Continued from last Saturday: 20+ questions from my special niece for a middle school project she was doing. Now answered after she began high school half a year later. (Hi, Mickey!)
- How was your relationship with your father?
Thank the heavens I can use the present tense here. My dad, aka Pops, has, like my mom, always been my champion. And like her, always only to the best of his ability. In some ways I think he has been capable of understanding my gender variance a bit more empathetically than sympathetically, which is the best my mother could get to. Even then, she was only partway through the process of knowing who I was as an adult before she died. While my mom was an atypical woman, it wasn’t her gender or sexual identity that made her atypical. I think this is a tad more the case with my dad.
Also, he always has, and continues to invite and delight in lengthy philosophical conversations about society. He has taken an interest in conversations about gender and sexual identity for as long as I’ve been willing to have them with him, and I think I was a way better Intro Women’s Studies teacher as a result of the hours I’d spent trying to make elemental cases for my dad. At ninety, in many ways he’s still a very open, curious person. Even if strong and complex feelings confound him. As they do many.
- Did you feel different from your peers as a child?
No, but then again, boys in the neighborhood and the occasional scrappy girl were the people I considered peers. I had years and years of youthful refuge in the socially acceptable gender space tomboy. There’s a word for the kind of gal I felt myself to be; people know it; it’s not automatically pejorative. Only hitch was, it was time-dated to expire at the onset of puberty, at which point I was supposed to become a proper girly-girl, interested in boys that way. That’s where I began to feel like a weird imposter. Since I tried to fit in, conventionally, ’til I got to my first year or two into college, where I found a lot more elbow room again.
- Did you feel pressured by family, media, peers, or anything else to conform?
Yes, absolutely, hugely: from pubescence on, from all of the above to varying degrees. Even before puberty I had to exert effort to be who I was, despite having a name for it. Role models were few and far between (Harriet the Spy, from literature, and the “Buddy” character Kristie MacNichol–dyke!–played in the 1970s TV series Family). I was required by the state to wear skirts or dresses to school ’til I was in 2nd or 3rd grade (the law, even for public school), and recall feeling absolutely tortured by that. Had to fight to take wood shop in middle school, couldn’t weasel out of “Home Ec” to save my life. Couldn’t have a paper route, like I fiercely wanted, or join the Little League team, as I was being recruited to by a neighbor whose front windshield I’d saved with a dramatic catch during a street ball game. I was painfully aware, thanks to these rigid sanctions, where girls were supposed to be.
The pressure from family really more came in the form of my mother expecting me to be one kind of girl (the kind she was), and gently (but consistently) steering my choices more toward the female than the male when we went fall school clothing shopping, or whenever any external gender marker like that was under consideration. It was gentle, and mitigated by her vigorous support of my participation in team sports. But it was consistent, and you really don’t need more than the subtlest cues (we’re talking Sotheby’s auction-style gestures here) to know what your parents approve of or disapprove of, understand or don’t understand, want you to be, or not. Least it was that way for me.
- Do you feel those things now?
Nope. Or rather, I see inducements/presumptions/pressure on me to conform to caricatured femininity everywhere, but they no longer hold any persuasive impact on me. It’s like a thousand gnats that I wave away simply by virtue of my movement (whereas before those influences were like a bee swarm and they stung, and influenced my movement for years). Getting to the age of independence and adulthood was a big first step, and then having time to soak up different understandings of what was possible was the next.
- How do you approach gender now?
By the time I reached my early thirties (wow! what a long slog it was!) I feel like I finally had settled on an appreciation of the range and subtlety of self-expression possible for people born in male and female bodies. In college and grad school I studied it all a great deal (in grad school I was a Feminist Studies minor, a Women’s Studies teacher for years, and was doing scholarship in and helping define the emerging field of LGBT or Queer Studies). I see gender as both experienced (an admittedly fuzzy thing, but I stand by it) and socially constructed; I see it on a rich spectrum; I know many of us sit in “clumps” on that spectrum and there are names for our various spots within various subcultures, and so long as those are descriptive of a journey rather than proscriptive and delimiting, I think such naming can be very helpful. For instance, someone said I was a “soft butch” in 1994 and explained it, and it was a revelation that even a subcategory (like “butch”) could have its own nuances.
When I began to realize that I’m the kind of gentle/man that my dad is (a bit of a dandy, not great with machines, otherwise quite gallant and helpful), a lot began to make sense. In the first ten years of young adulthood, in the LGBT and progressive ally communities I knew, a caricature of working class (hyper)masculinity prevailed as the primary source of butch identity. When I began to see my gender identity as intertwined in my class identity, and began to see the middle class tourism and objectification implicit in that working class hypermasculine ideal, a lot began to clear up. That’s a whole ‘nother 20 questions. But it helped me overcome some confusion, and bring me to a rolling stop where I am now.
