The boy and I are driving back from a morning’s peregrinations — hardware store (my idea, natch), bakery (we both agreed, natch), library (his suggestion) — and we were listening to one of his favorite songs on the Free to Be You and Me album: “When We Grow Up.”
It’s sung by Diana Ross, and here are the lyrics:
When we grow up will I be pretty
Will you be big and strong
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees
Will you wear trousers twice as long
Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all
And I don’t care if you never get tall
I like what I look like and you’re nice small
We don’t have to change at all
Hey, when we grow up, will I be a lady
Will you be an engineer
If I have to wear things like perfume and gloves
I can still pull the whistle while you steer
When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy
And do what I like to do
Like makin’ noise, and makin’ faces
And makin’ friends like you
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you, and you’re still like me
I might be pretty, you might grow tall
But we don’t have to change at all
I don’t want to change, see, ’cause
I still want to be your friend
For ever and ever and ever
As we near home, my sweet boy starts to sing along with it — he of the coiled-spring body energy and the jabbing sword thrusts and the fierce, fast tears and the insistence, this morning, on bringing his sister’s fairy wings and wand with him — and a swirl of contradictory thoughts elbow one another in my head. What a beautiful vision of the future. What a load of malarkey. Everything’s changing these days; anything’s possible. Think about that tomboy girl you saw on the playground the other day: she was surely loved by her parents, who did her hair like that. My son will be pummeled — like that kid in the middle school a few scant blocks to the north of us; wait, no, like that kid at our daughter’s very own elementary school — the minute he wears his fairy skirt outside the house. “We don’t have to change at all”– how sweet. How impossible.
Change is everywhere, all the time: good, bad, indifferent. Change is what made them — my son, my daughter — emerge from nothing but a nebula of hope and love and trust in our friends’ enormous generosity into two real, actual, living people. Â Change is also what transformed their oldest cousin from a flesh-and-blood boy — an actual, living person — into a constant but invisible presence in their lives, their youngest, most intense guardian angel.
Change can bring transcendent relief — the materialization of the children you’ve wanted so badly for years and years — and it can be a fast ride in a heavy bus Â deep into the jaws of hell, no brakes, no seatbelts, and it’s going faster and faster and all you can do is brace for impact and remember about love, if you can. Of course we have to “change at all.” We have no choice. Â But I can see where it’s such a very sweet dream to the young. Â It’d be sweet to the old if we didn’t know better.
Still, that knowledge doesn’t keep me from telling my kids I’ll love them for ever and ever and ever, which I used to say to them every so often, thinking about my mother (who art in heaven). And then last year a friend suddenly died, leaving daughters of eight and thirteen, and now I say it always, as the coda to every single call/response (Q: How much do I love you? A: So much. Now, also the Q: And how long will I love you? A: Forever!).
Free to Be You and Me was also a television special, which our family saw on the big screen at San Francisco’s Castro Theater last Baba’s Day. Â “When We Grow Up” was sung by the incomparable Roberta Flack and a teenaged, chocolate-skinned Michael Jackson. There we all were in the grande dame movie theater, mostly queer folk and queer friendly and many many queer-headed families. Â Many of us knew the album, but probably only some had actually seen it in its television special form. It was rendered for a touched-up big-screen showing special for this event. Â When we saw Michael Jackson singing that song — “When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy” –Â many of us involuntarily took in a breath. He was still alive then — it was just days away from his death — but of course it was already clear to all of us that this young man was singing of a contentment with himself that would be as fictional as the innocence in so much of his beautiful, beautiful music.
We pull up in front of the house, my boy and me. The song finishes, and he says, “Baba, he can’t be she, though.” I look at him in the rear view mirror and say, “Well, if it feels more right to be she, then yes, he can.” To myself I think: Gwen Araujo. Lawrence King. Jorge Steven LÃ³pez. I twist around and face him and add: “The point is, there are lots of ways to be a she, and lots of ways to be a he.” That, I believe.