Sweating the Gay Stuff
Record: Queerspawn fonds, F0196-01-005-004, The ArQuives
A friend of mine has a toaster oven on her shelf, decorated with rainbow tissue paper and sparkles. She received it after she started dating her girlfriend. She was her girlfriend’s first girlfriend. I grew up knowing this was a tradition. They’re not always covered in rainbows and glitter, but if you are a lesbian who “converts” a straight girl, you must receive a toaster oven. The newest generation of lesbians doesn’t know this. Lesbians between the ages of twenty and thirty think a toaster oven is just a toaster oven. I have always known differently.
Until recently I thought that the toaster oven joke came from the Ellen show. Not the talk show where everybody gets presents and Ellen hangs out with Justin Beiber, but Ellen’s 1997 ABC sit-com where she made history by coming out on television. She came out in the “Puppy Episode” on 30 April 1997, screaming into an airport sound system, “I’m gay.”
The first version of this essay credited the Ellen show as originating the toaster oven joke. One of the reviewers commented that she came out before that episode aired and had already been making that joke with her friends. In my current understanding, the joke began in the 1970s when banks would give new customers common household appliances, often toaster ovens, as gifts for joining. In 1977, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant warned that gays were out to convert young people to their sinful ways. In response, gays and lesbians joked about receiving a toaster oven if you brought in a convert. Ellen was referencing this joke, making an inside joke as part of popular culture.
“The Puppy Episode” aired in the show’s fourth season. The network cancelled the fifth season, and Ellen did not work for three years after the episode aired. Laura Dern, the woman who facilitated Ellen’s coming out on the show, did not work for a year. It is Laura’s character who made the toaster oven joke. In the episode, Laura comes out to Ellen as a lesbian. This makes Ellen wildly uncomfortable, and she warns Laura not to “recruit her.” Laura responds: “I’ll have to call National Headquarters and tell them I lost you. Damn, just one more, and I would have gotten that toaster oven.”
At the same time that this episode aired and the media scandal that followed was breaking, I was having my first coming out. It was the winter of 1998. I was in grade one, and my best friend Jane and I were rolling around in the snow. Out of nowhere, a voice sneered, “What are you, lesbians?” We looked up and saw a group of big grade eights towering over us. They were massive, and we were antlike. I felt fear, but also anger. It was the “fuck you: feeling I get now, but I wasn’t using that word then and I didn’t know how to name it. Jane looked confused, and I jumped up as they were walking away, laughing. “Hey!” I yelled, “That’s mean! My moms are lesbians!” I don’t think they looked back. Maybe they weren’t used to a six-year-old girl defying them. Jane asked me what lesbians were, and I told her that lesbians are when two women love each other. And I told her that my parents were lesbians and that I was conceived through a sperm donor that my mommies got from a sperm bank. I’m not sure how much Jane took in on that sunny winter day, but I know that she loved my parents and continued to love them through childhood, into adolescence, and now as an adult. They were the ones who gave her in-depth sex talks, which included personal stories, which I was mortified to hear.
In the decade that followed, I became a spokes-child for queer parenting in Ontario. I can’t count how many newspaper articles, radio shows, and television clips I’ve been part of, depicting how normal my life is despite having been raised by two lesbian moms who split up when I was ten, yet remained friends.
There is one television clip I particularly remember filming. I was twelve or thirteen, in the midst of middle school, and my hair was growing out at funny angles, which made me think I was the ugliest person alive. I wore my favorite green sweater, but watching the clip later, I wished I had worn something more form fitting that didn’t make me look like a dirty, sweaty preteen. But that is the outfit I chose, and the film crew arrived at seven o’clock in the morning.
They filmed the same clips over and over. They wanted two shots: one of me crossing the street from one of my houses to the other (at that time my moms lived across the street from each other) and one of my moms helping me get ready for school. I stood in the middle of the street and walked to my front door at least ten times. I was already late for school and walking up to my door had lost its pizzazz. By the last take, I felt as if I were in acting class, and I had to redo the scene because I hadn’t placed the hair on the right mark. My mom and I never had developed a morning routine, probably because I am a bit of a scatter brain, and she is often absorbed in her own work, but the film people were determined to find one. As I performed putting the apple into my lunch bag for the fifth time, I hoped that we were somehow normalizing queer families.
