Things You Can’t Teach
“I’m so sorry! He’s just so gentle!” Or beautiful. Or his hair is so long, or he has purple butterfly shoes. Whatever it is this time, other parents at the park make a big show of apologizing for calling my son a girl, all while eyeing me like I may be the source of a virulent infection.
I know what they want to ask: “You’re a woman in a man’s body, right? Like on TV?”
If they asked, and if I felt like answering openly, I could say something like, “I’m a woman in a woman’s body! This woman’s body just happens to be a little bit different from what you’re used to, okay?” I try to jut my chest out a little farther, make it clear that those bumps on my chest are, indeed, small breasts. Having long hair, wearing skirts, and even having breasts can’t seem to stop strangers from speculating about whether I’m really a man or a woman. I’m always left feeling like there’s something wrong with me, even if I can never figure out what. If they pushed the “like on TV” angle a bit too forcefully, I’d say, “No, you can’t call me a ‘she-male.” I could tell them I call myself a girl or a woman, and that, on the rare occasion that it seems relevant in my day-to-day life, I might preface “girl” with “transsexual.”
But then they’d just say, “So you’re a woman in a man’s body, right?” and we’d be back where we started.
I’ve been answering questions like those since I had the misfortune of being a freshman in high school and coming out as a transsexual girl, all in one year. Questions don’t bother me. Questions are easy to handle compared to the shame, the isolation, and the violence I’ve experienced being a girl with a “different” kind of girl’s body, a body most people still seem to see as a “boy’s body.” Most people are forgetting that if I had a boy’s body, I’d be a boy. I’m a girl, and, regardless of my discomfort with parts of it, my body is a girl’s body. Still, on most days I can answer even the rudest questions about myself. But I’m struggling for the answers when it comes to raising my son.
I’d always thought I would have a daughter, right up until the moment when the ultrasound technician told us otherwise. After all, I was contributing my transsexual girl’s egg (okay, call it sperm if you absolutely must, but you’d better be a medical professional) to my partner’s egg, and an egg plus an egg equals, well, another egg, right? A girl.
But Rio was a little baby boy.
I tried not to worry about it, but sometimes when I was folding the blue truck-emblazoned onesies everyone kept giving us after he was born, I wondered if I could possibly handle the pressures of raising a boy.
I had hated being forced to play with trucks and baseballs when I was little, and I chafed against the ridiculous manly boy outfits my parents found for me in their quest to reinforce my masculinity. I had firsthand experience being force-fed boyhood, and it had taken years of surrounding myself with other girls and submerging myself in girl-affirming art and culture for me to stop feeling like a tomato plant dropped in the shade of a house in the Midwest in midwinter: misplaced, cared for improperly, dying.
I didn’t want that experience for Rio, whether he was going to be masculine or feminine, boy or girl (or some other interesting combination of those options).
But if he did like “girly” things, would everyone accuse me of brainwashing him? Preventing him from achieving a normal level of masculinity? After all, maybe they’d think it was all because I lusted after tiny pony dolls with real pink hair requiring thrice-daily brushing that he ended up, you know, light in the diapers.
“He’s three months old,” pointed out a well-meaning but unhelpful and childless friend.
“I wouldn’t be worrying about if it I wasn’t so goddamn queer!” I whined. “Straight parents don’t have to worry about this stuff: If their kid jumps the fence and gets into the dolls, the worst anyone can say about them is that they let it happen! But if mine puts on the high heels, who do you think they’re gonna come looking for?”
“Just who is this ‘they’ coming to look for you?” my friend asked.
Paranoia aside, at the park, under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more presumably straight middle-aged parents, it can feel as though my very existence as a transsexual mama is a giant visual aid placed in Rio’s constant view by the Campaign to Create More Transsexual Girls, or At Least Sissy Boys.
The thing is, Rio liked his “boyish” toys and clothes well enough (although of course I resisted and resented the gendered toy terminology), but as he grew and started crawling and then walking, he also liked to play with little pink balls of cotton fluff, remnants of a craft kit I’d long ago borrowed from my little sister, that he’d find on the floor. When he started talking and was able to pick his own clothes, one of his first purchases was a pair of pink pants.
Nothing to worry about, right? And even if this interest in pink did imply anything about his future gender and sexuality, who cares, right? It’s okay to be gay (or even trans), and some of us, at least, are born that way.
Easy for everyone else to say.
I’m being observed by hordes of potential gender enforcers on a daily basis.
