Growing up, I harbored two contradictory desires.
I prepared for the former by showing boys my personality and the latter by dressing as a bride for five consecutive Halloweens. Though this blithe acceptance of contradictory impulses seems uniquely kid-like, I have a hunch that if more women were honest with themselves, they’d realize they share both goals.
I also knew early that I didn’t want kids. In fact, the longing confounded me. Grow a human in one of your organs? Nine months later, force it out? After that raise it? For how long? Oh, forever?! Nothing about that sounded anywhere near as appealing as say, freedom. Or sleep. So once I got over my terror of being even more of an outsider than I thought I was, lesbianism began to seem like a pretty sweet deal. I might not get to have my wedding cake and not eat it, but I could avoid marriage and kids.
I’m not saying I chose to be gay in order to dodge the expected trajectory of a heteronormative, mainstream life, but it sure provided a nifty escape hatch. At least at the time. In 1999, few were getting gay-married. No studies yet showed that children brought up by female partners had it better than their straight-raised counterparts. Anyway, if I did come to want kids, there’d be another female body to do the gestating; hopefully she could make dinner and schedule doctor visits, go shopping and do all the housework as well. In other words, I’d totally have kids, if I could do it in 1953 as a man. I swear, I’m a warm, lovely person despite my cold, distant terminology, my instinctive distaste for all things domestic. Throw an awkward-eared German Shepherd into the mix and I’m all kinds of nurturing. Well, until the dog interrupts my work.
And that’s perhaps the crux of the issue. I’ve always felt certain that children disrupt art. My dad is a poet and sometime musician. My mom has, through the years, dabbled in visual art. However, both maintain serious day-jobs, the stress and time-commitment from which affected if not thwarted their artistic goals. If you ask either one of my parents, they’ll tell you (or at least me) that they both wanted children, have never regretted the sleep lost or money spent, have in fact, benefited from the whole, you know, gestating, extruding — that whole — I’m going to just think about German Shepherds for a minute. The wonderful, warm, dog — I mean child-rearing situation. Yet somehow I got it in my head early that to be a parent was to trade artistic ambition for family. If it weren’t for me and my sister, how far might my parents, my mom specifically have followed her bliss?
Of course this is black and white and wrong all over; plenty of female artists raise kids. Look at Jennifer Egan, Meryl Streep and Courtney Love — OK, don’t look at Courtney Love. Still, traditionally, lesbian artists have been free from the constraints of child-rearing. But over time that’s started to shift. The first to come to mind is, of course Melissa Etheridge. She and David Crosby (who I always figured for a big Daddy Dyke) made a splash back in 1998. The most recent lesbian artist to head toward parenthood is Indigo Girl, Emily Saliers. Her younger partner is due any time now and while I would never malign a woman for choosing to start a family, I wonder what small effect this more traditionally heterosexual choice might have on one woman’s art.
Historically, lesbians, deprived of more conventional choices, spoke from a sort of queer periphery, and in doing so, brought a unique, outsider mentality to what they created. I don’t know that having kids affected Melissa Etheridge’s work. She still writes about her angels and demons, still uses the word “journey” more than anyone not about to break into “Don’t Stop Believin’” logically should. Then again, Etheridge always did seem to speak from the center. Plus by the time she had kids, her wealth separated her from the sort of struggle most parent/artists endure. Still, I wonder how having kids might shift Emily Saliers particular point of view.
Saliers’ music has always seemed deeply personal; doubtless, her art will reflect her experience as a parent. Though change is brewing, the experience of parenting is something still not shared by the majority of lesbians. If Emily feels like a partner to many fans as they travel down a certain road — earnest lesbian, micro-focused on relationship minutiae, hell-bent activist — then she has just taken an off-ramp to somewhere as yet undefinable. In the long view, as marriage and family become more acceptable (perhaps even legal), and more lesbians gravitate toward parenthood, what queer artistic contributions might never come to fruition simply because a queer periphery no longer exists?
I’m writing this on election day, which makes these ideas feel particularly blasphemous. When given the choice between further forward motion in the fight for gay rights, or a possible cruel about-face back to 1953, obviously I vote in favor of the former. No way could I mourn the loss of a society in which queers functioned within a subculture because they had no other options. And yet, I wonder what lesbian artists will have to say from some eventual cozy center, rather than from the radical outside looking in.