When the clip came out a week or so later, my mom and I watched it; we hated what we looked like and laughed about how chipper we sounded. My mom couldn’t get over how straight our life looked. Following our clip was a man with a binder who claimed that the research in that binder concluded that children raised in homosexual families would not fare as well as children raised in heterosexual families because they were missing either a mother or father figure. Although he kept referring to the binder, he never opened it, and at one point, my mom pointed to the screen and laughed. “There’s nothing in it!” Even though the angle of the camera almost masked the black hole where there should have been important papers, for the rest of the interview, all I could see was the empty binder. I stared at this outrageous flaw in his argument and wondered how anyone could give credibility to his opinion.
To remember the specifics of these media clips, I did a Google search of myself. I expected that information about me would be interspersed with television clips from the family channel show, Naturally Sadie, or news about the death of a beloved Jewish Bubby (Sadie is a popular name for Jewish women). Instead, when I entered my name, the first three pages were solely about me, and three quarters of the hits documented my experience being raised by queer parents. Even the few articles documenting my budding theatre career focused on my upbringing. In 2014, I acted in Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week: a lesbian love story gone wrong, but now they have two kids, and the breakup affects everyone. The play was written by my mom, and I played the angry nineteen year-old daughter. One reviewer, pointed out my history as an LGBTQ parenting posterchild, writes, “Epstein-Fine’s experience has helped shape public understanding of the realities of children with queer parents for over a decade” (Hoile).
I try to think about the ways in which I have shaped public understanding. I know I have been shaped by the interviews and the variations on the same question being asked of me over and over again—“What has it been like being raised by queer parents?” Every time, my answer is always some variation of: “Awesome. It has been awesome.” When I was younger, when I was first asked about my family, I answered these questions thinking this was normal, that every child went through this. I didn’t really think, as I was playing the fairy or bird game with my friends at recess in grade three, that I would later have to recall those same recesses to assess whether or not I had been bullied. I didn’t register then how my family was subject to public investigation and criticism. As I got older, I began to notice the scrutiny and I became acutely aware of the microscopic lens we were held under.
In 2005, my family was involved in a Charter challenge against the Government of Ontario to make it legal for two women to put their names on a birth registration. When I was born, thirteen years prior, my parents scratched out “father,” replaced it with mother, filled in my non-biological mom’s name, and attempted to give me a hyphenated version of their surnames. They checked off the box for “cultural reasons.” The birth registration was rejected, and I grew up with only one of my moms legally recognized, with the surname of only my biological parent. At the time of the Charter challenge, I was thirteen and able to advocate for myself. Since the other children whose parents were involved in the challenge were too young to speak, my affidavit held a lot of weight. I remember sitting in our lawyer’s office trying desperately to think of the negative implications of homophobia has had in my life and how having both my moms as legal parents would change that. I kept saying, “I think I’m the wrong person to interview. I’ve never really been bullied.” I had grown up at progressive alternative schools where the questions on our math tests read something like, “In the 1950s, eighty percent of the population believed that homosexuality was wrong. In the year 2000, forty percent of the population believed that homosexuality was wrong. If homophobia continues to decrease at this rate, what year will homophobia cease to exist?” But I knew that for many raised in queer families, harassment and bullying, sometimes severe, were a reality. I felt a responsibility to advocate for the people who did not have a voice.
My final affidavit was not untrue. But when the judge read it in court, my mom had to nudge me to tell me it was being read. I didn’t recognize my own words. My moms like to say that my story helped win the case. I looked at my non-biological mom, who had tears in her eyes when the judge called her a mother. This meant she could take me on a plane without my other mom having to sign a document. I wouldn’t have to lie while crossing the U.S. border if the border guard asked which one was my mom. I don’t know how our victory has helped other queer families, and I know for certain that bullying still exists on playgrounds. But I do know that I would write that affidavit one hundred times over and tell whatever story needed to be told in order to see my mom and other non-biological parents, who never thought their child could bear their name, called a mother by a court of law.