If Rio happens to be at the park wearing a barrette, I can just imagine someone assuming that was my choice and not his. I can imagine someone assuming I’m pushing this queer thing a bit too hard. As if I even wore barrettes. Because isn’t it a slippery slope? Aren’t barrettes a gateway accessory, leading ever onward to queerer and queerer fashion decisions? One day, little boys who wear barrettes could end up passed out on the floor of their messy teenage bedrooms in a sea of hair clippers and nail polish, endlessly pondering the question, “Buzz my head, or paint my nails . . . ?”
Dealing with this gender judgment has been difficult. I have tried taking deep breaths. I have told myself that, at the very least, my family and my partner’s family and all of our friends have been supportive of Rio’s playing with whatever he wants and being whoever he is going to be. I have reminded myself it really is okay to be gay or trans in our chosen community, even if it isn’t in most communities.
But still it has been difficult. I was so worried that other people would judge me unfit to be a parent because I was a transsexual girl that I drove myself mad. Friends assured me they couldn’t tell I was upset, but at my worst in wrestling with parenting a boy, I was flailing. I couldn’t figure out where my loyalties should lie: with the coercive and cruel larger society or with my own supportive community, a community of queers, grrrls, transpeople, and our families and friends.
The problem was, my community was stretched thin by geographical distance. At a time I needed my friends the most, I was far away from them. I had been active in a Riot Grrrl chapter and a Lesbian Avengers group, but that was in Chicago . Palo Alto, California, where I live now, is a long way from there. Besides, my friends have always been the stay-up-late, wake-up-late sort, and Rio has always been the bed-at-5 pm wake-up-at-5 am sort, which made even phone calls difficult to schedule for a time when my friends and I were both awake.
Rio was unaware of my turmoil. He was happy with all of it–his little pink balls of fluff, his pink pants, his blue t-shirt, his trucks. Rio, far from being an empty vessel for my unintentional brainwashing vibes, was his own little guy.
The rapid growth of his ability to express himself really turned things around for me. Now it’s obvious to me that he has all his own likes and dislikes that are beyond my control, and even, to some extent, beyond my influence. He’s interested in things no one in his immediate circle of friends and family had any interest in before he showed us the wonder of them: car models; telling stories about “a red truck, a blue truck, two pink trucks, and a purple truck”; and eating orange peels.
I didn’t teach him to play with pink balls of fluff or trucks. He was just exploring. He was just being a kid, checking out different colors and textures. If he waited for me to show him everything, he would hardly have gotten around to discovering fluff trucks or a million other things he knows deeply, whether gender-normative or not.
I seem to be getting good at playing with dump trucks full of pink balls of fluff; at least, Rio seems to like it when I drive them around and make obnoxious engine noises. The trucks have become fun for me, and as for his wardrobe, he looks really cute in all kinds of clothes, pink, blue, or otherwise, because, well, he just is cute. He’s a toddler heartthrob, no doubt about it, no matter which way you like your cute tiny kids. I’ve realized through my own parenting that my favorite kind of cute tiny kid is the kind who’s given lots of freedom to decide how to look and how to spend time.
There’s still a struggle in me sometimes, between a part of me that wants him to be like me–be a miniature me, not in the sense of being trans or queer, but in the sense of loving things I love and valuing things I value–and a part of me that has grown into an awareness that my son’s interests will interest me no matter what. A part of me that is ready to really love trucks and baseball for the joy they bring him, if trucks and baseball are what brings him joy.
Statistically, it’s unlikely that he’ll turn out to be trans, or even queer; but if he does, he’ll be one of the lucky ones, because he’ll have a mother who knows a lot about being that kind of kid. But whoever he turns out to be, I am learning a lot about raising the kind of kid he already is: free spirited, intelligent, expressive, sensitive. If I can just turn down the volume on my own paranoia and turn up the volume on the trucks full of fluff, I’ll do a good job supporting him in being whoever he turns out to be.
That is the whole point, after all.
This essay is reprinted with permission from It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons (Seal Press, November 2005).
3 replies on “Things You Can’t Teach”
As a straight parent of two very girlie-girls (so far, anyway) I commend you for your courage and commiserate in what is a pioneering journey of discovery of who these children whom we’ve been so blessed to be gifted to parent will become. I’m only sorry that you have to encounter these issues of societially-imposed gender in such a confrontational way. I hope that your community comes around…sooner than later!
Great piece, Katie. This thing we call gender can be so complicated –but your exploration of it here makes the main point of parenting simple, loud, and clear: “I’ll do a good job in supporting him in being whoever he turns out to be.” Brava!
I just want to say that a toddler can’t really pick out his own clothes yet, I have a toddler and he can take his pants and put on his head. So the fact that he chose pink pants doesn’t mean anything. I find the idea of having a toddler choosing what to wear a little weird. It’s not like if he wears something else he’ll be upset, he’s just playing with things.