust me: the world will tell them.

But I figure that you are asking about this as a form of inoculation: you know the world will tell them eventually, but you want to control how they get this message so they don’t absorb shame and anxiety about their own family in the process.

The short answer is that you teach them about this just like you teach them about any other form of bigotry.

You can start by telling them about the history of the struggle for gay/lesbian/bisexual rights, for trans* rights, and even today for poly recognition: on the rather ridiculous days or months set aside for them, perhaps, or as movies come out or as they ask questions. As they absorb the information about these civil rights movements, they will pick up on the fact that there wouldn’t need to be a movement if the world thought equal rights and recognition for all of us is a-okay.

A great way to introduce this stuff is through books, of course. I found this picture  book about a kid going to a gay pride parade that could be used as a springboard for discussing these issues: This Day in June. There are also a bunch of books on trans* kids that you might want to read with them. Most books like this are written from a heteronormative point of view, of course: it’s introducing queerness to kids as if it’s okay but not what they’re used to.Talking about the tone of the book and why on earth anyone would have a problem with this is a great way to start the conversation. (If you find a kid’s book about polyamory SHOOT ME AN EMAIL.)

Eventually, they will start asking questions and encountering bigoted attitudes, and you can keep yourself ready for ways to answer them. Like: “Susie says that I can’t have three mommies and one of my mommies is really a daddy” is a time not only to say “of course you have three mommies– and we’re all mommies,” but also: “Susie was raised differently from you, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand polyamory/trans* people/homosexuality. Most people in our country are monogamous and heterosexual, so sometimes people don’t understand those who are different from them.”

I’d use the big fancy grown-up words, and wait for them to ask you to define them. And then you can explain: poly vs. monogamy (oh, and by the way in our American culture nearly everyone assumes that you are monogamous and some people think it’s bad that you are, but we don’t believe that). I’d throw in statistics so they understand how much of a minority your circle is in the U.S. Not to marginalize or scare them, but to help them understand that you are living in a subculture complete with the joys and miseries of being in that club.

They’ll get it. They’ll have the foundation of your family and friends to help them see it for what it is. And if you react warmly and calmly to questions, they’ll know that they can ask you whatever they want to know.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on March 18, 2015.

My Fiancé Is Not My Twin Sister

My fiancé and I are both femme bi women and every time we are out and  about, minding our own business (while shopping, having brunch, going  to the gym, etc), someone inevitably asks us if we’re related. Or assumes we are sisters (the brother of a groom at a gay wedding!). Or, worse, mother and daughter (LGBT-friendly hotel!). Just politely saying no doesn’t seem to deter them. “But you look so much alike!”(we don’t really). “You have the same eyes!” (hers are green, mine are blue).We’ve tried not to get defensive, but nothing less than a sharp “she’s my wife!”doesn’t seem to faze them. And even then, they won’t stop marveling at our apparent twinship. What is the best response to politely shut down this line of inquiry? The incestual implications of being mistaken for sisters creeps me out and my partner gets sad when we get taken for mother and daughter because she’s already conscious of our age difference (she’s ten years older than me). I find it hard to believe that actual sisters would get asked about their kinship as often as we do. And in my heterosexual relationships and opposite-sex friendships, I cannot recall ever being asked if we were brother and sister. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Un-sisterly Love

Dear Un-sisterly Love,

Believe it or not, a boyfriend of mine in HS was often mistaken for my brother, and my sisters and I receive questions about whether or not we are sisters quite frequently. People just seem unendingly fascinated by people who look alike, even remotely. (I do look very much like my sisters; I did not look remotely like the boyfriend except that we are both Irish-American.)

That said, this is different. I’m guessing the reason that you are getting tired of this (and OUCH on the mother-daughter thing) is that people are basically forcing you to come out all the time. Or that this points out over and over again that people cannot even fathom how two women could be family without being sisters, which is alienating as hell. Maybe you don’t feel like bellowing “SHE’S MY WIFE” in the Home Depot.

And it sounds like a lot of people keep pressing the issue –either to justify making you uncomfortable in the first place, or because they are oblivious to your discomfort.

I think a lot of people confuse politeness with allowing people to run roughshod over you, or hiding how offended you are by something, and that is definitely not the case. If you read Miss Manners at all, you’ll know she advocates for some very direct, shocked responses to things people say that are shocking or upsetting.

I think your responses will probably vary depending on where you are, and you should keep them very very short. If you’re in a place where you don’t feel like outing yourselves, you can just say: “No, we aren’t,” and put on your most stern look while they’re oohing and ahhing over how you both have chins and ears and arms and stuff. No response at all to their subsequent babbling but a stern glare is perfectly polite.

If you’re willing to out yourself, saying in an outraged and offended tone: “Pardon ME? She’s my fiancé,” along with the accompanying refusal to engage should shut it down.

A version of this letter first appeared in bitterempire.com on March 5, 2015.