After the court case, I was asked to do more interviews, and I was frequently asked to sit on queer-parenting panels. Bullying was often a focal point, and I was a constant reassurance to new or prospective queer parents. My sexuality was also a frequent point of discussion. Everyone, including queer parents, wanted to know if queer parents raise queer children. I turned this question into a joke: “I grew up surrounded by too many women; I do not need any more in my life.” Everyone laughed. It didn’t matter who my audience was. The laughter was tinged with relief. It’s not that the queer parents would have rejected me if I were queer, but I was the projection of their hope; I was the practically-perfect-in-every-way-daughter who proved that queer people can raise children and they can turn out all right. I got good grades; I had too many extracurricular activities (drama, dance, improve, social justice club). And in my down time, I got crushes on boys. On those panels, I never talked about the messy and hard parts of my life because that wasn’t the point. I had to give those prospective parents, many of whom thought they would never have children, hope that they would not fuck up their future children and that their queerness was a gift, something of which their children would be fiercely proud.
I started dating boys in high school. Obsessing over boys might actually be more accurate. I seemed to developed crushes on the unavailable boys who I thought could never like me back. After middle school, I grew my hair long and wore more makeup than I did when I was onstage. I went to a uniformed public school, so I rolled my kilt and tied up my polo shirts so my midriff was just visible. I liked one boy on my high school improv tea, and at sleepovers, I would show my friends his profile picture on Facebook and recount little tidbits about him, such as the fact that he shares a birthday with Shakespeare. When it came to actually talking to him, I was hopeless. I could perform an improv scene with him, but when we weren’t onstage, I was stammering and blushing.
Once I took him to my mom’s birthday party, which had a queer singles theme. I’m not sure why I thought that would be a good idea. I think I wanted to show him my world. On the streetcar on the way to the party, he was excited to witness a full-on lesbian party. I don’t think he was prepared for the real thing. As we approached the house, we saw many women on the porch smoking and/or kissing. We went inside but couldn’t move because of the bodies taking up every inch of floor space. The music was blasting, and people, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties were grinding. Surrounded by all these grinding queer women it looked as if he were about to implode, so I rushed him upstairs to my room. I had to remind myself that a room full of lesbians was not comforting to most people and that most teenagers would not blend easily into that crowd.
Although I could always blend into gatherings at my house, I noticed an increasing distance between myself and the larger queer community. Every year since I was little, I put together a special outfit for Pride. The most memorable ensemble involved a rainbow tutu and a sparkly fairy wand. As I walked down the street holding my moms’ hands, people bent down to tell me how cute I was. We had many pictures taken of us, and once Mayor Barbara Hall invited me to have tea with Queen Elizabeth, whom she was meeting the next day. Pride was for me what Christmas was for many of my peers. As a teenager, I would still put together a Pride outfit, but I was too old for people to tell my moms how adorable I was, and I wasn’t getting nods or winks from queer youth walking down Church Street. I didn’t know whether to stay in the Family Pride area or wander the streets. I didn’t feel like I belonged in either space.
At the end of grade ten, my mom took me to a show created by Gender Play, a theatre program for queer and trans youth. The play was circus-themed, and through the metaphors of tightrope walking, juggling, disappearing acts, and flaming hoop jumping, the participants told stories of not belonging, feeling lost, hating themselves, and finding places where they could be themselves. I cried through most of it. After the show, as we walked to our car, I couldn’t stop jabbering to my mom about how much I related to the performers and how inspired I was. My mom suggested that I join Gender Play. My heart leapt at the idea of being part of a group that I could relate to and might feel comfortable around, but I was worried they wouldn’t understand why I was there.
