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.

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7 Responses

  1. Sinclair says:

    Agreed, it does destabilize. I think there are many ways to be radical.

  2. Lori S. says:

    I am interested in occupying an in-between gendered space, too. *And* being called mom. And you know what? That also destabilizes binary language around parent roles. That was kind of the fundamental underpinning of my whole post.

  3. Sinclair says:

    You’re right about the lesbian/0% child abuse study—I do know better, and not including the link was an oversight on my part. I intended to, but it slipped through the editing cracks under deadline. I suspect studies like that are pretty much bullshit, so my mention of it was intended to be a conversation starter rather than a big statement of belief on my part. 

    Huffington Post coverage of the study released is here, and I’ll update the LLF article too.

    I can’t speak for Jack (obviously) but personally I completely support whatever word or words a parent chooses to use. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Jack is a trans butch, and as such is interested in occupying a thirdly- or in-between gendered space, and destabilizing the binary language from that space. But obviously not all butches are trans and many are very comfortable occupying traditionally female identities such as ‘mom.’ 

    I definitely think it’s radical to claim “mom,” and support that as an option. I would, though, like to see other options as possibilities, too.  

  4. Gretchen says:

    “Be truly radical” by reclaiming the term mom? Wow, that’s a really judgmental statement.

    Being a queer parent should be about doing what’s right for your family. And that family includes both the parents AND the children. Having parents that look different and are called different things will not cripple the kids. Especially if the kids have the love and support of their families and are taught ways to deal with the confusion of others. People using terms that make sense for them is rarely a knee-jerk action taken to force the kid to navigate the broader world’s gender politics alone. I also think being true to ourselves, despite some discomfort from others, is a great thing to model for our children.

  5. m says:

    Great article! Jack’s comments bothered me in the same way and I’m glad to see someone calling him out on it.
    Shar, I am really confused by your comment.  “Ima” and “Aba” are Hebrew words for mom and dad. Are you seriously criticizing people for using the terms from their culture/ethnicity/religion? Because it’s potentially inconvenient for some other adult or not “radical” enough for you? “Mom” and “Dad” are not “the most powerful words/names ever spoken in human history.” They’re terms that a large proportion of the English-speaking world happens to use right now. 
    And what in the world does that have to do with gender identity and parenting terms, or with this article? Lori didn’t mention anything about choosing “Mom” because it’s more convenient. She wrote right above

    “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.”
    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.”


  6. Jed says:

    Good article, Lori! Well said.

    Shar Rednour: I gotta disagree with you about the “think of the children” angle. I always called my parents by their first names, and it never caused any significant problems. If I needed to explain to someone who I was talking about, I could always refer to them as (for example) “my mother.” I never ever called either of my parents “mom” (or “dad”). But I of course have no objection to others using those terms (and my opinion should be irrelevant to whether people use them anyway).

    I read Lori’s piece as being primarily about letting families choose the terminology that’s right for them, not about insisting that everyone needs to reclaim “mom.” 

  7. Shar Rednour says:

    THANK YOU!! I think so many queers are not thinking this issue through from a child’s point of view. This is not just a cute cuddly thing without a voice. One day soon this cute little creature will be crying for a parent at the doctor’s office, asking for a parent at school. Principal: “You want IMA?” who the hell is IMA? Doctor “You want ABA?” who the hell is ABA? Aren’t they on tour right now??? BE TRULY RADICAL and claim “MOM” make it whatever the heck you want to make it.
    Your child is going to be on the playground. Kids do not want to say a paragraph of an explanation to other kids. 
    We are offering our kids enough challenges as it is without robbing them and ourselves of the most powerful words/names ever spoken in human history.