And now for some scripture-based levity.
There it sat and it had sat for a very long time. We felt exhausted, vulnerable, and full of anxiety. Writing and sending a “coming out” letter to all of our family, friends, colleagues, congregants, and neighbors that our child was transitioning to match their internal gender was one of the scariest things we had done. We were fearful of the responses or lack of responses our letter would generate, so we sent it out very late on a Sunday night. We could go to bed unscathed from the public for one last night before we had to deal with this honesty head on. It was 14 long months after our child came out to us as transgender.
At a time in our lives when our complete focus should have been on our child and family dynamics, we ended up being consumed by worry. How would this affect our lives? The lives of my new daughter and the life of our son? Our friendships, religious life, teacher/student relationships, and my husband’s practice? The worry created a lot of noise and distraction in our heads from the moment we woke until we went to sleep. Our focus was on society and its intolerance towards difference. Looking back, this was a very hard burden to carry. Why is it that when our child needed us most that we had to worry about our society? It was wrong that we ever worried about you.
Fortunately, what we learned after sending our “coming out” letter was that we were stronger than we ever thought and we could face you. We could face you and tell you we are so much happier and healthier than we have ever been. We could face you and say we have done everything right by letting our child transition. We can face you and tell you that our family bond is unbreakable. We can face you because it felt so right to empower other LGBTQ people to live their truths and thrive. More importantly, my daughter can face you because she has us as a family to support her in every way.
We found a way to replace worry with Tikkun Olam. In Judaism, one of the definitions for Tikkun Olam is human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. The things that I see wrong with the world are: LGBTQ youth doing poorly in school because they are distracted by the anxiety they experience of holding on to their secret or the harassment they experience being “out,” children (young and old) too afraid to come out, parents that are not accepting, strangers questioning parents’ abilities to parent, hate propagated in the name of religion, incorrect assumptions of what it means to be LGBTQ, the thought that being LGBTQ will hold you back and make you less than, homelessness, and hate crimes. We can little by little fix what is broken by speaking out against intolerance, attending school board meetings where anti-LGBTQ agendas are being introduced, signing a petition, writing government officials, volunteering with the LGBTQ community, and building up those LGBTQ individuals around us. My daughter has been advocating for the transgender community for a couple of years now through media and speaking engagements, by sitting on various committees, being involved with her GSA, and training school staff. She found her voice because we nurtured her power to use it to fix what is broken. I believe she has accomplished all of this because we had faith in her ability to live an extraordinary life.
I meet with parents who have children that identify as members of the LGBTQ community. So many parents simply feel lost, stuck, or unsure of their feelings. There is nothing better than seeing these families move forward and support their children. They move from feeling powerless to powerful. I am also fortunate to meet people who share their stories and ask me advice on how to come out to their parents. It is such an intimate moment and I always get goosebumps, but most of all I am thankful that people feel they can look to me for help. Of course, I am only a parent with experience and compassion to share with others. Each one of us has this ability inside of ourselves, it is a matter of choice to share compassion. I give what I can of myself to fix what is broken.
To those of you living in silence, sitting with your secret, struggling with your anxiety, waiting for the right time to come out, I hope you can find the people around you who will support and love you. I certainly know that in some families, unfortunately, it will not be safe for you to disclose where you fall on the LGBTQ spectrum. Your safety and well-being should always be considered most important. My heart aches for you because I know the silence is stifling your growth. Always remember that people can change and end up supporting you later. My plea and biggest suggestion is to find a support group. Most support groups’ mission statements will include a statement of anonymity for their attendees. Support groups can be a safe place to share stories and experiences, learn, watch others grow, and bond with the LGBTQ community. The first time we went as a family to support group, it felt like the biggest weight had been lifted from us. The group helped grow our confidence and pride for our new family. I want you to get involved with your school’s GSA or college LGBTQ community. If your school does not have a GSA then start one! Find a role model within the LGBTQ community that you can confide in. Not everyone has it in them to publicly advocate, but if you do then use your voice to empower yourself and your community.
