Tag Archives: childhood

Sissy Fight

When my ten-year-old son is excited, he flaps his hands like a limp-wristed seal.220px-Seehund

He makes the same move when he’s happy, or when he’s being ironic, or when he’s delivering the punch line of a joke.

It’s the kind of gesture that can be endearing or annoying—depending on how many times it occurs in a given conversation—but it always fills me with a sense of pride. In a culture that allows boys such a narrow range of expression, I’m pleased to be raising a son who talks with his hands.

Still, there have been many times when I’ve locked eyes with my spouse above our flamboyant flapper. How long, we wondered silently, before someone rains on this hand parade?

There was a time when I was more optimistic. Free_to_Be..._You_and_Me_(album_cover)When Waylon was three, I introduced him to the soundtrack of my own childhood, Free to Be You and Me, but I purposely skipped the classic “William Wants a Doll.” Waylon didn’t yet know that boys who played with dolls were called sissies, and I didn’t want to introduce what I hoped were outmoded ideas.

It didn’t take long before Waylon’s peers proved me wrong. Even though he attended the most progressive preschool in town, a place where boys and girls alike wore nothing but briefs and body paint through much of the summer, he still caught flack. Other kids reacted in horror when he wore pink clothes or painted his toenails or carried an orange backpack with a peace symbol.

Katy and I searched for a way to help him think critically and stay safe in his social world. We explained that some families have very different rules for what boys can do and what girls can do. Some parents enforce these rules very strictly because they’re afraid of being different.

“It’s okay to be different,” we told him. “If someone gives you a hard time, you can tell them we don’t have those same boy rules at our house.”

I’m not sure he ever uttered those words, but our talks seemed to make him feel better, and he loved to come home with exasperated stories about the gender stereotypes he encountered.

“Did you know that some people think boys are not allowed to like the color purple?” he’d ask over dinner, rolling his eyes.

Given his critical perspective on gender expectations, you might think that he would be a bit of a rebel. But Waylon didn’t like to rock the boat. When he encountered resistance, he tended to retreat. By first grade, he wasn’t wearing pink shirts or painted nails.

I thought maybe he had too much at stake, being a kid with queer parents. Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with social hassles, or maybe those things just weren’t part of his evolving identity.

Then the flapping emerged as a major feature of his conversational schtick. It seemed so undeniably Waylon, such an expression of his personality, but I wondered if he’d retreat from that too, once he realized how other people perceived it.

The other night we were eating ice cream in bed and watching the Olympics.

“Do you want to hear something sexist or uh, racist or whatever?” Waylon asked during the commercial break.

“Yeah, what is it?”

“Some people call this ‘sissy fighting,’” he said, flapping his arms in his usual way.

“Who says that?” Katy and I asked in instant unison.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged mysteriously. “But what does it mean?”

“It’s a stereotype that men who move their arms like that are gay,” Katy said.

“’Sissy’ is a word that people use to tease boys who don’t follow their idea of how boys are supposed to act,” I said. “It’s sexist and homophobic.”

“I know that,” Waylon said, as if my labels were belaboring the obvious.

That was it, end of conversation, he was ready to turn back to the TV. I snuggled next to him, my mind a swirl of conflicting emotions.

It’s painful to watch your child bump up against the world’s negative judgments. Whether or not Waylon keeps flapping, I know he’ll never be as free as he was before, and I resent it. But I feel hopeful too, because he didn’t seem ashamed. The way he framed it, the problem was other people’s bias, not the angle of his wrist.

Maybe he’ll live to flap another day.

Seal photo: Marcel Burkhard

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Prologue: Think Pink

Katy’s mother, Donna Koonce, wanted a baby girl.

The year was 1962. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the secondary sex characteristics of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the science of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, so she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper, knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vagina and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

***

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the hospital, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and German cars may seem worlds away from Donna Koonce’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the First Woman President.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore her baby in a pack on her back. She had a calico maxi-dress, and her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the contradictions of pop culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife. My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

***

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the 60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough Women’s Studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “La,la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at 2, 3, and 4–already miraculously masculine, already chaffing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texan masculinity was culturally pitch-perfect–and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with anatomy–and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie footage was the year when Katy appeared next to the Christmas tree in full Davy Crockett costume. Freed from the confines of fussy dresses, she sprawled on the floor next to a large, oblong package. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership…and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”


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