Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Quick-Start Guide to Gender-Healthy Parenting

As a follow-up to my last post on kids and gender, I thought I'd write a brief guide to what I feel is the best way to approach gender identity - both your child's and other people's - with kids. What I mean by "gender-healthy" is that your kid feels safe and comfortable with hir gender identity and expression, and understands how to extend that same respect to others. I write this as a person who has a lot of experience with both helpful and harmful attitudes toward gender. I am not a parent, and most importantly, I am not your child's parent. But I have been a child and there are many children in my life, and I have tried to write a guide to how I would most like to see those children treated.

Be prepared for your child to be transgender.
No, I'm not suggesting that your child is going to become trans because of any parenting decisions you make. But that's exactly it: if your child is trans, they just are. Already. If you wait until you know your kid is trans before you start thinking about how your parenting would affect a trans kid, you've waited too long. And try to realize that this applies no matter how much of a princess your daughter is or how much of a jock your son is. There's a good chance that a child with a vagina who loves Disney Princesses is a girl, but maybe she's the next FTM drag queen in training. I used to ask my mama to do my hair up in pigtail braids so I could pretend to be Dorothy Gale, but I screamed if anyone tried to style my hair any other time. My point is, there's a lot more to gender than what you see on the surface. Assume nothing, and for God's sake don't be the mom who uses imitation of Judy Garland as proof that your child is not going to grow up to be a gay man.

Be prepared for your child to be cisgender. At the same time, don't get so caught up in your vision of yourself as a progressive, trans-friendly parent that you don't actually notice who your child really is. There's a good chance that your little boy is indeed the sort of little boy who is going to reject your ballet classes in favor of burping contests and throwing frogs on girls. I've heard far too many feminist parents sigh with disapproval when their sons picked up toy guns and their daughters picked up Bratz dolls. Please don't be the parent who praises your son for wanting a manicure (he's so secure in himself!) and shames your daughter for doing the same (she's conforming to the patriarchy!). Remember that the goal is to encourage your children to be exactly who they are, not to prevent them from ever doing anything that fits the norm.

Neutral isn't necessarily better. I happened to be the sort of kid who liked gender-neutral activities the best: playing on my swingset, watching shows like Rocko's Modern Life, making up stories, caring for animals, and playing Nintendo. Lots of kids love that stuff. But lots of kids would also feel horribly stifled if they weren't allowed to collect My Little Pony or participate in Nerf gun wars. Just because an activity doesn't come with a gender stereotype attached doesn't necessarily make it a healthier activity for your child. Again, no matter your child's sex or gender, the most important thing is to let them be who they are and do what they enjoy doing.

Gender can be fun. Play can be a wonderful way to let kids explore gender roles and expression. When I was four and asked my mom how I could turn into a boy, she said I couldn't. What I wish she would've done is hand me a baseball cap and say, "Put this on when you want to be a boy, and we'll call you Bobby." Then I would have been able to try being a boy whenever I felt like it without feeling like it was a big deal or a forever decision. As a teen I enjoyed playing male characters in school plays, video games, and cosplay. Encourage your kids to be any gender they want in pretend play. If your son wants to play house and be the mommy, or your daughter wants to be Darth Vader for Halloween, go with it. And let them screw with gender as much as they want. When I put on makeup as a preteen, I wasn't learning how to be a proper lady, I was imitating Marilyn Manson and Boy George! Kids pretend to be helicopters and ponies and that's just fine, so why on Earth would pretending to be a different kind of human hurt them?

Gender is serious business. On the other hand, remember that your child really does have a gender identity and it really is part of who ze is. Don't treat your child's gender as something cute that you can play around with for the sake of demonstrating how hip you are and how little you care about traditional gender roles. This is particularly true if your child is showing signs of "cross-gender" identification - meaning your kid with a penis really believes she is, or really wants to be, a girl, or your kid with a vagina really believes he is, or really wants to be, a boy. There is a point when it stops being about the cuteness of a little boy painting his nails or a little girl who runs around shirtless, and starts being a serious thing your child is going to need lots of support with. It's hard to know where that line is, but the basic rule of thumb is this: if your child is being serious, take hir seriously.

