We had a full house. Three generations of family, human and animal in a 750-square-foot house.
My parents had agreed to fly to Seattle to dogsit while my partner Cassie and I attended a Vermont artist residency.
Shortly afterwards, our youngest child Clover decided that they wanted to move across the country to live with us full-time. We adjusted to welcome them into our lives, settling into the rhythms of newly being together — preparing meals that our newly-pescatarian kiddo could eat and incorporating homeschooling into our daily schedule.
In the days leading up to my parents’ arrival, I was nervous about what would unfold with so much kin in such a tight space together.
My parents hadn’t been in the same space with Clover for years — the last time had been when a 6-year-old Clover asked my mother why her face was shaped the way it was. The moment surprised me because Clover was familiar with me and I had assumed that they would accept my mother the same way they had me.
At the same time, I had hoped that my parents would accept Clover and their older trans sister Myra because I was their co-parent, but I was disappointed when my mother engaged Clover and Myra with a friendly yet distant air, as if the kids were merely in her orbit coincidentally for a few days and nothing more.
My parents were not excited when I entered into a partnership with a white trans woman with two young children. Though my blended trans family has been part of my life for the last ten years, it has often felt as if my parenting life — where Cassie and I co-parent Clover and Myra — existed in one sphere while my life as a child and sibling in my family of origin existed in another. I’ve never felt as if my partner and our kids were accepted as kin in the way that my brother, his wife, son, and dog were on our weekly family calls.
When my uncle and godfather recently passed and I saw cousins and other relatives at his funeral, I realized that many of my biological family had no idea the reality of my daily life. When Cassie and Clover joined our family call, it was the first time many of my extended family members had even been aware that I was co-parenting two kids.
When I picked up my parents from the airport, I reminded them of Clover’s “they/them” pronouns.
“Does that mean Clover is not a boy, not a girl? Clover has no gender?” my father asked.
“Sometimes when people are non-binary, they identify as no gender, but not always. Sometimes they feel more fluid,” I responded.
“But Clover is a boy by sex? I mean, Clover was born a boy?”
“Sex is complex. It might be better to say that Clover was assigned male at birth because what sex you are can be a bit more complex than that.”
“How do they dress? Cassie dresses like a girl and you dress like a boy.”
“Jeans and pants and a shirt. Neutral, I guess.”
It was surprising to me how mundane and yet momentous this conversation felt at that moment.
My parents had never directly asked those kinds of questions about my own identity and I realized that I had grown used to swerving between incendiary, dramatic statements (“If you marry Cassie, you will not be part of this family anymore!”) and circling around subjects to avoid confrontation (“Altering your body isn’t good. Be happy with what you have received from nature.”)
A few days before this conversation, I told my parents that Clover was non-binary to prepare them before they interacted with them in-person. I also reminded them I too identified this way.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said my dad as if in agreement, although neither parent ever uses my correct pronouns.
Now in the small house, I notice that my parents engage in the action of catching what they say in relation to Clover a moment after the wrong word has left their mouth, correcting themselves like so many of my colleagues and acquaintances do when they misgender me.
We return home with our dogs Pepper and Benny in tow. My parents have been learning how to walk and feed them. I have been nervous about how my parents will handle our rambunctious dogs who sleep with us in our bed. Our Chiweenie, Benny, is determined to sit in my mother’s lap.
“Grandma says no. Grandma says sit here,” my mother says to Benny, imitating him with a laugh.
I am surprised by that word “grandma” entering into our space in relation to a loved one of mine, a word that I’ve only heard her use in conjunction with blood kin.
I feel as I’ve never felt before: that there’s a village in my house of both blood and bonded kin. Food arriving made by all hands on the kitchen table, to be shared. Adventures and stories relayed. For the first time, I look into the future and see the possibility of all my family together at a meal, comfortable in our own skin, called by our own chosen names, sharing space in the same story.
Notes: Clover and Myra are pseudonyms. I first met Clover when they were 3-years-old. They changed their name in the last year to reflect their gender identity. I refer to Clover as “they/them” to reflect their pronouns at the time of this publication. I first met Myra when she was 6-years-old. She changed her name in the last year to reflect her gender identity. I refer to Myra as “she/her” to reflect her pronouns at the time of this publication.
Descended from ocean dwellers, Ching-In Chen is a genderqueer Chinese American writer, community organizer and teacher. They are author of The Heart’s Traffic: a novel in poems and recombinant (2018 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry winner) as well as chapbooks to make black paper sing and Kundiman for Kin :: Information Retrieval for Monsters (Leslie Scalapino Finalist). Chen is co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. They have received fellowships from Kundiman, Lambda, Watering Hole, Can Serrat, Imagining America, Jack Straw Cultural Center and the Intercultural Leadership Institute as well as the Judith A. Markowitz Award for Exceptional New LGBTQ Writers. A community organizer, they have worked in Asian American communities in San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside, Boston, Milwaukee, Houston and Seattle and are currently a member of the Massage Parlor Outreach Project. They teach at University of Washington Bothell. www.chinginchen.com