Over the rainbow

A Guardian article a few weeks ago about a teenager transitioning from female to male prompted me to try to dig a bit deeper than my usual off-the-cuff mockery of tiresome pink-box-blue-box marketing. (Today seems an appropriate day to post it, as it’s a topic that often causes fireworks…) Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

Should we have known? With hindsight there were plenty of clues. Katie had always been something of a tomboy – never a “girly” girl and most definitely not a Barbie girl – and we had begun to suspect that there was a possibility that, as adolescence progressed, she might turn out to be attracted to women rather than men. After all, my side of the family had previous form in this respect, so it crossed our minds and we did joke about it.

There’s so much confusion of sex/gender/sexuality here that I hardly know where to start, but I’ll try to pick it apart a bit.

First, have a think about the women you know. Do they all dress in sparkly pink fairy costumes and enjoy making cupcakes? Sure, some of them may do (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but all of them? I’d be surprised. Now, why should all female children be expected to behave like that? Not all girls are “girly”. Not all women are hyper-feminine “Barbie girls” (and of course no real woman has Barbie’s figure). This shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody who has actually met other human beings.

Second, how sad that a girl gets labelled as a “tomboy” if she doesn’t conform to some peculiar 1950s/Disney stereotype of extreme femininity. We already have a word for active, boisterous girls: it’s “girl”. The word “tomboy” is a bit problematic, really; a lot of people actually see it as quite a positive thing (hey, she’s active, confident, not bound by gender stereotype) without realising that the word is reinforcing the idea that these behaviours are “boy” behaviours — that if a girl is confident and active, she’s acting like a boy rather than acting like a confident, active girl. I’m certainly not saying that everybody who uses the word “tomboy” thinks this, or is deliberately reinforcing the stereotype; it’s just worth considering the connotations. (Someone else makes this point much better.)

Third, even if we accepted for the purposes of argument that there are totally different, non-overlapping modes of dress/behaviour for girls and boys, clothes do not make you gay. I’m not going to say “dress/behaviour has nothing to do with sexuality” because obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that: different clothes and behaviours do act as signals of gender and hence of default sexuality; people’s sexual/social choices can be affected by their personal perception of their gender, and conversely people can and do choose to project aspects of their sexuality by their choice of dress/behaviour, and there are all sorts of other complicated interplays of physical/social/cultural/sexual identity and desire that I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of here. We don’t exist in a socio-cultural vacuum, these things are all signifiers, and it would be naive to claim that a dress is absolutely and always “just a dress”. But honestly, wearing trousers and climbing trees will not turn your daughter into a lesbian. (Taking this nonsense to its logical conclusion, if a pair of trousers had the magical powers to make a girl into a boy, why shouldn’t they make her into a gay boy? Gay boys wear trousers too!) It’s as if people find it more comprehensible that gay people are the opposite sex at some mysterious level than that they are attracted to the same sex. Don’t even ask me where bisexuals are supposed to come into this worldview.

By even going down the route of explaining that clothes don’t make you gay, though, I feel that I’m tacitly endorsing homophobia. If wearing trousers did turn girls into lesbians, or wearing pink made boys gay… so what? Would it be so terrible if your child was gay? One common response to this is “Oh I wouldn’t mind for myself but they’d get so much discrimination and I want to spare them that.” When I hear that response from parents I’m happy to assume good faith, to assume that it’s genuinely coming from a place of love, but… you want to protect your child from other people’s homophobia by perpetuating the idea that gayness is something terrible to be avoided at all costs? Just think that through for a moment.

And then, of course, “we did joke about it”. I bet that helped a lot, if the teenager in question was also wrestling with their sexuality, and the jokes were all revolving around the sorts of prejudices already unpacked above. (Yes, I know, joking and joshing within families can be loving and affectionate, can strengthen family ties, and so on — my immediate family have a long and happy history of mercilessly mocking each other — but teasing teenagers about sensitive subjects like sexuality is a risky business. Mind you, at the other end of the scale, my parents barely mentioned sexuality — in retrospect, I realise, because they genuinely weren’t fussed about whether I turned out to love boys or girls or dancing bears — and I interpreted that silence as fear or disapproval, and consequently felt I couldn’t discuss it with them. I guess the take-home message here is that parents of teenagers probably can’t win…)

I should make it clear that I am absolutely not claiming that the teenager in the article wouldn’t have wanted to transition if they hadn’t felt the strong arm of the gender police; I don’t know the details of their specific case (beyond what’s in the article), and I don’t know what causes gender dysphoria any more than I know what causes people to develop one sexuality or another (the jury is still out — or should that be still closeted?). But it makes it desperately hard to think clearly about the questions and choices involved (on a personal or general level) if you’re stranded in the middle of a sea of unexamined stereotypes; if everybody is expected to be pink or blue, what do you do when you find that you are (or your child is) orange or purple or green?

Edited to add: I have tried not to mis-gender the teenager in the article; one person has already pointed out some errors, which I believe I’ve fixed. Please note that by using the article as a jumping-off point for talking about society’s reaction to people they believe to be girls, I don’t mean to imply that Ben is female. However I realise now that to say “Katie/Ben” was incorrect and impolite, so I’ve changed it to something which is hopefully more acceptable. If there are other errors then please forgive me (and feel free to point them out); they’re a result of ignorance (which I hope can be corrected) rather than dismissiveness or dislike.