Finally, here are some useful phrases for talking about gender with kids. Their appropriateness varies depending on the child's age and the situation, of course, so use your own discretion. And try to bring them up in the natural course of life, if you can. Most kids have lots of questions about gender, but they will be confused if you sit them down in the middle of a busy Saturday, out of the blue, to tell them this stuff.

"Do you like boy words or girl words?" You don't have to wait until your kid is able to diagram a sentence to talk to them about pronouns. Tell them about the difference between "he" and "she", and let them know there are other choices too, like per, ze, sie, and ey. Let your kids pick whatever pronouns they prefer. Be as faithful as you can about using them, and make it okay for them to change them as much as they want.

"Most girls have [a vagina/breasts/a uterus/ovaries] and most boys have [a penis/testicles/a prostate]. But some boys have [a vagina/breasts/a uterus/ovaries], and some girls have [a penis/testicles/a prostate]. That's okay, too." Use this in place of "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina".

If your kid is upset about being misgendered: "You can't tell a person's gender by looking at them, but people sometimes use a person's clothes and hair to try to guess. Some people guess that anyone with long hair is a girl. I love your long hair, but if you're really upset about being called a girl, I can help you pick out a haircut that will help people guess better. Or you can keep it long and I can help remind people that you're a boy." Never tell a child they're being called the wrong gender because they look like that gender. Place the focus on other people making honest mistakes - your child's gender and appearance are not wrong! Let them know that lots of people get misgendered and have to correct people, and that it's the other person's mistake and not the fault of the person being misgendered. I'm not sure how this happens, but I've personally seen guys with full beards get called "ma'am" and women with DD cups get called "sir".

If a kid misgenders someone else, don't make a big fuss, don't shame them, and don't call unnecessary attention to the person being misgendered. A simple "That's a girl. Her name is Katie" or "I think Sam uses boy words" will do. Of course, you want to make sure you're not misgendering the person yourself! If you don't know how a person identifies, tell your kid that, and offer to help your kid find out what pronouns to say.

If you have a transgender friend: "Well, a lot of men used to be little boys, but my friend [name] used to be a little girl. At least, he looked like a little girl and everyone thought he was. But he always felt like a boy, so when he grew up he became a man." Make sure you have your friend's permission to disclose this information, and ask what specific language they're okay with you using to describe them to your children. If you can get a trans friend to talk directly to your kids about their gender, that's great, but don't expect the trans people in your life to be walking museum exhibits for your kids.

And if you're trans yourself? Use whatever words feel most comfortable for you, so long as they're on a level the child will understand. This weekend I had a kid ask why I have to wear swim shirts when I go to the beach. My answer was something like this: "Remember how you weren't sure if I was a boy or a girl? That's because when I was born, I had girl parts and looked like a girl. I still have a chest like a girl, and you know how girls have to cover up their chests at the beach? I do, too." Keep calm when kids ask you stuff. If you don't want to answer a question, explain that it's very personal and you'd rather not share that about yourself. But don't shame a kid for being curious. The more people there are who find out about us while they're still kids, the more trans-friendly the world is going to be. And you never know - you could be talking to a trans kid whose life might be saved by knowing other trans people exist.

Remind your kids that you can't always tell a person's gender just by what they look like. Remind them that it can hurt people's feelings to be asked if they're a boy or a girl, but that it's usually okay to ask what pronouns someone prefers if you're not sure. Respect your child's body autonomy and right to privacy, and remind them to do the same for others. Most importantly, remember that you are always your child's partner in navigating the world, and that includes the world of gender. Be willing to be the person who asks someone about their preferred pronouns, or to correct people who misgender your child. Allow your kids to wear and do what they want, but be available to help them find an expression that matches their identity. Remember that gender can be a scary and confusing thing even for adults, so kids especially need lots of support figuring this stuff out. But don't dumb it down or try to shelter them, either. Kids often understand this stuff better than grown-ups do, and if you keep your mind open, you just might learn more from them than they do from you.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Your baby's gender is a secret, too

There's been lots of talk about kids and gender lately - the boy who dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween, the JCrew ad featuring a little boy with pink toenails, and most recently, the unschooling family that has chosen to keep their new baby's sex a secret.

