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'Never Take A Bubble Bath': Poet Richard Blanco On His Grandmother's Gender Surveillance

Richard Blanco's grandmother taught him to avoid femininity in various ways, such as not taking a bubble bath.
Erika Wittlieb via Public Domain

Family is complicated, but it can be even more complicated for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Personal prejudices and the struggle for acceptance can complicate the strongest familial relationships.

This tension is the subject of Richard Blanco’s poem, “Queer Theory: According To My Grandmother.” He joined Boston Public Radio today to talk about the meaning behind his poem.

“It’s really about shaping my behavior and also kind of surveilling — the constant source of surveillance and of verbal abuse, in a way,” Blanco said. “Just always being told what to be, how to act, how to talk, how to walk, how to sit, and all the rest.”

Blanco says his grandmother was both his “best friend” and his “arch enemy.” In the poem, she is teaching him to “be a man and pass, in a way” avoiding femininity by following her rules.

According to Blanco, she pressured him to embrace a more macho role as her Cuban grandson.

“She was my primary caretaker, and so what you see here, in a way, is an odd tenderness or an odd expression of love,” said Blanco.

Read the poem below:

Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother

Never drink soda with a straw—

milk shakes? Maybe.

Stop eyeing your mother’s Avon catalog,

and the men’s underwear in those Sears flyers.

I’ve seen you . . .

Stay out of her Tupperware parties

and perfume bottles—don’t let her kiss you,

she kisses you much too much.

Avoid hugging men, but if you must,

pat them real hard

on the back, even

if it’s your father.

Must you keep that cat? Don’t pet him so much.

Why don’t you like dogs?

Never play house, even if you’re the husband.

Quit hanging with that Henry kid, he’s too pale,

and I don’t care what you call them

those GI Joes of his

are dolls.

Don’t draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets.

I’ve seen you . . .

Don’t draw at all—no coloring books either.

Put away your crayons, your Play-Doh, your Legos.

Where are your Hot Wheels,

your laser gun and handcuffs,

the knives I gave you?

Never fly a kite or roller skate, but light

all the firecrackers you want,

kill all the lizards you can, cut up worms—

feed them to that cat of yours.

Don’t sit Indian style with your legs crossed—

you’re no Indian.

Stop click-clacking your sandals—

you’re no girl.

For God’s sake, never pee sitting down.

I’ve seen you . . .

Never take a bubble bath or wash your hair

with shampoo—shampoo is for women.

So is conditioner.

So is mousse.

So is hand lotion.

Never file your nails or blow-dry your hair—

go to the barber shop with your grandfather—

you’re not unisex.

Stay out of the kitchen. Men don’t cook—

they eat. Eat anything you want, except:

deviled eggs

Blow Pops

croissants (Bagels? Maybe.)

cucumber sandwiches

petit fours

Don’t watch Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.

Don’t stare at The Six-Million Dollar Man.

I’ve seen you . . .

Never dance alone in your room:

Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain

and Tennille, Bette Midler, and all musicals—


Posters of kittens, Star Wars, or the Eiffel Tower—


Those fancy books on architecture and art—

I threw them in the trash.

You can’t wear cologne or puka shells

and I better not catch you in clogs.

If I see you in a ponytail—I’ll cut it off.

What? No, you can’t pierce your ear,

left or right side—

I don’t care—

you will not look like a goddamn queer,

I’ve seen you . . .

even if you are one.

Richard Blanco is a professor at Florida International University teaching poetry. His latest project is the fine-press book, "Boundaries." It is a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler. To hear his interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.


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