Recently, a man was at the park with his two kids and dog. After a brief chat, he commented to his kids that he liked my son’s hair (the top knot). For some reason this urge to explain his hair style has overcome me lately; perhaps there is something inside my brain that believes that the explanation warrants the style: somehow making it acceptable for a little boy to A.have long hair and B.wear it tied up. I pursued this path with my clarification, and followed it with something akin to: everybody assumes he is a girl, though he really does have quite a boyish face.
This man in the park with his two kids and dog then said to me, “I know what you mean. This is my son” with a flourish of his left hand he gestured the child next to him. My eyes darted to the child I had already seen and chatted with and then back to the father. I thought this man was having a laugh, playing some sort of sick joke with the little girl next to him. He was delighting in the protagonist role in some sort of weird “let’s freak out the mums at the park” satire. To express that I didn’t know what to say would be false because I didn’t even get so far as to consider a response. All that I actually managed to sputter was, “really?” Even the boy nodded in my direction.
The child in question looked every bit the stereotype of a grade 3 girl. He had long, blonde hair swept to one side in a low ponytail. He was wearing a pair of earrings in the lower lobe, identical to his sister: little dangling stars. The sky blue school uniform shirt was the same as his sister, and he was wearing navy tights with tiny sparkles all over them. He had a lovely face, freckles and deep dimples highlighting the smile of an innocent child.
At that moment, I thought I was a fairly unassuming person. I thought that my education, my career choices and the “seeing the world” I’ve done had played a part in shaping my understanding of the world. I realised though, very quickly and shockingly, that in fact the society we live in has simply shaped my perception of gender in the way that it wants me to comprehend. Girl equals this, this and this and boy equals the opposite. This notion is embedded in fixed patterns that we expose our children to from the moment of conception onward and is perpetuated by most people. It’s the whole “pink is for girls, blue is for boys,” put simply.
Prior to this occurrence at the park, I listened to a podcast which warped my present understanding of what gender is. I thought that there were two genders: male and female, and I was surprised to hear that Science disagrees. Not every body fits into the binary; with the biological makeup of the body (sex) aligning with the social expectations associated with it (gender). For as long as history has determined, our society has set the rules for the gender binary. It is both prescriptive and proscriptive, meaning those individuals who develop two X chromosomes are expected to fit into the category of “woman” by identifying, acting and developing the body of a “woman” and those with X and Y chromosomes do the same with expectations to act in line with masculine stereotypes.
There is another classification that occurs naturally for a person, for which our society has long ignored or tried to change. Known in circles today as intersex, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights defines this “category” as:
“Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of innate bodily variations of sex characteristics.
Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics (such as sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, hormonal patterns and/or chromosomal patterns) that do not fit typical definitions for male or female bodies.”
The podcast, “My Body, My Podcast” hosted by Elizabeth Banks is beyond informative and eye opening. She interviews Pidgeon Pagonis – intersex activist, writer and artist, who themselves experienced a confusing childhood, within which their truth was concealed by medical professionals in order to try and squeeze them into a predetermined category: one of the gender binaries. My mind was blown; I really had no idea firstly about the traits of an intersex person, nor the struggles endured by someone navigating an unconventional life in a conventional society.
Over recent years, representation of people who fall outside of the gender binary has grown in the public sphere. The LGBTQ+ community is alive and well, and with a growing general presence and flourishing confidence in the media, people like me are challenged to question the internal biases we’ve been raised to believe are the status quo. And so we should. I can only envisage the heartache and challenge of daily life when you feel that you’re one thing but you’re being told you’re another, and the question of who you really are is constant and unanswered. The way our rule makers attempt to bring order to what could be a chaotic world is through creating distinctions between girls and boys. But these lines of distinction enforce inner turmoil for those who cannot adhere to them, and that just isn’t just.
About three weeks ago, my four year old boy asked me two questions. The first one, seeming to have come simply from a pondering and curious mind was: “what happens when a girl and a girl love each other?” My response was this. “When a girl and a girl love each other, they can live together if they want to, they can get married if they want to, and (with the help of science) they can make a baby if they want to.” Locking eyes with my husband, the question was whether this answer was okay. My son’s second question was: “what happens when a boy and a boy love each other?” and I acknowledged the query in a similar way, recognising that if two boys want to have a baby, they need the help of a female body. I didn’t go into further detail, though I’m certainly not afraid to do so.
It seems that recently, my exposure to the topic of gender binaries and all the very many subcategories which fall inside, outside and all around, has increased. I am happy to feel somewhat disarmed by this, because my reaction means that I’m open to learning. My mind is not glued into position and reluctant to modify ideals. My kids are going to grow up knowing everything there is to know, so that if the time ever came that either of them was in a position where their own identity was compromised, or even that of a friend…they would know that it’s safe to ask, it’s safe to express, and being who you want to be is acceptable without judgement.
I am glad that the situation at the park made me feel awkward and wrong. It’s not okay to make an assumption about a person’s sex or gender thus place them in a category that doesn’t fit with their choices. My reaction should not have been so stark, and I see now that I need to actively shift the stereotypes which line the seams of my mind, so that future encounters might be tended to differently. Diversity is intriguing, and intrigue is a magical thing.
"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."