As someone who is involved in both the unschooling and transgender communities, I naturally have a lot to say on this topic.

First, a bit of gender 101: Every baby's gender is a secret, to everyone, quite likely including the baby hirself. What these parents are keeping a secret is their baby's sex - the biological state of having XX or XY (or XO or XXY or whatever) chromosomes, of having a penis or vagina, testicles or ovaries, etc. Gender is a person's internal sense of whether they are male, female, both, neither, or something else. No one is fully sure at what age gender identity actually develops, but it is probably safe to say that newborn infants do not yet care whether they are male or female, because they do not yet know what being male or female means in their culture. And regardless of when a baby understands hir own gender, that gender will remain a secret to the people in the baby's life until ze is old enough to express it. If that child is transgender, then hir gender could remain a secret for many, many years as ze struggles to understand hirself. I did not know my own gender until I was 24 years old. Some people don't know until past middle age. But whether your child is cisgender or transgender is simply not something you can know when the child is born. If your baby is not old enough to say "I'm a boy" or "I'm a girl", then you don't know yet. Period. I don't care how many Barbies or toy trucks or pink clothes the kid has. I had dozens of Barbies and I hated sports and I still came out more male than female. Those things can be clues to your child's gender, but they absolutely do not define it.

Now that that's out of the way, here's what I think of this particular story. It is absolutely wonderful that this family has chosen to allow their children the whole world to choose from, without assigning gender-based rules to anything. If a child with a penis prefers pink clothes, that child absolutely should never be denied access to pink clothes because of that penis. That's something these parents are getting right. And it's something so few parents get right that I think this family deserves lots of praise for that choice.

But I am troubled by this quote:

"Because Jazz and Kio wear pink and have long hair, they're frequently assumed to be girls, according to Stocker. He said he and Witterick don't correct people--they leave it to the kids to do it if they want to."

This suggests to me that the parents are confused about the difference between gender expression and gender identity. It appears that at least one of these children is firmly male-identified and is troubled when he is mistaken for a girl. It also appears that his parents are assuming that because he prefers pink clothes and long hair, his need to identify as male is trivial.

I cannot speculate, based on a brief Yahoo news article, on the long-term effects of this particular family's choices on these particular children. But I am troubled by all the praise I'm hearing for "gender-neutral parenting", because it seems to be based on the notion that gender is a social construct - which is a fancy way of saying gender is not really a thing. As someone who has struggled a lot with my own gender, and someone who has many transgender and genderqueer friends, I can assure you that yes, gender is really a thing. True, I think it is irresponsible to force a child to conform to a gender expression that matches hir birth sex. Children born with vaginas should never be forced to wear dresses and play with dolls, children born with penises should not be forced to repress their emotions and purge themselves of all signs of femininity.

But the key word in all of this is forced. You are not being any more progressive if you force your child to live without a gender when she is clearly a girl or he is clearly a boy. And I think it is equally irresponsible to leave a young child to drift alone through the highly contentious world of gender without giving hir sufficient information or support. If you know good and well that your child identifies as a boy, and an adult comes along and calls him a girl, it should not be left up to him to correct them! As someone who frequently has to correct people regarding my gender, I can assure you it's not an easy thing to do, and often doesn't feel like a safe thing to do. One of your jobs as a parent is to protect your children's space in the world until they are old enough to do it themselves, and that includes protecting their sense of who they are. Allowing other people to misgender your child without defending hir puts an extremely unfair burden on the child.

Letting your child pick clothes from every department is good. Never explaining to your child that clothes carry gendered connotations is not good, because you are withholding vital information about the world from your child. If your teen came up to you and wanted to know if he could dread his hair, and you also knew that he wanted to get a job soon, it would be irresponsible to let him make that choice without ever discussing the way his hairstyle may impact his job search. In the same way, it is unfair to let your male-identified child wear a dress without any warning that most people will think he's a girl. Whether or not you leave the final choice up to your child is the difference between traditional parenting and unschooling; whether you offer your child the guidance and information they need to make that choice is the difference between unschooling and neglect.

