By Kellen Kaiser
The radio made me cry. I was stuck in the usual crush of LA traffic, impatiently pushing the buttons that change the radio station (my car’s old-school) when Power 106, the major hip hop station switched songs. It had a good beat, a catchy chorus and as I tuned into the lyrics I realized a watershed moment had come. The song“ Same Love” by Macklemore was about homophobia, particularly in hip-hop, and more generally about the need for equality and gay rights. The lyrics include the gem, “I might not be the same, but that’s not important. No freedom till we’re equal, damn right I support it.” I couldn’t help that upon its reaching my ears, tears sprung into my eyes. My favorite verse begins looking forward to “the day that my uncles can be united by law.”
Macklemore, famous from his single which raves about thrift store bargains, on this track laments, “When kids are walking ’round the hallway plagued by pain in their heart. A world so hateful some would rather die than be who they are.” He concedes, “And a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all. But it’s a damn good place to start. He sums it up as, “Whatever God you believe in. We come from the same one. Strip away the fear. Underneath it’s all the same love.” That’s what I’m talking about.
A decade ago as an assignment for a required English class in college I wrote my own version of this song. It wasn’t nearly as eloquent, and was backed by very rudimentary beat boxing on my part, delivered in between verses. “Boom patcha, boom, boom patcha!” It contained gems like “Your homophobia is bothering me; it makes you a wack MC.” I got an A on it, which in retrospect seems very generous.
I therefore can’t credit Macklemore fully for the novelty of the concept. He isn’t the first rapper to challenge the homophobic status quo in hip hop but he is symbolic of a larger change. It wasn’t just that it’d been written, other rappers like Brother Ali had beaten him to the punch (Tight rope from 2009) but that it was getting airplay, in a major market.
Equal Rights has hit the mainstream. And for some reason it’s just slowly hitting me that it’s the case. As more and more states pass marriage equality into law, I’ve celebrated and waited for California, my home state, to come around, while I watched the lawsuits wind their way through the courts. My own mother got married in the first round of gay marriage in San Francisco that went on to be annulled. Maybe this feeling, like it could get taken away, like we’re one Republican president away from being back at zero, has distracted me from what going on a the culture at large. When I googled anti–homophobia rap song, I found a PSA from A$AP Rocky advocating equal rights in the classroom and on the sports field. There were quotes from Jay-z and Kanye West lending their support. These signs strike me as more permanent. They can’t be shrugged off as political pandering. They aren’t based in the push pull of the electoral cycles. They are cultural shifts.
Turning on the television, I see an Ad for a new show, produced by JLo, featuring two moms. This adds to the bumper crop of gay characters on TV shows like Modern Family and Glee etc. JC Penney’s ads for both Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day have same sex parents. The New Yorker cover follows suit. This is the definition of a zeitgeist.
I really feel like we are near or at a tipping point where the majority of Americans will believe in equal rights. That’s not to say that the work is done or that the battle is over but that hope is well founded and that what we have established and fought for has mattered and will ultimately prevail.
It’s not that I had it bad growing up, I was raised in a gay mecca in the Eighties, but times really have changed. There were less visible cultural icons to serve as role models. We’re talking Pre-Ellen, Pre Neil Patrick Harris, kiddies. When I was a child the gay characters on TV were guest stars who were dying of AIDS primarily. The books about gay families were published exclusively by tiny independent presses (thank God those existed) and could only be found in major metropolitan areas. I’m not sure Barnes and Noble even existed back then let alone featured a queer studies section. More personally, when my parents got married in a non-legally binding ceremony, my classmates insisted it was impossible that it could have happened and called me a liar. As a kid that was pretty much the worst. Not being believed. Having my reality repudiated. If I’d been born once marriage equality had entered the national dialogue, my peers might have had a different view point or at least some clue as to what I was talking about. Maybe they would have heard a rap song and formed a more progressive opinion. Maybe one of the few particularly traumatizing episodes of my school years would have been mediated. As a gesture of bittersweet consolation, I will at least have the chance to say … w
By Kellen Kaiser
It starts with white face, the kind clowns use, smeared on with a sponge and then powdered to matte. Then eyebrows drawn on with greasepaint, cheeks made razor sharp using the side of a piece of cardboard as a guide, and false lashes applied. Glitter is sprinkled everywhere, liberally. Jewels are affixed at certain points for emphasis. This is the process by which I manifest as my alter-ego. I am a girl who doesn’t wear make-up on a daily basis, I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life, and in a rush the process takes me at least forty-five minutes. The gay boys who have become my second family always inevitably look better than me no matter what I do. Being a living incarnation of the Goddess/Servant of the Holy Spirit is hard work.
