By m.m. gumbin
“Is your bookstore queer?” Someone asks over the phone. “Is it a queer bookstore?”
“Are we a queer bookstore?” My coworker repeats and glances over at me, as she contemplates the question. We have queer employees, an LGBTQ+ section, and a vibrant rainbow behind our logo on Instagram. In fact, as I shelve children’s books, monotonously running through the alphabet in my head, I can’t help but think how different the kids’ corner looks compared to when I was a child. Heather Has Two Mommies. Daddy’s Roommate. And Tango Makes Three.
And while I’m glad that society has come around to this progressive, accepting place, I can’t help but feel a little resentment burgeoning up as I put titles like this away. I mean, where were these books when I was a kid?
You see, my memories of growing up with two moms in the early 2000s are fraught, confused, kaleidoscopic. No one ever sat us down and explained their relationship. There were no other families like ours in the neighborhood, no same-sex parents portrayed on TV, no brightly colored picture books for us to flip through. Instead, we learned by observing.
Kim took care of the cooking and strict disciplining, while Jill was the breadwinner and nurtured with maternal kindness. I’m not sure who that made the more paternal one. Early on, I didn’t think anything of them both being women; as kids, you accept things as they are. But I was aware that our family was different, maybe even something to hide. My moms slept in separate bedrooms and when friends came over after school, we’d lie and say they were sisters or roommates or anything but life partners. In fact, we hardly even saw them kiss.
I don’t know at what point I understood the truth, but it was intuitive.
Back then, kids used ‘gay’ as a slur. I remember Nate Unger pulling me aside by the buses and laughing, saying he heard my mom liked eating pussy. Gay meant stupid back then.
Conservative commentators and politicians spoke very casually about the dangers of parents like mine, how they might also raise their children queer. My siblings and I both internalized and fought back against this dialogue, how we supposedly needed a man in our life, how there was something wrong with our parents and, by extension, us.
“You know, gay originally meant ‘happy,’” I’d retort back to one of the school bullies with my head down.
“That’s like so gay,” said Mean Girl circa 2006 (although, I’m sure now she’s a pride activist).
I don’t mean to be glib. It’s just been rather astonishing to see how quickly the discourse has changed; in less than a decade—in fact, during Obama’s single presidency—gay and lesbian relationships went from being scoffed at to mainstream. “I Kissed a Girl” to Moonlight.
And while a part of me is relieved that future generations of LGBTQ-raised children (hopefully) don’t have to face the same societal struggles my siblings and I did (depending on their own immediate environments), another part feels like those hardships ended up strengthening me, making me more empathetic, even making me a better person. That pain shaped who I am. In fact, I have no doubt that my experience growing up, its uniqueness and the way it shaped my perspective, is what inspired me to write.
I had to tell this story.
But as any writer knows, not all stories have happy endings.
The other thing that’s made this radical shift in the culture feel uncomfortable is that my moms are no longer together. My parents literally split up the week the Marriage Equality Act passed.
I was 20 years old, traveling around Europe between college semesters. I had needed to get away from things that summer, escape. I remember how spotty the cell reception was at a rest stop in the Swiss Alps and the shock that came over me when I first saw the text message my mom sent. I felt a deep sink in my gut as I looked up at my new friend Kenny, from Thailand, before racing to catch the last bus to town.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“My parents broke up.”
As the windy bus descended down the mountain, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“Are you okay?” Kenny asked, with concerned eyes.
A part of me was relieved. My moms didn’t have the best relationship, and I knew it was better for them, as individual people, to be separated. But they had also been together all my life, and their very union was something that I had to defend and fight against the rest of the world.
To overhear, two mornings later, that gay marriage was finally legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court made the situation more disorienting. Instead of celebrating, I was in mourning. The momentousness of this unpairing. I looked out the chalet window at the fog over the horizon and felt myself similarly drifting through air, re-contextualizing my history. It would change everything. Kim and I now no longer speak.
I want to be clear: the challenges particular to me and my family are not intrinsic to all same-sex families. Some were personal, some cultural, often intermixed. And if I feel a bit of representational guilt, on behalf of my parents, for not lasting “happily ever after” (as if that is the mark of success for a relationship), then I also feel strongly that part of representation for queer relationships/families is showing that not all are perfect or built to last. Just like any heterosexual relationship, queer people are entitled to their abuses, mess-ups, and mistakes.
But where does that leave me: the child, my parents’ product? A man raised by lesbians.
I take a break from shelving and gaze at the cover of our Kids’ Pick: The GayBCs. Staring at it for too long, I feel estranged. What do words even mean?
“Are you okay?” my coworker asks.
I haven’t told anyone about my family history yet. I don’t know whether to wear it as a badge of honor here or if talking about it is somehow exploiting them, my family, especially since there’s no collective ‘them’ anymore. Sometimes I wonder if it all matters. All in the past, right? Time to close the book.
But the past resides in the present. I fantasize about what it would be like to talk to Kim again, if this essay is a way of reaching out, in fact.
“You dating anyone?” my coworker inquires.
“No,” I mumble.
I have a lot of my own issues to sort out, around gender and sexuality and romantic attachments, but I’m probably not the only one. We are all left with the baggage of our parents. But I think it’s important—now more than ever, now that a generation of children are coming-of-age under such families and growing up into adulthood—that I remember, even honor, my family and their queerness. Kim and Jill were not equal, but they were both my mothers.
Whatever the wreckage, you both shaped me.
m.m. gumbin is a 27-year-old writer and filmmaker from Tucson, AZ. He is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He works as the Events Host/Marketing Assistant for Book Soup and lives in Los Angeles, CA.
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