Saturday, December 31, 2016

Noah's Queer Rainbow: Conversations with my Gender Fluid Child

"Be fruitful and multiply,
 abound on the earth and multiply in it"

Genesis 9:7

The Rainbow

I was jogging down the running path with our youngest riding beside me on their scooter. "We have to get home," I cried, "the rain is coming! The rain is coming!" Looking behind us, beyond the little drops of rain that came plunking down, the setting sun lit the clouds in a deep red with halos of autumn orange and gold.

"The fire sky will get us!" panted N. Bahr as they pushed in front of me on their scooter. For a few minutes we traded turns in the lead as I ran and they rode under trees and over a small bridge spanning a swelling river. We passed urban decay intermixed between and old barns. Periodically a mural would flash by, signatures of the Rails to Trails program that had reclaimed this stretch of old train route with paved paths and art. Just as we cross the river, the trees overhead opened up and before us rose the most brilliant and defined rainbow that I've ever seen. The rainbow began in the direction of our house, vaulted the sky, and then came down on the other side in the direction of the church where my partner is pastor.

"I need to get to the rainbow," they coughed in between labored breathes and laughter. "I'll beat you there!" I jogged until I could see the crest of the rainbow then stopped to just gaze. "You go!" I cried after them. "Keep riding Rainbow Rider! Keep riding!" As I caught my breath and watched my child race onward, I noticed a bigger, fainter rainbow framing the well defined one. Down the road Rainbow Rider stopped and waited for me. "Why did you quit running?" they asked. "Look!" I said, pointing to the second rainbow which looked like an bigger, older parent giving the brighter one a hug. For some time we just stood there staring, letting ourselves get wet. Rainbow Rider pulled close to me, letting me get the worst of the rain and cold wind. Then with a shove, they set back down the path. "Come on!" they cried. And we were off again, the Fire Sky behind and the rainbows ahead.

Where the running path meets the street on which we live, Rainbow Rider had stopped at a bench to catch their breath. By the time I arrived, the rainbows in the sky had faded into twilight. Taking the seat next to them, I said a rest was a good idea. "Can I ask you a question?" they prefaced before continuing right into the query. "When will you leave next?" I thought about my calendar for the semester. I had diminished my speaking engagements and workshops so we could save for the wedding, plus getting some writing done. "I have just one in a few weeks," I answered. "I'll only be gone for a weekend," I promised. "I miss you when you are gone," they told me, staring down and ahead across the path. "I'll always come back to you," I told them. This was an affirmation of a promise I made a few nights earlier when they asked me what would happen if Mama R. got sick and died. They had wanted to know if I would still be there to care for them. "Always," I said. Then they asked what if someone attacked me with a gun or knife and I died. "My love for you won't go away," I said, "even though you won't see me around." That was what was going on in my mind as we sat on the bench. I could only guess what was in theirs. 

"The rainbow is gone," they observed, getting up from the bench. "But not Rainbow Rider!" I said jumping up. They gave me a defiant competitive look. "I'll beat you home!" they said as they pushed off down the road. Yes, they did beat me home.


M.W. Bychowski with child under rainbow

The Covenant

Memories are funny things, they are vehicles that remind us that we are creatures at once of time and out of time. There are people that we are that no longer emerge into the world. The children that once thought our thoughts have been replaced by adults who remember the children's thoughts. The world that made us has passed and we live in a new strange world. We can be caught in the dysphoria of the then and the now, observing both, feeling both, existing in both, yet somehow discordantly not entirely in either. Such moments with our child as running through the rain, under mother and child rainbows will be with me as long as I live yet in another form. The distinctiveness of the moment fades away from me as another version rises to meet me full of meanings and connects that speak to my current concerns. The work of putting these oral conversations and histories into text works like a rainbow from scripture, to inscribe them in the sky like a covenant. The world changes, yet this will be a last reminder of a hard and hopeful moment. Even as the tone of the words shift to match our current moods and modes of speech, yet the promises we made will remain. I will return to these promises as I promised to return to my child. Time moves on and moves us with it, yet the covenant, signs, and memories bring us back together again. We change and yet we remain bound together. Previously, I considered the flood and ark as dialectical movements that carry us forward while retaining the past. Now, we might consider the rainbow as a sign that moves us backward while retaining our progress. By these covenants and constant returns we can judge how far we have gone. By these rainbows we recall where we have been and where we are going.

Noah's rainbow spans time. The bow in the sky is a covenant about the future but also a solid line that demarcates the past as a time that will never come again. In Genesis, God declares a promise to all those on the Ark, "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11-17). What God has done will not happen again. New terrors, new challenges but not the same as before. God, says C.S. Lewis, never does the same thing twice. As a contract, God sets the promise of change in the foundation of the most unchanging thing, God's self. This is a contradiction that runs through our lives, especially those of trans or queer children. The biggest changes on the surface of our lives can be made to reflect an unrevealed constant within us. Alternatively, deep shifts in our hearts can occur while our faces remain static and cold. Destruction is one face of change. It looks back and honors the absences that remain with us. The other face of change is growth. It looks forward at what might arise in this new world. This side of the rainbow comes with the covenant, "be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it" (Genesis 9:7). God promises new terrors but also new fruits that are not the same as the old. These fruits may be unrecognizable to those who have survived the flood. We look for the goods we know and lack, too often at the expense of the goods we have been given. These fruits do not replace the old in the sense of erasing them. They are a turn in the road that continues on but in a different way. They may lead us across horizons that were not those we once gazed toward. The loss is real but so is the growth. This does not give the comfort we might want it to give. The rainbow after the flood is both a tragedy and a hope.

