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When David Beckham revealed that his wife Victoria was expecting a baby girl, he explained that they had already painted the room in pink and lilac in preparation and that Victoria was looking forward to buying lots of pretty clothes for her. The poor kid hadn't even been born but already was being socialized into "appropriate" colors and setting out that her acceptability as a girl would be based on "looking pretty."
But what if their daughter will want to play football, have short hair, and wear dungarees? Maybe their daughter will someday want to transition and become a man (as we have seen with Chaz Bono). And just maybe this young child will be a person who loves shoes and handbags and will go girlie-shopping with her mom -- who's to say?
Now, if you winced when you read that last sentence, then
think again -- what is it that makes you feel uncomfortable with thedea that
this child might develop a more male identity? It's a subtle but very
evident social pressure that parents feel under to have "normal" children, and
that means "proper boys" or "proper girls."
The new movieTomboy, which opens tonight in New York, explores this theme: the protagonist is a young person told to be female, but who wishes to inhabit the world of the boy and to be treated as male. It's an endearing film, but it highlights the agonies a young person can experience when their inner self is constrained unfairly by social rules determined purely on the basis of apparent genital apparatus.
Despite more than 30 years of second wave feminism, we still
reiterate and reinforce these rules and still encourage children to see
maleness as defined in opposition to femaleness and femaleness as lesser within
that system. But, imagine a world where children were born without genitals and
you only got to find out the sex at puberty! How might we raise children then?
At a very basic level, our expectations would be more equal and less
gender biased. The labels we reserve for socially favored gender behavior
would become meaningless and we'd finally end the inequality between sexes.
But these rigid binary gender rules do exist within our society and this places uncomfortable pressures on children and their parents as the young person tries to work out how to be themselves in a society that places so many limitations of what they can do based on their nominal sex. Within schools there is a significant problem of homophobic bullying - but the reality is that it's the gender non-conformity that gets picked on. It has nothing to do with who they want sex with.
Recently we had a significant a brouhaha over the supposed gender confusion of young Shiloh, child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Shiloh is only 4, for her the world is a fascinating and exciting place with so much potential. And here is a young person exploring the world and making sense of how to be in it. And Shiloh has rather cleverly worked out that there was a fork in the road of the life journey and having inadvertently been sent down the route toward "girl-world" and "womanhood" has quickly realized that masculinity would make a more appealing journey. Maybe she'll be a butch lesbian, a lifelong tomboy, a trans guy, or, like a former tomboy, a typical straight woman. Who knows?
And yet people feel frightened by this. Newspapers, web forums,
and blogs were awash with comments questioning the outcome of all of this.
Parents and children alike are under close scrutiny to follow these strict
gender rules -- I mean, try buying a girl toy that isn't pink or purple at the
moment: it's quite a challenge. The rules, it seems, are simple: boys
should be boys and like boy stuff, girls should be girls and be pretty and well
behaved, and be surrounded by pink and purple sparkly things (and waiting for a
prince to come for them).
The tomboy identity has, of course, always been seen as an endearing diversion as long as the girl went back to being a "proper girl" by "tweenage" or puberty at the latest. And of course, when it comes to boys wanting to express femininity or a girl-identity, it is so taboo that it apparently affords license to release the hounds of hell on the parent who would even contemplate permitting that. (Just look at all the debates over boys wearing princess Halloween costumes last month.)
Allowing and or encouraging a child to be gender
non-conforming can be remarkably uncomfortable for parents too as they face the
open condemnation of others: here in the case of Jolie and Pitt I commend their
strength of character to handle the criticism and allow their child to find
their own route in life. Shiloh, like any young person, needs the space
and the freedom to define an identity that fits, a way of being in the world
that feels congruent.
Our understanding of gender identity is still evolving but what is increasingly evident is that there are structural brain differences between typically male and typically female brains but the gender of the brain sits on a spectrum of maleness and femaleness. Evidence for this has been growing over the last decade and a recent article in the New Scientist sheds further light on this. In a society that places so many divisions and rules based on genital anatomy, its easy to see that for someone whose brain gender is very much at odds with their genitals the option of transsexual surgery can be so necessary and valuable in these instances. But maybe there is space for more gender diversity: maybe not everyone has to be shoe-horned into a rigidly defined binary.
I admire the parent who allows their child to self define, to explore how to be themselves and affords that person acceptance. If the end result really is that more people end up as adults living openly as transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual then what's the problem?
Surely that has to be preferable to those same people living
with chronic internal discomfort, trying to be something others expect of them
that simply isn't who or what they are.
These are exciting times and as more young people question the compulsory identities they were assigned at birth we will no doubt start to become more accustomed to a broader bandwidth of gender and sexual identities. Imagine a prospective parent saying, "I'd like three children, maybe one of each!"
Alex Drummond is the author of Queering the Tranny: New Perspectives on Male Transvestism & Transsexualism. Drummond is clinically trained and accredited as a Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist with an MSc in counseling and psychotherapy with special research interests in transgender issues and adult ADHD.