On March 7, Paige Schilt went to the Texas capitol for the public hearings for Texas HB 6, the “bathroom bill” that would ban transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender expression, with violations punishable by fines. Later that night she shared her public comments with the One Page Salon audience. Take 6 minutes to watch her talk about driving with her wife and son and wondering where it would be safe for her gender-nonconforming wife to use the restroom.
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.
By Neena Husid
On the day that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, our phones light up with text message from our kids—All 50 States!!! Woo!! Go Gays! Hook ‘em Homos! Even Facebook gets in the mood, digging up a photo from Hillary and my 10-year-old commitment ceremony, and, in jubilation, our friends like it so often that I preen like we’ve won a congressional medal for smiling pretty.
That afternoon Hillary’s mother phones in congratulations from Florida, and her dependably crisp voice goes soft and slurry. It unleashes me. Damp-eyed, I run to the grocery and grab pink peonies to drop at Hillary’s office. She is in a room with a patient. My Supreme Court inspired joie de vivre, my public glee, won’t be shared. I’m a little let down but okay. I knew the chance of catching her in-between physicals was slim. Laying the triumphant spray of flowers on her slice of communal workspace, I call out a quick “Hey” to her co-workers. The industrious mood of the hallway shifts. Charting PAs and nurses stop their frenetic inputting, shoot me victorious smiles, and aim a chorus of yeahs in my direction. Despite my ridiculous neon jogging shorts and tumble-weeding mess of unbrushed hair, in this perfect moment I am theirs—an American compatriot finally done right by. How glad I am that the reality of Hillary and I as a legally recognized pair gives them release from a prejudice that diminished us all.
A few months after this moment of elation and vindication, Paige Schilt published her wonderful memoir Queer Rock Love. When I read it now, though, I can’t help but think about how much the backdrop has changed since it was published. The Lieutenant Governor of our shared home state of Texas is pushing a bathroom bill, and the Indiana governor who passed a “religious liberty” law allowing people to discriminate against anyone who sniffed of being gay, lesbian, or transgender is now the Vice President of the United States.
Instead of joy, I’m transported back to the early days of my relationship with Hillary, when I was besotted but scared shitless, too, of stepping out of a lifetime of living in Neighborhood Normal. I feared my good wifey/better mommy cohort would soon be peeking through their mocha-colored mini blinds to observe me veering toward the corner of Oh, my G-d and Are you fucking kidding me. At times, the astronomical price tag of revealing our relationship sticker-shocked me into insanity. So, like Paige and her wife Katy, we paired the heady joy of our new relationship with therapy.
Once, alone in the office of the therapist Hillary had found to help us stay compass true on our exit from the straight and narrow, I begged, “Tell me I’m not ruining my kids’ life to run away with the queer circus just because Hillary’s hot and I’m horny. Please.”
Plopping myself down on the couch, I plowed my fingers in and out of the wiry-haired pouf of her statuesque therapy poodle. The therapist looked up from the daybook opened on her desk and peered at me, weighing both my sincerity and my sanity. Sphinx-like, Ingrid sat beside me awaiting the verdict. Remembering creepy outbursts were the stuff of her vocation, Mara collected herself.
“You’re not leaving your children, and I’ve seen no indication that you’re in this for sex alone. ”
I wanted to loll in the reprieve she’d granted, but shame short-sheeted me. For three or four minutes, I’d been a chicken-shitted doubter, unworthy of Hillary and the pact we’d made. Besides, I was no fool. I knew Mara had no better bead on my libido than I did or than Ingrid might.
If that Tuesday’s session featured my skepticism, the next starred Mara as a modern day Cassandra articulating a buzz kill to the two budding mid-life homos sitting hand and hand before her.
“I need you to understand that when you come out publicly, what you’ll be doing is sacrificing heterosexual privilege.”
Though Mara underscored the drama of this forfeiture with stern brows and a buyer beware eye-lock, jubilation electrified me. Last week’s apprehension was replaced by elated thoughts of never having to float to Aruba on a cruise ship or witness the elderly husband accompanying me pull down his Sansabelts in our telephone booth size room after we’d gorged on beef tips at the Captain’s table. But Mara’s words didn’t cheer HiIlary. Extricating her fingers from my vise grip, she slid to the far edge of the divan, doing what she did. Eschewing silliness. Inviting practicality to the party. And while I had only a sideways view of her face, I knew what it was doing. Her eyes were slinging back and forth like a metronome, deliberating. When they stopped she responded to Mara’s warning.
“We’ll make do without the privilege. It may not be our right, but it is certainly our duty to live an open and honest life. If we can’t, who can?”
