Dear Lily June,
When it comes to gender, know that your mother was raised in a different era than you. That’s not an excuse; it’s just an explanation if I seem to cling on to outmoded ways of thinking about what makes gender. Please, my darling dear, correct me when my views are behind the curve, and accept that I’m learning, too. No matter who you are or decide to be, I support your choices (so long as they don’t intentionally harm others).
Because I have a number of thoughts about gender, but those thoughts exist in my mind with no particular organization, I’m going to share with you what I know and have experienced (and you’ll have to glean from that what I don’t, and still need to, while I hope you’ll share what you’ve experienced someday with me). I may end up asking more questions than providing answers, but c’est la vie. I hope, when there’s something you don’t know about, even if it’s about yourself, you’ll be willing to ask the hard questions.
The picture on the cover of this entry is of your father and I from our younger and wilder years, on a Halloween. It’s my favorite holiday, in no small part because it’s the time of year that, whoever you’ve decided to be, you can try on another identity.
In the picture, your father is dressed as a female geisha; your mother as a male postal worker. Is this offensive? Likely, the cultural appropriation is problematic, but then, to my American sensibilities, so’s the role of a subservient woman. Is it liberating of your father to have reclaimed it?
We were trying to be funny. (An undead postal worker, I passed around rejection letters to our writer friends all night.) Does that make it more or less offensive that we thought this was the way to do so? Both of us are comfortable enough in our sense of self to gender-bend, but I wonder, to someone legitimately transitioning in terms of gender, would this have been the equivalent of a minstrel show’s “blackface”?
“Transexual people identity as a member of the sex opposite to that assigned at birth, and desire to live and be accepted as such.”
Does it matter that we were merely cross-dressing, and that we still, throughout the course of the night, likely spoke and acted by the performative expectations of the cis- crowd? We didn’t mean offense. Does intention matter? Is play okay?
“A transvetite is a person who cross-dresses, or dresses in clothes of the opposite sex.”
The burden of questioning your privilege is a light one, much lighter than the burden of knowing you don’t feel, look, or act in the way society anticipates you should, based solely on the genitalia you were born with.
There is a difference, Lily, between sex and gender: Sex is biological, something you get no choice in (at least when you’re born). Gender is social, an artificial construct you can either buy into or reject. But because perception is reality, both will feel real. And at times neither will feel right. Or fair.
“Genderqueer is a recent attempt to signify gender experiences that do not fit into binary concepts, and refers to a combination of gender identities and sexual orientations.”
All kinds of cultural events–from Carnival to circuses–make cross-dressing into a spectacle, a source of entertainment. Does this help us progress, and reconsider who we are as a people? Or does this show our devolution in its lack of empathy for those for whom the show doesn’t end?
When I was in college, I read Judith Butler’s take on the concept of “gender performativity.” From then on, I never stopped seeing all gender as a performance–a play in which I hadn’t picked the script or auditioned for the role I was thrust into.
Even as an arguably cis-gendered woman in a heterosexual marriage, I find the concepts of masculinity and femininity limiting, stifling, frustrating, baffling, and extraordinarily problematic. What do we gain by thrusting ourselves into boxes? Into binaries? Into costumes? onto stages?
“An androgyne is a person who cannot be classified into the typical gender roles of their society; androgyny is independent of orientation.”
Does it change the picture to know that I presented masculine when I was in middle school / junior high? I wouldn’t say I was trying to pass for male, but I donned the garb of a jock without lifting a finger towards athleticism.
I shopped in the men’s section because the clothes were loose, not form-fitting. I wanted to hide my body, and its–then–lack of curves. And I hated doing hair. And I hated wearing makeup. I wanted the ease of a male getting ready in the morning: throw on clothes, run a hand through your hair, and step into the world.
I liked that the “athletic costume” of my middle school years lent itself to being able to sit with my legs wide and unrestricted, a stance sometimes mockingly referred to now as “manspreading.” Is there something inherently male about spreading out?
I remember from elementary school that part of the definition of scientific “matter” is that it’s something which takes up space. Aren’t women matter? Don’t they?
The older I got, the more I tucked into myself, so that by the time I hit grad school, I was a veritable female pretzel. Your father, seeing the way I could flexibly tuck my feet and knees up under my body while discussing poetry in a workshop, dubbed me “Monkey.” The nickname’s stuck, but the posture’s slowly unraveling itself again.
“A bigender (sometimes rendered as bi-gender, dual gender, or bi+gender) individual is one who moves between masculine and feminine gender roles.”
