Julie Schaeffer lives in Northbrook with her husband and their two kids, 17 and 19. The younger is a senior at Glenbrook North. The older, Cal, who goes to college in Wisconsin, studying remotely on campus, is the reason she phoned.
“Cal is nonbinary,” she said.
I asked how she learned about this.
“When Cal was about 15 years old, they had gone to a gaming convention with my husband,” she said. “When Cal was there, they asked my husband if they could put a different name on their tag. That was the first time they sort of felt comfortable enough, emboldened to put it out of the rest of the world to see.”
How did the Schaeffers react?
“We hadn’t heard much before then,” she said. Her husband had an easier time, referring to Cal with the third person plural pronoun “they” and such. “He did better than I did. I just didn’t understand it at first. I didn’t know anyone else who was nonbinary, I didn’t understand it.”
There’s a lot of that going around. I asked her to explain what being “nonbinary” means.
“Cal does not identify as either male or female,” she said. “It’s not that they ever woke up in the morning and said, ‘I feel like a girl,’ or ‘I feel like a boy.’ Neither gender resonated with them.”
That news might shock a parent.
“I don’t know either of us was surprised,” Schaeffer said. “Cal has always been quirky. They’re very literate. Cal is ridiculously smart, an amazing writer, artist, singer. So they’ve always had that arty side to them. What you might have called Bohemian.”
By now, you’re probably wondering why a woman I’d never met would call me Saturday after dinner to discuss the gender of her child. A hint that all is not placid in the old leafy suburban paradise, where the politics of grievance that recently gripped our nation, like any horror movie monster, did not stay buried after Jan. 20 but emerged, dribbling slime, to roil our little local election April 6.
How to best express it?
“A lot of cloak and dagger” is how Schaeffer put it, referring to “TEAM Glenbrook 225,” four school board candidates running, Democrats allege, so they can dismantle the steps taken to make students like Cal feel welcome.
“Glenn Farkas filed paperwork for the four candidates,” she said, invoking the man whose name has become a focal point of concern. “He has been a vocal and vociferous voice against the policy for transgender students.”
To be fair, Farkas has not only been filing Freedom of Information requests demanding any school district discussions of trans students but also regarding Black Lives Matter and, in a delicious irony, “white fragility.” He’s pelted teachers with complaints about BLM signs and called for the schools to “eliminate all political discussion.”
Being an ethical journalist, I of course reached out to Farkas. I take a professional interest in those who like to gin up theoretical harms to themselves as an excuse to harass others. I received an alas too-long-to-share email that begins, “Neil, don’t you find it fascinating that you’re asking me for a quote when I’m not even on the ballot? What’s going on in this election the last week or so is pure election time misinformation and propaganda ...”
Continuing on in this vein quite a while, pausing to muse, “I find that the journalists are really not interested in finding the truth so much as finding a juicy story that may get them a lot of online clicks.”
Yeah, and I find that the intolerant bullies — borrowing his definite article — seem to think if they just cast projection of their sex panic and keyhole squinting in the right euphonic terms, it somehow becomes OK, even though they are not interested in improving schools beyond their certitude that improvement lies in everybody being just like them.
I wish I could give you the full sense of the email. Imagine going into a locker room, unzipping Tucker Carlson’s gym bag, sticking your head in and breathing deeply. It’s like that.
Since he would not talk with me, I asked Schaeffer what she thinks is motivating the Farkas faction.
“It’s just a lot of intolerance,” she said. “When Glen Farkas and his buddies ... they’re terrified of some thing they don’t understand, and instead of trying to understand it, they’re trying to make it go away.”
Cal struggled in high school, but Glenbrook North was tremendously supportive of Cal. Their name is in the yearbook and on their diploma. It meant the world to Cal, and their mother. As I spoke with Schaeffer, there was a question sitting in the back of my mind, arm raised, quietly waiting. The question of Cal’s birth gender — are they a boy or a girl, originally? But I decided not to ask, that it didn’t matter any more than their birth weight.
“Cal is Cal,” Schaeffer agreed. “People will say to me, ‘What was their name when they were born?’ and I say, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Many people knew Cal up to 15; that’s not who this child is anymore.”
Ooo, people changing, from one thing into another. No wonder folks are ruffled. People shedding their old names and adopting new ones. Where, where have we seen this before?
Oh right. When Cassius Clay changed his name, many — including this newspaper, I’m embarrassed to sa for years insisted on calling him by his birth name, refusing to recognize his right to shape his identity, to name himself. Eventually the world came around to calling him “Muhammad Ali,” and while there are still those who think society is worse for it, I’m not one of them. A person should be who they are. Not who Glenn Farkas wants them to be.