Crying foul on “grrl power”



At parents’ night at M.’s school last week, a mother of one of her classmates approaches me with a big smile. Apparently her son and M. are great pals.  “They’re always playing together when I pick Ethan up from afterschool care.” (I’ve never had a chance to witness this; the combination of a brutally long commute and rush hour traffic means that M. gets picked up at the last possible minute, generally at 5:59.)  The smiling mom continues: “Ethan NEVER plays with girls, but he loves M.! They’re pretty rough – wrestling and pushing.  At first, I was worried, because she’s a… you know. And she’s so much smaller. But then I saw that M. was having a good time, too. She’s such a strong and feisty girl!”

“Yes, she is,” I say. (M. is not “out” as trans to any of her classmates or their parents; only the teacher “knows.”)

A little later, M.’s teacher presents us parents with a slide show: “Our Day in Kindergarten.” We smile with pride at a series of photos showing our precious children caught in the act of learning: Earnest and intent, they are clutching pencils, hunching over books, arranging Cheerios in neat little rows during something called “Munchy Math.”  In one slide, a group of kids sits around a table, using masking tape to combine plastic cups, paper plates, and paper towel tubes into impressive 3-D structures. M. is among them.  “That’s the builder table,” the teacher says.  “And as you see, it’s all girls!” (Had I seen that?) “It’s so great,” she adds, “having the girls be so into the building activity. Usually it’s mostly boys.”

Later, she makes a point of mentioning that the new P.E. teacher is a woman. Apparently the previous one was a man. “Such a great role model for girls being active!” she says.

A few years ago, all this “grrl power” stuff would have been music to my feminist ears. “Yes!” I’d have said.  “Girls can wrestle! Girls can build stuff! Girls can do sports!”

But now that M., my trans daughter, has entered my world, comments like these fall cold at my feet.  “What exactly do you think a girl is?” I want to ask them. “And what is a boy? Don’t you know what an elaborate farce this whole gender game is, anyway? Don’t you see that by highlighting the specialness of girls doing ‘boy stuff’ – and by simply making such a to-do about that fact that they ARE girls (how about ‘kids?’ ‘people?’), you’re further reinforcing an arbitrary (and cruelly narrow) binary system that limits and harms all of our children?”

For more than two years now, my trans child has been blowing to smithereens all of my prior assumptions about gender.  Most days, gender strikes me as an elaborate game we’re playing – and most of us have no idea we’re even playing it.  Yes, there are things about our identities that seem to be innate and hard-wired (M. truly experiences herself as a ‘girl,’ and that matters), but socialization is powerful stuff, and we are all trained aggressively from birth on the rules and requirements of the gender binary. My daughter started sussing out these rules at age two, and by three she knew exactly what she needed in order to qualify for the girl club: Long hair, pretty dresses, and some Barbies. I often pine for a world where the rules aren’t so strict, where she could freely pick and choose from among the whole spectrum of expressions and activities without having to define those choices as “boy” or “girl.”

My shifting perspective on the meaning of gender often leaves me feeling adrift and alienated by conversations that express a surety about gender that I no longer feel in possession of.

I no longer believe that I understand gender, or that anyone really does, or that I ever will. But as long as my daughter is happy being who she is, I guess I’m OK with that.  And the reality is that parenting M. is turning out to be a daily lesson in how little I know about anything.

The other night at bedtime, M. was quizzing me about her latest obsession: Extinct birds. The only one I could come up with was the dodo.

M. was annoyed.  “C’mon, Mama, you HAVE to know another extinct bird!”

“Sorry, honey, I just don’t. But we could research some tomorrow…”

M. sighed. “If only you knew everything, Mama.”


10 thoughts on “Crying foul on “grrl power”

  1. Does anyone understand gender in general? I don’t think so. Many people have some compelling theories, but it seems even more confuse gender identity with gender roles. It sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear, “Gender is just a social construct.” No, gender ROLES are social constructs, and they play a part in how we express our gender identities.

    Thank you so much, for being the mother that M needs. Maybe you don’t understand gender and you don’t know everything. But you love your daughter, and you’re making the effort.

    That is truly beautiful.


  2. Isn’t it interesting how our civil rights movements seem to actually highlight our differences and call for further separation and distinction rather than highlight our similarities and bring unity? I’m not for GLBT rights, women’s rights, minority’s rights, I’m for HUMAN rights.

  3. What I’ve always heard is that gender is between the ears. As best as I can tell this is the only thing that makes sense, there is some inner feeling that you match (or do not) your birth sex. Your daughter and I don’t. I was definitely boyish but I am certainly not the most manly of men, and do many things downright feminine. I don’t really worry about it. I’m who I am. Apparently your daughter also takes her own path. Thanks for your blog.

  4. I’ve been on this path for more than two years with a trans*family member and really appreciate this post. I’ve become very impatient with the automatic labeling of male/female that happens in my head just seeing a stranger at the grocery store. That label tells me less than nothing about the person in front of me. Like you, I don’t think I’ll ever really understand gender, but I’m rejecting the absolutism of the binary.

  5. The Watering Hole is a really neat childrens’ book about extinct animals. (Make sure to look at the page borders….) I enjoy your blog and M is so lucky to have you. I have worked in Early Childhood Education for years and your blog always gets me thinking quite a bit. Thank you! You are doing a wonderful job!

  6. I guess when things like gender (as well as many other things like religion) are complex and difficult to understand, the first thing human society does is to reduce the difficulty into a simplistic definition. That is why society understands gender as meaning a person’s sex. Ah, if life were only that simple, but it isn’t. GenderMom, you have a marvelous curiosity and courage, and will certainly grow as much as M will. What a wonderful journey it will be!

  7. Thank you for sharing your story. I completely agree – my kids are blowing gender right out of my vocabulary. I’m reading your posts and thinking, “hey! I’ve got it easy!”…of course, who knows what my little punks have in store for me.

  8. Gender role is such a complicated topic. People gets easily judged when they do things that aren’t fitted to their supposed role. Even things such are feminine and masculine traits can be confusing to most people. Each people are complex and everyone should understand that. We’re not made to fit into this mold made by society.

    I wish we have a lot of people like you.

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