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An interview with my son as he turns sixteen.
This interview is a companion piece to my essay Home/Body: Notes on Coming Out, found here, which should be read first.
Dingle Mary is a 16-year-old American teenager. He loves video games and rice and is thrilled to be back in school with real, flesh-and-blood humans after a year spent online. He is also my son. During the last year stuck at home, he felt the first stirrings of a desire and identity that, though nebulous, are unmistakably queer. I have recently come out of the closet myself, so this seemed like a chance to process our strange, new queer experiences together the way nature intended: by starting a podcast.
When we discuss our nascent queer identities weekly on Documenta and Son (one of three shows that make up the podcast House of Barbrism), the conversation often goes deep but the boy remains phlegmatic and stolid as ever, despite coping with his parents’ divorce and the general anxiety of being an adolescent during a global pandemic. We live with my parents, and while writing Home/Body: Notes on Coming Out, I also wondered if elements of the knotty dynamic I experienced as a gay teenager in their conservative home were playing out in Dingle’s relationship with them.
As we sat down to chat, then, I figured that our conversation might stir some feelings in Dingle Mary, but his intense emotional response blindsided me. Reading my essay right before recording this interview seemed to burst his dam; the tears came fast and often (the three-hour opera earlier in the day probably didn’t help either). By the end of our chat he was sanguine and airy. Not the standard Janus-faced mood swing of adolescence but real catharsis, and the slightest, near-inaudible whisper of time and space shifting ever-so-infinitesimally back into joint for us both.
(Another note: Asterisks indicate fresh tears. I’m telling you, there were a lot.)
DOCUMENTA BARBRISM: How do you identify today?
DINGLE MARY: Bisexual demiromantic. That means that I’m sexually and romantically attracted to both genders but in order to form a romantic/sexual relationship with someone I have to have already established an emotional connection with them.
DB: Are you happy?
DM: More often than not, yes.
DB: Do you feel safe at home and in the world?
DM: I felt uncomfortable yesterday when I wore heels and Grandpa saw me.
DB: Why did you feel uncomfortable?
DM: I don’t know, honestly. I was wearing high heels around, training for my birthday party this Sunday. Grandpa got home and I started walking to my room. It’s not like I was trying to hide them, but then I noticed this look that he had when he saw me in the heels.
DB: Because he saw them and didn’t say anything?
DB: How would you have liked that interaction to go?
DM: For him to say, ‘Nice heels’! But that’s not going to happen.
DM: Because he’s a devout Mormon. You talk about it in your article, like when he called you down to the basement. I just don’t think he will be okay with that, I guess.
DB: With what?
DM: With queerness. With you being queer, and probably me being queer, if he even notices.
DB: Is that based on anything he’s said or done?
DM: No, it’s mostly based on what you’ve said about your childhood with him. But I guess people can change, right?
DB: Absolutely. I don’t think he’s the same person he was 25 years ago. He was a lot more black and white in his thinking, and a lot more intransigent—his way or the highway. But I wonder if my stories have made you see something that wasn’t there. I mean, your aunt is a devout Mormon but she’s all for it. She loves the heels. What did Grandma say when she saw them?
DM: I think she didn’t understand why I would have them. She asked what they were for, and I said, ‘for wearing’. She sort of gave a nervous laugh then asked what size shoe I was. She started to take off her sandals to try them on but realized my feet were too big.
DB: It seems to me then that maybe, and I blame myself for this, you are letting my relationship with my parents color your relationship with them. Does that sound right?
DM: Yeah, definitely. If you hadn’t told me so much about your childhood, I might have felt comfortable around them. At least around Grandma. I do have to admit, though, that it’s been confidence-building that they’ve put forth an effort to try and understand racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the riots. They never really expressed that kind of care before.*
DB: Why are you getting emotional?
DB: Have we touched a nerve?
DB: What are you feeling right now?
DM: I don’t know. I can’t… It’s like, sad and scared, I think.
DB: About what?
DM: I don’t know.
DB: It’s okay. Let it out. What do you think set you off?
DM: I think it’s just about…living here with them and trying to figure out who I am.*
DB: Do you feel like you can’t be yourself in this house?
