realman_pb_cover_FINAL_PRWhy They’re Called Passports

Partial transcript of a telephone conversation I had with a representative of the U.S. Department of State ¹ [after having my passport renewal application rejected and returned in the mail]:

ME: I don’t understand what the problem is. You have my fee, you have my correctly filled-out application, and you have a letter from a surgeon saying that I had sexual reassignment surgery and have lived as a man for several years.

I learnt a lot about mistakes when I was a literacy teacher.  Literacy teachers aren’t just role models in terms of reading and writing — they’re also responsible for modeling self-esteem.  In fact, back when I was a literacy teacher, I’d intentionally misspell a word on the board, then look at it sideways.  “Hmm, did I spell that right?” I’d muse.  “Tom, would you check the dictionary?”  Not only would Tom leap at that dictionary, but he’d also love telling me how to spell the word correctly.  I’d correct my spelling, publicly, without any shame, and the more I did this, the more the kids would check their own spellings and help one another other out, instead of bullying one another.  Peace and much learning ensued.

Mistakes are how we learn.  It’s the same with sex and gender.  And in a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to remember that.

I was musing about this when I read that sex columnist Dan Savage had been glitterbombed at the University of Oregon while he was giving a talk.  The glitterbombers, who called themselves the “Dan Savage Welcoming Committee,” announced that Savage was transphobic, a misogynist and a rape-apologist.  But Savage doesn’t dodge such accusations.   “I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues,” Savage recently said.  “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. Fifteen years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”

What I like about this is what it models for the rest of us:  We all slip up.  We all make mistakes.  What’s more important is that we try, learn, grow.

A friend of mine got upset recently when we were discussing the “gender binary” (the myth that there are just two genders and nothing in between).  We were talking about men’s and women’s restrooms, and whether, today, we needed them to be separate.  (My friend, incidentally, had always believed they should be separate).  I mentioned how hard it is to be a transgender male (for instance) in that situation.  Do you go into the women’s room, when you identify as male but are female in terms of biological sex?  Confusing, right?  Going to the restroom becomes a stressful experience.  People glare if you use the women’s because you are clearly male-identified, but you might have to wait for the stall if you go into the men’s.

In response, my friend felt terrible.  She hadn’t intended to leave anyone out.  But I reminded her that there was nothing to feel bad about.  When society teaches us untruths, it’s society’s fault.  And this is why we have to keep airing these issues and making mistakes, so we’re able to learn.

But while kids are attending sex education classes where the teacher is scared to speak, the students are afraid of being mocked, and the lessons themselves keeps to a careful script, how will they ever learn to ask the stupid question, receive a thoughtful answer, and change their minds?  They need to see adult role-models slipping up and owning it.  Not with condoms, consent and safe sex (those are basic building blocks) but with political correctness, sexual skills, and gender binaries galore.  They need to understand that making mistakes is how we grow.  Intellectually, they need to be adventurers, thirsty to explore, happy to learn.

So let’s go out there, adult people, and not blush terribly when we muddle up our pronouns, or say “fuck” when we didn’t plan to, or feel confused about the difference between water-based and gel-based lube.  Let’s get out there, and in it, and muck ourselves up.  Let’s ask the stupid question.

Because if we won’t grow, who will?


Nerd Camp

By Irene Zion


As a kid, Victor had glorious times at summer camp. He claims his best childhood memories to this very day are from summer camp. He still talks about it. Marilyn Monroe came up to his camp with her husband Arthur Miller to visit his kids one year on parents’ weekend.  Since Victor and his friends were just dense little kids, they treated her just like any old mother.

He claims his very best year was the year that polio was rampant in the United States and there wasn’t a parents’ weekend for fear of spreading the poliovirus. This was before the Salk vaccine. All you could do was try to avoid getting infected. It was really serious; kids were getting really sick and ending up in iron lung machines. Kids were being crippled and dying. Even today, I don’t think anyone knows why it hit kids so much harder than it did adults. The campers were mercifully oblivious and loved being free of their parents for the whole summer long.

Victor began going to camp when he was five years old and continued for nine years. He keeps in touch with campmates he met when he was five years old. That’s sixty years! He wanted our kids to have the same wonderful experience that he had.

Benjamin at first went to a regular sports-type camp. He went for three summers until he, himself, researched other alternatives. He hated sports camp. He said it was dirty there. Of course, camp was outside in the woods and there is undoubtedly dirt there. He was in a bunk, not a tent, but he found that to be too dirty also. He told us he would rather be doing math and science. So, the next year he went to science camp.

He preferred science camp, but it turned out that science camp was also outdoors in the woods. He wasn’t happy there, either. “It isn’t rigorous enough for me. It’s too easy and it’s too dirty,” he said. So he only went to science camp for one summer.

Then I did some research. He needed a camp sort of environment that was indoors, clean and let him do science or math all day. I found out that Northwestern University had a summer program for kids who could pass the required tests. Benjamin always passed any tests he ever took. So the summer of his 8th grade year he started taking college-level math at Northwestern every summer. He was besotted. He proudly called it “Nerd Camp.” He was in his element. He went to “Nerd Camp” again after his 9th grade year. Loved every minute. Made life-long friends there. Ben wanted to go again after his 10th grade year also. We gave him the application to fill out.

Understand, the only reason that I read through the application was to fix spelling errors. Ben can’t spell. Seriously, he can’t spell at all. He’s entirely missing the spelling section of his brain. Mind you, he always aced his spelling tests in elementary school, but the moment the test was over, the correct spelling was lost in the ether. He could only learn short-term spelling.

So. (Pay attention, here.) I’m proofreading his application. I get to the part where he had to fill in whom to call in an emergency. Ben wrote in his roommate, “Will.” I read on. Then the application asked the relation of the emergency contact to the applicant. Ben wrote: “Lover.”


I explained to Ben that the emergency contact had to be the people who were responsible for his medical care, which would be his parents. He acquiesced without a word and erased “Will” and “Lover” and replaced it with Victor and me and “Parents.”

But then we were in a pickle. We agonized over how to best explain to him that his gayness did not matter to us. We loved him just exactly as he was. We told him as much. But we hadn’t encountered anything like this before, so I read up on being a good parent to a gay son. I read everything available at the time.

We questioned all his siblings. They all knew that Ben was unusual, but they were all surprised to hear that Ben was Gay. We instructed them on the importance of validating him, reassuring him and encouraging him. We spoke about how best to comfort him when he came across teasing or worse. We spent weeks preparing the family to make Ben feel good about himself, no matter what might come his way.

Each of his siblings came to us at different times and expressed doubt. No one was sure, but they just didn’t see Ben as being Gay. Finally, after tiptoeing around Ben for all this time, the kids just asked him outright if he were Gay. He laughed. He said he only wrote that as an experiment. He wanted to see how we would react and was very pleased with how effective his ploy was. He was delighted with the outcome.

So. If anyone needs to know what to do when they first discover that their son is Gay, ask us. We already did all the research. It turns out that we just don’t personally need it after all.