On the first day of Gender Play the following September, I was sweating profusely in my blue skinny jeans and my favorite pastel-green cardigan. Each person who walked in was queerer than the last. Suddenly, I was embarrassed by my long blonde hair that I had worked so hard to grow. They wore baggy pants, combat boots, ripped jeans, and leather jackets. Everyone’s hair was either asymmetrical or dyed a funky colour. I looked around and saw every colour of the rainbow on top of heads that pierced everything. They were many tattoos poking out of shirtsleeves, collars, and sock lines.
The final member of our group walked in late. “Jaq!” everyone squealed, and this person was drowned in hugs. I was reluctant to get up because I was afraid people would see the puddle of sweat on my chair. Jaq broke out of the hug and looked at me, the only new kid in the room. Their eyes were the warmest brown. They were tall, maybe five foot nine, and they was by far the queerest one in attendance. Heavy boots, graphic t-shirt, army green button up, undone. Their hair was swooshy and dyed blue or purple; they would be perfect for the Tumblr page “Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Beiber.” Except Jaq didn’t identify as lesbian because they identified as genderqueer. Which I thought was fabulous. Jaq said “hi,” and I blushed. I don’t think I could get a “hi” out. My throat seemed to have closed. I think I smiled meekly.
All year I struggled to create my personal piece. I knew that I wanted it to involve dance, and I knew that it had to do with being my parents’ child. I didn’t even know where to begin. Everyone else’s piece seemed to lead somewhere. They were in a bad place, something changed, and then they were in a different place, sometimes good sometimes bad. I watched them as they expressed their pain, anger, and sadness through a multitude of disciplines, and I was in awe. I had spent so many years talking to queer communities about how proud and happy I was to have queer parents that I didn’t’ even know how to name the complexity of emotions I felt about how my admission to queer community was linked to my parents’ identity, and I didn’t know if I was welcome without them.
In all of this turmoil, the year slipped by. Suddenly it was March and the Gender Play intensive weekend. The weekend looked like this: We arrived on Friday afternoon and didn’t leave until Sunday afternoon. We ate all our meals together and weren’t allowed to leave the building. We all slept in the rehearsal room. I was both shaking with excitement and petrified for the weekend. The other members of the group excited me, and I loved hearing about their lives. The thing was that they barely knew anything about mine.
On Friday night, the entire group was a mass of limbs piled on one couch in the rehearsal room playing Truth or Dare. Of course, it was only Truth. Nobody wanted to Dare when truth meant we could learn everyone’s secrets. All the questions were about sex and sexuality and what people had done or hadn’t done. It was my turn. “Truth,” I said. I knew what they were going to ask. This girl Shana piped up, although they were all thinking the same thing. “How do you identify? We’re all confused.” Clearly, they had been talking. Just like on the panels I knew what the right answer was. But this answer was different than the one I had always given. Here my friends didn’t want to hear how well I functioned in society or how normal my life was; they wanted to hear about the messy parts. Jaq was sitting across from me and looking at me with warmth and kindness and those soft brown eyes. My breathing became deeper, and blood rushed hot through my body. I told them I was bi. I still don’t know if at the time I thought my answer was a lie. I was looking down when I said it. I looked back up at Jaq, and too many emotions flooded my system. It was something I hadn’t felt for all those boys, but wanted so desperately to feel. It was tinged with fear but also comfort in the way that a room full of grinding lesbians was comforting.
I joined Gender Play in 2008. In the following decade, North America saw a massive change in relation to LGBTQ public policy and social attitudes. Everyone loves seeing Ellen dance on her show in her fitted vests and matching dress pants. Her wedding to Portia De Rossi was featured on the front page of People magazine. When Kathleen Wynne ran for premier of Ontario in 2013, I voted Liberal for the first time in my life. I am a die-hard NDP-er. When I told my mom’s friend how weird I felt voting Liberal, she said, “You didn’t vote Liberal; you voted lesbian.” Apparently a lot of people voted lesbian because we made history by electing the first out lesbian premier in Canada. At the 2013 Golden Globe Awards, Jodie Foster described coming out many years ago to close family and friends, but feeling as if she could not come out in the public eye. She must have closely monitored the fallout after Ellen’s pioneering episode. But in 2013, the audience laughed when Jodie joked about how every gay celebrity was supposed to have a reality show, where their private life was made public. Elliot Page came out publicly on Valentine’s Day in 2014, as the keynote speaker at the Time to Thrive LGBTQ conference. They talked about the pressures starts like them still face in the industry. Moments later, the clip was up on YouTube, and my Facebook page was littered with praise for Page. Later, they made an appearance on the other Ellen’s talk show, where they both exchanged their feelings of relief after coming out. Page commended DeGeneres for coming out at a time when the zeitgeist was not so accepting.
