This is a love story. I have my tights in my fists and I have dug my pearly painted nails into them. I am tearing with all my might, pulling holes wide, desperate to not be in tights. I am screaming and sweat is sopping my face and my hair, which is wrenched taut in a barrette with braided ribbons. It is the late 1970s and I am on my way to a mother-daughter luncheon at the church. I am five, or maybe six. It is a dewy hyacinth and chickadee spring morning and I am in a world-melting rage. I am livid because I am not afforded my choice of clothing, frustrated with the mother-daughterness of the whole affair, and sad that I am a girl.
My mother was, is, a feminist. Our household hungrily followed the 1984 election, elated that Geraldine Ferraro was on the ticket. We loved Free to Be You and Me, the Marlo Thomas project that included songs about expanding women’s career opportunities and boys who love dolls. Empowerment of girls and women was intentionally liberally slathered across my education, talk of my eventual professional options, and any conversation about the society of the future. But any and all equity was to be achieved while wearing flattering feminine attire. My mother’s gender expression, formed in the 1940s and ‘50s by the likes of Donna Reed and Doris Day, was a function of survival. When one is denied a credit card based on the deficit of having been born female it pays actual dividends to demonstrate femininity enough to get and keep a husband. This was the paradox of my mother and the steel and flint of my ignition.
In the 1970s I did not enjoy being a girl. I would steal my father’s and brother’s clothes, favoring them for their saturated colors and fitted lines. I was, still am, reflexively averse to pastels. I preferred Lincoln Logs to Barbie. The celebrities I most admired were Ozzy Osbourne and Chewbacca. In the 1980s I did not enjoy being a girl. Dance teachers told me my body size was incompatible with dancing. Boys who were my friends sang songs and made jokes about my body, calling attention to me — the tits part of me in particular — in front of the whole high school choir. Just by existing in the world my girl-body was betraying me.
My relationships with girls were fraught, complicated by comparison. One friend wore cool clothes we couldn’t afford and slagged me for wearing clothes from Sears. Another had a body deemed compatible with dancing. Another was blonde, which was somehow more potently female than all the other hair colors. I craved their friendship but did not know how to secure it, did not speak the language. Boys were all around me. I had an older brother and most of my parents’ friends had boys. I was the only girl on my soccer team. I spent most of my days with boys. Boys had fun. They got dirty and roughhoused and took risks. When we became adolescents, the boys started skateboarding and played in bands. I sat on the side of skate ramps taking pictures of boys aloft on their own fuel, sat on the steps to basements listening to band practices where boys howled their complaints and desires. It’s hard to remember and harder yet to convey that almost no girls and women — at least where I grew up — skated or played in bands in the 1980s, and the ones who did usually looked like fashion models with straight bodies and straight hair who seemed to effortlessly walk that demilitarized zone of sexy and androgynous. I did not look like a fashion model. I largely looked like what I am now: a short, thick, middle aged, wiry-haired brunette. There was a window of time when my chest expanded, bringing my body into the widely desired form, but it was not long before the rest of me expanded, too, leaving me more derided than desired.
My body could never be appropriately female. There was too much of it. It was unwieldy, too hungry, too clumsy, too slovenly. My self could never be appropriately female. I had too many opinions. I talked too much, laughed too loud, too often. But I wanted to win the game of being a girl so that my girlness no longer mattered. I believed if I worked at it I could be and look appropriately feminine that people would stop assessing me altogether. I would hide in plain sight. I hate that you want me to be hot and charming and femme! and also I will be hot and charming and femme and then you will leave me alone! The dueling banjos of internalized misogyny swallowed my critical thinking in their drone.
When punk came for me in middle school I could not have been more primed. Punk’s siren call — dissent in comfortable clothing! — solved the problem of my body distracting others. I was curvy and also fat, and wore the cast offs of dead and elderly men, oversized sweatshirts, work pants, and trench coats culled from the thrift shop a few blocks from my house. Punk was without a doubt a hiding place but also a way to gain crucial proximity to maleness. If punk was anything at all in the ‘80s it was male, and it was male in all the ways we now define as toxic. It has come a long way in the ensuing decades but you can rest assured it had, has, a far longer way to come.
Let me be sure to say that I never thought I was a boy, never wondered if my biological sex and my gender were in conflict. I didn’t have the awareness and language at that time to articulate such an idea, but I knew I was a girl. I was just angry about what being a girl seemed to mean to everyone else and what was expected of me as a result. I was a girl, am a woman, and I want that to mean absolutely nothing to you. Because it should not tell you anything about me, that word: woman. I did not want to be a boy and I do not want to be a man. I wanted their freedom. I still do.
And, yes, I know the patriarchy wreaks hell on boys’ and men’s lives, too. Their struggle is evident every day in the headlines, in mass shootings and land grabs and domestic assault and their relative lack of intimate friendships and their dread of vulnerability. But this isn’t about them. Except in the ways that it’s about all of us. We all fear the mad dad of patriarchy, no matter our factory default settings.
