Here’s a story of our changing family. It’s a story of gender transition, a story for our times, and one I have permission to share. One I have been encouraged, actually, to share.
Over 20 years ago, I gave birth to a daughter. And then, three years later, to another one. My spouse and I tried to free them from gender stereotypes, but that task isn’t easy. Their first outfits were bold red and black stripes — gender-neutral, and super-snazzy. Plenty of pink ruffled dresses found their way into their closets. They wore it all. We supplied them with primary-colored blocks and Legos. When they received a game called “Pretty, Pretty Princess,” in which winners draped themselves in glittery plastic necklaces and bracelets, they built fantasy stories around the fake jewels. They played with everything.
Both children sometimes floated along this current of culture, and sometimes swam against it. They spun in circles in dress-up dresses. They rolled in the dirt, burs tangling their hair. They read widely and used paper, scissors, colored pencils, and lots of tape to create new kinds of worlds. I laughed with them and was inspired by them. I cut my own hair short and tried out vests, and dapper duds, given heart by their lead. They reminded me how much of gender is performance. How liberating it can be to consider new ways of being. Nothing has changed. They still inspire me.
Our eldest child has always been a particular kind of seeker. At age five, tugging on her blonde braids, she asked for a boy’s haircut. A favorite stylist, Rich, obliged, with seriousness and respect that honored the child’s intent. The child enjoyed neckties, tutus, creative makeup, and mis-matched prints. A best friend taught the child to knit. The grandmothers taught the child to sew, and a world of design opened up, so that this young person could use fiber arts to weave and stitch a world of personal comfort and creativity. Nothing has changed.
Several years ago, I stopped referring to our two children as “our daughters,” because that narrow category no longer contained the truth. The gender-fluidity of our eldest stretched my vocabulary. As an English major, I relished the challenge. I began referring to “my offspring,” or “my varmints.” It sounded a little funny, but I liked the way it reminded everyone — including me — that I was referring to individuals, not gender types.
When our eldest — by now a young adult — told us he identified as male, it still took a little time to get used to. I began reading a lot about the lives of transgender folks and their families. Some stories are devastating, if family members allow fear and ignorance to overcome love. Some parents found that even if they supported their children, they experienced a loss of their child’s previous identity. We didn’t feel that way. We’ve witnessed a creative, heartfelt evolution. It’s a gift to see a person truly come into his own. Of course we have parental worries — mostly about safety in a culture that is still learning about gender diversity. Trans folks are so often targets of violence. But it’s worth saying that even with race and class privilege, our child felt unsafe in our culture as a young woman.
I draw hope from authors like S. Bear Bergman, who has launched a line of LGBTQ- positive books for all kids and families from a press cheerfully named Flamingo Rampant. These books are, as Bergman says, “full of zip and fizz and hooray.” They remind us that we have the power to create a world of diversity and joy.
Our children’s relationship with one another hasn’t skipped a beat. They live in the same college town, hang out and read library books together, and when they are home, they crank the music in the kitchen and cook up creative feasts. How lucky we are. A daughter becomes a son. A sister becomes a brother. The extended family stretches their embrace. A transition, sure. An evolution. And yet in all the most important ways, nothing has changed. Happily, the world is starting to.
Music: Langhorne Slim & The Law "Changes"