So what do you do? How do you help your children be exactly who they are in a world with such rigid gender roles? There's no easy answer to that question for adults, let alone kids. I'll be writing a follow-up post giving suggestions for how to talk about gender with your kids in a respectful way, but the main principle to remember is to help children be exactly who they are. That's the basic principle behind unschooling, and if you're living that principle in other areas of life, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to apply it to gender as well.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Black Hole

I used to think I was a person nobody loved. Now I know that I am something far worse. I am a person who is loved without deserving to be. I am a black hole; people pour energy and kindness into me, hoping to light me up, but I am simply a void. I suck up energy and destroy it. People confuse my immaturity for childlike whimsy and they mistakenly see me as likeable. And then the real me comes out, and I am poison. And gradually everyone becomes tired of me and goes away.

No matter how much people insist that I am worthy and should love myself, I know I am a person who is dark inside. There is no love in there. I don't know if I was born broken or if something in life made me this way, but I simply have nothing to offer the world.

Were I less of a wimp, you would all be rid of me by now. But I am too cowardly to act on the feelings I keep threatening people with. This is only further proof of my failure; if I were a decent person I would not cry wolf without delivering on my promise. Perhaps a little blood would justify my constantly scaring the people who love me, but there has been none. All but a few people have stopped listening now, and it is no wonder. They have seen me for what I truly am; not a wishing well you can throw coins into in hope of making something better, but a bottomless pit that will never return your investment. A coward who only does harm and cannot bring himself to leave and allow the people he cares about to live in peace without him. People keep trying to save me - some people have been putting up with my shit on an almost daily basis, to the point where they can't take it anymore. All I do is break people. I don't want to break anyone else.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's A Boy! (Wait... what?)

In case you missed it, yesterday I posted the following status update on Facebook:

I realize this is not a format that everyone will see, but I am tired of trying to write the perfect eloquent thing, so I'm just going to come out and say it. I am transgender. I don't know if I'm a man but I know trying to be a woman never worked for me. Male pronouns until further notice, please. Questions are welcome as long as they are not about my wiener or lack thereof.

I got a lot of support, but because of the nature of Facebook, I know that there were a lot of people who saw it and didn't respond, and still more people who never saw it in the first place. So I wanted to post it again in a more permanent location. I also wanted to address some potential questions that people may be wondering but aren't sure if it's okay to ask. (For some reason, many of the people I've come out to have been deeply apologetic for asking any questions at all, even respectful ones such as "What pronouns would you like?". Guys, when you hear trans people say we are tired of answering questions we mean we are tired of being treated as freak shows and research projects. Asking questions to help you be more respectful is a good thing.) Rather than leave you to guess what I am comfortable answering, I'm just going to go ahead and write out a bunch of things I know some people will be wondering.

But I am only going to be answering questions that pertain specifically to me. If you don't have any trans friends, if you don't even know what I mean by trans, or if any part of your concept of trans people involves the phrase "the surgery", I'm going to ask that you read a more general FAQ, such as this one, before proceeding. If you've never even heard the word transgender before now, please also take a deep breath and get a nice cup of tea or something. Give yourself time to process the idea that I am not a woman before overwhelming yourself with a bunch of new and somewhat academic information about gender.

Ready? Okay, let's do this thing.

Q: How do you pronounce 'Elisha'?
A: Hopefully this is clearer now that people know I'm not a girl, but it's not pronounced like 'Alicia'. It sounds more like 'Elijah'. In fact, I considered the name Elijah, but Elisha was more gender-neutral, is part of my family history, and has since grown on me quite a bit :)

Q: What pronouns are you most comfortable with?
A: Ah... when you ask which ones I want you to use, the answer is male ones, please. I don't know that I'm most comfortable with those, though. I use them because they make clear that I'm not a woman. I've really never found a set of pronouns that I felt appropriately suited my gender, and to be honest, being called "he" still feels a little awkward (I occasionally look around to see who people are talking about, then realize they meant me!) But it's what works in my life right now.

