Was there something on my face? I was sitting at the gate at Minneapolis International catching my breath from the security process; my husband had gone to grab coffee, while my children, aged 4 and 5, hooted, hollered, and played with their toys. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but I could feel someone’s eyes on me. I peered to the left and saw a middle-aged woman staring at me intently. It wasn’t a glare per se, but clearly not one of those aw shucks, there’s a white dad and his cute multiracial kids look. The staring continued…one second, two seconds, three seconds.
Finally, I looked directly at her, leaving my gaze as locked as hers. For a few beats, she kept her eyes trained on me and, then finally, turned her head.
There is a steady stream of looks you receive while traveling as part of a married, mixed-race same-sex couple with a Black son and Latina daughter. Thanks to the pandemic, our family hasn’t journeyed much over the past two years and our foster daughter only came to live with us in the fall of 2020 (our son was adopted around that same time, but has lived with us since late 2018). Now, as we venture away from our home base of Los Angeles — where, for better or worse, people rarely pay attention to much besides themselves — I’m trying to make peace with the attention our foursome receives at airports, hotel lobbies, and theme parks.
As a family, we recently visited friends in Colorado, attended a wedding in the California Sierras, and took a Thanksgiving trip to central Florida. All of these places are known as relatively LGBTQ-friendly, where queer families are not typically viewed as either lepers or white tigers. Journeys to similarly safe destinations, like Vegas and Hawaii, are on our docket for 2022, but it doesn’t escape me that a potential “situation” could unfold during one of those sojourns.
The Minneapolis starer finally backed down, but I was moments from asking, “Can I help you?” as I did once to a man shooting daggers at me. Maybe it was my voice or tight jeans, but this man clocked me as gay — and he didn’t like it. I thought I was being gentle by asking him those four words (instead of demanding, “Take your f’ing eyes off of me.”), but it was not taken well and a physical altercation nearly ensued. Prior to joining our family my children were exposed to violence, and the last thing I want to do is subject them to more. I tell my children not to stare at people, so I feel a strange responsibility to require the same from others — at least when it comes to my family. And I’m too aware that there can be a thin line between scornful looks and something more invasive.
I must regularly decide when and how to respond to stares, whispers, and comments. Most of the time, it’s not worth caring what a stranger thinks of my family. Other times, when people scream out of cars and ask my son or daughter if my husband and I kidnapped them, I am inclined to shout back if I’m not rendered speechless by shock, fear, or fury. But I also don’t want things to escalate. It’s one thing to be taunted verbally, it’s another for someone to call the police, or attempt to forcibly “rescue” our kids from us.
There are less obvious situations, like the woman at the airport, where I suspect someone is interrogating me silently, What are you doing with those kids? I still feel the same inclination to react. It’s as if I physically can feel the bias of others fall on the heads of my children, and I want to protect them from even the suggestion that their family is not as real or legitimate as one where there’s a mom and a dad and everyone is the same color.
Navigating a heteronormative world is a balancing act for all LGBTQ+ people, but adding BIPOC children to that mix can sometimes feel like walking a minefield. I am determined to push through the discomfort because I want to share the world with my family. I want my kids to love travel as much as I do, and for them to see just how diverse and wonderful our planet is.
So, let the Karens glare, we have better things to do and see.
This piece initially ran in Out Traveler print issue as part of our coverage of outsider travelers. Issue #26 Summer 2022 is available at newsstands now.