was 10 years old – three years older than my daughter is now – when I first failed at gender.
A small blond girl on the grade-school playground ran up and told me to look at my nails. I curled my hand into a cat’s claw and looked, unsure what I was looking for.
My classmate shrieked with glee: “You’re a boy!” she shouted.
“Am not,” I said, dropping my hand.
“Are, too,” she said, that irrefutable childhood argument. Girls, she explained, held their hands out at a distance, fingers splayed like a fan, to look at their nails. Only boys curled their hands into a fist, as I had done.
It was a gender test, my first, and I had failed.
I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t what I’d call a tomboy. I was more like a lanky mobile blur of anxiety. Dread was my childhood companion. Now I was nervous about my gender. How could I have gotten it wrong? Such a basic thing?
As I moved through the linoleum-floored halls of American public schools, I found claims about sex and gender suspect: Girls were supposed to be cooperative, not competitive; emotional, not cerebral; sociable, uninterested in sex. Girls were supposed to like dolls and boys. I liked neither. I took no interest in Cinderella; I wanted to be the prince. I had crushes on girls, was fiercely competitive and preferred science and math to most everything – and everyone – else.
I was convinced that everyone must feel as I did – human, not male or female. When I closed my eyes at night, I was myself alone, a feeling, not a gender any more than I was a hair colour or eye colour (or fingernails on an outstretched hand). I was a consciousness. I trusted that everyone felt that way. It was the source of conversations at sleepovers, as we learned to name things, including ourselves. I considered myself androgynous; I secretly thought everyone was.
This was the 1970s, and women were only beginning to receive basic civil rights, thanks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among others, though I didn’t know her name then; thanks to second-wave feminism and the failed effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which focused attention on gender inequality.
Whenever humanity was sorted by sex, I inevitably missed the mark. I suspected the mark was mistaken. I dutifully dated, learning the script of romance from movies and musicals, and treated dating as a competitive sport, a science experiment: If I did X, would Y result?
In college, when I read Simone de Beauvoir (“one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”) and Virginia Woolf (“a great mind is androgynous”), it wasn’t news, even as it was a relief.
When I first went to bed with a woman at age 25, I felt as if I was falling back into my body, falling through a pane of glass, and shattering in the most wonderful way. The next morning I cut off my long hair, got it sheared short as a boy’s.
After my haircut, I walked around Lake of the Isles in a long flowing lavender dress, delighted by how the air caressed my scalp. When a kid shouted, “Mom, is that a boy or a girl?” it took me a minute to realise the kid was talking about me.
The woman smiled at me, as if to say, “Kids, what can you do with them?” But I was delighted. Exactly, I thought. That’s right. I’d finally gotten it right, the gender test.
When I moved to Manhattan after college to work as a film magazine editor, I adopted the New York writers’ attire of the 1990s: suitcoat, boots, jeans, men’s T-shirt. I was often taken for a man at ticket counters in airports, in museums, at movies. The clerk would say, “May I help you, sir,” then apologise profusely. But I was never offended. I was curious. What suggested I was a guy?
I thought maybe it was my outfit, my hair, but plenty of women wore suits, and it happened even when my hair reached my shoulders. I began to think it was something more basic: that I moved as men do, after years of dating women, with the confidence that comes of women’s generous view of others, no longer feeling that I must please or petition. I moved without apology.
Now, decades later, I am the mother of a daughter and that’s what I want for her – an unapologetic life – so I worried when, six months into kindergarten, I noticed a shift. In her first years, gender stereotypes did not seem to guide her. Her tastes were all-encompassing: When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered, “A Dentist-Painter-Mom.” (Her best friend wanted to grow up to be a dragon.) She picked out a blue bike, dressed as a dog for Halloween, then as a penguin and then a dragon. When her best friend got her hair cut short, my daughter asked to have her own long hair cut short. She looked androgynous; she looked like me years before.
At a local pool, my daughter and her friend were mistaken for boys, and my daughter was dismayed, but I didn’t worry. Her best friends were a fierce girl-gang of wolves, with whom she scaled trees and 40-foot climbing walls.
Then, a few months into kindergarten, she began to say things that concerned me. When asked if she wanted to play soccer, she said, “Girls don’t play soccer, that’s for boys.” Instead of drawing dragons, she began to design dresses; she asked me if I’d teach her to sew. She began to favour princess costumes, ignoring the space suit in her closet, and the dragon with long furry teeth. She began to ask, “Do I look pretty?”
She asked for high heels for her sixth birthday, then for a wig.
I grew increasingly concerned, but I tried not to show it. Occasionally, I’d slip: “You can wear pants instead of a dress, y’know.” I’d say, “Being pretty is fine, but it’s not the most important thing. Being kind, curious, just and generous matter more.”
I don’t mind if my child is “girly”, but I don’t want her to feel she must conform.
Recently I asked, “Why do you want a wig?”
“I’m not you, Mommy,” she said, breaking and healing my heart at one and the same time.
“That is very true, my Nutkin,” I said.
“Please don’t call me Nutkin,” she said.
“OK,” I said. “I won’t.”
Years ago an acquaintance who was raised Jewish converted to evangelical Christianity. When she came out to her parents as Born Again, in a hotel room in Israel, they were shocked; there may have been tears. What she remembers is that her parents said, “Just promise us one thing? You won’t vote Republican.”
It’s a funny story, but it haunts me: I wonder what one thing I’m afraid of. Promise me you won’t be apologetic; promise me you won’t take on that female freight.
I want my daughter to be who she is, unapologetically. I want her to fall in love with the world and its possibilities and with her own. But I don’t need – or want – her to pass my gender test.
Lately she has taken to flying, or trying to. I remember jumping from roofs at her age, and I am grateful we have no balcony. When I look at my daughter joyously trying to fly with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders – now a bat, now Pegasus, now a unicorn, a mermaid, a ninja, a princess, a wolf – I am glad to see her trying on the possibilities, learning the names of things, learning to be on a first-name basis with the world (red-tail hawk, towhee, steller’s jay, Western tanager, populus tremuloides, nasturtium, prairie poppy), so she will have the language to call herself by the right name, whatever terms she chooses, whenever she discovers what that is.
© The Washington Post