When I was four, I wanted a Barbie doll for Christmas. That was the all-consuming desire. A Barbie with a pink dress, and ohpleaseohplease a pink car. But the car, you know, was optional. I didn’t want to press it too much. Even as a four-year old, I felt resistance from my parents to this idea of wanting a doll or “toys for girls” and decided to aim high, press as far as I could, and eventually settle on the thing I really wanted – a Barbie in all her fashionable glory.
Right after I was born, my mother decided to make mommying a professional career. She had studied Early Childhood Education and (if I might brag on her a little bit) was making a name for herself right outside of New Orleans as “the” woman to talk to in her field (still bragging: she eventually worked for N.A.S.A. as the director of an on-site preschool for baby scientists). As part of her education and working philosophy, she believed there was nothing wrong with children embracing opposite-gender play. More than that, she encouraged it – girls playing with trucks and boys playing with dolls? No problem. Still, even though she applied this mentality in the classroom, my father was resistant to “allowing” it in the house. Looking back now, he says that he is not sure what he was afraid of, “But I just didn’t want my son to grow up being made fun of.”
Keep this snapshot in mind: I am unwrapping presents on Christmas and my mother – much to my father’s displeasure – has surreptitiously given me a Barbie that I will treasure for the next six months. We have not yet arrived at the following summer when I will put away childish things to become a Big Boy and we have not yet arrived at the Christmas a decade later when I will (half?) jokingly point out the dresses I “love” to my father. No, for the moment see me as a nova-white blonde boy in Osh-Kosh overalls undressing, redressing, undressing and redressing my Barbie with delight. “Dad! Isn’t she pretty?!” See me there on the mid-80’s carpeted floor turning Barbie’s legs forward and back to pantomime her strutting down the street, my high-pitched voice verbalizing her “hello” to imaginary friends. See me doing this every afternoon for months.
As I’ve gotten older, I now understand that my mother’s laissez faire “it’ll all work out” and my father’s “not in my house!” attitudes are characteristic of what most parents feel when their child begins expressing themselves. What do you do with this… little alien you’ve raised?
I do not have children. Let’s get that right out of the way. I have not had children, there are no little miracles or happy accidents in the forseeable future. The thought fills me with terror for a host of reasons not at all relevant to this article, but I do have godchildren and am “Uncle Randy” to a small number of little ones across the United States who I love and adore. With this part-of-but-apart vantage, I have watched as my friends and family struggle with the gender and sexuality of their children as my own parents did with me. By default, I become the “cool” uncle because I answer questions about sex and relationships frankly and without judgment. When one of my godsons began acting effeminately? I was the supportive adult in the tribe. On a camping trip to the Ozarks with a church group, I was the one who explained what condoms were and why they were important. I was the one who said, “Well… we’re all a little gay. Nothing to feel ashamed about.” But what do you do with a child who isn’t sure they are in the right body? Who doesn’t just want a Barbie doll, but wants to be Barbie? This is a whole other predicament.
I was recently asked by a therapist to help talk through the process of gender fluidity with one of her clients – in this case, a teenager began to dress like and “present” themselves to the world as the opposite gender to “see if it feels right.” The questions that come up (most often during puberty) about our sexuality, gender, and expression are – I think – tougher than we often realize. It’s simply not talked about, and parents balk when their child tells them how they are feeling because of this. It’s simply not talked about.
Though I identify as a heterosexual male, I don’t take this as particularly “natural,” as though that was the way I was born and was always meant to be. Admittedly, there have been times when I have questioned this because these areas of our identity, like most other areas, change over time. For me, I “grew out of it.” Barbie got lost in the bottom of the toybox six months later. I grew up loving women’s fashion (and I mean loving it), but as the years went by, I was able to articulate that I feel detached from it, preferring to see art rather than be art. That is, there is no internal pressure. I don’t feel I’m in the wrong body when I am alone and living a lie when I am going about life. Wanting a Barbie as a child is not analogous to the torque of entering adulthood with a sense of universal disunity, of feeling like your body betrays who you truly are.
One of the reasons we know so little about transgender and trans-sexual teens is because there is simply not enough research on how sexuality develops. It is a bubble of silence. We know how gender is formed in utero and there is a great deal of research on the social construction of gender identity (“boys play with trucks, girls play with dolls” of my childhood), but the private, internal life of teenagers struggling with who they are is particularly difficult because it is the first time they are aware of changes to the script. Testing out new identities to “see if it feels right.” At a time when conformity is being so strongly pressed into us at school, with peers, at home and all of the ways in which what is “cool” and what clothes we wear become status symbols as well as identity markers is it any wonder that teenagers who struggle with their sexual identity choose to commit suicide?
It is challenging being in the layover of transition.
Ours is a society so caught up in appearances. The ever-penetrating appearance. And, in the shadow of Oprah, “the authentic self” there are still too few words to express “I am not who I see in the mirror.” While we might be reluctant to admit as much, this is why teenagers who come out as gay, bi, and especially transgendered are met with such shock. It’s not talked about and then, poof! “here we are!” to the surprise of everyone involved feels like a betrayal. “Who are you?” parents wonder. “You’re not the child I raised.” For many parents, this feels like a personal failure. Not the sexual stuff as much as the sense of duplicity, the foreignness, the inability to find the words to express what they feel, think, or believe. It activates that ancient, even primal instinct to fight or flight – attacking the child in some way or abandoning them emotionally, physically. Many times, this manifests in a very real threat to kick the child out of the house with so much as a “Your bags are at the foot of the stairs.”
When Leelah/Joshua Alcorn killed herself in December, my heart broke. It is a story
becoming far too familiar. Teenagers, pressured to be something they feel they are not, choose to do the only thing they feel they can. They seek to regain control, to self-correct the flight plan. They kill themselves. What a sad statement of our society, what a sad statement of the sexual education and understanding of the communities that offer no alternative language sets, no understanding words of comfort, of mercy, of “no! wait! there’s another way! let’s talk about this! i love you and want you to tell me what you’re feeling/ thinking/ believing!”
I often wonder what my parents might have done had I “gone the other way.” While my father still thinks “people who are that way are sinful, and will be punished,” he also sees the ways that our society still drives children, teenagers, and yes even adults to kill themselves. They too are “sinful and will be punished.” His heart hurts. As a victim of trauma, he knows what both sides of these events are feeling. He is the adult set in their ways, but he is also still the child who feels they don’t belong – don’t belong with their parents, aren’t understood by their friends and educators, and who doesn’t have a place to go to to figure it out. Twisted as it might sound, my father’s heart still breaks when he hears of stories like Leelah/Joshua Alcorn because he realizes he, himself, is complicit in their death. He is, like so many parents, feels trapped as well by the dismal narratives within which we live and move and have our being. Trapped by the expectation of what it means to “do the right thing” and “be a good parent.” He is trapped by a conviction he knows is wrong – What if it had been my child? Would I ever forgive myself? – but without the imagination needed to be a better parent, a better friend. He is trapped because he knows his son could very well have been one of those “people who are that way.”
This week, I asked him if he remembered me wanting a Barbie. After a long silence, he could only shake his head and tear up, crying for what might have been as much as what already has been. He cries because, though he thinks “sexual confusion is sinful,” he knows he doesn’t have any answers and more children keep dying, disappearing, or go on “living” a lie to appease parents who are trapped in cultural values just like he is.