When my girls were really little, the youngest, JB, had a bit of a problem. She quite liked pretty dresses and flowers, but she was also dead keen on things she thought of as “boy stuff”. She felt as though she had to choose a side. She was quite relieved when we talked it through and worked out that she didn’t have to be either a girly girl or a tomboy. She could just be herself. Now that she’s 8, she has clearly picked a side, and it’s her own.
She has very short hair, and today is wearing a grey and black striped hoodie, old blue trackies with a pink stripe (and paint splotches from when we helped some friends paint their new house), and black sneakers. Tomorrow she could just as easily be wearing a frilly dress. We’re both at home with a virus, and when we went to a new GP to get a medical certificate for me, the GP asked who this “handsome young man” was by my side. JB was unfazed, but the doctor was hugely embarrassed when I introduced them. She felt terrible that she had made the wrong assumption about JB’s gender, but it happens all the time, and JB isn’t bothered by it at all.
What does bother her, though, is when she corrects kids her own age and they refuse to accept it. One boy came up to me on Sunday and said “Your son keeps saying he’s a girl.” It bothered him hugely (and it probably didn’t help when I laughed and said “My son is a girl!”), and he and a couple of other kids pushed the issue to the point where JB became quite upset. They kept insisting that she had to be a boy, largely because she has very short hair. She was wearing a red t-shirt with cherries, and trousers with pink on them, so I assume it was just the hair. Kids like to put people in categories. It’s a normal, human way of processing the world. It’s a learning experience for them when someone doesn’t quite fit in the usual box. Adults, though, should know better.
I’ve known people with acute gender dysphoria who have eventually transitioned, and with people who don’t readily identify with a single gender. I’ve known people who are homosexual, or kinky, or polyamorous. I’ve even known a few people who society considers normal (although they are rarer than you might think). The one thing that becomes clearer to me with every new experience is that we, as a society, urgently need to learn to accept people for who they are on the inside.
There is nothing more comforting, enabling, and joyful than being accepted for who you are. And there are few things more destructive and corrosive than being told that who you are is somehow wrong.
That’s why it’s not “political correctness gone mad” to want to stop labeling toys as just for boys, or just for girls. Because in doing that we are telling girls who like “boys’ toys” that who they are is not normal, and not ok. And we are telling boys who like “girls’ toys” that who they are is not normal and not ok. And we are pushing the boys into nice, safe, boy occupations like building and engineering, and we are pushing the girls into nice, safe, girl occupations like teaching and nursing. Whether they belong there or not.
We reinforce these rigid gender boxes in so many unthinking ways. Schools have boys’ uniforms and girls’ uniforms. Why can’t they just have uniforms, and let people choose the bits that suit them? There are high schools around here where girls can wear shorts (although it’s not well advertised) but the girls’ shorts are dark blue, while the boys’ are grey. What is the point of that? Why do we feel this intense need to draw this deep dark line under gender, and underscore it so hard we cut through the paper?
Being very tall, I used to worry that someone would “catch” me buying men’s jeans, or that I would inadvertently buy something off the wrong rack, and find out later that I was accidentally wearing men’s clothes. It took me a surprisingly long time to decide that there was no inherent shame, or indeed gender, in clothing. Clothes, for the most part, don’t actually have genitalia.
Here we are in 2015, and we still have poker nights for the men and tupperware parties for the girls, but I take some heart from the fact that my younger friends don’t seem to acknowledge the divide the way my contemporaries do. When I hang out with younger crowds there’s no clear gender split, yet when I hang out with my uni friends my cherished status as “one of the boys” has been revoked. Among people my age it remains strange to try to breach that divide, and once I had kids I was put firmly back into my gender role, whether I liked it or not. (I did not!)
I hope we don’t wind up imposing our rigid and, let’s face it, very broken ideas about gender on the next generation. I hope that those kids who continue to tease JB for being a girl but looking like a boy might stop and reflect on why it bothers them so much. Above all I hope that we are capable, sooner rather than later, of ditching the boxes and accepting people for who they are.