Beginning in high school, I followed these stories with a reverent obsessiveness and watched as the world showered these celebrities with praise. Of course, I also agreed with the critics who were not so impressed because for them, wealthy white women coming out was not revolutionary. What of the racialized, marginalized, trans individuals whose stories were not warming the public’s hearts and who faced violence, incarceration, and death? What of the gay men being targeted by a serial killer in Toronto? Although we haven’t achieved queer or trans liberation, there has been a change---just fifteen years ago, making a joke about a toaster oven was enough to get you booted out of the public consciousness and pop culture.
In my own life I saw queer positivity become trendy. The Queer-Straight Alliance at my school was cool. It was called Students against Stereotyping Sexualities (SASS), and I became an organizer for most of the club’s events. In my Grade 12 year I helped to organize a conference called Upstream: Moving against the Current. It was run by our anti-oppression coalition, and I was in charge of the LGBTQ section, under the guise of my parentage. After that fateful Truth or Dare session, I did not hang my identity on any word from the queer alphabet. My image as the child who proved men with binders wrong and made queer people feel like they could have children and not damage them had to be upheld at all costs! I had put too many hours in and had made too many impassioned speeches. I still though of those warm brown eyes, but I replaced them with Adam’s apples and patchy facial hair.
However, the day my school’s prom posters went up, all I saw were brown eyes. I wanted to imagine nestling my cheek against facial hair, but all I could think of was the face rash I would likely get. That night I called Jaq and told them my prom theme was “I’m On a Boat,” because our prom was on a cruise ship. We tried to guess how many times “I’m On a Boat” by The Lonely Island was going to play. I whispered that I didn’t know who I was going with. They said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we went together.” I had told them how straight my school was despite its pro-gay attitude. My heart sped up, and I was sweating profusely with the phone pressed into my ear. There was no other answer but “yes.”
As Jaq and I boarded the boat, everyone stared. I was wearing a black mini dress with chains down the front. Jaq wore a chain-wallet hook, and their button up pocket was bedazzled with mini chains. The day before, in a fit of “I don’t know what to do with my hair!,” I had shaved off one side and dyed it bleach blonde. Jaq and I gathered with my friends to take pictures on deck while the sun was setting. In one of the photos, I have the biggest smile on my face, and I am staring adoringly at Jaq. There are no other pictures of me in high school where I look that happy.
We left the ship after a long night of dancing (they played “I’m On a Boat” six times, we counted) and I walked Jaq to the street car stop before my friends and I departed to the after party. As we waited for the streetcar, we didn’t talk much. We just smiled huge, dorky smiles and looked into each other’s eyes. The blood rushed through my body was the hottest it had ever been. Finally what seemed like an eternity, Jaq leaned in to kiss me. It was warm and kind and soft. At that moment, I didn’t think of all the unknown, nameless people I was disappointing, or all of the stereotypes I was fulfilling. I was kissing the person I had wanted to kiss since the first time I saw their blue or purple hair. From behind me, I heard cheering and realized that my entire grade was watching from their various limos and party buses. My entire history had hurtled me toward this moment, and in this moment, I didn’t care about the big grade eight bullies, I didn’t need to win a court case, and I didn’t care about turning out all right. The moment was fleeting, and as Jaq pulled away to get on their streetcar, they had no idea that I owed them a toaster oven.
Earlier version of the essay published in Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up With LGBTQ+ Parents, edited by Sadie Epstein-Fine and Makeda Zook (Bradford: Demeter Press, 2018), p. 176-86.