When children, young and old, come out as part of the LGBTQ community, parents worry that this is a bad reflection on themselves. The reality is that the only reflection you should worry about is your own. Are you looking at a parent in the mirror that you can be proud of? Are you looking at a parent that won’t have to look back and ask, why didn’t I do better for my child? Are you the parent whose child’s high school counselor cried to me about her student, who can’t come out to their parents because they are too afraid? This counselor, who I just met, knows the most intimate detail of this child’s life and their parents don’t because they have created something in their home that makes it not safe for their child to live an authentic life. Do you want to contribute to what is broken, or do you want to build a world where LGBTQ individuals can reach their maximum potential and thrive? It is our responsibility to make the world a better place for our LGBTQ loved ones by starting at home. There is a saying, “Don’t be your child’s first bully.” Think about that for a minute. I am happy to say we were our child’s first ally. As a parent, I will never walk in my daughter’s shoes, but I will proudly walk next to her and always be thankful that my child had enough trust in us to come out as transgender. I wish all of the newly “out” people of the LGBTQ community happiness, courage, strength, love, peace, and power as you live your authentic lives.
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Hot chocolate? The potato? Piranhas? Throughout history, humankind has persisted in the belief that some foods are linked to sex.
From the Garden of Eden to the oyster cellar bordellos of old New York, food and sex are entwined. Although every food under the sun has been touted as an aphrodisiac at some point in time, humans tend to get turned on by three categories of food: extremely expensive food, food that is risky to acquire, and food that resembles genitalia.
Rare and exotic foods have favored positions in the canon of culinary aphrodisiacs. Consider the truffle, the piranha and the labor of harvesting a plate full of sparrow tongues. Foods from far-off lands have the spicy whisper of perilous adventure, and there’s nothing quite like a hint of mystery to stimulate the imagination. For example, Aztec concubines taught the conquistadors to drink hot chocolate; when the Spaniards carried the exotic substance across the sea to Europe, they brought with it the rumor that the drink was an aphrodisiac. And during the reign of Charles I, when rice was still a luxury in Europe, noble Casanovas swore by the improbable aphrodisiac of rice boiled in milk and flavored with cinnamon.
As an ingredient becomes common, and thus cheaper, it loses its magic. Case in point: the potato. Your modern Brit is unlikely to find a plate of mashed potatoes sexually stimulating, but potatoes and sweet potatoes were hailed as aphrodisiacs when they were first introduced to the European palate; in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff reels off a list of the era’s aphrodisiacs: kissing comfits, snow eryngoes (the candied roots of sea holly), and potatoes. Once rare ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, marmalade, rice and pepper have likewise lost their sexy status.
The second largest umbrella group of chewable aphrodisiacs is based on the crude logic that if something looks like your nasty bits, it’ll undoubtedly put your prospective partner in the mood. Thus, scheming Lotharios and temptresses have long relied on the amorous offering of edible flowers and roots. In the British Isles, wake robin (Arum maculatum) was once valued as a thickener for puddings, a starch for Elizabethan neck ruffs, and for its phallic bloom, which earned the plant a reputation as an aphrodisiac and spawned over 20 suggestive folk names, including Adam and Eve, lords and ladies, devils and angels, stallions and mares, and dog’s dick. On a similar note, the word “orchid” is derived from the ancient Greek word for testicle. Pliny the Elder recommended bulbous orchid tubers as an aphrodisiac, and the Romans called orchids “satyrion” because legend had it that the phallic roots grew from the spilled semen of a satyr.
The tribes of Mexico preferred not the root but the flower. The Totonoc Indians believed that the orchid Vanilla planifolia sprang from the blood of a goddess, and the Aztecs named it tlilxochitl, or black flower. Vanilla planifolia is an inherently romantic plant: its small blossoms open in the morning and are exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds and melipone bees. The dirty-minded Conquistadors noted the pod’s resemblance to female genitalia, and gave the plant the name vanilla, which derived from the Latin for sheath. Europeans soon prized vanilla as an aphrodisiac; wild stories circulated that vanilla could transform the ordinary man into an astonishing lover. Elizabeth I is said to have been especially fond of vanilla pudding.
