I will always remember one of our first family vacations in the late 1990’s with our son, Jordan when he was about a year old. My wife, Norma Jean and I, were thrilled about our planned winter trip to Aruba with our baby boy. Norma and I were domestic partners then, as same-sex marriage wasn’t legal yet in New York. We were two women, deliriously in love and happy to take Jordan to Aruba, a place we had traveled to as a couple and that holds many special memories for us. This was a long-planned getaway; we were eager for baby Jordan to explore sun-drenched beaches and play in warm Aruba sand for a few days.
Soon before our trip, we received Jordan’s new birth certificate listing us both as his parents. Norma and Juliet. Juliet and Norma. Less than two years before Jordan was born, the New York State Court of Appeals had ruled on a case that affirmed same-sex families like ours. The Court’s decision set a new legal precedent in late 1995 and by the time Jordan was born in 1997, we were early beneficiaries of this new law that recognized same-sex families like ours. Jordan’s new birth certificate was possible because of this law; we loved that he shared this piece of us, with that hyphen lovingly placed between our two last names. The Howard-Jennings Family was now officially ready for our first family adventure with our sweet baby boy!
Soon after landing in Aruba, we went through customs. The customs agent saw our adorable little family and asked: “Which one of you is the mother?” We were so excited and answered in unison, “We both are!” Giddy with laughter and joy, we were taken aback when the agent frowned; I remember there was an actual scowl on his face. “No that is impossible,” he scolded us. “This child cannot have two mothers. That’s impossible!” he repeated, his voice increasingly louder and more animated. He seemed genuinely angry at us. This stranger was incredulous that the three of us could be a family. Up until that moment, we had been so joyful, so it literally took us a few minutes to gather ourselves together to realize he actually believed what he was saying. “We are both his mothers,” we urged him to believe us, eager to get to our hotel. It was clear he wasn’t going to let us get past him. The hurt and shock we felt at his disgust towards us is something I will always remember. Over nineteen years later and I still recall the look of disdain on his face. He taunted us, demanding “If you are both supposedly his mothers, then show me his birth certificate!” It felt like a threat. We both spent a few nerve-wracking minutes searching through our backpacks for Jordan’s birth certificate. It was clear the agent wanted to shame us; his tone demeaning and filled with vitriol. He probably felt he would be vindicated once we pulled out the “birth certificate.” I remember Norma was the first to find Jordan’s birth certificate; she unfolded it with a quickness I had not expected, nearly pushing it into the agent’s face: “See we are both listed right here as his parents! Both of our names are on his damn birth certificate!” I remember her voice was strong and resilient, as if to say “Take this motherfucker!” I wanted to kiss her right then and there, but I knew we had to first get safely to our destination. The agent took his sweet time, inspecting the certificate, searching it over and over. It felt like forever as we waited for him. We had no idea what he was searching for. All I know is that in that moment, Norma and I were furious and also grateful, that we had documentation of our family unit. He eventually let us go on; his disgust so tangible, we could feel it. After, we both took turns holding Jordan, squeezing our baby to our chest and covering him with kisses; so thankful to all be together. We were so angry that tears welled up in our eyes as we walked out into the hot sun. We had never in a million years expected to experience some stranger’s hate and homophobia on our very first family trip to a place that we loved. In retrospect, I think there was so much our family learned from that early experience of being publicly shamed for being two women in love and daring to have a family. I think it was the beginning of learning to walk through the world proudly, not just as a lesbian couple, but also as a family unit.
Some years later when Jordan was in second grade, it was our turn to stand up for him when a teacher tried to shame him. During a choice time in his classroom, he chose to draw, a favorite pastime of his. He sketched a person with his pencil, first drawing a deep mustache on their oval face, then he erased the mustache, so there was a smudge, barely a trace of a mustache; next he drew dangling hoop earrings on the person and labeled his drawing: “T R A N S J E N D E R” at the top of the page. Like any true artist, he signed his name and dated it. His teacher walked around the classroom to see what each student was working on; except she stopped when she got to Jordan’s desk, immediately scooped up his drawing and told him to step outside the classroom. Her tone was stern; it was clear Jordan was in trouble. He was a good boy who had always been a great student, so he was scared when his favorite teacher told him he wasn’t allowed to use “that” word. “What word?” Jordan asked innocently. “Transgender”, the teacher said. She told him he might even have to go to the Principal’s office because of what he had drawn. He began crying because he remembered his Mamas had always told him, whatever he did, to make sure he never got called into the Principal’s office. He asked his teacher what was wrong with the word Transjender (which he spelled with a “j”) and tried his best to explain that his family had lots of transgender friends at their church. The teacher just placed his drawing in a manila envelope, stuck two neon yellow square post-its to his drawing, with a note addressed to his Mamas stating “Jordan drew this today. I told him “Transgender” is a word that is not allowed in our classroom. You might want to discuss this with him tonight.” We did discuss it with Jordan. We told him it was one of the most beautiful pictures he had ever drawn and two days later we framed it because we loved it so much. We told him he had done nothing wrong; we agreed with him that many of our friends and chosen family at Unity Fellowship Church were transgender and same gender loving and assured him those were all words that he was allowed to use. He smiled so hard when he realized he wasn’t in trouble and hugged us both. There would be no shaming of our family allowed.
Early the next morning, Norma and I showed up at Jordan’s school and met with his teacher before class. We told her that transgender was not a bad word. We explained it’s a word that is celebrated in our household and we asked her why she pulled Jordan out of his classroom. She admitted Jordan’s drawing made her uncomfortable and said if other children had seen his drawing and the word transjender, she would have to explain it to them; she admitted she didn’t know what to say to them. She apologized to us, but we told her it was Jordan that deserves an apology. Next, she apologized to Jordan, admitted to him she was wrong and assured him he wasn’t in trouble. Jordan immediately forgave her, but we all learned another valuable family lesson that day. Shame on anybody who tries to shame anyone in our family. Every time you try to shame us, we come back stronger and more unified.
Today younger queer friends of ours, who have never had to deal with those early queer family struggles and attempts to be shamed, have called us “trailblazers.” While it is true that we now have many more laws that protect LGBTQ families in 2017, we are also acutely aware that in today’s political climate, we must constantly fight for and speak up for our LGBTQ rights. Today, we couldn’t be prouder of our sweet family. Our youngest son, Nicholas, is now an active member of his middle school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), Jordan went on to become the President of his high school’s GSA and is now a brilliant out queer black man who speaks up for LGBTQ rights on his college campus and the two Mamas are still here, stronger and more unified than ever. There’s no shame in our game!
JP Howard’s debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), was a 2016 Lambda Literary finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*). JP is a 2018 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program. She was a 2017 Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist and is featured in the 2017 Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press. JP was the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea and Brooklyn Arts Council. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a NY-based forum offering women writers a monthly venue to collaborate and is an Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review online. JP’s poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets, Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, and The Best American Poetry Blog. JP holds a BA from Barnard College, an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.