By E.J. Gordon
After watching her brother play hockey for years, we finally convinced our competitive, coordinated daughter to give it a shot. We had successfully trained her to understand that ANY girl could play ANY sport, and hockey was the best sport ever. She excitedly went with her Daddy to buy all of her equipment. She insisted that we all come to her first hockey experience. She’d already learned to skate, so we put her right into a recreational hockey league for all kids her age. We all went to the rink, and huddled together to watch what we were sure would be the start of an amazing hockey career.
The session started, and she, along with a bunch of other five and six-year-olds, skated with their sticks from one side of the rink to the other, doing different drills. After about 30 minutes, we watched as she skated over to one of the female coaches and started expressively talking to her. Then we watched as she got right off the ice. My husband and I hurried over to her, thinking that maybe she needed to pee or something.
Our daughter took off her helmet, handed it to her Daddy, and said: “I don’t want to play this sport. It’s a boy’s sport. I’m way too sweaty.”
And so her much-anticipated hockey career ended, flushing down the toilet the cost of all her equipment along with our hopes and dreams for a hockey scholarship — which our daughter would have been much more likely to get than our son, simply because of her gender.
And it’s ALL about gender. I remember a sociology class, in which the professor postulated that we adults innately teach our kids their gender roles by giving kids gender “appropriate” expectations and gifts. Someone has a birthday party for her one-year-old boy, and one of his gifts will be a truck. Another will be a ball. I remember the discussion in class and how people felt that gender roles are so much a part of our society that people just automatically give boy stuff to boys and girl stuff to girls.
Most adults feel uncomfortable giving boys “girl” toys, and girls “boy” toys, unless specifically told to do so.
Jumping forward to my life as a mother, that makes sense. It would have been kind of strange to me when my son was younger for someone to randomly buy him a doll without us or him expressively asking for one.
But when I first had kids, I had vowed to be different: I was going to raise my kids to play with whatever they wanted — even if others felt it was non-conforming. In fact, my little boy’s two best friends were girls until he was five years old. So one day, when he was about two and a half, we were over at one of the girls’ houses, and there was my little guy pushing a stroller. I was so proud of myself for not pushing him to conform to gender play, and I was about to gloat when I saw what he was pushing around in the stroller: a dog bone. I followed him and watched him dump it onto another pile of dog bones. My boy was using his friend’s baby stroller as a dump truck.
So no matter how hard we try, there are kids who just automatically conform to gender roles. They are born that way.
And then there are those kids who aren’t. The “typical” kids spot the gender non-conformers right away. An androgynous server will walk away after taking our order at at restaurant and one of the little ones will ask: “Is that a boy or a girl?” A girl dressed in full boy clothing comes up to bat at the girls’ league T-ball game, and the kids ask: “Is that a boy or a girl?” A boy with long hair will be skating during free-skate, doing double axels in the middle of the ice, and the children ask: “Is that a boy or a girl?”
We parents have to know what to say, and we have an obligation to say it in a way that teaches our kids that not only is it not okay to make fun or tease these kids, but it’s okay that they are different.
And we need to teach them how to be around gender non-conforming kids who end up in their classes and at their lunch tables.
How do we do this? Well, there are three pieces to this puzzle:
1. Something kids should understand, especially as they grow into their pre-teen years, is that “gender non-conforming” is mutually exclusive of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not on the gender spectrum; it’s on a different axis. Obviously, sexual orientation is also not something to be teased or rude about, but we should tell our kids that they can’t make assumptions about it either. That athletic girl who plays football with my son at recess might like boys or girls. That boy who talks fashion and loves to dance may like girls or boys. Looking back at our own school-age experiences, there are those we might have guessed were gay, but weren’t; there are those we guessed correctly, and then there are the surprises. You just don’t know, and it is just not a function of gender.
2. Secondly, Gender Non-Conforming not only does not mean “gay”, but it does not have to mean Transgender. There are girls who love sports, trucks, and dirt. They may be girls inside and out. They may like boys. My niece is one of these: she calls herself a “tom-boy” because she loves sports and hates dresses. She loves hanging with my son and playing with boys in general. And she feels like a girl. And she loves, and I mean romantically loves boys.
And there are boys who love theatre, dancing, and fashion. They may be boys inside and out, and they may romantically like girls.
Again, if kids are friends with or classmates with a tom-boy or a “metro-sexual” — there should be NO assumptions about what’s going on inside the mind or body of that person.
3. The final piece is not as common. It’s that there are Transgendered kids. While we can’t assume that the gender non-conforming kids they know are transgendered, every now and then someone is pretty public about it.
Every now and then there are children who change names and ask the kids around them to treat them like the gender they feel inside, rather than the one that their outsides show.
And these kids are at such high risk of being teased and rejected. There are quite a few transgendered kids who contemplate or actually attempt suicide. While the parents of these kids have an obligation to do everything they can to get their transgendered kids to accept their differences and be their authentic selves, the rest of us have an obligation to teach our kids NOT to be a part of the pressure that pushes these kids to their breaking point. We have an obligation to generate compassion and acceptance.
When I spoke to my 10-year old son about this after he saw an article in People about a child in this position, I asked him what he would do if he woke up and felt exactly the same as he did right now, wanting to go hang with his guy friends, wanting to play hockey, wanting to jump into a big, dirty pile of leaves, but what if I said to him, “Sweetie, come on now, put on your leotard and let’s go to dance class. Then we’ll go get our nails done, and after, you can go play with your American Girl doll.” He told me he’d flip out, that he would say “no” and that he would fight me all the way. I told him that is a little taste of what it’s like to be transgendered. I told him that for a transgendered child, that “feeling” is their entire life — people telling them they’re something that they’re not, and expecting them to act in a way that they can’t.
I did this so if my son encounters kids who are like this, he will treat them with a little empathy. As with all bullying and kid-to-kid mistreatment, I tell my kids that they don’t want to be the person who ruins a kid’s day.
I tell my kids: “Be the reason a kid has a good day.”
And when it comes to gender, treat a kid the way he or she wants to be treated. To my son I say if girls want to play football with you at recess — let them play. And throw it to them hard, like you would to one of your guy friends. To my daughters I say — if a boy wants to play “House” with you and dress-up, why question it? Just play. Even if he wants to be the Mom. And most importantly, when it comes to gender non-conforming, when they have questions like, “Is this person gay?” or “Is this person a boy or a girl?” — I have one answer: It doesn’t matter and it’s none of your business.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: E.J. Gordon is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to GIRLillaWarfare, and “Sexpert”. Have any questions or topics that you would like her to address? Remember: No subject is taboo, and Anonymity is accepted. Contact E.J. at: EJGordon529@gmail.com.