December 25, 2010

In which I have a lot of wine at Christmas

[In addition to all of our awesome visible and identifying columnists, we also have some awesome anonymous columnists that for one reason or another must use a pseudonym not their full name (and pseudopic?). Details on anonymous columnists here.]

Merry Christmas, folks!

Transgender Day of Remembrance was a while ago now, but I've found myself almost haunted by a question someone asked. I attended a reading of Gender Outlaw at the Regulator, and a woman in the audience said, "I want to raise my children to be gender neutral, but what do I say if my son asks for a Barbie?"

At first, I thought she was objecting to Barbie on feminist grounds, and I found it a really interesting question-- should you allow your sons access to toxic marketed images of femininity that you wouldn't give to your daughters?-- but then it turned out she didn't actually have a problem with Barbie. She had a problem with boys playing with girl toys. She didn't want her son to be picked on by other kids, she said; wouldn't it be better to teach him to fit in?

I have kind of a lot of problems with this.

First, I really object to the idea that a child's gender is readily apparent. Mine wasn't. How do you know it's your son asking for a Barbie? If it's your daughter, you're only going to break her heart if you deny her gender expression just so she can fit in with the "other" boys. This was my girlfriend's experience, and it caused her a lot of pain for years.

I lucked out a bit due to another flawed assumption-- the idea that "male" is somehow "gender neutral." It's way more okay for a girl (or, in my case, a "girl") to act boyish than the other way around (good ol' sexism!). So, if your goal is to give your kids a gender-free environment but you ban Barbies for the boys... you have epically failed to understand gender. Honestly, if you banned Barbies for girls, you'd still be failing at "gender neutral."

But I think the most difficult thing for me to swallow was the idea that, somehow, if the rest of the world is going to disapprove of your kid, it would help if you disapproved, too. This is the argument my mother still uses when she tries to convince my brother and I to stop dating people of the same (or in my case, "same") gender. She claims to have no problem with gay people, but wants us to be straight to make our lives easier.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I've always felt that I could deal with everybody else in the world with no problem if I knew I could count on supportive parents at home. I would almost certainly be going as Lawrence in class by now, for example. No problem is easier to overcome if you think your parents can't accept who you are as a person.

I'm actually a little intimidated by the prospect of ever having children, just because childhood is so full of gender policing, and I couldn't possibly protect my children from all of it. I can't bear the thought of the kids on the playground picking on my child for liking Barbie. I might go on a one-man crusade and talk to all those kids' parents. I might just give my kid a lot of pep talks about how some people are terrible. I would probably spend a lot of my time very worried. But I would still give my kid the Barbie. For me, that would never be in question.

And, you know, I don't give my mom a lot of credit for tolerance (largely because she remains "devastated" that I like girls, six years later) but she was pretty good about letting me just be myself. And this today we had a conversation that gave me hope (for the first time ever) that when I finally tell her I'm trans, maybe I won't have to be estranged from my whole family.

I usually get some nice new clothes for Christmas. Usually it's fancy dresses, shoes, or maybe a really stylish coat. Always in hyper-feminine prints and colors. This year, it was pajamas and some nice shirts from J Crew. Two or three of them had a few ruffles but they were all in earth tones, and they were probably the least-feminine clothes my mom had ever bought me.

"I noticed you were sort of dressing more neutral," she said, "so I tried to do that."

I didn't even care that she was conflating "masculine" with "neutral." I was just so, so happy. I'm pretty sure this is the first time my mom has had anything nice to say about my unfeminine tendencies. Usually it's a constant stream of criticism because I don't shave, she liked my hair better when it was long, I should wear earrings or my piercings will close, etc. But this time... when I mentioned that the ruffles were maybe too much, she said we could go exchange them tomorrow for something I'd like better.

And then, she asked if I had dress pants for an upcoming fancy dinner; I told her I'd outgrown my last pair, and said that I was just planning to wear a dress. I groaned when I said it, but I'm not sure I needed to. She immediately dismissed the idea of wearing a dress and insisted that we'd get dress pants. This is a huge turnaround from this summer, when she nagged me into waxing my legs specifically so I could wear dresses.

