Everyone in my building knows I’m a dyke: largely because I have lived in the same Brooklyn building for more than a decade.
Everyone in my building knows I’m a dyke: largely because I have lived in the same Brooklyn building for more than a decade. In that time I have been the odd girl with the wild hair, the barefoot woman comparing mangoes and the flesh of a woman on Broadway, the quirky lesbian who changes girlfriends every two years or so, and finally, I thought, established homosexual neighbor, part of eclectic landscape, known, tolerated, even accepted. Over time, I have become a fixture in this big old community that is quickly suffering the ravages of gentrification. Old women from the Caribbean are used to my flirting with them on the elevator; telling them they are not allowed to look this fly on such a nice summer day, “Don’t you know lesbians live in the building, Mrs. Johnson?” They usually blush, and beam, and tell me I should behave, “Don’t you see I’m too old for anybody (man or woman) to look at me dat way, child.”
The Black boys who grew up on the block are respectful. Their eyes may light up and ogle the gorgeous women who come in and out of the multicolored apartment on the 4th floor, but they are always careful of what they say out loud. They tell me how much they like the view, but assure me they don’t have sticky fingers. The old men, are reserved, but polite. The plethora of younger, middle-class, Asian, queer identified hipster folks, who pay way too much for these under-serviced apartments wave and smile and tell me how pleased they are to be living in a building that already has an LGBT person. The new White residents, complete with alabaster skin, blond hair and designers dogs confess quietly in the foyer that they’ve read my book, or seen one of my shows. Friends in the building tell me of the gossip they’ve heard about the kooky Jamaican girl in the lime green cargo pants who only dates women. In a pleasant sort of way, I thought myself done with coming out, especially inside my own communities.
Then I got a baby bump, and promptly perplexed my collection of very diverse friends, neighbors and acquaintances.
The moment I began to show people started doing under-cover double takes, especially in the elevator. The building is old, so the ride up is very, very slow. People sort of talk normally to me, but they no longer look in my face, or at my boobs. They stare straight ahead and glance sideways at my protruding stomach every ten seconds or so. Not one person has taken the plunge and asked outright if I was pregnant. Not even when I have been sick, and spitting up in Ziploc bags, did anyone query why I was hurling into a plastic bag two minutes before I got into my apartment. People just talked about the weather, or the economy, or the fact that the new white people are complaining that the heat in the building is too high and now management has turned down the heat and the rest of us Black folk are freezing.
Finally I got tired of the weird glances and started explaining, unasked, that I was 4 months pregnant, or 5 months along, or expecting a baby in January, and that I am on bed rest and that I have been vomiting for the entire 7 months I have been knocked up. People try to hide how surprised they are. I can see them swallow the questions and blink back how confused they feel. I almost enjoy seeing them journey from “Aren’t you a lesbian?” to “Are you going with men now?” to “Aww, shizzle, I can’t ask her any of those questions so I might as well smile and nod.”
One woman I told shrieked, in an eerily squeaky voice, “Lord Jesus! I dunno why this elevator smelling so stuffy these days. I think I go make a complaint to management about it today.” Then she told me she liked my shoes and hastily exited the lift.
The silence is immediate when I happen upon a group of tenants gathered in the lobby. Everyone nods and waves and watches as I slowly waddle my way to the car parked on the street out front.
Most of the other LGBT faces offer up congratulations, until they find out I’m doing it without a partner or co-parent. Lips are pursed. Sighs are delivered. And then silence ensues. They don’t approve. Some of the braver ones go on to say, “Well, I would never choose to do it that way — not that I think anything is wrong with it. It just doesn’t seem right to me. But I suppose if you believe you can do it…” That long pause is usually followed with questions about why I didn’t adopt. Apparently, single parenthood is okay for kids without anyone, but somehow unacceptable as a biological choice.
Some people are less tongue-tied than my immediate neighbors. They just blurt out whatever comes to mind. “Shoot, Staceyann! I thought you was a lesbian! How dat happened?”
Straight men (especially if they are religious or of color) tend to be very offended, or very proud. “I don’t see why you need to have children by a man if you don’t want us that way. I believe you give up the right to have children if you don’t want to go with a man. You tricked some poor man into thinking you straight, didn’t you?” Or, “I knew it! I knew you would cross back over! You too sexy to be a lesbian! I mean, look at your breasts! And your shape! I knew you would find a man to turn you normal!”
Sometimes I walk away. But I really want to punch them, and stomp on them and tell them how bigoted they are. More often than not I say, in a calm voice, that I paid to have myself artificially inseminated at a fertility clinic. When I am feeling confrontational, I tell them I bought the sperm from a homeless man who needed money for his girlfriend’s third abortion. This usually sends them into cardiac arrest, which renders them silent just long enough for me to escape. Or it makes them pop a religious vein and spew a series of even more ignorant responses, about the unnaturalness of artificial methods of reproduction, how God did not intend that children be made in test tubes.