Right, I thought. Right. Who better qualified to make queer normal than two tax-paying, holiday-meal slaving, upper middle-class schleppers with synagogue memberships, Costco cards and a penchant for Sunday afternoons at Home Depot?
Amid tense divorce negotiations and offers from a gaggle of male morons to schtupp us back to our senses, we exited the straight world, ceding, as Mara had predicted, prerogatives our former selves once took as givens. Difficult as it may be to now fathom, then, in the waning years of the last decade of the twentieth century, many good folk in Austin, Texas, didn’t know how to parse us: two women steering a shopping cart down the beverage section together, bickering over coffee brands. Like, what? A couple? Not possible. To them, these sweet but slow-witted sitcom adherents unable to foresee where the next step in Ellen’s journey might lead were the caustic sisters Roseanne and Jackie, the house-note sharing divorcees Kate and Allie, or aging Lucys and Ethels plying the high jinks trade after Desi and Fred bit the dust. Only our nearest and dearest friends—those who witnessed me bailing on business meetings to speed to mid-morning elementary school book presentations on The Witch of Blackbird Pond or who knew Hillary was signing checks for sorority dues and a young man’s soul-search across the globe—saw us as they saw themselves, as a conjoined unit trying to support one another in the best way possible. But those knowing friends were legally soldered. We weren’t. Couldn’t be. And I was fine with that.
And then Team Deviant started flag waving for same-sex marriage. Like Schilt, I didn’t get it. She writes, “I am not a believer. I’m the divorced child of divorced parents. I don’t venerate marriage as a natural state, a keystone of civilization, or even a particularly convenient model of intimate relationship.” I felt the same way. Why were lezzies getting their panties in a twist over love denied, etc., etc.? So far, all wedded bliss had garnered me was half of my former hubby’s gargantuan IRS hickey and a court-ordered decree to defend my child-rearing practices to a someone who’d previously never thought to question my methods.
Hillary cautioned me not to dismiss the idea so completely.
“Sweetie, you might want to cool your jets on this. Someday we could want to get married.”
Had we been center stage at a Stonewall Democrats meeting the first time she said this, I would have understood her attempt to squelch me. But we were in bed, and she’d just unearthed my 5th orgasm, whooping like an astronaut who’d discovered an unknown entrance to the vast labyrinthine astral highway. She was commanding. Pioneering. My boudoir butch with a Harvard medical degree. Was she also a sap jonesing for another “till death do us part” dog and pony show? Wanting to revisit the scene of one of her few mistakes (she’d known she needed to truncate her walk down the aisle with her ex-husband days before it actually occurred) seemed so contrary to who she was, I figured sexual euphoria was causing her to conflate pleasure with marriage.
“Come on Hilly, rabbis and wedding dresses, again? We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true.”
“Neena, I’ve given this a lot of thought.” Of course she had. “Vows aren’t about fidelity, they’re about legality. I’m willing to do whatever we have to do to prove we’re a committed couple. I’m less interested in wedding bells than in getting you insurance.”
Relieved she was alluding to actuarial tables rather than assigned seats, invitation lists and showdowns over who would wear the gown and who would don the tuxedo, I spooned my naked body into hers and slept the sleep of a woman lawfully unbound.
But as we racked up months, and then years, in the cohabitation column, my views on queer matrimony morphed. Partnering up with your chromosome double, I discovered, wasn’t pretty, hot or edgy. It was a constant diminishing. There were no tax breaks for us. No fifty-fifty division of property in case of a split. No deathbed hand-holding if either of us were forced to say her final sayonara in a hospital. The ‘no’ that really tornadoed Hillary’s tail feathers into a twist: the no sharing of spousal health benefits since said spouses were a sham.
When Hillary decided to rally around this inequity, I was gainfully employed and in possession of fairly decent medical insurance. But the 9-to-5 chapped my writerly sensibilities. I longed to ditch it, and she knew it. So, fair-playing, straight shooting Hillary—a woman who’d devoted 12 years of her career life to a medical clinic that, in an ambitious experiment in socialized medicine had evolved into a huge HMO—asked to have my name added to her benefits package. Her request was turned down, but we were humored. Austin, in an attempt to be the anti-Texas, allowed oddities like us to sign Domestic Partnership Agreements. Hillary was advised attaining such a document would help make our case.