Let me explain. I am one of a few female-born members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We are an international non-profit organization devoted to social activism, charity work, and spiritual ministry. Started in 1979 in San Francisco by gay men who had raided their high school costume closet for nun garb, the group recently made news as the provocation for Chuck Hagel’s homophobic vitriol. Our motto is “ruining it for everyone.” By dressing in and appropriating religious iconography we court controversy with everything we do. We also raise lots of money, spread joy and self-acceptance, and generally look amazing.
My first memories of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were from when I was four. It was 1985 and my lesbian mothers took me to their Easter celebration held in a San Francisco alley called Lily Street. I remember them as towering Glamazons with otherworldly outfits and endless attitudes. They wore Easter baskets as hats. Their eyes looked as complicated as Faberge eggs. Their command of femininity astounded me even at that age. I told my mom that when I grew up I wanted to be a Drag Queen. She approved. There were a lot of years in there I didn’t think it was a possibility.
Then little by little I started to hear about female-born women doing drag and being called “faux-queens.” “High Drag,” it was sometimes called. I read about a girl winning the prestigious Trannyshack title. If they could do it, not even having grown up within the community, then why couldn’t I? Granted at the time I was in a long term hetero relationship that had made me progressively more normal in a terrifying manner. I would spend the next few years ambivalent about my condition and would ultimately find myself single and moving back to my home state of California. Finally, I was introduced to the Abbess of the San Diego house, who was a woman. Even when she told me the process of becoming a member was intensive and usually took a year and a half, all I could think was, out of my way, I got this.
When people see me out “in-face,” as we Drag Queens call it, they tend to pride themselves on sussing out my gender. “You’re a real girl,” is the most common exclamation. “Everything but the tits…” I say back. They delight to tell me how they figured out that under my make-up I am not a man. “I could tell by the hairs near your ears,” someone once informed me, “they weren’t sideburns.” People regularly admit they didn’t know what I am doing is allowed. At which point I tell them that part of our mission, as an organization, is to defy people’s expectations and I am challenging their perceptions of what Drag means. I like it even better when people aren’t sure what gender I am. To think that a woman dressed as a woman could help destabilize gender makes me gleeful.
In French the word for make-up, maquillage, comes from “mask”, and it has been impressed upon me many times that people treat me with a sort of reverence when I am in-face. I have counseled men who that day discovered they were HIV positive, men who regularly wouldn’t give me a second glance but who tell me their darkest secrets because of how I’m dressed. Until the church is willing to accept all of their followers, I will feel justified in ministering to them. While we are controversial even within the gay community and our parody of Catholic religion makes many people upset, in my mind we put it to good use.
When I first started attending meetings and events with the LA chapter, the almost entirely male membership paid me little attention, despite the well-crafted letter of recommendation I’d brought with me from a much loved member of the SF order. The Sisters don’t recruit. This means that they will let you hang out but they won’t be all that friendly or explain things. It took me seven months to figure out that they were never going to invite me to join but that I instead had to declare my intention unheeded. Like in the church, you start the process as an aspirant, and then become a postulant and a novice before finally becoming a fully professed member. You can do it in eighteen months but it took me two years.
The interim period is filled with make-up tutorials, grunt work, and meetings run with parliamentary levels of efficacy and protocol. It took me a couple of months to match the men I met at the monthly out-of-face meetings to the stunning sirens who arrived at events. They started at some point to be nice to me and now I feel like the spoiled younger sibling to thirty or so older brothers who like to dress up in Mom’s clothing. Slowly, they let me in on secrets like using hair spray to fix make-up in place and told me stories about how they came to be Sisters themselves. A surprising number of them come from very religious backgrounds. I know at least two who went to seminary. They are now nuns who wear glitter in their beards.