Straight women look at me with a combination of pity and anger. Many of them haven’t found Mr. Right yet, and the biological clock is also tick-tick-ticking away for them. They want children, but so many are unable to shake how they were raised to make the choice to have a child on their own. To them it’s a failure to concede the hunt for a good husband. They usually make comments like, “I’m not sure children were meant to be raised without both parents. I mean, if something happens, like say, a parent dies or the father leaves and decides not to be there for the child, well, that’s different. That’s playing the hand you were dealt. But to intentionally rob a child of a father… I just don’t know that that is a good thing.”
I even had one woman tell me that the IVF is why I am having all these problems with my pregnancy. That God must not be pleased with the artificial seed growing inside me. She went as far as to suggest the child could have birth defects and learning problems and gender confusion because I did not lay with a man as God has decreed for women to do.
It took me about ten seconds to restrain myself, to decide not to slap this person in the face for wishing ill on the child I already adore more than I have ever adored anyone. I quickly remind myself that a physical altercation with this nitwit would only further stress my already taxed body. I wish I could explain to every idiot who says some stupid crap like that, how proud I am of my choice to become pregnant. I wish I could show them how it has changed me, made me more of everything, more of myself. I am thinking of getting cards printed, with a prepared rant of some kind, complete with choice cuss words, to hand out when folks get ahead of themselves.
It’s a veritable minefield just walking outside.
I am on bed rest, and don’t get out that often, so it’s always a shock to me, to have folks respond so strongly to my pregnancy. And now that my belly is miles ahead of the rest of me everybody knows on sight about my condition, which means I have no control over people’s reactions. Old women smile and ask how far along I am. Touchy-feely, granola types touch my belly uninvited and offer to give me reiki to open some chakra or other. Strangers assume me heterosexual and ask me about my husband, or “the father.” They are quite confused when I say I used a donor, that this kid does not have a father. Even in my obstetrician’s office I have to constantly correct the nurses who insist on calling me, Mrs. Chin. One day I got so tired of it that I sat up in my chair, and from the back of the room I shouted, “Nurse, I have told you a hundred times. I am not married. I am a single lesbian who got pregnant by artificial insemination. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t even have a girlfriend. I’m doing this solo, so I’m definitely not a Mrs. anything. So could you please remember to say Ms. Chin?”
She mumbled an apology and handed me my receipt. As I walked back to my chair I reveled in the discomfort of the “legitimately pregnant” heterosexual women squirming in their chairs and avoiding my eyes. Later that day I got an email from a woman thanking me for speaking out. She is 44 years old, a lesbian and she did an IVF pregnancy. She said she could never be that out about her process, but that it made her feel visible to hear me articulate it in that space, with such pride. Her note brought home the irony of me assuming everyone in that waiting room heterosexual while I was protesting others doing the same to me.
But the coming out process continues. In ways I never imagined. Mid-examination, medical personnel will ask if daddy and I have been abstaining as is recommended for women who are placenta previa. The forms in the hospitals all require father’s name and mother’s name, never just a partner. They suggest you ask him to do this, or include him in that, or talk to him about something or the other. Friends and family members speak of my donor as the baby’s father, or the baby-daddy. There is no room for the woman who has decided to do this alone. The registries in the three places I am registered, buybuybaby.com, target.com, and babiesrus.com, all have advice for what to do with your partner as you prepare for “the shared joy of your baby’s birth.”
I find myself saying, over and over again, “No. I’m lesbian, so I don’t have a male partner. And yes, I’m single, so I will be doing this alone. And I must point out that ‘alone’ does not mean I don’t have help. I expect my vast village of friends to be a part of our lives. But there is no father, no partner, no husband, no lover. Legal responsibilities are solely mine.” Everyday, I find myself needing to affirm that this was a willing choice, that though I may have moments of doubt or loneliness, I’m largely at peace with my path. I have to assure all sorts of people that this baby is wanted, and loved and will be amply provided for with respect to diapers, and discipline and encouragement and the space to be whatever he or she can be in our not-so-traditional family.
Because difficult or not, shared joy or sweet sorrow in solitude, I am awaiting his arrival, preparing for her presence, knowing with everything in me, how proud I am, how lucky I am, to be a single, Black, self-employed, radical, progressive, lesbian artist who is 31 weeks pregnant with a child she has wanted for more than a decade. That miracle is in itself a thing to celebrate, even if the experience has sent me back, reeling, to traverse the coming out process yet another time.