When we moved to the Virginia coast, my husband wisely remarked that one of the best things about walking among people vacationing on the beach was that we got to observe them when they weren’t on their way from Point A to Point B. When they’d taken a time-out to just be. In the world, in the moment, with each other. I got in the habit, in the late afternoons, of taking a chair down to the oceanfront and engaging in my very favorite sport: people-watching. From behind dark sunglasses, of course.
Over the course of two days in the summer of 2016 I saw a young child, perhaps 18 months old, running around, poking at shells, squealing with the glee that only near-babies can experience when the waves rise to the great height of their ankles. But I was quickly snapped out of this reverie for one reason: I couldn’t guess the child’s gender. My spirit faded into the background and my intellect took over. Plain blue shirt and shorts: probably a boy. Waist-length long hair: maybe a girl? When I saw this child’s mother, I found myself waiting for her to call out a name and solve the mystery, but she did not.
On the second day, Mom flew a kite while singing songs to the toddler, who ran in circles around her, chiming in on the choruses. This woman was pure light. My mood improved just being near her. She was sporting a bikini, tattoos, and stretch marks while flying a kite—I was falling in love. I found myself praising her for busting gender norms in her parenting, either way. If the child was a boy, good for her for letting him grow his hair long. If the child was a girl, good for her for letting her wear a blue shirt and shorts and not the Little Mermaid tutu bathing suit that seemed to be the required uniform of all beach-going girl children. (Please note: I have no issue with the Little Mermaid suit on its own. I would exhibit far less agitation toward it if more frequently, I saw little girls wearing almost anything else). Even so, my mental detective work continued. Today’s outfit was orange, and I was no closer to my answer.
Understanding of gender norms and prejudices, and the issues surrounding transgender or gender-nonconforming identities, can be hard to come by, confusing for even well-meaning people who are new to the ideas. I think it was less than a year ago that I, who consider myself progressive, who consider myself a feminist, had to Google what “cisgender” meant. (If you are unfamiliar, you get no judgment from me. It means that one’s gender identity matches the sex that you were born with; for example, you were born female, and you feel like a girl). Witness, too, the verbal acrobatics I had to employ (I and my two English degrees) to come up with enough gender-neutral synonyms to describe my initial observations: child, toddler, little one, baby, etc. It took several rewrites of each sentence to construct them without the need for pronouns. Two days of striving and straining to place this child into one of two distinct boxes I had in my mind. Boy. Or Girl.
All of this for an eighteen-month-old. God, we start so early. Why is it so important?
Part of it, I’m sure, is Darwinian thinking—our oldest instincts to categorize our world and create order. But human beings are always and still evolving, and we can choose to recognize that “the way it’s always been” is often limiting (at best). In the space of one article, I certainly cannot comprehensively explore the vast cosmology of gender. I simply wish to propose that the next time an article about a transgender woman appears in your Facebook feed, you stop and read it, and choose before you begin to set judgment aside and learn. That when a term you are unfamiliar with—say, “non-binary gender identity”—comes across your radar, Google it. Google is your friend. And dissolving mystery goes a long way toward understanding and acceptance. Or, on the simplest level possible, think, just think, about why it seems so unusual, so “outside the lines,” when a woman refuses to shave her legs or a man becomes a nurse. Keep asking “why” each time you come up with an answer, and I guarantee that in short order there will be no answer left. What will happen if we open ourselves to new ways of thinking? If we allow for the possibility that there are many ways to be a man, or that how we define “female” may need to be broadened?
Nothing. The answer is that nothing will happen. They’re just thoughts and questions. But they may lead to a release from the anxiety of holding all that judgment in our heads.
When we refuse to do this, however?
Unchecked confusion and frustration often turn to fear. And what do humans do when our limbic systems perceive fear? We lash out. We follow our basest impulses, and label the transgendered, or even those who seek to step outside of gender-based norms in the mildest way, as a threat. As something—a “thing”—that must be opposed. As an “other.” As an “us vs. them.” And so we have bullying and suicides. And violent crimes at rates that far outpace those perpetrated against the general population. And HB2.
Sigh. Aren’t we tired of doing this? Isn’t it getting exhausting to fight these wars with each other? Surely there are better uses for our energies.
And so here I was, this lovely family on the beach having ignited a thought train miles long.
Soon it became clear that they were preparing to leave. Dad came down toward the surf with an older child (must I tell you the apparent gender of this sibling? What I will admit is that for a brief moment I was hoping that if there were a second parent, it would be Mom #2). But here the four of them were. Despite the way my thoughts had been swirling, I sat there so happy with the world, so glad and self-satisfied that people like this inhabited it. These progressive, granola, alternative-embracing, freedom-loving Gen-X parents, lifting the yoke of societal expectations—the ones I hated most—from around their children’s necks. These are my people, I found myself thinking. Then, this family did the thing that surprised me most of all: they prayed.
I have a long history of unease with religion, or at least with the organized version of Catholicism I was raised with and the thin slice of evangelical Christianity most often featured on TV. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic (and of course male) God. I don’t believe that everything happens according to the wisdom of a secret plan that I should trust without question. Every day I observe monstrous injustices perpetrated in the name of God, and prejudices justified by phrases cherry-picked from the writings of some unknown human who has been dead 5000 years. And of course, it has seemed to me that religion gives those who want it all the cover they need to trap women and men in their gender-based roles with no room for flexibility—because God says it must be so. Who could argue with that?
Perhaps a kite-flying, granola, alternative-embracing family on the beach?
Judging by my level of surprise at their engagement in prayer, there is no denying that I have painted everyone who is religious with the aforementioned brush. How, then, am I helping? How am I any different from the people I judge for their judgments?
I’m not. I offer this Part Two of the story for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s what really happened, but secondly, because in so much of cultural writing these days, particularly in the blogosphere, there is a tone not just of moral superiority, but moral commandment from the writers. I know it’s no easy task to set aside a way of thinking that one has unconsciously espoused for years, or for a lifetime. And I don’t exempt myself from the need to do so.
The family joined hands and formed a circle. This was clearly a ritual that had been part of their lives for some time, as even the toddler knew what to do. I could only hear snippets:
“What are you thankful for?”
Then, Mom lead everyone in a rousing call and response. She was the cheerleader calling Hip Hip, and they were the crowd responding, Hurray.
Mom: “Family is—”
“Family is— ”
And then they were gone.
I felt tears welling up behind my spy sunglasses. This family, who I had observed mostly with intellectual bemusement, had snapped me out of my sociological thinking and given me not the answers I was searching for, but the ones that I, and all of us, truly needed. Was their toddler a boy or a girl? What did it matter? Should people spend their Sundays at church or on the beach? What did it matter? For them, being a loving family, in their own unique way, was everything. Surely from their example, we can get ourselves to a place where that kind of love for each other is what guides us.
So I propose a trade. I will sit with my religious unease, and re-open my mind to the idea that faith can mean a myriad of things, many of them noble and charitable and progressive and good. If you are uncomfortable with any notion of gender that moves beyond the traditional—the binary woman/man, girl/boy, and the expectations that come with it—please sit with that discomfort for just a moment, Google if you need to, and consider that there are good people who inhabit these identities, people deserving of compassion and understanding and freedom and joy. Deal?
We all could afford to do a little personal inventory. Here is mine: it is a precious gift to be surprised out of stereotypical thinking, one that must not be squandered. Amen.
Photo by Mayur Gala
Identifying details have been changed.