Redefining normal

Joann Kelley didn’t give birth to a baby. Instead, her partner conceived a child through alternative fertilization — but that doesn’t make Kelley a mother, either.

“What makes me a mother,” Kelley says in Gigi Kaeser and Peggy Gillespie’s book Love Makes a Family (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), “is baking muffins at 11 p.m. for [my daughter] Sol’s school party, comforting her when she’s crying … and saying ‘no,’ even when it’s disappointing to Sol.”

Kelley goes on to disclose that even though she’s partnered with Sol’s biological mother for 20 years and is the family’s primary financial provider, she’s denied what are seemingly basic maternal rights. In their home state of Wisconsin, Kelley can’t legally adopt her daughter, nor is her family eligible for health-insurance benefits through her job.

Sol, an outspoken fifth grader at the time she was interviewed, once saw a group of people brandishing signs that read “God hates lesbians and gays.” She commented: “I don’t want to be afraid of these people, and I don’t want them to be afraid of me and my family. I think we can all get along. We don’t have to be exactly the same.”

Homophobia isn’t restricted to Wisconsin. The local YMCA, for example, denies family memberships to families headed by same-sex couples, defining a family in their membership policy as “married couples and their dependents,” and a couple as “a legally married man and woman.” (Same-sex couples and families headed by same-sex couples can join the YMCA if they register as individuals.)

Pat Wakeley is a member of the Hendersonville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — which is, she notes, a welcoming congregation. For Unitarians, “welcoming doesn’t just mean there’s someone at the door to greet you when you drop by for a Sunday service,” she says. “It means the church is open and accepting to people of all spiritual ilks, cultural backgrounds and lifestyles.”

Bottom line: “We’re accepting of lesbian, gay and transgendered people,” Wakeley explains.

But just accepting people wasn’t enough — the church wanted to educate as well. So Wakeley and other congregation members did what Unitarians do best — they formed a committee to decide how they could address homophobia in their community.

“We’d seen the exhibit in Massachusetts,” she recalls, referring to the photo/text display Love Makes a Family that inspired the namesake book — a collection of Gigi Kaeser’s portraits and accounts of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered parents and their families from around the country. (Multiple copies of the exhibit have been traveling the nation for nearly a decade as part of the Family Diversity Projects Inc. initiative.) Wakeley and company decided Love was just what Hendersonville needed.

What Love Makes a Family offers is a glimpse of a “normal” that doesn’t fit the all-but-washed-up but still-clung-to Mayberry version. The Cook-Daniels family consists of a lesbian and her female-to-male transgendered partner who chose to give birth to the couple’s son before undergoing a gender reassignment. The Gallucci family is two dads who, through a class-action lawsuit, legally adopted their son, making New Jersey the first state to extend equal adoption rights to gay couples. The Goodrich-Cornwall-Opperman family has two moms and two dads — which sounds like the end result of many a “normal” divorced family, only this one includes a gay couple and two lesbians, now separated. The point is, as 7-year-old Liza MacKenzie Styles puts it: “A family is a bunch of people, or not so many, who love each other.”

More normal: Transsexuals speak for themselves

In her recent book, Normal (Vintage, 2002), Amy Bloom goes a step further in challenging the notion of social norms. Her short, pithy collection of essays delves into the worlds of transsexuals, cross-dressers and hermaphrodites.

Admittedly, the lineup for Bloom’s book sounds sensational — more like a late-night Discovery Channel show than a work of investigative reporting. But in fact, Bloom’s writing is sobering. Did you know that intersexuality (a term that encompasses the many combinations of male and female sexual characteristics, some of which identify a person as a hermaphrodite) is more common in infants than cystic fibrosis? Or that heterosexual cross-dressing fairs, festivals and cruises attract hundreds of attendees — many of whom, as Bloom notes, are staunchly Republican and Christian?

Normal begins with Bloom’s most compelling essay, a look at female-to-male transsexuals. When many of us think of sex changes, we imagine men becoming women, she notes. But Bloom then offers an unflinching description of the surgery, including the construction of male sexual organs as explained by Dr. Laub, a leading specialist in the field.

What makes the essay even more real — and more accessible — however are Bloom’s interviews with transitioned individuals. Lyle Monelle, 28 at the time of the interview, began taking male hormones at the impressionable age of 14 — so certain was he, and his family, of his male identity.

Michael, the last of Bloom’s subjects in the essay, offers a darker and perhaps more frank take on transsexuality. “I don’t expect people to like me, to accept me,” he states. “Some transsexuals, especially white [male-to-females], are in shock after transition. Loss of privilege, loss of status — they think people should be thrilled to work side by side with them. Well, people do not go to work in mainstream America hoping for an educational experience.”

Bloom’s work is at its best when she allows her interviews to speak for themselves instead of offering her opinions, which verge on preachy. But in proffering candid views of their private lives, the people Bloom meets succeed in narrowing the gap between “them” and “us.”

Normal is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore.


Love Makes a Family shows at the Henderson County Library’s Kaplan Auditorium (301 N. Washington St. in Hendersonville) through Friday, Oct. 31. The show is available during regular library hours. Call 697-4725 for more information. The exhibit goes up again Sunday, Nov. 2 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (2021 Kanuga Road, in Hendersonville). For hours and information, call 693-3157.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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