From the moment I found out I was pregnant I had no doubt I was carrying a boy. I had been training my whole life to raise a boy, a feminist boy, a boy who grew to be a man who respected women and could access his soft emotional underbelly and was kind to children and animals, a boy who would become a man who would vote for women and support them in the workplace. During the ultrasound our child turned to face the camera, offering us a photo of a perfect, though toothless, skull. This, for us, was confirmation that the child we were having was meant to be. A couple of (arguably too) young, broke, unmarried punks were having a baby, but the prenatal allusion to the Misfits was the signpost of our path. We could raise this child outside of the norm, according to values we had cobbled together in answer to the confines of normalized expectations of self expression. That harmony was abruptly disrupted by the phrase: Absence of penis. No penis was spotted on the ultrasound, I was told, therefore this child would be a girl. The immediate quaking horror I felt thinking I was carrying a girl sprung from the yawning, gaseous well of inadequacy I felt at the prospect of raising one. I had not known how to be a girl, was still striving to be free from it. I was about to carry this infant across a terrain studded with landmines that I had been chancily navigating my whole life. We were both goners.
The year my kid was five was equal parts princess dresses and shirtless wrestling with friends. Through the princess dress phase I learned to breathe before responding. I feigned disinterest, not well, while silently beseeching gods I did not believe in that the phase would simply go away. I had fought my whole life to reject the princess narrative, but I did not say out loud to my lavishly dressed and jubilant child how I felt about glittered gowns because I had been criticized for my androgynous expression of self and did not want to pass that internal conflict down the line. Shame is genetic, likewise self compassion. The need to give your child a better life than the one you had takes all sorts of shapes.
My kid was 19 when they told me they are nonbinary. I had to do some research. I thought it was another phase. I thought it was my fault, a response to my ambivalence about raising a girl. I thought it was a reaction to the prospect of continuing to live as a young woman in a patriarchy and I understood that. I thought it was reversing the course I had worked so hard to plot, drawing clear lines around what is and what is not a woman, rather than allowing for the infinite expressions of gender I wanted for women, for me, and for my child. But the simple truth I found in my research is that trans people die from suicide in stunning numbers. And we don’t know how many died before trans was a being they could articulate. As a mother, and as a human, that felt like the only information I needed to begin my understanding. Ram Dass said to forget about Parent and Child because those are simply roles we take on. We are only fellow travelers. I never had a daughter to begin with. In having any stake, however equivocal, in being a Mother to a Daughter, I was confining the both of us. My nonbinary child taught me that we can be unconfined, can live in a free space of our individual design.
I am grateful that before my kid brought this to me I had done some small amount of reckoning with my own body and how the world saw me. I am grateful that they trusted me with their full and precious self. And I am grieving that without knowing it for 19 years I tried to put them into the precise box I clawed and kicked to escape. Yes, it takes concentration to change my language. Yes, the singular they is not what I was taught and is occasionally awkward, but only when I’m talking with people who resist it. I still screw up when I’m talking about the past, about the tiny child I raised as a girl. I correct myself. But being more thoughtful when I speak only improves everything about my life, so it does not feel much like a sacrifice.
And then there’s the subject of their name, that sound of love, the gift that carries with it ties to family history and the luminous memory that it was the one name my child’s father and I both agreed on wholeheartedly in that time when we struggled in the terror of this new responsibility and fantasized about who this child would be. But I want my child to know, and I need to learn for myself, that it is absolutely OK to decline gifts that do not honor us. If I give you a gift and it hurts you, please dispose of it at your discretion. Doing so frees us from expectations, those old preconceived resentments.
This is a love story. I want to protect trans kids, and trans adults, and all of us from the mad dad of patriarchy. But it’s not about me. My child’s gender and the gender expression of any other human is not about me. That’s where this path leads all of us, if we are open to following it. Every person gets to say who they are and we are free to believe them, love them, support them, or not. My child is the same person I have always known: we text each other cute dog videos all day every day, they scream and run out of the room if they think anyone is about to be embarrassed on TV, they sing like a morning swell of bird call, they let their heart lead them down precarious and necessary roads, and they love their friends and family to heaping, courageous measure.
But it’s about me, too. This ongoing gender adventure is a trip we’re all on together. I have the freedom to define my identity and not a single element of me needs to be constricted by my gender. I still only want to wear hoodies and jeans, my old punk uniform. I eschew cosmetics, don’t shave, and still maintain and express unpopular decisions at all decibel levels and in all company. The hoary chestnut that middle age evaporates our fucks to give is proving to be balm for the chafing of my gender conflict. But that debt is not owed only to my advancing years.
This is the courage of trans people: In their will to live, they stand every day in the face of rage and erasure, and in doing so they not only liberate themselves but also provide cover for the rest of us. Trans people are constructing that free space where the rest of us can go to more lovingly recognize and live into who we are. I’m so glad that those outside the gender norm have, however brutal the haul, agreed to drag us into the future. And while I did not intend that pun, it stays because I know that even gifts that come from unexpected places are gifts all the same, and we each get to decide what we do with them.