When I was very young, I used to lynch Barbie dolls. The crimes for which they were put to death always varied, but the method of execution stayed consistent. I would tie a shoestring around their necks as a make-shift noose, then push them off of the handle of an exercise bike, allowing them to swing freely, and always, nakedly.
What was I punishing the plastic doll for? Her unattainable beauty? Her collection of “feminine” professions (stewardess, waitress, wife)? I even had a black Dr. Barbie, but she came with a tiny baby. Was she an OB-GYN? A single working mother (there was no corresponding Ken)?
No one gave me a truck to play with.
Thanks, Target, for your new gender-neutral toy section. Stay strong, despite the backlash.
There’s a riddle that goes like this: A boy and his father are brought into an emergency room, having been in a terrible accident. However, when the boy is put up on the operating table, the surgeon exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy! He’s my son!” How can this be true?
There’s a “joke” that goes like this: What’s that useless flap of skin above a vagina?
When I was lying on an operating room, unable to give birth “naturally,” I felt like less of a woman. I had the same genitalia, and I was wearing a hospital gown that exposed the outline of my nipples, and my then shapely hips, so why was I stripped of my gender identity? Was it because my costume was missing? Or because my body wasn’t playing the cards it had supposedly been dealt?
You have a relative who was born intersex, with parts of both genitalia having to be surgically altered to make her a woman. She is now gay, and despite being one of the most generous humans I have ever met, she believes she’s going to Hell for it.
If the surgery had gone another way, would “he” have been more worthy of Heaven? Whose heart does God trust, the woman’s or the physician’s?
We used to call intersexed individuals “hermaphrodites,” named for Hemaphroditos, the progeny of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and pleasure, and Hermes, the god of transitions and boundaries.
This same family member worked for years in a factory in the Midwest, making parts for car engines.
It reminds me of the symbol of a woman wearing a red bandana on her head, pumping her fist with the slogan We Can Do It emblazoned above her. People called her Rosie the Riveter, but she wasn’t: She was from a morale-boosting propaganda poster out of a Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. Her design was crafted by a man not to recruit more females into factories, but to make those Westinghouse had in the Midwest work harder.
When we found out your sex while you were still in the womb, I felt as if I finally knew something about you, and who you might be. (Why did I feel that way?)
Then I was terrified that I’d have to teach you how to be a woman, what makes femininity. I was scared for you, with me as your model.
Everyone bought you pink, including me, although my favorite color has always been, always will be, lilac, a mixture of baby blue and pink.
“Two-Spirit (also two spirit or twospirit) is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities, specifically people within indigenous communities who are seen as having both male and female spirits within them.”
My sister Loren gave you some of her youngest son’s clothes, all blue. Before we knew the sex, we thought you might be a boy and bought you blue, too.
I’ve made you wear both, but I feel more pressure to put you in a dress, or something girly, if I know we’re going out in public. Why do I do that?
When my sister and I were kids, our grandmother Mary used to send us matching Laura Ashley dresses each year for Christmas. I hated it. I was glad when she started sending money.
Each year at Halloween as a teenager, I always loved watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, attracted as I was to Dr. Frankenfurter as played by Tim Curry. It wasn’t the slinky sexual garb he donned or the fact that he was, explicitly, a man. It was the combination of both that tickled me.
Why do we put so much stock in the labels? Does the word become the identity? I was 30 before I heard the word “cis-,” and I hate how it does, and doesn’t, fit me.
All the definitions in this letter are from Wikipedia, a source written by people like you and me. (But it’s a living encyclopedia, and, like you and me, the text could change tomorrow).
I tried to think of a famous female figure the equivalent of Cox or Jenner who’d transitioned to being a famous male. If this is who you decide you will be, it’s important you have a role model, but all I could find were the flappers of the 1920’s, praised for smoking and drinking and being proud to be flat-chested. This is not a fair comparison to an award-winning actor and a medal-winning Olympian.
If you tell me at any point in your life that you feel more like my son than my daughter, I will accept and love you, no matter what. I will then begin transitioning into how to be your mother, trying to learn how to let go of certain memories that might try to superimpose themselves over your new identity. I will call you the name that you wish, and if I’ve raised you right, I won’t have to treat you any differently.
The answer to 15 is “a woman.” If you believe this role suits you, I’ll spend my life showing you how to combat jokes like this. With humor. With sensitivity. With anger. With power. With dignity.
The answer to 14 is “The surgeon is her mother.” You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t get this, even in today’s society. Lily, let’s fight this, no matter your gender identity.