I took my vows more than two years after I began, on a hill under the Hollywood sign, wearing a vintage wedding gown and a white veil. The ritual, done under the discombobulated gaze of tourists poured fresh from mini-buses, involved my being wrapped in a long red cloth and lifted by a bevy of my Sisters into the air. Once aloft I was turned in a circle, high in the sky, supported and yet alone. It was, as it was meant to be, transformative. I am not one of those single women who contemplate just throwing herself a big party in lieu of the wedding yet to materialize, but I felt like this was an awesome alternative, no matter what happens with my love life.
Being in the Sisters has also given me a chance to continue my involvement in the Gay community. One of the weird things about being the straight daughter of lesbians is negotiating where you fit in the world you were raised in. I consider myself Queer but it takes a good five minutes to explain why I fit under that umbrella as a heterosexual. I don’t have much to justify it, outside of my predilection for checking out butch women. Usually when people meet me as “Sister Edna St. Vincent Getlaid,” they don’t question my street cred.
My mom once told me to pursue things in life that were both selfish and altruistic, and the Sisters for me are a great example of this principle. I get to say that I volunteer on a regular basis and yet it usually involves vodka tonics. I have learned service is one of the cheapest and safest highs. Every year as we walk in Pride parades and wave at the adoring and photo-snapping crowds, and I see amongst them children who look toward me like I once did the Sisters, star-struck and wide eyed, I know I am fulfilling a dream. I may never make it in Hollywood, but I have made it in real life.
I had this sense that we were all in it together: Me (the product of a purposeful one night stand by an out lesbian), my A.I.-produced younger brother, and all the kids whose parents came out when they were 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, whatever.
It didn’t matter how we got there. It was Us against the Fundies, I thought. Family vs. Family Values. Maybe I had some sense that the older you are when your gay parent comes out the harder it is likely to be for you. I will admit to that. But it was only recently that I saw the clear illustration of the difference between children whose parents were out vs. those who are closeted. The longer one waits, the worse it is. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Because, if we as a society are really working in the interest of the children involved there is plenty of evidence to support being proud and happy,and children whose parents hide their identity for years end up feeling betrayed and disappointed.
Cut to me being on this listserve for adult children of gay parents, sponsored by a favorite non-profit of mine, COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everwhere). So far, I’d kept a place on the sidelines of the virtual exchange. It seemed to function primarily as a vehicle for giving and receiving support, a place to seek advice and safely vent while finding common ground. Since, even there, my situation was unique, I’d kept quiet. I’m 30 and was raised by a group of lesbians in San Francisco. My parents were all out before I was born and I’ve been blessed to have as mothers four of the most amazing women on earth. Consequently, I had never dealt with my parents coming out or any of the turmoil that comes with it.
When I finally felt the need to chime in, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t come off like I was bragging, as though to say, well, my family’s so much better… but to address some of what I’d been hearing in the stories being shared. There seemed to be a common narrative of angst over the destruction that their parent’s coming out wrought on their “normal” family. I get that- though I have no experience as such, I can see how having your reality turned upside down would be a frightening and disappointing experience. In particular, one woman’s version of events — in which multiple disclosures from her father revealed a positive HIV status and a very unhealthy lifestyle as well as a new orientation — must have been hard to accept.
Still, I wanted to put out there that these are the dividends of shame and secrecy and ultimately we need to blame our bigoted society, not our parents. If it were not for a culture that is so homophobic that people feel the need to create whole lives to hide their true identities, they’d not be put in these situations. People who repress their real nature for years often have serious issues like addiction, and internalized homophobia -which you’d expect must be a factor in staying closeted for that long and probably complicates their sense of self worth. I know many people have succumbed to self-destructive behavior for similar reasons. I hoped these adult children might find a measure of compassion for parents by looking at it through this lens.
So I wrote a letter to the listserve saying as much. To the lady who had complained that her relationship with her dad had changed for the worse. I basically said: Can we hold them accountable for their behavior- expect them not to be assholes or abandon relationships/parental duties? Of course! To the person whose dad was dating someone her age, I rhetorically suggested, is it generally embarrassing when parents date radically younger people? Definitely! Just as much for the kid whose newly divorced dad shows up with a bright red Porsche and a college coed in the passenger seat. But also added that it could partly be that the years when he might have otherwise enjoyed the company of hot young beefcake, more appropriately perhaps (although it is partially ageism that leads us to feel this way), he was full of guilt, shame, and fear, and was keeping his identity a secret. Now he might just be trying to make up for lost time, make up for all the years when he had to pretend to be someone else. The same way people who are denied a childhood for some reason often try to make up for it as adults, with occasionally bizarre and inappropriate results.