- How does your family feel about your gender?
I know best the feelings of the family I live with–my partner, kids, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, and old friend–and I feel they all totally get me, essentially on my own terms. My brother-in-law calls me bra, as in big bra, as in big brother, and he totally gets (I feel) who I am there. Doesn’t hurt that he was raised by a radical lesbian feminist and has gobs and gobs of feminist women friends and profeminist men friends. I’m not an anomoly in their lives.
- What do your kids call you (Mom, Dad, __)?
Baba! (How I arrived at that here; short version: I wanted to find a parental name that didn’t fix me at (feminine) mother or (masculine) father, and this name, at least in the US where it’s not predominant for father (as it can be elsewhere), felt perfect. In practice with my kids (seven years in) it has been absolutely splendid and makes precisely the kind of sense to them as it does to me.
Since they could talk, they’ve known that we define a Baba as a parent that’s partway between Mother and Father. Because my daughter has had friends in preschool and elementary school whose dads were Iranian and Indian, she knows that Baba is the main name for father in those languages, and that we (and other “two mom” families we know) are borrowing and redefining the term.
Kids are total experts at how fluid language is, since they spend all the time learning and making the distinction between praise, prays, and preys, or scent, sent, and cent. They get that the same word can mean two different things to two different groups of people. What matters is that it makes sense to them (they experience me as not conventionally feminine or female), and it’s fairly easy for them to explain.
- How do you approach the subject of gender with your kids? (IE: Their own, yours, people around them)?
Effortlessly! And frequently! My job is to help make the world sensible and explicable to them, so making sense of this element of their lives is as regular a thing as explaining new vocabulary words, describing how the insides of the body work, or looking for age-appropriate ways to explain global warming or social inequity (!). Making sense of gender is way easier than global warming or social inequity.
Here’s what I’ve said, pretty much since I had the opportunity to make sense of my different gender to my sister’s sons long, long ago: there are girlish girls and boyish girls, and girlish boys and boyish boys. (That’s to take language they already know and feel absolutely sure about.) There are as many ways to be a girl or a boy as there are girls and boys (I might wander down a rabbit hole and talk about the uniqueness of fingerprints or the pupil of an eye for an anaolgy.) I make a distinction between how you look on the outside–your body (sex, defined biologically, though those words aren’t yet in the range for my kids) –and how you feel on the inside–your self (gender, defined socially, again not in range yet as operative lingo).
- What genders do your kids identify as?
They’re still identifying via sex rather than gender–that is, one (now 4, going on 5) calls himself a “boy,” the other (now just 7) calls herself a “girl.” But they have given a reasonable amount of thought to what kind of boy and what kind of girl they are.
My son, who at times has felt a distinction between himself and other boys, is very glad to have language for being something other than the extreme of masculine boyhood (which appears waaaaaaaay more frequently in popular culture and other kid-centered imagery than feminine boyhood, which appears… hardly at all?). I think he also loves that he and I have this thing in common (I’m a boyish girl, or a mannish woman, and he, as a girlish boy, is like me in this way).
I see both my kids as fluid, like I have known adults to be, to a degree, and they are still in the very early process of finding themselves. I’m not sure how they’ll withstand the crucible of puberty (how can anyone stand it? it is ca-rAZy!) and the social pressures that are way more enormous than the biological changes it brings. But we’re in a good dialog about it all so far. I’m hoping that will create a foundation they can use in any way they need.
- Have you talked to them in detail about gender and gender vs. sex?
See above. In a word: yes. At no point in our household, I hasten to say, have we approached sexuality, or sexual attraction, and I don’t expect that to appear for quite some time (saints preserve us! I’m going to have a coronary the first time either of them has anything beyond an innocent crush on their teacher). They understand what draws people to each other as emotional, and so when their mom and I talk about ourselves, it’s that we are sweeties.
The language of love and “falling in love” is already present in a blurry way to my daughter, who at 7 has seen plenty enough Disney movies and read enough fairy tales which revolve around heterosexual romance. So it’s not like we’re introducing a novel concept here. We do clarify that “most” people fall in love with someone of a different sex, and “some” people fall in love with someone of the same sex.
The “most” / “some” distinction is easy-peasy for them, since they know most people are righties and some people are lefties and it’s no big deal which one you are, it’s just that everyone always expects you to be the one, and you have to make some accommodations if you are the other.
- Do you plan on it?
🙂 Oops. Cat’s out of the bag, down the street, and warming itself in the sun after eating the salmon off the neighbor’s dinner table.
One thought on “20+ questions about gender & sexual identity (pt. 2)”
LD, thanks for writing about these important and fluid issues about people and how and who and what we identify with as we grow. Love this East Bay culture of acceptance and love and diversity beyond imagination.