Empire and Queer Mothering

Nobody puts Baby in the corner
Dirty Dancing

One of the most powerful scenes in Empire features a young Jamal slipping on his mother’s heels, wrapping a scarf around his head, and tottering into a gathering of family and friends, a young drag queen. When Lucious sees him, he loses it.

He strides toward Jamal, grabs him, carries him down the stairs and to the back alley, and stuffs him into a trash can. Cookie, the wonderful Cookie, runs after Lucious, removes the young Jamal from the trash can and berates her husband. It is a moment of fracture.

Queers fracture families.

It is a queer fantasy. A fantasy that our mothers will be there for us. A fantasy that in our moments of sexual and gender dissidence, when, as children, we begin to explore the multiple ways we can be, a parent will stand with us. Will stand for us.

No one stuffs baby queers in the trash.

At six or seven, I was experimenting with gender play. On one memorable occasion—captured by my father’s camera, I wore my sister’s plaid skirt, a floppy hat, and baby heels. My father—his birthday is on March 4—found it charming. He reached for his camera. And, as I vamped, striking whatever silly poses I considered fashionable, his camera snapped away. The pictures went into a family album. They became part of family history. Perhaps my father allowed my gender play—my love for music, my ridiculously long nails, my soprano voice that refused to break, my love for reading, my softness in so many things—because I was his last child. His baby. He already had my brother, the son who had to be a son.

When I was 12 or so, I confessed that I was worried about my voice: it was too high, and I didn’t sound like the other boys. In that transitional period, gender anxiety was everywhere. He said not to worry. At a moment when older boys and other men were busy taunting that I “spoke like a girl” or “walked like a girl” or “behaved like a girl,” my father’s love was unconditional.

Though miles away from Cookie, he was my Cookie.

Young queers are fragile. Often, we don’t have models. Still. And even as more adults around the world “come out” and embrace sexual and gender dissidence, young queers remain distant from that world. While some news stories celebrate children coming out—7, 8, and 9 year olds have been featured as “out and proud”–such celebrations are premature.

We live at a time when “coming out” has become a demand—“be who you are.” There is a demand here, a demand to embody something that is becoming fixed and knowable. A demand that refuses exploration and experimentation, that refuses indecision and confusion. I continue to hold on to the promise of queerness—not the sophomoric “don’t label or classify me,” but the openness of becoming, what José Muñoz theorized so beautifully as the queerness to come, the queerness that will be, an opening into futures we can imagine, futures we can make.

I miss the young Jamal—I miss the gender play. Or, rather, I worry that we see so little of it in the now cis-gay Jamal, the Jamal raised by cis-heterosexual men. I wonder about how much we lose when our Cookie-parents are not around.

We see traces of that early Jamal. In Jamal’s stunning coming out song, the profound moment of disidentification, when an ostensibly heterosexual song is transformed from “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a woman” to “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a man.” The adult Jamal twirls—it’s a little moment, but every queer who has ever been a queen, even for a second, knows that twirl. He dances queer.

And Cookie, beautiful, wonderful Cookie, screams: “GO MAL!”

Perhaps because I am so deeply wedded to psychoanalysis, I continue to think that so many queers, no matter our age, need a Cookie. We need a figure who affirms our choices. Who sees whatever difference we may have and, instead of trying to change us, screams, “GO MAL!” This affirmation is different from the quiet resignation with which so many of us are met—“you’re queer, okay.”

As my father’s birthday approaches, a date I tend to remember before and after it happens and forget on the day itself—perhaps grief is this need to forget—I hope, as I have for many years that had he lived, he might have been my cheerleader. In Empire’s vernacular, I wonder if he might have been my Cookie.

The child in me—the queer child in those gender play photographs—believes so. The callused adult prefers not to know.