Eating the Fudge

Queering the family with Queer Rock Love author Paige Schilt

Sitting across the table from Dr. Paige Schilt, who’s dressed in a retro black polka-dot dress and red drop earrings, two colorful seashell tattoos covering her shoulders, I can’t help but feel like I’m meeting a local celebrity.

Paige Schilt (Photo by Mason Endres)

Considering this is the first time we’ve met, I already know a lot about her. I’ve read about the initial attraction she felt when she saw Katy, who would later become her wife, the time she left a job in Pennsylvania to move back to Austin to be with Katy when they had been dating for nine months, how she got pregnant, her wedding day, the difficulties she had nursing her son, Katy’s struggle to fight hepatitis C – essentially some of her life’s most intimate moments.

All of these events beautifully unfold in Paige’s memoir, Queer Rock Love – released through Transgress Press in August 2015 – which chronicles her experiences as the partner of a transgender person and what it was like making a family in Austin. Paige will appear on the Texas Book Festival panel “Life on the Page” to discuss what it is like to reveal so much of yourself to your readers. (Sunday, 2:30pm, Capitol Extension Room E2.014)

Paige’s initial interest in writing about the queer family manifested in blog contributions to the Bilerico Project, the internet’s largest LGBT group blog. “I wanted to talk about feminist parenting, about gender non-conforming parenting, I wanted to talk about what family life’s like when one of the parents can’t use the public restroom easily,” Paige says. “I thought I was writing to other feminist and gender non-conforming people who might be making families, but I quickly found out a much wider audience was interested in the stories.”

Simultaneously, Paige felt largely dissatisfied by the mainstream narratives of what it’s like to be the spouse of a transgender person and wanted to offer an alternative. “They tended to focus on people coming from a pretty heteronormative context who didn’t ever think gender non-conformity was going to be a part of their lives, and they tended to be really focused on discovery and disclosure and coming out,” Paige says. “I knew I wanted to tell a really different story where my partner's trans-ness was part of what made me fall in love with them in the first place, where there was no coming out in the story.”

One of the first scenes of the book takes place at the now-defunct Gaby & Mo’s, a lesbian cafe where Paige sees Katy for the first time dressed as a Viking performing with her band Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons. “I didn’t want there to be any question, I thought that was hot, there was no ‘Oh no! I’ve discovered this terrible secret!’ I really wanted to write a different kind of story.”

A particularly joyous anecdote in the novel is an evening, early on in their relationship, when Paige and Katy watch VH1 and eat marshmallow cream fudge – which Paige describes in the book as “unabashedly lowbrow.” While she would typically feel guilty for overindulging in this sweet treat, she eats almost the entire tin. “I try to convey in the book this sense that I had about Katy that everything would be okay,” Paige says. “Like, no matter, even if I was making a really rash decision it was going to be the right decision. Just eat all the fudge, go for it.”

While Paige took on the seven-year challenge of condensing 30-plus years of her life into 206 pages, she and Katy were constantly talking about how Paige would tell the story of their life. Though Paige says Katy pretty much gave her carte blanche, she had to keep in mind issues such as Katy’s patients – she works as a therapist in the trans community – potentially reading the book.

The negotiation did not stop when the book was published, though. Paige explains that Katy recently came home complaining about the fact that Paige chose to leave out a heart attack Katy had just three months after their son, Waylon, was born. “I ended up feeling like it didn’t fit well into the narrative arc of the story because I was really concerned about all these other trans-partner stories were really centered around surgery,” Paige says. “I was thinking really strategically about wanting to talk about her chest surgery but not wanting to make it the climax of the narrative.

“I feel like I’m going to have to write a whole other book about that heart attack,” she adds, laughing.

Paige also had to worry about how both her and Katy’s parents were going to respond to having their family histories put on the page. Paige debated whether or not to include her family in the memoir at all. The first version of the book had no mention of her parents or sister, but after a focus group concluded the strong presence of Katy’s family and total absence of Paige’s made her seem like an undeveloped character, she decided to include them.

