Friday, June 16, 2006

Gender again

When we had a daughter, my partner and I both had this small hope that our daughter would grow up butch. You see, my partner, Raquel, is butch. Our housemate, Kelly, is butch. We have many friends who are masculine women, transgendered men, or just plain boyish in some way. Almost all of them share the experience of being forced to be girly-girly as children, hating their dresses, their long hair, the ribbons and the bows. How cool would it be, we thought, to have a girl who grows up some form of masculine! She would be surrounded by role models. There would never be a time when she didn't feel like she could define her own body and how she dressed and decorated that body. How liberating for all of us!

Well, our daughter Luca is not at the girliest end of the spectrum, but you couldn't call her butch or boyish or any of those gendered things. She veers between dresses and skirts and shorts with t-shirts, likes to play in the dirt, and is a scrappy everyday kind of kid who also greatly enjoys being a girl. At 2 she was insistent on getting a mohawk and so had one for two summers in a row. She loves all things Harley Davidson - a gift from both Raquel and Kelly - and thinks jeans are awesome. Again, she is a specific kind of girl who breezes from pink princess to jeans and a headscarf with a Harley shirt.

She's been at a summer camp this past week through the Y. It's been a lovely summer camp full of rock climbing, canoeing, and walks in the woods. It's also full of fierce gender separation: girls eat at one side of the campground, boys eat at the other side. Girls play with girls. Boys play with boys.

It's not that Luca has never experienced this kind of gender strictness. There was some girl-boy separating happening while Luca was in school in Brazil - but the kids all wore gender-neutral uniforms and didn't seem to talk about the whole thing as much as here. Luca - with short hair and often no girl gender markers of pink hair clips or bows - is almost always seen as a boy. Even, sometimes, when she is wearing a skirt. Short hair seems to be the strongest marker when people are reading children. Anyhow, going to summercamp has been a rapid and intense introduction to this whole gender game at a far more serious level.

This morning at breakfast, she told us that a lot of the girls won't play with her because they think she's a boy. And the boys won't play with her because they think she's a girl. "There's one girl, Josephine, she plays with me and she knows I'm a girl. She thinks the other girls are sillly but she won't play with boys either."

Yesterday, Vikki who is the mother of Miguel who is one of Luca's friends and also at the summer camp, reported a conversation she had overheard between the two children. Somehow the subject of boys and girls came up. Miguel told Luca that at camp that day, some of the girls had been laughing at him and teasing him because he was a boy and they didn't want to play with him. 'And you were laughing, too, Luca, and that made me feel sad." Miguel told her. Vikki said it was impressive to listen as they processed this event: "But you're my friend and I know you so I know that you're a good person and that I like you. I think they laugh at the boys they don't know." Luca responded with some version of these words. "But it still makes me feel sad that you were laughing and that boys can't play with girls." said Miguel. What followed, said Vikki, was a general agreement conversation about how silly it was that boys and girls don't play together with Luca acknowledging that what she had done had hurt Miguel's feelings.

Now I was a fairly girly girl growing up. Not as pink as most, but certainly more interested in playing with dolls than with balls, certainly flouncy in my dresses. There is nothing wrong with being girly for anyone. In fact, as I keep telling some of my other lesbian friends with a very girly daughter, what a great opportunity to radicalize femininity. Flouncy pink dresses and a keen eye, dirty knees on top of shiny black shoes, the ability to be direct, empowered, vocal and self aware while dressed up in lace or beads or fairy wings.

It's a maze moving through this gender insanity and I feel like adults owe every child an apology for putting them through this gauntlet. Already these little bodies are drawing lines in the sand to determine who fits in and who doesn't. We are raising Luca to refuse to believe in those lines and to have the strength and assurance to challenge them wherever they appear, even if that means sometimes not fitting in. But this morning, as Luca told her story about the girls not playing with her during these four days of wearing shorts and t-shirts, we also saw that sometimes, it's ok to just plain make it simple. My awesome butch lover who really prefers that dresses and skirts not be the primary clothing and not be things that Luca defines as the badge of being a girl, went against a decision we had already made - the no dresses or skirts at summer camp because flouncy skirts seem silly while you're rock climbing rool. Hey Luca, said Rocki, do you want to wear one of your skorts or skirts today to camp? And then she went upstairs with Luca to choose it. And Luca came downstairs, happy as a clam in one of her more diaphonous numbers. And it was fine. And it means nothing. And it means a lot.


Vikki said...

And she returns to the blogging fold...

This is a topic that I have thought a lot about recently. As we talked about last night, it is hard to see your child hurt by these gender lines one moment and turn around and inflict them on another child in the next moment. This is hard stuff, especially when you are 4.

Kristin said...

Thank god you are blogging. I thought we should just take you down.

Josephine comes by it naturally you know - her mother is Brooke, who I think is a friend of the Mistress of the Flans.

They will all be OK. I promise.