And you know-- it really does make a difference in how I feel about tackling the rest of the world. So I'm only more convinced that no matter what kind of consequences it has everywhere else, parents have to resist gender-policing.

As always, I'm just chitchatting about what's on my mind to get a conversation started. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them here or email me at lawrenceevalyn (at) gmail (dot) com. I'd especially love to hear from other gender-non-conforming folks to hear your point of view. Come on, queer up my break for me!


  1. Hey Lawrence,
    As always, you've given me a ton to think about. This isn't specifically related to this post, but it sort of is because you mentioned childrearing...I'm wondering if you'd ever consider using your female reproductive organs to have a biological child? Especially since your partner is a transwoman--if the two of you decided to have children together, would you try to conceive 'naturally'? Or would that throw both of your gender identities for such a loop that you'd rather adopt...or maybe conceive using your eggs and her sperm and then have a serogate carrier? Are these options for transfolk? I remember the news made a big deal of that one transman who carried his wife and his child since his wife wasn't able to and he still had a uterus...

  2. I enjoyed reading this piece. I am not transgendered but I usually identify more masculine then feminine and it took my mom a while to realize that the ruffles and frills weren't my style. Now she wants me to look more like Ellen Degeneres lol. But its awesome your mom is starting to understand you a little better even if she doesn't get all of you.

    I knew someone who was a nanny for a family in Chapel Hill who were raising their children to be gender neutral. The children were not allowed to watch TV. I thought the idea was great at the time until I realized that its not possible because of all the outside influence. In the end i don't even know if the kids were gender neutral because when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the little boy said he wanted to be a big sister and the little girl wanted to be a big brother......although they switched genders they are still existing on the gender binary.

    I think all you can do as a parent is try and instill gender neutral values in your kids and allow them to be themselves as much as they can at home and fight for them to be themselves at school. If my son wants to wear a dress and play with barbie I could care less what ever makes him happy the same with my daughter; if she wants to wear boxers and play football I could care less.

  3. anonymous - This is actually something my girlfriend and I have discussed a fair bit. My first instinct is adoption, but having at least one biological child is important to her. I would consider using my own uterus, if I still had it. I wouldn't delay any aspect of my transition in order to have children, though. And I don't know if I could actually go through with it.

    Right now, I am downright terrified of being pregnant. I actually find my vulva and my boobs easier to ignore than my uterus; the uterus is this lurking thing inside of me, torturing me with periods and just waiting for an opportunity to make me pregnant. I've been on a no-periods-ever birth control prescription for six years, and it's only in the last year or so that my uterine lining has finally gotten dried up enough that I won't start bleeding if I'm late by a couple hours taking the pill. I hate that estrogen is the only thing that will shut it down, though; every single morning feels like a step in the wrong direction. For me, conquering my uterus would be the number one benefit of T. It would be very, very difficult for me to spend nine whole months watching it take over my body. Plus, painful periods correlate to uncomfortable pregnancies, and I'm probably prone to post-partum depression. And what if my boobs grew back?!

    I am seriously concerned that the experience would be so miserable, it would permanently taint my relationship with my child and my wife. I am really impressed with Thomas Beatty's strength, in being able to have a child, but I don't think I could follow his example. It is much, much more likely that I'd look for a surrogate mother. My mother was actually a surrogate for her best friend when I was a kid, so it's never seemed "out there" to me. And neither of us would have to worry about delaying transition, since it's possible (and fairly common) to set aside eggs and sperm prior to surgery, and freeze them for future use. But I think we'd only do that for one kid; if we wanted more, we'd adopt.

    Natalie - Thanks for the comment! I think it's pretty much impossible to actually achieve gender-neutrality but I think it's important for parents to try. A sense fluidity/flexibility when it comes to gender, even if it's still rooted in a binary, is definitely better than the norm! Your story makes me really happy for those kids -- and for yours, if you ever have any. I wish more parents were willing to fight for their kids to be themselves.

