My mother always says I get this story wrong, but this is the way my memory has recorded it:
I’m five (or so) years old. It’s Easter, and my parents and brothers and I are visiting my conservative Christian grandparents’ apartment. There are cousins and uncles and aunts all sitting and talking and eating jellybeans, and there’s a fire-and-brimstone preacher on the radio (because there was ALWAYS a preacher like that on the radio), but the volume’s low enough to let the conversation keep flowing. I’m sitting on the floor, playing with a chocolate bunny rabbit (probably deciding where to bite first) when my grandmother enters the very-crowded living room. She’s holding her hands under her apron, right at hip level, clearly concealing something — probably an Easter egg — and she wants me to show off: “What do I have under here?”
I have no interest in playing along, so I refuse to answer, but she keeps on insisting: “What is it? What do I have?” I can tell how badly she wants me to say something, but for some reason I just don’t trust her. It seems like she’s trying to trick me. I sense great tension from all my relatives, too, who realize I’m being put on the spot, but who still just want me to say something. Finally, when she asks yet one more time, it occurs to me exactly what to say to my grandmother to express all that anxiety, and the answer spills out of me before I’ve even had one second to consider the ramifications of giving it. After all, I know exactly what she’s got beneath her apron: “A vagina.”
I’ve been thinking about this story a great deal since the preposterous behavior of the Michigan House GOP after Democratic Representative Lisa Brown used the word vagina on the state House floor. There seems to be a culture clash happening in Michigan that’s similar to the one that happened in my grandparents’ living room. (For the record, the adults’ jaws ALL dropped, and there was nervous laughter, but I was never for a second made to feel badly by my parents, who handled what could have been a tricky situation with grace.) There are those who, for a complex stew of reasons, seem to believe that vagina is an inappropriate word for public discourse. I find that idea infuriating.
I have a two year-old son, as many of you know. Here’s what I want for him: I want him to grow up knowing how to use the word vagina accurately and respectfully. I want it to be free, for him, of the baggage with which many conservatives (religious and otherwise) would like to load it. I want him to be aware of the fact that others carry that baggage, mind you, but not to be cowed by it, as I wasn’t. And I want him, very much, to live in a world in which using that word in public discourse will not result in censure or punishment of any kind.
In fact, I want the same thing for him for every word. I want my son to have a great command of his language. I want him to have every tool available to be able to express every thought that occurs to him. I want him to feel powerful and free, no matter how others might respond. This is not to say that he ought to be free from responsibility for how his words might affect people; I’m not licensing hate speech here. I just want him to feel free to express himself with confidence and clarity.
This is, mind you, also what I want for myself. And, I should add, for the whole entire world.