On the day we designated for DPA procurement, I skulked away from work, feeling peevish about my exit. As marketing director at the Paramount Theatre, I was on-call for an evening event featuring an incorrigible musician cum writer cum humorist who had to be reminded via flattery and flirting to not stoke up his super Tampax-sized cigar on the historic stage least he send over a century’s worth of history up in flames. Asking my assistant/pal to act as my stand-in, and promising her the opportunity to cuddle up to Leo Kottke when he made his annual visit, I left the building and jogged five blocks in heels to meet Hillary in front of the courthouse before 5:00. When she arrived, Hillary was testy too, frazzled by rush hour, parking place scarcity, and the indignity of having to pry gummy, crumb-entrusted coins off her minivan’s floorboard to drop into a meter that would soon flip free for the evening. The sky was gray. Our moods were shitty. Romantic chitchat heralding the fact that we were about to get as hitched as two woman could in this place and time was nonexistent.
Up the stairs and into the tungsten-lit records department, I bobbed from clerk to clerk trying to articulate what it was we wanted.
“We’re looking for the contract you can show as proof of cohabitation.”
“Cohabitation?” Hillary snarked as we shuffled from one befuddled face to the next.
“That’s what we do. Cohabitate.”
“No, that’s not what we do. We raise children. We support one another.”
“And come together in mind-blowing unison,” I whispered, employing my lowest common denominator to undo our malaise.
I got a snort. Nothing more. Snippy. Cold. Detached. Superior. That’s how Hillary processed pique, and I hated it. But I didn’t bite. I employed three ass-saving words, always perfect and always true. “You’re right, Hillary.”
While she was giving me the feeble “Okay, I forgive you” grin, we noticed a municipal servant beckoning us to her window, the Declaration of Domestic Partnership in hand. Comforted that the broad, head-to-toe khaki-clad administrator recognized us as one of her own, we relaxed, touched hands, and read. The document, clearly penned by outsiders searching for an inside track, was lovely. Sweet. Heartening. Sincere. We commit to and affirm this relationship with the hope that our personal lives will be honored and enriched by this union. Splashed in poetry and promise, I let myself be optimistic. Austin was trying. Sanctified same-sex unions weren’t chump-only propositions. This Domestic Partnership Agreement proved it. With the supportive clerk’s a-okay, we faxed the signed contract over to the top brass at Hillary’s clinic, certain they’d pounce on the opportunity to do right by us.
We were wrong.
Again, our bid for benefit sharing was rejected. Even with the solidity of the Domestic Partnership Agreement behind us, the partner/docs on the clinic’s board refused us the thumbs up. Some couldn’t square their right-leaning churchiness with our depravity. But they represented a tiny voting contingency, and Hillary knew it. What devastated her was when the entire board—her fellow white coated do-gooders—joined forces with those Nimrods in denying us and the numerous other conjugal outliers in their workplace the opportunity to be co-insured, lest our future health needs become excessive and queer their own sweet deal.
It was an ugly, unexpected outcome, and it shook us. I held fast to the job and insurance I had. A heartbroken Hillary tendered her resignation:
After considerable soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can no longer practice medicine for a healthcare concern unwilling to extend insurance benefits to the significant others of their employees. The board’s refusal to offer this opportunity stands in opposition to my personal ethics and to what I’ve always believed were the clinics’ high-minded superior standard of care for both its patients and its employees.
Like a home plate umpire, clenched fist a-hammering, Hillary called out her workplace and the ace who’d pitched them into the big leagues for choking when he’d signaled to her that he was going to throw his best stuff at this woeful inequity.
Exiting that disheartening meeting days earlier, the non-voting CEO figured there’d be blow back from the board’s miserly decision, but he wasn’t prepared to let Hillary be a casualty of the shit that flew. As practical as all-weather paint, Hillary allowed herself to be convinced to rescind the letter.
Good was actually born from this second snubbing. Due to Hillary’s efforts, and with the support of the CEO and other allied doctors and administrators, the clinic became one of the first to offer partner benefits in Austin. Hillary demonstrated her formidable problem solving skills more immediately as well, pouring over the repeated denial’s x’s and y’s. An irreproachable. four-star team player, she assumed when she requested her health benefits be extended to me that our merger would be considered as golden as Dr. and Mrs. Harry Healers. It was not. The Dr. and the Mrs. were married. We weren’t. Not yet. Seeing the only way forward, my determined Archimedes gave up improbability formulas for the pursuit of atmospheric physics, noting with great interest the queer front moving across Canada and shifting due east toward Massachusetts.
