In my life as a psychology professor I used to talk quite a bit about tokens. Given that I was a prejudice and stereotyping researcher I wasn’t talking about the fair. The literature on tokenism (yes, that is a term) originated as an effort to understand the experience of the lone racial minority in majority environments, but it extends well beyond race. If you are the only one of your kind (with respect to race, religion, sexuality, gender…. the list goes on) in a group, you are a token.
The research on tokens reveals that (surprise, surprise) the experience is an exhausting one. As the lone point of reference for your kind, there is a tremendous pressure to represent your group well. Even the task of representing your group “well” is overwhelming, because what does “well” mean? Does it mean accurately or favorably or aspirationaly? And then there is of course the impossibility of any one person serving as a stand in for an entire group. It’s a set-up. Unfortunately, it’s also just the way it is. Categorization is one of the primary ways that our brains make sense of information, so until people having significant interactions with people who are considerably different from them becomes the norm, tokenism is here to stay.
So, how does this relate to me? Well, because I am THE lesbian Mom. (THE in the only one sense, not the be all and end all sense). Although we are blessed to have more than a handful of gay couple friends with kids in our very own town, the bulk of our interactions are with people for whom we are “the lesbian couple with kids”.
This token thing is new to me and I can’t say that I like it. I’m not entirely new to being the only one of something in a group, but I am new to feeling the pressure to represent. I’ve been the only out lesbian all sorts of time and I am frequently the only vegetarian at the table and I was even the only non-racial minority in my last department (making me the token white girl!), but none of these experiences have felt like this one. There is something about being a Mama with a wife that is different.
Likely due to the fact that how our family is perceived will have real relevance in the lives of our boys, I find myself much more attentive to how I am presenting myself. As the only gay family at Yogi’s school and the only lesbian Mama in my Mom’s group, I am hyper conscious of the fact that there is some weight on my shoulders. Not just the weight of creating the best environment for my own boys, but of functioning as the only gay family that many people in my community know. As a notoriously low self-monitor, all of this analysis is wearing me out. Now I can be quite consumed with the minutiae of my interactions with people who are close to me, but I have no experience with being concerned with what acquaintances think. Suddenly I practically have a checklist:
- Am I being friendly and approachable?
- Am I communicating in a way that lets people know that they can ask me questions about my family* if they have them?
- Am I being straightforward about the structure of my family without being “in your face” (whatever that means)?
- Am I responding to questions in a way that lets Yogi know that these kinds of questions are routine and nothing to be ashamed of?
I guess what I’m saying is that life as the token lesbian Mom is exhausting. The weight (no matter how much of it I create myself) is heavy. It makes me even more grateful for the spaces in my life where I’m not the only one. Within our church, our gay parents group and even our neighborhood we are blissfully part of the herd. I am thrilled each time I see or meet a gay family because I know that their very presence is helping to make life easier for Yogi and Monkey.
Is this another example of my tendency to get analytical when I’m anxious or have you felt this way?
* I’ve had more than one Mom ask me for ideas about how to respond to their child’s questions about why Yogi doesn’t have a Daddy.