Two new, very different memoirs continue to expand our sense of what an LGBT family looks like. One is the story of a lesbian mom struggling against her son’s anti-gay Catholic school while grappling with her relationship to the church and to her own mother. The other is about a butch lesbian and her experience being pregnant—the print version of a graphic novel first serialized online.
Michelle Theall’s “Teaching the Cat to Sit” (Gallery Books) is a beautifully crafted tale about the power—and pitfalls—of faith, family and love. Theall, the editor-in-chief of Alaska Magazine and an award-winning adventure and fitness writer, weaves the story of attempting to raise her son Catholic with the story of her own childhood and coming out. She deftly intertwines anecdotes that take us back to her childhood in Bible Belt Texas and forward to her life as a parent in Colorado, moving us through her Catholic upbringing, sexual abuse by a neighbor, coming out during college in the 1980s, meeting her now-partner Jill, and adopting their son.
The narrative begins in Colorado in 2009, when she and Jill are first sensing a reluctance from their priest to baptize their son. The boy also attends the Catholic school run by the same church, and the family has been welcomed by the school community. The priest, however, eventually warns them that he is reconsidering whether they can stay, since being gay goes against Catholic teaching.
Despite the insult, Theall hesitates to withdraw their son, knowing that it would hurt her strongly Catholic mother, who also suffers from depression. Theall has struggled her whole life for her mother’s acceptance, and their relationship nearly ended when Theall came out to her.
Through her story, she shows us the harm—to individuals as well as entire families—of a view of the world in which lesbian and gay people exist only as sinners and deviants. While she pulls no punches about the church’s hypocrisy and failings, her book is far from a condemnation of religion.
A. K. Summers’ “Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag” (Soft Skull Press) has an entirely different style and tone—irreverent and often caustic, with bold images that both capture the details of everyday life and exaggerate its incongruities. This is not a children’s comic. The tale, first serialized starting in 2011 at the Web comic collective site Act-i-vate, is semi-autobiographical, with the protagonist Teek standing in for Summers.
Summers grew up in California and Georgia, went to college in Ohio and Illinois, and now lives in Rhode Island. Trained as a printmaker, she is the creator of the comic zine Negativa: Chicago’s Astute Lezbo Fantasy Mag, as well as several short animated films.
She was adopted herself, which gave her “an emotional longing to experience a biological relationship to somebody,” she told me in an interview in 2011. Getting pregnant—often seen as the ultimate womanly act—took on different overtones when she did so as a butch woman, however. “Pregnant Butch,” she said, “is about my attempts to hold on to my butch self and also to allow myself to be transformed by the process [of pregnancy], and where that could occur and be positive.”
Summers explores what it means to be butch, the lack of positive role models, and how she and her partner negotiated their relationship and roles as they headed toward parenthood. She charts her changing interactions with friends and neighbors as they encountered the dissonance of her masculine gender expression and her pregnant belly.
Summers writes in her introduction that she thinks there has been a shift in the 10 years since she was pregnant. Young queers are now less likely to use the term “butch.” Nevertheless, Summers felt it was important to capture her experience, both to ”make the unseen visible” and to document a point in time before the enormous positive shift in public attitudes toward gay people in the last few years.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian, an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.