  4. Hey Lawrence! this was really interesting to read, and I'm so happy that your Mom seems to be leaning towards "neutrality" with clothes. =)

    as for the feminist child rearing, there is actually a whole subsection of feminist literature on this. for my Psychology of Gender class, I had to read this book (it's in the Perkins Reserve shelf, so you can go read it when you get back!) called "Egalitarian Parenting" and it's by Bem. Irony-both parents came out as gay after the book was written.

    But they offered some good suggestions on how to raise gender neutral children. For example, the mother drove her daughter by the one construction site in the town with a female construction worker. She went out of her way to do this, taking the longer route on purpose. They also only read feminist children's book, (like "William's Doll), and then when they were old enough to be impacted by mass media they gave them a "critical feminist lens" and prefaced "Snow White" with, "this was written a long time ago by people who restricted women's roles...and a woman doesn't need to marry a man if she doesn't want to, etc." The kids ended up laughing at sexism in the media and knew how to deal with it really effectively. The chapter in Bem is called, "Feminist Child Rearing", and it's pretty good!

    Glad to hear break is looking up a bit for you right now-hope the next few weeks go okay! :D and thanks for posting over break, it's great to still be able to read new things on the BDU blog.

  5. I've read so much amazing stuff about feminist parenting, and I love, love, love it. Stories like yours just make me so happy. They always makes me want to be a parent myself, to contribute that kind of goodness to the world.

    I have always wanted to follow in the footsteps of this Swedish couple, actually, and refuse to tell anybody the sex of my kid until they're old enough to have figured out their gender. Or rather, I have always wished my parents had done that, since it would have made it easy to live as a boy right from the start. I can barely imagine a life in which I was never forced to pretend to be a girl, but it would have spared me so much.

    This is also why I get excited about androgen blockers. If someone had asked me, at ten years old, if I'd rather grow breasts and start my period or grow body hair and get a deeper voice-- I would have known the answer. Which is why I am definitely going to ask my own kids. And it makes me so, so happy that so many cis parents are able to take the same approach.

    It gives me a lot of hope for the future in general-- which lets me be hopeful about my future, specifically. The feeling is more novel than I'd like, but still good and worth savoring.

  6. YOU WERE THERE? I was there too.

    Were you as infuriated by the bisexual woman who turned the discussion into her own personal therapy session as I was? Some of the things she said had me reeling.

    /random rant

  7. I saw you there! My girlfriend and I were too late to grab chairs, though, so we stood; you might have seen us anyway, since my gal actually jumped in to tell that woman to buy her kid the Barbie.

    I was kind of annoyed in general with the "questions" (almost none of which were questions), but especially with the neverending bisexual. There was some "trans-human" line which just seemed so totally trivializing of the pain and danger involved with being trans, I was a little shocked she said it at a TDOR event.

    I am happy to do trans education in 95% of situations, I don't take things personally, I'm patient, etc. But there are still situations where I just don't think it's appropriate to center the conversation around cis people. Sometimes, it's just not about you! Maybe I misjudged the intentions of that event... but there were surely some trans folk in the audience, and definitely one up on the podium.

    I was still totally glad I went, though. I loved both the readings. My girlfriend kept squeezing my hand all through the first one. What did you think of the event in general?

  8. I loved it. I was with my friends off to the side and we were all pretty shocked by what the 'neverending bisexual' was saying. But I am soooo glad I went. I thought the event was great and I am grateful that awesome places like the Regulator exist that host events for TDOR. :)

  9. I can just say that, as a boy who ALWAYS wanted a barbie, every parent who has a son who wants a barbie should give them that barbie lovingly and supportively. Having the support of parents in non-gender-normative behavior--especially at that age--can make a world of a difference for a child, and it definitely makes the inevitable taunting that comes with gender non-conformity a lot easier to stand up to :D