5 min

The smart money

My right to write about Francis

Credit: Xtra West files

I write about my little godson, Francis, a lot. He is one of my greatest joys, and my most beloved muse. I wrote my first story about Francis when he was barely three, and I was 28, and that story went on to be published in my second book. I have not stopped writing about Francis because I write about all the people I love, and he is still his little courageous almost eight-year-old self, bravely cross-dressing his way through Grade 2 now, in a rough school in a rough town.

I know how he feels. I grew up in that very same town. His dresses are even harder to explain now than my corduroy suit and double-holstered cap guns were back then. School is always harder on the nellie boys than the tomboys. At least we are good at throwing balls.

Every time I read anything I have written about Francis, it moves me. I cry. Ask anyone who knows me. I can’t help it: Writing and reading to people about him is like a heart-balm for me and by the number of sobbing drag queens and teary-eyed transgendered fellas I’ve seen in the audience over the years, I am not the only one.

We all need to hear stories about people like us. What do they call it? Positive representation of something we can see ourselves in? I call it knowing I’m not the only one.

Francis’ mom called me on the radio phone from the cabin one night to ask me if I had been thinking of Francis at approximately 8 pm the evening before. I had been, as it turned out, me and 200 others all packed into Milk or the Café Two Suns or somewhere, all thinking of Francis. All getting choked up on account of his beautiful, gentle, unintentional, pure-hearted resistance.

“I knew it,” his mother confided. “We were walking down the trail to the lake last night, and he spun around on one heel and asked when you were coming home again.”

He was four then, and I have always carried that moment with me, and to this day every time I face a crowd to tell a story about Francis I think to myself, “This one is for you, little buddy, we are all here with you. You are here with us. All of us are making things better for ourselves together.”

Please forgive me; I can get a little “West Coast” sometimes. I guess I’ve been here too long. My uncle was right. My trucker veneer is wearing thin and the hippie is showing through, so that is the kind of thing I think sometimes, embarrassingly enough. Sometimes I even tell myself a good story has the ability to change the world.

And then I tell a room full of strangers about me and my little faggot child.

So a couple of weeks ago I get a call from Francis’ other uncle, Brenda. She lives in the same small town but she is not “from there” even though she has been a resident for almost a decade. It is how we are, us Yukoners.

So anyway, Brenda is in a book club in Whitehorse, of course, with a coupla gals I maybe went to high school with, or my sister did, or maybe I blew one of their brothers in a closet at a keg party on the Marsh Lake road in 1985 or something, whatever. Point being, it is a very small town, and Brenda and her book club read my second book. The one with my first Francis story in it.

So, it turns out one of the women knew me, and knew Francis and his brothers, and Chris, his mom. She returned to Brenda’s the next first Tuesday of the month looking stricken.

“I read this book,” she told Brenda as they were re-heating the scones and making the tea. “I have to tell you, it made me feel nauseous, I mean, actually sick, thinking of that poor little boy, and his brothers, and she talked about them all, too. Even her husband. Why couldn’t she have changed all their names, at least? He is going to have to grow up and live with those stories hanging over his head for the rest of his life, they all will. Didn’t she think of anything other than her own self ? ”

Brenda ended up defending my honour (which has always been dubious in that town, at the very best) in front of an increasingly indignant and hostile group of fiction readers, and I still feel vaguely responsible.

I received the following e-mail from her, which I will excerpt for you here: “Thank you so much for taking the time to talk through those issues with me. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about it. Kelly Anne [her partner] and I spent all yesterday morning talking about it, too. It’s really challenging to me to hear someone feel they have the right to tell us how to tell our stories. As if we don’t already have a big enough problem with hearing and seeing representations of ourselves anyway. KA asked whether or not an analogy might be drawn with another community and I told her I don’t think so. Who in this day or age would tell someone it’s not okay to write a story about a young black person, or a young native person for fear someone is going to think they’re black or native? Invisibility and non-acceptance are the issues. Should be a barn burner of a book club.”

I talked it all over with Brenda. We discussed different methods of explaining to straight people things we thought they might have already figured out by now without sounding strident, and we left it at that.

Then I sat down and tried to write. Politics aside, I thought to myself, the faint beginnings of a bout of existential angst descending upon me: What if it is a phase? What if some redneck kid reads my book, and Francis endures even one more taunt, one more fistfight which, according to his mom, he is starting to win now, and even start, in some cases?

What if my writing about him does make his life harder, somehow, somewhere, in some as of yet unforeseen way that I can never know until it happens? What if it happens, and he doesn’t tell me? What if Francis is straight?

I guess I had never considered the possibility. I guess I have always known exactly what Francis is and what he will grow up to be because I saw so much of me in him. I guess I thought Francis would continue to grow up into a world where being queer is nothing to be ashamed of. The world his mother and brothers and father and Uncle Brenda and Aunt Kelly Anne and Uncle Ivan live in, where he is loved and adored because of what he is exactly, not in spite of how he turned out. I forget, sometimes, you see, about the rest of the world.

I cannot stop to think about “what if?” What if because we let Francis be such a fag, people are going to hate him because he is a fag? How could we stop him, anyway? That never worked for our parents.

I cannot phone up that woman from the book group and scream at her that I didn’t change Francis’ name in my book because when I asked his mother what I should change her son’s name to, to protect him, she told me that God had whispered the name Francis to her in her head when he was still in her belly, that it had happened with all her boys that way, and that she thought we didn’t have a right to change it for him until he was old enough to ask what he wanted his new name to be.

She told me that his name came from God, as she understood these things, and that, besides, being a cross-dresser is nothing to be ashamed of.

So we kept the names real, and as a result, thousands of people know Francis, and love him, and call him by his name. He really exists, and we know it. I worry about Grade 8. Grade 8 is when any shit around is likely to hit anything in its way, fanlike or not. I fucking hated the grade that was eight.

I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see what Francis grows up to be.

I know that that is up to Francis, and I know where the smart money is, but I’ll tell you what, if he grows up to be just a really nice, sensitive straight guy, it sure will make one hell of a story.