When did you first know what gender you were? Chances are, by age four or five, you were firmly and comfortably established, for life, as a boy or girl. I know I was. But it’s not like that for everyone.
My recent post on the Bitch magazine blog got a fair number of responses, among them several questioning whether five years old was too young to be talking about gender, let alone to be “allowing” my “male” child to live as a girl. I hear this kind of thing a lot.
I, too, probably would have raised similar questions until my child appeared on the scene and began, as children are so apt to do, to teach me all sorts of things I didn’t know I didn’t know.
According to my child’s preschool teacher, four-year-old children are pretty preoccupied with gender. This is when they’re trying to sort the world out into the categories that we adults are so famously obsessed with. This is when girls become enamored with pink, and when boy decide that it’s all about the trucks and Legos.
Unlike sexual orientation, which does generally develop later, children at age four and five are aligning and identifying with the gender that they will likely carry with them through the rest of their lives.
But, my dear reader, you already know that. You already know that we don’t keep kids in a gender-neutral limbo until adolescence. You know that the parents have already selected the color of the baby shower invitations, decided on a name, and dreamed a thousand gendered dreams for their child based on whether those ultrasound pictures showed what my young nephew Adam calls a “ninky.”
I did this, too. And for this I have to pause for a moment and just say, to my child: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that, before you even breathed on your own, I loaded you up with a big steaming pile of gendered expectations. I’m sorry I didn’t realize until recently how silly this was. I know it could have saved you a lot of angst if I had. (I’ll pay for the therapy, OK?)
So, here’s the deal: If my five-year-old child had a vagina, would anyone be giving me shit for letting her wear dresses and call herself a girl? Would anyone be telling me that “five years old is awfully young to be assigning labels, dear.”
Imagine everyone you know taking a “wait and see” attitude about gender among the four- and five-year-olds you know. Can you imagine that? Let’s take a second and imagine it together: You meet little Ella, your co-worker’s daughter, at the company family picnic. Ella is three or four or five years old. When sweet little Ella is out of earshot, frolicking with the other kids, you quiz her mother: “So, are you sure she’s a girl? I mean, can you really know that already?” Ella’s mom would think you were insane.
But this is exactly the question people ask me on a regular basis.
A few months ago, I found myself at the county courthouse, waiting for the judge to finalize my divorce, and hanging out with my attorney, a smart and ambitious lad in his early thirties. I told him about my child, and how she had recently transitioned to a female identity, after months and months of agonizing on my part about whether this was the right path to take.
He then told me that his wife was pregnant. “It’s a boy!” he said as we walked out of the courthouse.
I hesitated. Should I say this?
“Or so you think,” I said, giving him a playful nudge on the shoulder. We both laughed.
But I really hope I made him think.