By Jack Kaulfus
Paige Schilt’s Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir begins with a love story of epic proportions. In her late 20s, Schilt comes out as a lesbian, begins her first academic teaching appointment, and moves across the country as she is falling in love with her future spouse—a genderqueer rock star named Katy from Austin, Texas. As Schilt struggles with life-altering decisions that threaten to dash her dreams of scholarly success, she begins, with Katy, to question the seeds of those dreams.
A lot of this memoir is tied directly to questions of selfhood and autonomy and how they intersect with queerness. The city of Austin had long been a refuge for communities of people who were not welcome in other parts of Texas: radical queers, hippies, anarchists, artists, and musicians. The events in Schilt’s chronicle are heavily tied to rapidly changing politics and current events of the early 2000s, from the disillusioning 2005 Prop 2 decision (to ban all civil unions and same-sex marriages in Texas) to the sudden arrival of Hurricane Katrina refugees.
At the very beginning of Paige and Katy’s burgeoning romance, Katy states publicly that any perfect future partner of theirs would want to have children. Schilt’s first reaction is to recoil; that particular heteronormative ideal was one she’d been glad to set aside as a newly-out queer. It is only when Katy begins to relate their fantasy of strolling around town with a child and “waving to the dykes at Jo’s coffee” that Schilt begins to realize becoming a parent might make her “more visibly queer” instead of less.
While Schilt and Katy do marry (several times!) and have a son, Queer Rock Love is as much about raising family as it is about caretaking and the personal limits of sacrifice. Schilt’s prose is intimate and sweetly subtle, reflective of someone who struggles with the need to be heard and the need to be watchful. She grounds her observations in psychoanalytic theories that are no doubt influenced by Katy’s work as a therapist. Reminiscent of Alison Bechdel’s use of such theories to understand the ineffable motivations and expectations of her parents, Schilt applies them unsparingly to herself and her loved ones as they move through some of the toughest challenges families can face.
Schilt marries Katy knowing that Katy’s gender dysphoria has been a central part of their life since childhood, and she longs to help Katy transition into a body more aligned with their identity. However, Katy’s transition is quickly complicated by a life-threatening illness, requiring subsequent years of physical and emotional care. Because this memoir is from the point of view of the loving non-transitioning partner, it’s a studied look at issues of responsibility, need for community support, and families of origin. Schilt concentrates on the difficulty of learning what to give up and what to keep close, yet (thankfully) providing no easy solutions or pat reassurances. This is especially welcome in a time of political unrest, when solid answers, communication, and even facts are hard to come by.
Schilt has indicated that in early drafts of this manuscript, she was encouraged by editors to feel free to include herself in her own memoir. It is possible to finish the book and feel as though Schilt has pulled back just when she is really moving toward some answers. Often, I’d finish a chapter and think: Then what? What happened after this? Structurally, it felt a bit unsatisfying, and it wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I realized that what happened after this? is what is happening right now. It’s Dan Patrick’s new bathroom bill and Donald Trump’s dismissal of federal protection for trans students. It’s Schilt’s new balancing act between her full-time job, her family, and the activism to keep all those precious elements possible. It is difficult not to worry, for instance, about the future of Katy’s health given the current administration’s promise to repeal the ACA before a new healthcare plan is made available. It is disheartening to believe that any one of Katy and Paige’s many marriages could be dissolved. And yet, here we are; Queer Rock Love is a rare memoir of lives in progress, of dreams and futures not yet certain.
Jack Kaulfus is a writer and teacher in Austin, Texas, who moonlights as 1/5th of the queer bluegrass band Brand New Key. Jack holds an MFA from Texas State, and you can read their work at Heavy Feather Review, Barrelhouse Online, A Cappella Zoo, and other journals both online and in print.