Oysters and clams have had a lewd reputation since history’s dawn. The Roman author Juvenal (a nasty misogynist) uses oysters to complete his portrait of a slut partying away the night: “When she knows not one member from another, eats giant oysters at midnight, pours foaming unguents into her unmixed Falernian, and drinks out of perfume-bowls, while the roof spins dizzily round, the table dances, and every light shows double!” In keeping with the Roman talent for using food to call attention to those ultimate aphrodisiacs — wealth and power — emperors and aristocrats turned their noses up at local oysters and sent away to the British Isles for a superior variety. The association between oysters and strumpets would have staying power: As Rebecca Stott points out in her book “Oyster,” “Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the woman oyster seller was used in poetry as a figure of erotic play, something like the oyster, to be consumed, part of the sensuous fruit of the street for the male urban voyeur.” In 19th century America, underground oyster saloons catered to base instincts — guests could slurp back dozens of oysters while cavorting with good-time girls and prostitutes; some of the seedier joints offered private rooms. A few decades later and a few hundred miles south, scantily clad ladies would shimmy in a popular striptease act called the oyster dance. In the 1940s, Kitty West (a cousin of Elvis Presley) danced on Bourbon street as “Evangeline the Oyster Girl”; to open her act, she stepped with aplomb from a giant half shell.
But food and sex also play an entwined role in more “respectable” culture. If we look at the big picture, we see food at the heart of every human ritual. As Lionel Tiger points out in “The Pursuit of Pleasure”: “The exchange of mates between families was the only process more significant for human evolution than food sharing. But it was also wholly associated with it; the wedding dinner established a circle of implication and meaning.” The Tzteltal Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, take it to the next level: in traditional families, a young married couple lives with the girl’s parents. For the first 15 days of marriage the bride and groom don’t speak to each other or sleep together. Their sole means of communication is through food. Every evening, the wife cooks a meal for her husband. If all is well on the 15th day, the couple will sleep together that night. These people clearly know their foreplay.
Our literary masters have made much of the sensual significance of food. Eve parting her lips for the fruit of knowledge may mark the most infamous sexy food metaphor, but it is by no means the only time food and sex intersect in the Bible. Half the lyric beauty of “Solomon’s Song” stems from food metaphors: “I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste”; “thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits.” Some phrases draw a direct correlation between eating and love: Food is a gift for the beloved, and the space where the lovers meet is made more beautiful by spices and fruit: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Certain passages hint that food is part of the path to the boudoir: “The mandrakes gives a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.” Mandrake, a poisonous root from the nightshade family, was a popular aphrodisiac during ancient times. “Solomon’s Song” also references other more tasty aphrodisiacs of the day: cinnamon, saffron, figs and pomegranates.
Food scholars and scientists tend to ignore and/or ridicule the idea of a food that functions like Viagra. The Western world’s most popular edible aphrodisiacs, chocolate and oysters, do actually create a sexy hormone rush, but generally only when they are eaten in gross quantities. As food writer Amy Reiley notes, “You’re more likely to go into a diabetic coma than get that rush because you’d have to eat so much chocolate to get the effect.” Revered food historian Alan Davidson sums it up best in “The Oxford Companion to Food”: “In short, the concept of a truly aphrodisiac food is on par with that of finding a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow.”
So why the proffered carrots and the bowl of sparrow’s tongues? Perhaps because our entwined pair, food and sex, is really a threesome: food, sex and superstition. The human libido is both excitable and fragile, easy to titillate yet just as easy to destroy. So much of sexuality is subject to the vagaries of nature and the whim of another, it’s no wonder humans have sought to control the situation by relying on witch doctors, poisonous roots, dubious elixirs and our old fallback, food, a substance that we viscerally know to be the staff of life.
Or maybe we persist in the belief that specific foods can lead to sex because there’s something to it. According to anthropologist Robin Fox, food leads to sex because a male’s ability to provide food plays into the female’s need to reproduce with a mate who will help nurture their young: “a male’s willingness to provide food becomes an important index of his suitability as a mate. Above all, it suggests his willingness to ‘invest’ in the female’s offspring.” No doubt there’s something to it, but we prefer a less clinical explanation: The act of procuring or preparing a special food can be sexy in itself. We associate food with comfort, and cooking is an act of love. By creating or acquiring a special food or beverage for a potential lover, we are creating at least the illusion of love and security, which is generally conducive to sex. In his excellent book “Heat,” Bill Buford convincingly describes the concept of cooking with love: cooking as a singularly intimate act of love one performs for friends, family and lovers. He also writes of cooking to be loved: “The premise of a romantic meal is that by stimulating and satisfying one appetite another will be analogously stimulated as well.” If you’ve ever factored a date’s restaurant choice or cooking skills into your decision to put out, you’ve experienced the aphrodisiacal qualities of food.