DM: Only when I’m in my room or in your room or when Grandpa isn’t here. I feel more comfortable being myself.
DB: The heels are a recent phenomenon. Were there any other previous ways you felt you had to hide in this house?
DM: I’ve never talked to them about my…queer status, about the fact that I’m probably queer.
DB: Why would you want to do that?
DM: I don’t even know why I care so much what they think about me.*
DB: It feels like maybe you’re just realizing this. Maybe the tears are part of the shock. I didn’t realize that you cared so much either.
DM: This has all just been floating around in my brain for a while. I want to tell Grandma. I don’t know why, but I probably wouldn’t tell Grandpa.
DB: What would be the benefit of telling them?
DM: Probably just a solidification of yes, I’m queer, and I don’t feel a need to hide it in the place where I live.
DB: So, do you feel closeted?
DM: No because you know, and all my friends know, and Mom knows.
DB: And anyone who’s listened to the podcast!
DM: Yeah, I guess. But I don’t know why I care so much about whether they know or not.
DB: It’s nice to learn because I have pretty effectively cordoned off that part of my experience, to the point where I don’t desire that sort of relationship anymore. I don’t like to see you sad about it, but I like to see that it is still an important relationship for you. In one sense, it’s the dynamic of the past repeating itself. I was outed to them by the computer, but then it became an open secret between us, where it was like I was back in the closet and they were holding the key. Hopefully we’re catching it in time for you, like a cancer before it metastasizes.
DM: Stage One Closet-itis.
DB: It’s not so important that you know why it is important, but the fact that you have learned and said out loud that it’s important is, I think, what matters. Because now you know what you need to do. Which is…?
DM: Come out to Grandma and Grandpa.
DB: Does that scare you to think about?
DM: Not so much with Grandma.
DB: What do you think that Grandpa might do?
DM: Nothing. I don’t think he’d do a single damn thing.
DB: So why does it scare you?
DM: I don’t know, because we’re living in their house? You have all the furniture, but we don’t have a house that we could retreat to.
DB: Why would we need to retreat?
DM: If they boot us out.
DB: Do you think that’s a legitimate possibility?
DM: No, I don’t think they would. I don’t know.
DB: I love you, and your mom loves you, and I bet if you give Grandma and Grandpa a chance, you will be surprised. I often feel like it’s too late for me. You don’t have the same issue. You clearly want them to love and support you, so you need to tell them. Not only will it be good for you, you will be doing them a big favor as well. We often have an ageist notion that people can’t change, but it’s just not true. People’s hearts can change. Their ideas and minds can change. Their personalities and tastes, probably not much. But you will have a large positive influence on everyone you come in contact with because, even though you probably don’t feel it, I see that you have a strong sense of who you are, and I am inspired by that. Do you feel safe out in the world?
DM: Yeah. I’m more than happy to express my queerness to my school.
DB: What does 16 look like for you?
DM: I make more friends at school. I successfully get through school with great grades, further raising my GPA. I learn how to drive. I get out more and experience more than I have because of COVID and I have a great life.*
DB: Uh oh, here they come again.
DB: No, it’s okay. Clearly this stuff has been bottled up and wanting to get out. What does 20 look like?
DM: I’ll be in college, learning video game design, and with lots of friends that are queer like me.
DB: What about 30?
DM: I will have a fairly successful job upon which I can live and save up. I will be making indie games in my free time. Maybe I will be living with someone who I love.*
DM: I hope I’m in a relationship.
DB: What are you feeling?
DM: I don’t know why I’m crying.
DB: You were just due, I think. What do you expect your romantic relationships to be like?
DM: I want to be with someone who shares similar interests with me but isn’t me exactly. I want to be a breadwinner, but not the breadwinner. It’s probably monogamous. Children at some point, maybe not immediately.
DB: Yeah, you are definitely not having children before age 35. I have decreed it! For most of your life you were adamant that you did not want children. What changed?