Q: What do you mean you're not sure you're a man? How can you not know?
A: Some people have a very strong internal sense of what gender they are, and some people don't. Mine is fairly weak. Figuring out who I am has been entirely a process of trial-and-error, mostly involving taking gradual steps toward a more male presentation and finding that each of those steps made me feel a little better, even if I didn't think they would from the outset. I'm still in the middle of that process, and I don't know how far I'll need to go toward the role of "man" before I find the place that feels most right.

Q: But I've known you since we were practically both babies and you weren't even a tomboy and you had like 400 Barbies and...
A: If you were part of my circle of friends in elementary or middle school, think back to some of the boys we hung out with. The ones who did gymnastics and skipped rope with the girls? Did any of that mean they weren't boys? True, I never complained about not wanting to be a girl or about wanting to be a boy. Partly that's because I didn't have any sort of physical dysphoria until puberty (which is common). Fact is, some trans people know they're trans early on, some are fine living as the gender they're assigned at birth until they get older and the pressure to be a "traditional" man or woman increases, and some always feel vaguely wrong and never really know why. I'm a bit of both of those last two. (And some of the people who are quite sure they're boys still like to play with dolls.)

Q: Hang on. I never heard you talking about any of this gender stuff until you started hanging around [Michael/Kyle/Winter/those people you live with/the Tumblrs] all the time. Are you sure they don't just have you confused?
A: You've got me there. It's a well-known fact that if you hang out with trans people they will get their trans cooties all over you and turn you trans almost instantly. We are coming for you. Hide your children.

All kidding aside, it's true that over the past year or so the number of trans people in my life has increased dramatically, and for those of you who haven't known what was up with me, I can sort of see how it could look like I got all these trans friends and wanted to play too. But no, that's totally backwards (and kind of insulting). Since I realized I was having some questions about my gender, I've naturally become much closer to the trans people who were already in my life, and have sought out others as well. (This all seems pretty obvious to me, but I know it's going to come up.) That said, without support from my trans friends and housemates I would not have found the necessary knowledge or courage to explore who I really am. I probably would have just continued living unhappily as a girl, not knowing what was wrong. So in a way, yes, this is partly their 'fault.' But that's a good thing.

Q: Why didn't you tell me sooner? Don't you trust me?
A: I know some people are going to be hurt that I didn't feel comfortable enough to let them know what was going on with me. Really, it has a lot less to do with trust and a lot more to do with what knowledge level I felt people had about trans stuff. I've been the most open with people who have enough understanding of gender that I wouldn't have to explain a bunch of stuff to them, because a few months ago the idea of being questioned was just too daunting. I couldn't handle other people's confusion on top of my own. But I feel more secure in my identity now, so here we are.

Q: Is this why you moved to Boston?
A: I moved to Boston for a lot of reasons - I have a lot of unschooling friends in New England, I needed a new start after my mom died, the job prospects seemed better here, Florida is just too fucking hot for me (my friends can vouch for this - I start whining as soon as the temps go above like 70F), etc. More importantly, I couldn't pay my bills and I had people in Boston willing to give me a place to stay for free. But yes, I was drawn here in part because I knew I wasn't going to have any freedom to explore my gender in Florida, and I had a trans friend here who insisted things would be better if I moved north. I saw that he had a level of comfort and freedom of expression that I couldn't dream of in Florida, and I wanted that. So all of that combined to make Boston a really appealing place. But mostly, I moved here because something deep in my gut was screaming for me to be in Massachusetts (even before the gender stuff consciously came up), and my gut is usually right about these things.

