Lately, a growing culture war has been brewing around the issue of gender identity. As with almost everything these days, the borders of the conflict seem to be drawn along tribal political lines. The Twitter skirmishes have expanded to battlegrounds of bathroom signage, school sports and J.K. Rowling, and they’re reverberating from editorial pages to conspiracy chat rooms all across the country. The hyperbole is pretty hot and heavy out there.
Observing the questions
As destructive and disheartening as that public debate has been, I’ll admit that I’ve been observing it with a bit of remove. For me, the questions around gender identity are playing out on a more intimate level, much closer to home. For sure, the political backdrop can’t be ignored — but up close, these questions seem both more important and less abstract.
Their nonconformity is your invitation
Although I don’t think there really is such a thing, our 11-year-old Pippa has never been what most people think of as a “typical” girl. She’s always been interested in dragons more than princesses, tree-climbing more than tea parties, and martial arts more than ballet. She’s always been physical, and loud, and rough around the edges. Sometimes, she says or does things that at first seem odd or difficult to explain, and we have to remind ourselves that if she were a boy we might not be so concerned.
As I’ve watched her grow, her nonconformity has forced me to acknowledge and address some of my oldest, deepest biases in ways that nothing else could. I was a child of the 60’s and 70’s, when the standard insult among boys was a homophobic slur, and when bullying anyone who dared to be different was a form of daily entertainment. It’s embarrassing, now, to remember how ignorant and cruel we all were when I was her age. It’s taken a lifetime to scrub away the residue of that upbringing, and I have Pippa to thank for removing several layers. She’s made me a better, more conscious person–not through some abstract ethical argument, but through the unmistakable truth of who she is.
She looks like herself
Over the last year or two, she had become a little more moody and secretive. We chalked it up to normal pre-adolescent angst, but it still worried us. Then, a few months ago, she declared that she wanted to cut her hair short. After shearing off a couple dozen inches of her beautiful, thick hair, she seemed noticeably lighter. Some of the sullenness lifted away, and her sense of humor returned. We took her clothes shopping, and she picked out some things she’d never had the chance to wear before, including some camouflage pants and a clip-on bow tie. She’s clearly delighted with all of this, and when you look at her, it’s hard to argue with her choices: it all suits her. She looks like herself.
Freedom to explore
Her grandparents were befuddled by all of this. They vacillated from game wokeness to frank cluelessness, struggling to make sense of it all. Is she trans, they asked? Is she gay? Will she suffer in her life because she’s “different”? What does this all mean?
In the end, the answers they needed came in the undeniable form of Pippa herself. Spending time with her, we could all sense her relief and delight at being free to explore who she is in this world. How could we feel anything but happiness for that? What better gift could we give to someone her age?
I’m excited for her
For the moment, Pippa identifies as female, and she hasn’t landed on any particular sexual orientation. There’s plenty of time for all of that. I’m sure she’ll figure it out, and the answers may well change over time. I’m excited for her. How lucky she is to live in this time and place, where options really do exist, and where labels have so much less power to constrain.
The gift of discovery
As parents, we get used to deciding for our children. We decide what to feed them, how to clothe them, where to school them. After a while, it becomes second nature. That’s why it’s such an unexpected pleasure to let her decide, for once. Finally, we get to be curious instead. We get to sit back and watch Pippa discover who she is–and in the process, we get to discover it for ourselves.
More at Seattle’s Child:
“Talking gender, allyship, and identity at Gender Odyssey Family 2015: A conversation with trans activist Kate Bornstein”