Paige explains her family has a lot of secrets, including her dad being closeted when she was growing up, and while she knew writing about those topics would be difficult for some people to digest, she felt like it was necessary to include them in order to tell her full story. “Part of the tradition of feminist memoir is to shed light on family secrets, and so sometimes I had to say, ‘This person is never going to be happy with what I have written, but this is part of my bigger interest and my bigger goal in writing the book.’”

A major theme in the book is the role of shame in queer families. Paige explains that while all parents are worried about messing up their kids, it can be especially intense for LGBT parents. She says they face a lot of the internalized shame from growing up with messages that they are going to destroy the traditional family or be harmful to minors. “Then the marriage equality movement comes along and insists that we just need to tell the right stories about our shiny happy families and that will be the key to equality,” Paige says. “That's a lot of pressure to be perfect, and I think that the flip side of trying too hard to be perfect and deserving is more shame.”

Surprisingly, one of the inclusions Paige felt the most uneasy about turned out to be a non-issue. It comes in the book's first 20 pages. “One of the biggest sources of fear and internalized shame and trepidation for me was writing about having had an abortion,” Paige says. “Even though politically I was completely against abortion stigma and thought it was terrible, I hadn’t talked very publicly about the fact that I had an abortion.”

The focus on dark corners of her and her family’s lives is an attempt to dispel shame and make readers feel more human and connected, Paige says. “I tried to counter that myth of the perfect gay poster family by focusing on things that might be considered shameful in our histories: addiction, abortion, hepatitis C, gender dysphoria, bottle-feeding our baby, all the literal and figurative shit.”

On her decision to get married, Paige says she believes marriage is a terrible way to focus a movement and thinks it disproportionately benefits cis-gender, middle class white people. But she also wanted to show in the book that people do contradictory things all the time. “I didn’t want the book to become this book that people were using as a narrative to support gay marriage, that wasn’t my goal. My goal in writing a book was much more to show the queer family as something much more diffuse than just a little nuclear family and to really show us staying engaged in the public sphere and staying politically engaged.”

While the memoir genre can be highly subjective, Paige did a great deal of research for Queer Rock Love to ensure her community histories were correct. She had friends go through their archives to find pictures of Gaby & Mo’s, which she had forgotten had vaginal-colored walls. “One of the ways that I think the book works is as a kind of history of a particular kind of queer, feminist subculture in Austin.”

She also researched old medical regimes for treating her partner's condition. “Was I just imagining that it had every side effect known to humankind?!” Since the memoir was written, Katy has been cured of hepatitis C, thanks to new treatments. There is no longer the sense of pervading death hanging over their family, Paige says.

“So much of the book is about time and death and this awareness of the shortness of our time and now we are really living this new chapter where it’s like ‘Oh, hey maybe you are going to hang around a lot longer than we thought!’”

Paige is continuing her work to show people a broader conception of the queer family, emphasizing connections across lines that aren’t romantic or familial, and is working on an experimental memoir about her relationship with her dad and friendship. If people get one thing from her book, she wants it to be this: “A queer family is not just being about the sexual identities of people who are in the family, it’s about community engagement, friendship, and creativity. When people say they read it and ‘Oh I realized that gay families are just like everyone else!’ I’m like, 'Damn … that wasn’t what I was trying to say!'" (Laughs)

The title of the book echoes its theme of community, as Rachael Shannon, the artist responsible for the book cover and Katy’s bandmate, sings in the Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons' song “Dyke Hag”: “We’ll play rock & roll, get dressed up, together we can make Queer Rock Love.”

In addition to the "Life on the Page" panel, Paige will take part in the Texas Book Festival Lit Crawl's Bat Storytelling Session Sat., Nov. 5, 8:30pm, at grayDUCK Gallery, 2113 E. Cesar Chavez.

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