by Cyree Jarelle Johnson
The only father I ever had was a woman. I am the product of one of the most common LGBTQ families in America: cohabitating low income Black Lesbians. Sheri, who ostensibly and for the purposes of this article is my dad, was (is?) what one might call an “old school butch”. All her slacks had a hard crease down the middle of the khaki leg. I remember watching her carefully shine her shoes before church each Sunday. She had (has?) close cropped curly hair and skin like ebony. In my childhood memory, all of her shirts had buttons. She smelled like Old Spice even when she had just woken up. She always did dad type things; she taught me to play golf, fish, and was season ticket holder for the New York Liberty from the inaugural 1997 season onward. She is in my earliest memories, but I never called her dad. I never called her anything but Sheri. There are no words invented for dads like her yet.
An Aries to her core, Sheri taught me what bravery was. In her top drawer, next to her gay magazines and polo shirts she kept a yellow, faded newspaper clipping. The headline read “Woman Wears Pants to Funeral” and underneath was a picture of her. She looked just like the Sheri in the photo, even though it must have been taken decades before I ever saw it. To have a dad like her always reminded me that fortune favors the brash and bold, and that not being yourself will not help you avoid criticism. But everything has its price, and for her that price was sadness and shame. Alcohol and cigarettes. Loneliness and violence. Did my father love who she was, or did she drink to forget? Did she love my mother as she dragged her around the house by her braided hair? Did she love me when she left us, taking with her our head of household and provider?
I know that Sheri loved me and loved our family. I always believed that I would be just like her when I grew up. I remember going shopping for school clothes at the Bugle Boy in the Jackson Outlets. We packed my finds in our hunter green Ford: two pairs of boxers with penguins on them, a crimson sweater-vest with white stripes on the v-neck and armholes, three solid colored button ups, and carpenter jeans with the loop to hold my hammer. That Christmas, she gave me a snap together version of the family truck and taught me what the word “chassis” meant and where I could find one. She taught me how the basketball draft worked by buying all the WNBA cards she could and making us trade them. I spent most of this exercise organizing my Teresa Weatherspoon cards and crushing out.
My parents rarely came to school together, but when I started fifth grade they both walked me proudly onto the school yard. A white boy walked up to me and told me that my mom was a man. His friend told me my mom was a dyke. I was dressed just like she was; what did that make me? I felt ashamed, then confused, then rage won. I punched and kicked that little white boy until he fell to the ground. I beat him until I felt powerful again. My mother isn’t a man, I thought, my father is a woman.
And is she dead now, from the cancer that was eating her as she exited? Every day I miss her horribly. I wonder if she would like the women I date, with buttons on their shirts and armpits that smell like Old Spice. In my imagination, I see myself taking each new prospect out to dinner with my father and she gives them the “if you hurt my child” speech. This dream is interrupted by the sadness and mystery of whether my father is dead or alive.
My father was and maybe is dapper and beautiful. She taught me to believe in gender self-determination and how to be a dyke warrior. I choose to honor her after father’s day because she was or is better than that, more than that. My father is a butch dyke, redefining fatherhood and family by being brave enough to create a family of outlaws and outcasts.
*A queerspawn is the LGBTQ child of LGBTQ parents.
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Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.
This writer received an honorarium for this work. SUPPORT Black Girl Dangerous and the work of QTPOC writers!
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