I used to think I was progressive until one day, in the shoe store, my four-year-old son held up a pair of glittery purple Mary Janes and asked whether he could get them.
I stared at the shoes and back at my son. Shoes. Son. Shoes. Son.
“Can I?” my son repeated.
I stammered. “Uhh…Why don’t we look at some more shoes?” I breathed a sigh of relief when he ventured over to the shoes that had been gendered as “boy shoes.” He picked out an innocuous blue pair. The glittery purple shoes remained on the shelf.
Why didn’t I buy the shoes? I still ask myself years later. I tell myself it’s because I wanted to protect him. At the time, we lived in a conservative town where gender norms were worn on the sleeve and I didn’t want him to get made fun of. I didn’t want him to feel hurt.
But while I wanted to protect my child, I also wanted to protect myself, too. I was too scared for what it would mean to protect him from potential ridicule, for the inevitable conversations among curious strangers that would occur around the shoes, for staring down a stranger and telling them it was none of their business what my child wore, or if I was feeling more generous, to explain that in our house, we let our children wear what suits them.
Except, evidently, I didn’t. Playing pretend and dress up at home was one thing. It was cute when my daughter dressed her brothers in fluffy robes and gave them “makeovers” or when they all slipped on plastic Disney princess heels and clacked around the house dancing to their favorite songs.
But outside the world of pretend, wearing clothes that didn’t conform to gender was another thing entirely. Outside, we’d have to confront deeply absorbed beliefs about gender. Outside, I’d have to confront my own.
I used to think I lived comfortably within the gender binary because I identify as the gender assigned to me at birth. But then I started to think of all the ways I’ve felt constrained by societal norms prescribing how femininity should be expressed.
In high school, for example, when we studied Shakespeare and had to act out the lines to solidify our learning, I always gravitated toward the male roles. As a talkative and restless young adult, I felt these roles expressed my personality best. Besides, men had the best parts and the best soliloquies and they did the most things. The plot revolved around them. They got to be assertive and funny and witty. They got to have agency. These were characteristics, I realized, that men were allowed to express more often than women, inside Shakespearean plays and in the real world, too.
It feels telling that, for as long as I can remember, I periodically have gender fluid dreams when I sleep. Sometimes, in the same dream, I shift characters and genders, from male to female and back again. In these dreams, I feel as though I am the same spirit experiencing the same event, but inside different bodies and perspectives. It feels magical, exhilarating, freeing and true.
I used to think I understood gender. But after raising children, I realized how strange it is to assign certain characteristics to people based on what we assume their genitals to be. It makes no sense that we insist boys are like this and girls are like that even when the exceptions to these societal “rules” are staring us in the face. We say girls love dolls and boys love action figures, forgetting that action figures are just dolls wearing masculine poses. We say girls are calm and passive, but then accuse them of being manipulative (asserting their agency) or drama queens (what is drama, if not action?). We tell ourselves lies to make the gender binary seem truer – to make it make sense because somewhere, deep down, we know it doesn’t.
One day, one of my kids asked what “transgender” meant. I stumbled through an explanation of the distinction between gender and genitalia, explaining that the two don’t always align in the ways society thinks they should. I was surprised when my kid shrugged and said, basically, “Makes sense.”
I used to think that only drag performers, beauty queens, and frat boys performed gender. Now, I realize that nearly all of us do. I perform gender daily. I go to stores that have the clothes neatly divided by gender and then I go to my assigned section. I choose clothes and hairstyles that broadcast my gender and when I wear something our society has decided is more masculine – say, a button down and khakis – I make sure my hair looks feminine and I put on a little blush. When I had a short, close-cropped afro, I wore skirts and earrings and makeup and floral patterns. I did this because, somewhere, I learned that it’s dangerous for a woman to be mistaken for a man, for a man to be mistaken for a woman, or simply to be a person whose gender was indecipherable. I wondered: Do I like big, beautiful dresses because I have been told I should, or because they are beautiful, or because they are comfortable, or because they have pockets? Or maybe it’s some messy tangle of all the above?
I used to think I was enlightened when it came to gender. Then came those glittery purple shoes. They reminded me that the central struggle of a person moving toward equity is aligning beliefs with words and actions. It’s easy to donate to fighting for trans and nonbinary rights, but harder to be present to the trans and nonbinary people right in front of you. It’s easy to teach your kids that girls can do karate and boys can wear nail polish, but harder to give your daughter the freedom to get a buzzcut, your son the freedom to wear a dress, or your child the freedom to choose their own pronouns. It’s easy to think that becoming an open-minded individual is about dismantling the patriarchy out there and not also about dismantling the misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic messages we’ve internalized and that we risk passing on to our children.
I have had to admit that I have nothing to teach and everything to learn. I am learning with my children. The other day, I was driving around with my kids and one of their friends. They looked out the window and saw someone doing exercises on the side of a hill. One of the kids referred to the person as “she” and one of my kids piped up.
“We don’t know how they identify,” they said. “They could be a boy, or a girl, or neither.”
Well damn, I thought, remembering my failure with the glittery purple shoes. Maybe I haven’t ruined them after all?
Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
Note: I wanted to share three resources that have helped me expand my understanding of gender.
- Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, a documentary about transgender depictions in Hollywood. I also loved hearing Laverne Cox – the Black transgender actress who executive produced the documentary – discuss the movie and its central insights on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast.
- The writings and work of poet Alok Vaid-Menon (known as Alok). To me, Alok elucidates gender in the same way James Baldwin elucidated race. Alok’s poem, “street tax”, which they wrote “as an offering to all of the people who harass me on the street”, is a masterpiece. Also, I have loved listening to Alok’s insights on the following podcasts: Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things (this was a two-part interview – Here’s Part 1), iWeigh with Jameela Jamil, and The Man Enough Podcast with Justin Baldoni.
- How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. In this book, Kendi gives a compelling explanation about how anti-Blackness begat greater misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.