Imagine denying who you are for decades at a time –I challenged my peers. I am by no means saying anyone doesn’t have a right to their feelings, including anger, but I caution placing blame on the heads of those who have been victims of cultural oppression. If you are angry that they were dishonest, think about why they felt the need to keep it a secret. What was at stake for them? Their jobs, friends, standing in the community? Your love, potentially? It is hugely scary to come out, especially that late in life when the chance to build an alternative life might have passed them by, how unhappy must they have been, for years, to make them brave enough to do so now?
In my life shame and secrecy have played no part and I have huge gratitude for that. When we give up our secrets and hatred as a society no other children will be put in the position they have been. This is my wish for the future that people won’t have to hide their true selves and consequently won’t have to betray those closest to them when they can no longer repress themselves. But to fight against our homophobic culture we must start by forgiving those who have been victims of it. Getting perspective and cultivating compassion is a first step.
What I was trying to say was- If y’all can accept your gay parents and create a new, more inclusive “normal”, that will be part of building a more just world. One where your situations will not repeat themselves.
I felt like they should know.
By: Kellen Kaiser
I don’t date older men. And if I’m being honest, it is at least partially because I was raised by lesbians.
Lord forbid I have “Daddy Issues.”
This term, often applied to strippers and ladies involved in May/December romances, shadows me. I have myself internalized the judgments shot towards dinner tables where a silver fox sits across a girl still wrapped in the spring of youth. I have joined the chorus that says, she must be looking to get what she missed out on at home.
For me, as someone who spent large swaths of her childhood defending the idea that good parenting didn’t necessitate a male role model in the home, it is unthinkable to set myself up for that judgment but also ageist hypocrisy to buy the hype that “Daddy Issues” is selling. Still, my dating record shouts, Nope. No daddy issues here, thanks.
I have never called someone “Daddy” in bed, and recently I’ve started questioning why that is verboten to me, even with men I know I’ll never see again. (One-night stands in other countries, I’m looking at you.) What am I afraid of exactly? That they will call the conservatives and tell on me? Why am I giving the phrase so much power?
It’s not as though I am repressing some unfulfilled desire. I am okay with sticking to young, nubile hunks but it’s weird to figure out that your sexuality is being run by fear/politics/others’ opinions. Even if I already knew on some level that it inevitably is, that culture is what molds our desire regardless. There is no escaping that. But as someone who consciously eschews the influence of such things, who has embraced a more alternative and free approach to sex than most, I’d like to think I know better.
That’s the problem with serving as a representative for a whole group of people, for example me being a proxy for all kids of gay parents, otherwise known as the dilemma of minority. You end up creating your identity in reaction, in order to fill in the negative space of others’ projections of you. Oh, the Christian Right says we’ll all turn out this way. Let me prove them wrong. Only this is a self molded by one’s adversaries. Although aren’t we always, in the end? So much of character is pushback.
My own relationship to that all important male figure, Father, or in my case the man who happened to bed my mother for one night in Paris, has been intermittent. Since it turned out he lived in Berkeley, he has been in and out of contact since my infancy. I am not the only one in my social circle for whom this was the case, but I am certainly the most defensive about it not being a big deal. Many a time have I told a reporter that with four moms, another parent would be less than appealing. This isn’t a confession otherwise. I have been plenty parented, so to speak. I have had male friends and teachers. I am involved enough in the gay community to get a healthy and regular dose of male perspective, even from men approximtely Dad’s age. I’ve done alright for myself romantically. It’s not that there haven’t been moments in life where I’ve exclaimed that I just don’t get men and fear I never will, but I am hardly alone in this feeling of divide between genders. Plenty of ladies who had dads at home are similarly befuddled without the excuse. And, really, should the presence of an individual and one’s experience of them be used as a model for the sex as whole? Is it fair to say having a dad around better prepares you for the other couple billion men on the planet? I mean isn’t that where so many so called “daddy issues” begin, when women go looking for a replacement?
People talk about women searching for and marrying men who are like their fathers. I know in my case it is less likely since I know comparatively little about my father’s character. It would be hard for me to go searching for someone I barely know. My exes have instead shared traits in common with my various mothers.
Maybe I have “Mommy Issues” instead.
By: Kellen Kaiser