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Let’s talk about “the talk.” Yep! The birds and the bees.
At some point, every parent needs to give their kids a heads up on what’s going on with their bodies and their sexuality, right? In a perfect world, that would be true, but even well-meaning parents may not know how to approach the topic. In my family, for example, I never even heard my mother or father say the word “s-e-x” until I was in my 30s!
I want to equip ESSENCE moms with a cheat sheet on how to give your kids “the talk.” After all, sexuality is a natural part of life, and loving your sexual self is important to having high self-esteem overall. Since I’m not yet a mom, I called on a friend who is also a parenting specialist to weigh in on the topic.
Parenting expert Erickka Sy Savané was once an international model and host of her own video countdown show on MTV Europe. These days, the woman who has also written for almost every major publication can be seen as the host of a new digital series called POP MOM. She says that the show and accompanying blog is a way to get African American mothers to share and discuss hot topics. Erickka lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 4.
Sex ed is such an important topic. Consequences of poor sexual education at home may include unintentional pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, body hatred and low self-esteem. My parents told me absolutely nothing about love, sex, dating and relationships. Were your parents open about sex and sexuality?
I grew up with a single mom talked to me about my period after it happened, and I vaguely remember her telling me something about sex when I was in high school. She might have mentioned getting on birth control pills if I felt like I was going to have sex. But it wasn’t a talk that started when I was young, like I’m starting to do with my daughter who is 6 years old. For instance, my daughter asked me about my current POP MOM episode that talks about ‘the sex talk and dads,’ so I had a conversation with her.
I want to be honest and I want sexuality to be something that is viewed as normal, while also letting her know that it is something for when she is much older. I wish my mom would have talked to me about sex as I was growing up so by the time I was in high school it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. I think it’s important to take the taboo out of it because as humans we are here to reproduce.
When parents ask me about how to talk to their kids about their bodies and sex, I generally advise them to begin early with age appropriate topics, as you’re doing with your daughter. How young is too young to have these conversations?
I say, if they’re asking give them answers that they can handle, while maintaining certain levels of truth. I had to start the sex talk with my daughter when she was in kindergarten because she had a classmate and best friend that started telling her all these inappropriate stories that she was observing either in her home or on TV. I didn’t want my daughter learning about sex through a 5-year-old. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Carothers says that appropriate sex conversation should begin as early as 8 or 9 years old.
Whenever we have thought about sex ed at home previously, as a culture, it has been mom talking to girls and dad talking to boys. I am so grateful for you approaching the topic of daddies talking to daughters as our relationships with our fathers define, to some extent, our de facto relationships with men.
I decided to address the sex talk from a dad’s perspective when I realized that, “Oh! I have a husband.” Unlike my mom, who was a single parent and had to do it alone, I was able to see that I can share this experience with him so it made me ask my own husband about his plans with our two daughters, and from there I wanted to hear from other dads. I was able to see that dads do have plans, even if they don’t verbalize them. I was also able to see that just by posing the question to dads, they were able to more clearly define their plans. It’s a conversation that moms and dads should be having, and having with their girls together because dads do have a different perspective that girls need to hear. It’s real value.
Growing up, my mom gave me a stack of pamphlets and books to answer my questions. How does a parent who is nervous and uncomfortable about the topic themselves bring up the issue?
Good question. Books and youtube videos give good advice. Also, a parent doesn’t have to go all-in, from the first conversation. They can start by talking about related topics like dating boys and what that means to them and their friends. Start slow and build up.
What do you advise moms say to their sons?
I think they should be honest about how babies are born. Like the technical and emotional aspects of it. I think moms should talk about respecting a woman’s body, the consequences of sex (pregnancy and disease), and I think women and men should be big on discussing consent. I read that Nate Parker [who was accused of rape] had no talks about consent beyond if a woman says yes or no. How about if a woman is drunk, unconscious? It’s still a no. I think that needs to be addressed with boys for sure. Women can do it.
Great conversation, Erickka. I am thankful for your work. Why do you feel that this topic so important?
It’s important because we were put on this planet to reproduce; so sex is a natural part of our lives like eating and sleeping. If we normalize it from a young age by talking about it, with all it’s grey areas, kids will have a better time. I find myself having identity, gay and transgender talks with my daughters because there’s no way around it
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