“I just wanted to check,” the teacher said. “Your child wants to be called a boy, right? Or is she a boy that wants to be called a girl? Which is it again?”
I cocked my head. I am used to correcting strangers, who mistake my 7-year-old daughter for a boy 100 percent of the time. In fact, I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school program where this woman taught for six months.
“She’s a girl,” I said. The woman looked unconvinced. “Really. She’s a girl, and you can refer to her as a girl.”
Later, when I relayed this conversation to my daughter, she said, “More girls should look like this so it’s more popular so grown-ups won’t be so confused.”
My daughter wears track pants and T-shirts. She has shaggy short hair (the look she requested from the hairdresser was “Luke Skywalker in Episode IV”). Most, but not all, of her friends are boys. She is sporty and strong, incredibly sweet, and a girl.
And yet she is asked by the pediatrician, by her teachers, by people who have known her for many years, if she feels like, or wants to be called, or wants to be, a boy.
In many ways, this is wonderful: It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender nonconformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her – in the beginning. But when they continue to question her gender identity – and are skeptical of her response – the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.
She is not gender nonconforming. She is gender role nonconforming. She does not fit into the mold that we adults – who have increasingly eschewed millenniums-old gender roles ourselves, as women work outside the home and men participate in the domestic sphere – still impose upon our children.
Left alone, would boys really never wear pink? (That’s rhetorical – pink was for decades considered a masculine color.) Would girls naturally reject Matchbox cars? Of course not, but if they show preferences for these things, we label them. Somehow, as we have broadened our awareness of and support for gender nonconformity, we’ve narrowed what we think a boy or a girl can look like and do.
Let’s be clear: If my daughter does begin to feel that the gender in her mind and the sex of her body don’t match, I will be supportive. I will research puberty blockers and hormones (more than I already have). I will listen to her and make decisions accordingly, just as I did when she turned 3 and asked for a tie and a button-down shirt. Then she saw her father wear a blazer (for once). Her eyes rounded and she said, “What is that?” as if she were seeing a double rainbow spread across the sky.
She was in love with a look. That look evolved – sadly she moved from Patti Smith’s tie and blazer to the Dude’s stained T-shirt and sweatpants. But it has always just been a look, even if it came with a rejection of princesses (which also delighted me) and a willingness to play family with both boys and girls as long as she could be the dog or the police officer.
I want trans kids to feel free and safe enough to be who they are. I also want adults to have a fluid enough idea of gender roles that a 7-year-old girl can dress like “a boy” and not be asked – by people who know her, not strangers – whether she is one.
The message I want to send my daughter is this: You are an awesome girl for not giving in to pressure to be and look a certain way. I want her to be proud to be a girl.
And she is starting to be. She is already vigilant about women’s rights. She does not understand why there are separate men’s and women’s sports teams, why women earn less and why they don’t run our country. She identifies as a tomboy, because that’s what some kids at school told her she was, though she has also said, “Why is it a tomboy?” When kids say she’s in the wrong bathroom, she tells them, “I’m a girl,” and invariably they say, “Oh, O.K.”
The kids get it. But the grown-ups do not. While celebrating the diversity of sexual and gender identities, we also need to celebrate tomboys and other girls who fall outside the narrow confines of gender roles. Don’t tell them that they’re not girls.
My daughter is happy with her body and comfortable with the way she looks, thousands of times happier and more comfortable than I am or ever have been. She is my hero. Or rather, my heroine.
By Lisa Selin Davis
18 April 2017