by Dr. Jill Kuhn
"Sorry, teacher, but where do the kids whose most salient identity isn't gender and istead self-identify as 'awesome' line up?" Samuel Kellerman
When my oldest was a baby, she was bald or had blonde fluff on her head. I dressed her in a variety of colors and avoided bright pinks, lace and hair bows. People would regularly think she was a boy, and when I occasionally corrected them, some would become clearly ruffled and irritated and tell me, “well you should put her in pink or put a bow in her hair so people can tell she is a girl.” I always wondered why it was so important for them to know this about a stranger’s baby.
My wonderful, bright, loving and youngest, 8-year old daughter is gender flexible or a gender rebel. She has always loved toy cars, dinosaurs, swords, rocks, trains, robots, and sports. Barbies were for decaptitating. She has always had high energy (even when I was pregnant with her) and loves intense physical activity. Over the last year she has moved towards fully expressing who she is through wearing athletic clothing and recently getting a crew cut. I’ve shopped for her in the “boy’s department” for quite some time as boy’s shorts have many cool pockets, and for skateboard shirts and primary colored athletic wear. She does not want cute, bows, kittens, butterflies or lavender. Some more scientific types like to call this, as well as those pathologizing it, “gender variant.” Dr. Rene Baker, an MFT, and owner of “Gender Power,” has written, “Sometime if we ask the opposite questions, we come to some good insight. Why don't we have gender-limiting disorder? Why are there people who are not able to get past the fear of free gender expression? Why don't we have straight-identity disorder? Why are people so afraid of defining as say pan-sexual?”
Unfortunately, the gender police are out in full force. In the few short months that she has had a crew cut she has been confused for a boy on many occasions. Several people have become incensed when they discovered that she was a girl and responded as if we had worked out this great scheme to embarrass them. Flippant and defensive comments inevitably follow. A nurse at our regular doctor’s office ARGUED with us repeatedly, saying, “this can’t be Haley,” despite our numerous assurances that this was Haley. She went so far as to tap on the box checked “female” on the paperwork in her chart. Frankly, they should be embarassed for their binary notion of gender and gender expression. (I did speak to our pediatrician later on the phone and she was extremely apologetic and indicated her staff would be receiving further education in gender sensitivity.)
Then we have gender deputies, kids who attempt to enforce a binary system of gender. One day at school three girls approached Haley and handed her a book entitled, “How to be a Girly Girl in 10-days” saying, “just in case.” Haley said, “uh, no thanks.” You can bet I contacted those girls’ parents. One believed us, and their daughter was honest about what she had done. The parents had her write and say an apology to Haley. Another parent indicated, “there was a misunderstanding.” I suppose they thought that the whole thing was in fun, even though it wasn’t funny to Haley or her dad and me, or maybe the misunderstanding was that Haley really needed to get the message from peers that she is not behaving or looking like the stereotype of a girl. Alternately, Haley has had quite a few friends that are girls tell her that they wish their parents would let them cut their hair short or wear the kind of clothes she wears. Instead, these girls are trapped in clothing and haircuts they do not want, presumably because of fear. Several of her best guy friends, who love playing rough and tumble sports with her during recess and on the weekends, have in the past also tried to argue that she should not be wearing boy’s clothing. After going around and around with them and not backing down, she finally said to one of the boys, “so if you were to put my coat on does that make you a girl?” That cleanly ended the conversation.
Six year old Shiloh Jolie-Pitt has been in the media as a girl who also has short hair and prefers “boy’s clothing.” I was horrified at the number of judgmental comments, following online articles, that were variations on the theme of Shiloh wanting to be a boy (and maybe she does, but the information available so far simply shows a girl who knows what she wants). They were uneducated and cruel, basically indicating that Shiloh’s parents were confusing her and not helping her BE a girl. One of the more disturbing comments read, “Shiloh needs a spanking and should be forced to dress and act like a girl!!” Did I miss the research study that found pink, long hair, ruffly shorts, dolls and tea parties to be genetically encoded on genes? My readers and I know that this is pure ignorance, but this is the world my daughter, and girls like her, live in (in addition to boys who are also gender flexible, kids who don’t feel like either gender or feel they are in the wrong body). Thank goodness Shiloh’s mother, Angelina Jolie had this to say about her daughter, “I think she (Shiloh) is fascinating, the choices she is making. And I would never be the kind of parent to force somebody to be something they are not. I think that is just bad parenting... Children should be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they wish without anybody judging them because it is an important part of their growth. Society always has something to learn when it comes to the way we judge each other, label each other. We have far to go." (Huff Post Entertainment).
As I’ve walked this journey with my daughter, I continue to be amazed at what a strong and amazing child I have. My daughter is loving, considerate, honest, loves a challenge, whether academically or athletically, cares deeply about others, fiercely loves her dad, sister and me, copes with numerous severe food allergies, migraines and asthma, and not surprisingly, is especially adept at reaching out to the underdog. In her short eight years on this earth, she has become confident in who she is and chooses to please herself with her appearance and interests, rather than trying to please those around her. What a lesson I and many others can take from her. What else could a mother ask for in a child?
Dr. Jill Kuhn is a psychologist in private practice, teaches Human Sexuality and Child Development courses and is the mother to two amazing daughters.
"Gender Police," will be published in the Dr. Mom column in the fall edition of The Feminist Psychologist, the newsletter for the professional organization, The Society for the Psychology of Women (Division 35 of the American Psychological Association).