Your father is a former athlete and often wears the same oversized shorts and t-shirts that I used to do. He cooks for, and cleans with, me. In all ways, he treats me as an equal. I wish, no matter who you become, this kind of love for you.
And know, that if we caused any offense with our Halloween photo, we didn’t mean to. And we are sorry.
- “Annie Jones” by Unknown – Poster. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Annie_Jones.jpg#/media/File:Annie_Jones.jpg
- “Laverne Cox at Paley Fest Orange Is The New Black” by Dominick D – https://www.flickr.com/photos/idominick/13220824524/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laverne_Cox_at_Paley_Fest_Orange_Is_The_New_Black.jpg#/media/File:Laverne_Cox_at_Paley_Fest_Orange_Is_The_New_Black.jpg
- “Sebastian Berggren 1999 for Wild Side Story” by Assistant on assignment for F.U.S.I.A. – This image comes from the Southerly Clubs of Stockholm, Sweden, a non-profit society which owns image publication rights to the archives of Lars Jacob Prod, Mimical Productions, F.U.S.I.A., CabarEng, Ristesson Ent and FamSAC. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sebastian_Berggren_1999_for_Wild_Side_Story.jpg#/media/File:Sebastian_Berggren_1999_for_Wild_Side_Story.jpg
- “VanityFairJuly2015” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VanityFairJuly2015.jpg#/media/File:VanityFairJuly2015.jpg
- WomanFactory1940s” by Howard R. Hollem – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsac.1a34951.Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WomanFactory1940s.jpg#/media/File:WomanFactory1940s.jpg
- “We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee – From scan of copy belonging to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, retrieved from the website of the Virginia Historical Society.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg#/media/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg
- “1970s Laura Ashley dresses 07” by Mabalu – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1970s_Laura_Ashley_dresses_07.jpg#/media/File:1970s_Laura_Ashley_dresses_07.jpg
- “Rocky Horror throne screencap” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rocky_Horror_throne_screencap.jpg#/media/File:Rocky_Horror_throne_screencap.jpg
- “Louisebrooks1” by Bain News Service – Cropped from LOC image.This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.32453.Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louisebrooks1.jpg#/media/File:Louisebrooks1.jpg
- IAM 363T – Hermaphroditus statue” by Sandstein – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IAM_363T_-_Hermaphroditus_statue.jpg#/media/File:IAM_363T_-_Hermaphroditus_statue.jpg
13 thoughts on “He, She, They, Ze, Hir–In Which I Encourage You to Be Who You Are”
I love this piece so much!
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You raised so many important questions here. These are great openings for continued dialogue with your daughter and with others.Thanks for sharing this!
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I read Judith Butler in college too! This is wonderful 🙂 your daughter is lucky to have you.
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Another great one.
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I think the lesson here for Lily is clearly that no matter who she is, or how she expresses it, you will accept and cherish her. That is a important thing for a child to know up front. Another wonderful entry!
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Thanks, Linda! That’s exactly the message I hope to send. Unconditional love means accepting a whole lot of things you sometimes know very little about…
Society is changing. Society is now more aware of gender bias, but still in the very early stages of understanding.
When I had my daughter, I had to have her surgically removed. This to me was not a bad thing. She had grown so large, she just wouldn’t fit through. It wasn’t a matter of being less of a woman. It was about a healthy bouncing 10 pound baby.
I also enjoy telling people: One time I had to go to the hospital for a surgery. They removed a living human from my bowels.
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Lily is so blessed to have such a warm-hearted and accepting mother. I don’t think though that you should apologize for that picture. One of my biggest frustrations today is that people so often take the innocence out of things and claim “offense” as if being offended is now illegal. That photo represents your past when things were not as they are now- it further explains to lily why this new way of thinking takes intentional thought and time to learn and accept.
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You may be right, Mrs. Miller, that it’s only too easy to offend someone in this day and age. And yet…
I think of someone struggling to come to turns with their identity, maybe an identity that has gotten them bullied, harassed, ostracized or attacked, and I wonder if, even innocently, they would stumble upon something I’ve said or posted online and feel as if it were one more voice in a sea against them. And I’d rather be a life raft than the reason they give up swimming…
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This I understand. But I think your lack of judgment and your overall acceptance is made so clear by the words in your post. You so obviously are coming from a place of love and respect that an old photo doesn’t need an apology. You are good and fair and that is easy to see 🙂
Thanks, Mrs. Miller! I see what you’re saying. 🙂