A Butch Mom Responds to Jack Halberstam, or Mommy Is A Noun Revisited
I am very disappointed in Jack Halberstam.
It’s the kind of disappointment you feel for someone you’ve long admired but suddenly demonstrates feet of clay. Jack Halberstam’s movie columns in On Our Backs and Girlfriends seriously inspired me as a budding queer writer and critic. For a while, we were even nominal colleagues at the latter magazine “ I wrote the music reviews, Halberstam wrote the movie reviews. I won’t deny that it gave me a tiny warm glow inside to be on the same masthead.
Now Halberstam has an interview with Sinclair Sexsmith at the “Lambda Literary Review. My gripe with the review isn’t actually with the most egregious moment “ when Sexmith more or less declares that the incidence of abuse among lesbian parents is 0% because an unnamed and uncited study apparently says so. As if being a lesbian parent provided some sort of innate and essential inoculation against the mere possibility of abusing your kids. Yeah, well, I remember the days when we thought lesbians couldn’t engage in partner abuse, either. Halberstam rightly, if lightly, dismisses this factoid, but I still kinda want to beat that horse until it’s dead, dead, dead.
But no. That’s why I’m disappointed in Sexsmith, who should simply know better. I’m disappointed in Halberstam because of this quote:
“Sometimes I get really irritated when I’m around other queer couples where one person is kind of clearly butch and the other is clearly less butch, but the butch partner is still called “mom. I think, what’s that about? Why do you want to be called mom? Nothing could be further from my desire, in parenting, than to be called mom. So, we’re doing this queer parenting thing, but the roles of mom and dad have remained completely stable? Only women can be mom, only men can be dad? What’s that about? It’s another frontier where we need better and more interesting ways of thinking about how gender interacts with social functions like parenting.”
You will understand that as a butch mom, this one sticks in my craw.
Now, OK. I am a butch biological mother in a queer parenting threesome in which the other two members are male-assigned and I would probably have to arm-wrestle at least one of them for the title of “most butch. Halberstam, by contrast, is step-parenting two older children with a clearly feminine partner, or so I glean from the interview. So I’m not exactly the audience Halberstam is addressing here. Nonetheless, I would surely appreciate it if he would stop projecting his own desire “ not to be called mom or any variation thereof “ on all butch parents. Or describe our desire, some of us, to be called “mom as retrogressive.
The idea that because my kids call me mom, I believe or support the idea that only women can be mom and only men can be dad is ludicrous. Now we are using the word “mom to determine who is hip and happening and genderbending and questioning and exploring how gender and parenting interact, and who’s not. Apparently, by not chafing at the label M-O-M, I’m not.
Even though they also call me “Mister Sir (and sometimes “Mister Sir Mommy Sir”)? Not making that one up.
Even though I’m not exactly woman-identified? Yeah, I’m the one who sports the uterus my twins were hauled out of, but if you ask me my gender, my gender is butch. My pronoun shifts between “they and “she depending on context.
I want to open up the word “Mom to be as inclusive as possible. Butch moms, femme moms, none-of-the-above moms. Stud moms. Trans moms. Mister Sir Mommy moms. Male moms.
I want other words, too. New words and coinages, and the repurposing of old terms, both obscure and forgotten and otherwise. I want to rip vocabulary from the clutches of the hegemony and wear words any way I see fit. I want to mix codes and confuse the masses. And even if I didn’t want that, it happens in my wake regardless. I’ve watched the ripples of consternation follow me all my life, both before and after I became a parent.
And I see using “mom for a butch parent as very clearly a repurposing. It’s not a word for everybody, and if Halberstam had stuck to “I have absolutely no desire to be referred to as ˜mom,’ I wouldn’t be writing this. But please. If I can be called a Mom, that lights a fuse to a lot of stereotypes about what Moms can and can’t do, look like, be.
I know some of why Halberstam doesn’t like the word mom. The role of “mom isn’t perceived as transgressive and challenging “ although obviously in my experience having a very butch person being addressed as “mom can quite challenging to a lot of folks. “Mom isn’t hip. It isn’t chic. It isn’t cool. “Mom is denigrated in the same way and for the same reasons that femme and feminine roles and presentations are denigrated. And that’s a power structure I, personally and speaking only for myself, would like to challenge head-on.
I don’t think insisting on “mom as a butch parent is going to change the world. I don’t think it’s going to put even a chink in the armor of the oppressive social systems that wield power over non-normative parents like me.
But Halberstam declaring that a calling a butch person “mom is not an interesting way of thinking about “how gender interacts with social functions like parenting is both short-sighted and rude. It divides potential allies from each other. It polices the boundaries of both “butch and “mom. And I stand squarely in the crossfire.
Fortunately I’ve got great armor — but also a toweringly bad mood for having to still field potshots on this subject, especially from folks who are ostensibly on my side as butch parents themselves. Cut it out already. Stop projecting your personal discomfort with certain terminology onto my life, and just call me Mom. There, that didn’t hurt much, did it? Mister Sir Mommy’s got a band-aid in her pocket if it does.