Q: You've had some emotional crises lately. Is this what that was about?
A: Not directly. At least not in the sense of feeling that my life is going to turn out badly because of being trans, or being unable to accept myself as a trans person. I've got relatively good self-esteem about that. I'm also not terribly worried about people rejecting me because I don't want to be friends with anyone who has a problem with trans people in the first place. Most of my emotional issues lately have been a matter of being lonely. Some of that just has to do with being in a new city and missing my mom and stuff like that. Some of it does have to do with gender, in the sense that I've deliberately isolated myself in order to have a safe space to sort this stuff out. Some of it also has to do with hormonal issues which can make life hell for FTM-spectrum people, which then exacerbate the sense of loneliness and feeling trapped. So I don't think being trans is causing my problems, but it certainly isn't doing a lot to help them either.

Q: I thought trans guys were hypermasculine fist-bumpin' dudebros. You are clearly not.
A: *snort* You clearly haven't met any of the trans guys I know. I mean, yeah there are trans guys who are naturally very masculine, and there are probably trans guys who feel they need to 'prove' they're men by acting more masculine than they really are. (And no, it's not up to you or me to decide which is which.) But I have always been and will always be a sensitive queer little nerd, and most of the trans guys I hang out with are as well. Actually, most all of the people I hang out with are queer or nerdy or both. That's just how I roll.

Q: But why transition if you're still going to wear glitter and nail polish and listen to godawful synthpop and get called a fag all the time?
A: Transition isn't about making yourself fit into the most privileged cultural norm you can think of. If it was, trans women and gay trans men wouldn't exist. Transition is about making who you are on the outside match the person you feel like on the inside. I am transitioning to a person who is going to be seen as a fag because, to put it bluntly, I feel like a fag. Always have. I'm fully aware that I will lose certain types of privilege (and gain others that I don't necessarily want), but the tradeoff is that as I become more comfortable with myself I will gain the self-esteem and confidence to deal with that.

Q: Didn't you used to identify as a lesbian? Are you straight now?
A: Yeah, I did identify as a lesbian for a couple of years there. I think what happened is that I always had this powerful sense that I was somehow queer, and while I always identified with gay men, I didn't have access to that identity while living as female. At the time, "lesbian" was the best word I had for "I am very queer and proud of it". Meanwhile, deep down I was always aware that I was still often attracted to male-identified people, and that there was something queer about the way in which I was attracted to them. But I had no frame of reference to understand that about myself until I first understood that I wasn't a woman. I've been physically attracted to many kinds of people, but mostly only romantically interested in guys. I have no idea whether that means I'm a gay guy or what, and I don't really care. I love who I love, and "queer" is a perfectly fine label as far as I'm concerned.

Q: Are you just going to come out as a totally different thing a year from now?
A: Possibly. But if I do, that doesn't mean the identity I'm using right now isn't valid too. Ideally, labels are like clothing - you pick out one that fits, wear it until it doesn't, and then you get to go shopping again.

Q: I'm a guy and I used to date you or want to date you or we made out one time or something. Am I gay?
A: I don't know. Are you?

Q: I think you might be going to Hell.
A: No I'm not because Kate Bornstein made a deal with the devil on my behalf. (And yours too.) So there.

On a more serious note, I don't personally believe God creates people a particular way only to turn around and punish them for it. Not to sound snotty, but if there's really a God that hates queer and trans people, that means I'm more loving than that God, and I sure as hell don't want to worship any deity who is less loving than I am. So I'm going to bet on any God being more loving than me, because I can be a fairly judgemental person and frankly I think God can do better than that.

Q: So... what changes?
A: Honestly? Not much, beyond my appearance, name, and pronouns. (And I promise not to freak out if you slip up on my pronouns, as long as you are trying.) I might encounter discrimination and have some tough times, and I'll hopefully gain more self-esteem and a stronger sense of who my friends are. But ultimately I am going to be the same person I've always been, who is really goofy 95% of the time and occasionally says something profound and confuses everyone because I seemed to be mostly air and fluff up until then, the same person who eats too much Chinese food and prattles on about diseases and quotes The Simpsons out of context. All of that stays the same. (Whether that is a promise or a threat is an exercise for the reader.) I'll just look a little different and feel a lot better about myself.

Q: Why is this so long?
A: Because gender is a very complicated thing that most people have been taught to see as very simple. Also, I like talking about myself. Especially after nearly a year of hiding myself away.