Millenia after Noah's story was first set on record, the Rainbow of the Covenant was claimed by the trans and queer community. The rainbow flag was adopted by the LGBTQI movement in the 1970's, after Harvey Milk reportedly challenged the flag Gilbert Baker to create a symbol for the movement. The design was inspired by Julie Garland's song, "Over the Rainbow," which was being played on the radio during the Stonewall Riots because of the singer's recent death. Baker also suggest that the flag in part reflected the colors of the free love sexual liberation movement. The flag rose to prominence after a series of tragic moments, the attack on the Stonewall Inn, Harvey Milk's assassination, and the AIDS epidemic. Like Noah's rainbow, the flag rose in the sky to mark a great loss in the world and to promise perseverance into the future. After the terrible culling of the community, the flag became a way the survivors declared that they would fight to make sure such a horror happened again in the same way. This pledge is not made in unthinking faith. We do not passively depend on divine forces to intervene on our behalf. Even Noah's rainbow covenant comes with the command that none should shed the blood of fellow humans. This means holding accountable those who enact violence against us, either directly as by the assault of bullets and raids or passively by denying life-saving care. "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed," instructs God (Genesis 9:6). Scripture will later call for mercy on the side of the wronged avengers, yet the rainbow here is as strict and cold as one that has recently suffered great loss and injustice. Violence incites violence. Riots are the voice of those who have been silenced too long by their oppressors. Yet more than anything, the rainbow flag shares the sentiment on which the command is given, "for in his own image God made humankind" (Genesis 9:6). Each life is a unique image of the divine and irreplaceable. Violence done against the other is violence done against the self. The flag is not only a statement that "I" am queer but that we are queer as humans. There is an ignored and silenced queer element in our community that needs to be given a voice. At its heard, the flag is both a threat and a promise.

The anxiety of those who feel restless at the rainbow flag flying in our home is warranted. The flag is a sign of our restlessness. The flag is a sign that violence will not be endured and the status quo will not remain. The rainbow flag was the second flag my family bought for our flag room. Although the Black Lives Matter is growing in prominence, the Pride Flag remains the most recognizable of the three. Shortly after we began flying the rainbow, a young local man was making a few bucks shoveling our driveway. When the Reverend went down to thank him and offer him some money, he gestured to the flag and asked, "are you a part of the family?" At first she didn't know exactly what he meant. "I'm a B," he added. She thanked him, told him the story of our family, and said he was welcome anytime to visit our home or her Church. This is often how queer community fulfills the incentive to "be fruitful and multiply." Not always by procreation are new members or worth added. As Kathryn Bond Stockton writes in the Queer Child, queer family often grows sideways. We join together out of the masses. Those who do not fit into the normative world find one another and create their own garden of life and liberty. In this way, the rainbow is not only a sign of the command to multiply, it is a vehicle by which growth occurs. The flag was flown to bear such fruit in the form of new relationships. Among a community of oppressive and prejudiced norms, the flag tells others who would resist that we are still here. In a community that tolerates gays and lesbians only if they conform to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic heterosexual standards, the flag is a way we remain queer. The flag insists that we may live together but we are not all the same. The flag as the statement, "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" is well known. But in times of loss and danger, the flag is also the statement, "we're still here, we're still queer, whether or not you are used to it yet." The flag refuses peace, if that means submitting to unjust and oppressive norms. The flag insists that without justice there will be no peace. The rainbow remains both a sign of tragedy and hope, of threat and promise, of loss and change.


M.W. Bychowski's flag room

The Ankh

"Do you know what this symbol means?" I asked our youngest as they flopped down on the mattress we keep beside the bed for when they get scared at night and want to be close to us. 

"Yes!" they replied. "Peace."

"Close, it means Life," I said. "This is a daily reminder that life goes on and on, even when things seem scary and like nothing will be the same again."

"Do you really think life goes on and on?" They asked.

"I do." I replied sitting down on the mattress next to them. "But not always in the way it has before. Things change."

"Do you think we go away forever?" they asked.

"I'm not sure where exactly but I think we will be together," I confirmed.

"I think we get to come back and live a different life," they added.

"That is possible," I muse. Then getting a playful grin on my face, I began to tickle them on the side. "You could become a dog..." I tickle the other side. "You could become a bird..." I tickle under their arm.

"Or I could come back and be a boy," they said once their giggles settle down. "Or transgender."

"Those are great things to be," I told them and gave them a big momma bear hug until they pushed away imitating a gagging sound. The moment of anxiety and ponderousness had passed. The conversation about life and death, change and identity had culminated in something between cuddling and wrestling. Now they were just trying to pin me to the ground. Whatever life or lives lay ahead of this child, what is certain is that they will consider it deeply, bring their loved ones close, giggle ecstatically and fight ferociously. Those are great things for all of us to be. 



Read Part 1



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