Before I add boast upon boast about my newfound willingness to enlist in the Peoples’ crusade for marital rights, I have to disclose a bit of unseemliness concerning my motivations. As Yoda would say, “truth telling I was” when I’d reported, previous to having our insurance aspirations suppressed, the idea of gay marriage occupied the same are-you-fucking-kidding-me space in my brain once held by the news that enemas were required before hospital births. Less than 200 days after I moved in with Hillary, my ex was remarried and so was hers. Was I jealous that a man I’d once cared for immensely was so swiftly regaining traction after I’d swished the rug of bliss out from under him? No. His new wife, a family friend whose husband had left her years earlier for a man, was as much a solace to me as she was to my ex. She was smart, funny, and totally into him. Deep in my heart I was sorry the two of them hadn’t unearthed one another before either I, or her ex, had cursed them both with our unstoppered aberrance.
What I begrudged my ex and his wife, I realized, wasn’t their love redo. It was their wedding. Their pageantry. Their synagogue. Their rabbi. Their cantor. Their sacred space. Their chuppah. The handsome children (two of them mine) accompanying them down the aisle. The teary-eyed family and friends basking in the blessing of second chances. Yes, I’d poked fun at marriage, but when my ex got his second chance, when my daughter ran into our house resplendent in a lilac gown, pleading with me to do a quick fix on an unruly curl, I wanted it, too—like Schilt when she slipped the ring on her finger and found herself “beginning to believe in the future.”
I decided that I wanted to get married again.
Neena Husid is your typical schitz who, in between teaching, editing, care-giving, dog walking and pontificating, attempts to complete a series of personal essays that move weirdly in and out of relevance. The Facebook/Twitter avatar who shares her same, name, face and history has recently added conspiracy theorist to a resume not vetted or hacked by the KBG though she does believe with every fiber of her being that the recent US election results are a total sham.
By Marion Winik
Queer Rock Love tells the story of Paige and Katy, who fell in love and got married and had a baby, who became parents against the backdrop of serious illness, who formed a family and found a community in a world that was busily passing laws against its existence.
The author makes the wise choice not to do a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues—she just takes us into her story and her world, her evolution from being a straight-laced academic divorcee who suspects she is a lesbian to becoming the woman who finds her soulmate in the local rock star Katy, whose gender is complicated. We fall in love right along with her, no questions asked. She shows her own paranoia and prickliness about the straight world and its judgments alongside Katy’s innate, almost bullet-proof self-confidence. Katy just goes with whatever gender people seem to think she is, even if they change in midstream, suddenly deciding, no she’s not a sir, she’s a ma’am.
There’s a groundbreaking new novel out now called This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, about a straight family raising a genderqueer child (and making a lot of mistakes along the way.) Having read both books fairly close together, I am excited about the ways literature is doing its classic job of paving a path for tolerance and understanding. In another way, the book belongs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me because it also attempts to put the experience of otherness in context for one’s child. And of course this book shares much with The Argonauts, a wonderful cross between memoir and critical essay by the great Maggie Nelson, whose story is remarkably similar to Paige’s
I was holding my breath until the very last line of the book to find out what happened with Katy’s Hepatitis C. I had it too, and I was almost as sick as she was back in 2011, before the new drugs were approved: I was that person who couldn’t get off the couch to get my kid a glass of water because I had about 5 red blood cells. I didn’t have a partner to pick up the slack so thank God my daughter was 11 not 2—she could go out in the street and hitchhike to school if I couldn’t get up and take her. I was cured in 2012…Katy’s path took a few more years.
As strong as my identification with Katy were the pangs of recognition I had for Paige’s situation—being the partner of a very, very sick person amid raising children, trying not to be selfish and judgmental and unreasonable, trying to accept all the ways illness changes the person you love into someone you don’t quite recognize. Back in the 1990’s I was married to a man with AIDS, and having written a book about it, I remember all the challenges of describing this situation without yielding to self-pity or sentimentality, balancing the need to remain a likeable narrator while admitting to some weak, ugly thoughts and behavior.
Paige made a great choice to begin the book with Katy’s birth and her own, each in their particular quirky version of a Texas family. This establishes the relatability that keeps the reader right in her pocket through the whole story. Katy’s mother and Paige’s father are unforgettable supporting characters—I see them in the movie played by Connie Britton and Kevin Spacey. What a great scene when the whole crew comes together, along with about half the queer people in Austin, at the wedding.
There are so many different ways readers will connect to this book, each through their own history with gender, with parenting, with serious illness, with being a caretaker, with its Austin settings and characters, with academia, with vintage clothes. I bet Paige gets a lot of letters.
Longtime All Things Considered commentator (1991-2006) Marion Winik is the host of The Weekly Reader radio program and podcast. She reviews books for Newsday, People, Kirkus Review and other venues and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column appears monthly at BaltimoreFishbowl.com, and her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and The Sun. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. Visit marionwinik.com for more information.