DM: I don’t want me to be the end, I guess, of this family branch.*
DB: It’s funny you mention a branch. I’ve been thinking about Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the opera we saw today at the Met based on Charles M. Blow’s memoir about growing up poor in Louisiana and surviving the trauma of sexual abuse. One of the lyrical motifs was, ‘We sway, we sway, our roots run deep. We bend but don’t break’. To do that, you have to have deep roots. In the opera, they talk about gaining strength from enduring slavery, but the roots are also geographical; he lived in the same place for his whole childhood. Part of why we moved out here was to show you that there was a bigger world beyond the Salt Lake Valley but sometimes I wonder if we’ve done you a disservice by removing you from your roots.
DM: I’ve always missed Salt Lake. Even though I’ve made so many more friends here than I did there, it still is my home.* I don’t think you did me a disservice, necessarily. I still miss it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
DB: Do you think you have the strength to sway? Can you accept whatever life throws at you without breaking?
DM: Clearly not.
DB: Don’t equate crying and emotion with breaking. Strong men cry.
DM: I don’t know if I can sway. The hardest thing in my life has been COVID.
DB: That’s pretty damn hard.
DM: I’ve come out of it mostly fine.* I feel depressed often but never really did before.
DB: What effect did our divorce have on that?
DM: Well, it certainly didn’t help! It was the destruction of the family dynamic I had known and been a part of for 14 years.
DB: Do you wish Mom and I had stayed together?
DM: Sometimes, but I know that’s selfish and then I feel bad for thinking that.
DB: You shouldn’t feel bad. It’s not selfish for a child to wish their parents remained together, partly because it ain’t gonna happen, so there’s no chance of your thoughts producing that outcome. So please go easy on yourself. It would be weird if you didn’t feel bad. How has having queer friends changed the calculus of your life?
DM: It kickstarted my own queer soul-searching. I had started it, of course, during COVID and when you came out to me. I think now I search out queer friends to solidify the fact that I myself am queer, because sometimes I have doubts and don’t feel like I’m queer. I feel like I’m pretending, to be interesting. And that disturbs me.*
DM: I don’t know.
DB: An alternative view of that path would be that you are exploring and trying on different identities until you find the one that fits best. Is that not what you’re doing?
DB: So then why this rush, this need to put a definitive rubber stamp on it when you’re only 16?
DM: I have no idea.
DB: Well, guess.
DM: To be interesting and different, maybe.
DB: Well, it will be tough to accept you if you come out as straight, but I promise I will do my best to love you and remember that you are my son. But if you come out as Republican, that’s it. You’re dead to me.
DM: I am definitely not a Republican; I can guarantee that.
DB: There you go, that’s something you can say definitively. That feels good, right? Well, I don’t want to torture you anymore. But I think you need to be a lot more patient with yourself. You will land where you need to land because you’ve got love, you’ve got support. Don’t try to force it or worry about what’s underneath. You’re just going through the process of becoming an adult and figuring out who and what you are. And that’s okay. It can be terrifying sometimes, but it can also be extremely liberating. And it can be fun! You should start having sex! Maybe not right away, but if that’s something that interests you, get out there and start making that happen. Sex has a way of bringing the abstract into cold, clear, brutal focus, so I encourage you to start fucking as soon as possible.
DOCUMENTA BARBRISM hosts the podcast House of Barbrism, which is actually three queer podcasts in one: Adventures in Gaybysitting, Closet Practice, and Documenta and Son. From relationships to parenting to culture and sex, it’s all in our house! Documenta is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, CUNY, writing a dissertation on Broadway musicals about classical Hollywood. He received an MA in Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and has taught at City College of New York, Lehman College, College of Staten Island, Drew University, and the University of Utah. A former member of Drama Desk, his writing has appeared in Exeunt, Film and History, Studies in Musical Theatre, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and more.
DINGLE MARY is a sophomore (year 11), studying computer science at a public technology academy. He hopes to become a software designer by day and indie game developer by night. Dingle is an avid gaymer (gay+gamer) and practices his game design skills as an active participant in the Super Mario World Kaizo community online, a collective of “hackers” modifying and redesigning Nintendo’s hit 1990 game. He is the co-host and “Son” of Documenta and Son, the weekly cornerstone podcast of House of Barbrism.
(Image credits: Lead image: 'Succulent' by woah_vv, by kind permission of the artist. INSTAGRAM. Heels image courtesy of Documenta Barbrism.)