I gently opened the library door not wanting to disturb the first grade class. The rusty hinges betrayed me, squeaking as I stepped into the room. The classroom teacher was absent and I was there as her sub. As I stepped towards the children gathered on the floor, fourteen sets of puzzled eyes turned towards me. Quietly, they assessed the intruder, wondering who I was and what I wanted. I scanned the room looking for the librarian and found her behind her desk typing something into a computer. I approached her tentatively to introduce myself and to ask what she needed me to do. Before she could respond, a slender small boy with curly dark hair and wide curious eyes ran up to me. In a state of urgency, he blurted out, “Are you a boy or a girl? I need to know.”
My appearance often causes confusion, especially among children. My short spiky hair and boyish clothes combined with my multiple piercings (four in my ears and one in my nose) and female features create a muddled, androgynous appearance. If one peers closely, one can definitely identify me as a woman. But quick inattentive glances deceive the eye. On more than one occasion, I have been scolded for using the women’s restroom, I’ve been called sir numerous times, and men who kindly hold doors open for women have carelessly let them slam in my face.
Aware of the perception of others, the boy’s question didn’t startle me, but his urgency did. And so I answered reflexively instead of thoughtfully, “Why do you need to know?” My eyes searched his for reproach but found none.
“I need to know so that I know how to treat you.”
A jolt of irritation, followed by a flicker of resentment, prompted a sarcastic response: “Then I am whichever you would treat better.”
His face tensed up as if I had slapped him, and his eyes narrowed to slits forcing back his tears. With a slight nod he walked away and settled himself back on the ugly brown carpet beside his friends.
Later that night, I posted about the incident on Facebook. By then I had laughed it off, finding more humor than insolence in the boy’s reaction to me. I expected my friends to find it humorous as well. Their anger surprised me. One friend commented, “Wouldn’t one think regardless male/female you would treat either with respect and the same way? Wonder how he’s being raised?”
But we don’t treat men and women the same. It is a sweet sentiment but entirely false. The truth is, our society is extremely gendered and the moment a child is born decisions regarding that child are based almost entirely on the child’s biological sex. Five years earlier when my spouse and I were expecting our child, I didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl. I wanted to be surprised. However, at the ultrasound appointment, the conversation progressed in a way that prompted the technician to tell us we were having a boy. When I told my mother she was thrilled, not because she preferred a grandson, but because it directed her shopping. She would buy him sleepers, pants and shirts in yellows, greens and blues. There would be no dresses, nothing pink. His childhood wardrobe would be much different than mine had been.
As children grow up, the dress code remains the same. Women are expected to wear dresses, business skirts, gowns, blouses and high heels. Men wear suits and ties, cargo pants, sports jerseys and rubber soled shoes. There are stores that cater specifically to women and those that accommodate men. And stores where both women and men can shop are often divided – men on one side and women on the other. While there is more crossover today, more of a blurred middle ground than say twenty years ago, if a man wears a dress – unless he travels in extremely liberal circles - he would most likely be ridiculed. When my brother wears a suit and tie, my parents comment about how sharp and handsome he looks. When I wear a tie, I become an embarrassment.
My mother has not yet given up hope. She still longs for the day that I might become the girl she wants me to be. In the back of my closet, there is a shelf filled with the clothes she has given me over the years. There are pink sweaters, and low cut v-neck sweaters, pretty blouses and pants that hug my hips and don’t sag the way men’s pants do. I appreciate the gifts, the love that went into them but they are not me. When I wear them, I feel like an imposter. And though people have told me that they flatter my figure, they make me feel self conscious. Instead of bolstering my self-esteem, they cause me to burrow deeper into myself. I want to hide. I am not graceful enough to pull off a feminine persona, and women’s clothes highlight my perceived deficiencies. Yet when I wear men’s clothes, the clothes in which I feel most comfortable, most like myself, I become an unaccepted anomaly to all except my closest friends.
The most challenging experience I had in regards to clothes was during my pregnancy. My mom, thrilled by the prospect of having a grandchild, took me shopping for maternity clothes. I rejected every shirt she picked out on the grounds that they were too “girly.” After an hour, my father sighed in exasperation, “They don’t make paternity clothes. Please just pick something out.” But there was nothing for me. And so I convinced my mother to take me to another store and in place of maternity shirts, I chose two extra large men’s button down shirts. Instead of pregnant, I looked fat, but I was okay with that. I knew what I was. The rest of the world could think whatever they wanted.
Along with clothes, toys divide the sexes. Walking into Toys-R-Us or any other toy store, it is immediately apparent which toys are being marketed to girls and which are marketed to boys. When my son learned to walk, my parents bought him a small green lawn mower that made clicking sounds when he pushed it. He enjoyed walking back and forth across the grass, pretending to cut it. Instead of lawn mower, his little girl friend owned a small pink vacuum cleaner that popped when she pushed it. These toys groom boys to do yard work, and encourage girls to work in the house. Just as the play kitchens, tea sets and baby dolls prepare girls to care for a home and raise children. While girls pretend to cook dinner, boys shoot guns, play with action figures and learn how to throw a football. Sure there are boys and girls who cross gender lines. My son wanted a kitchen when he turned two and for several years it was one of his favorite toys. But the set up in stores never changes and color coded sections indicate which gender dominates which area of the store.
Recently, my son developed a passion for legos. He favors Star Wars, pirate and superhero sets. Legos dominate the space in our small condo, and I’m constantly stepping on the pieces that are designed to be shot in combat. I thought legos were legos and that boys and girls could find pleasure in the same sets. I was mistaken. Not long ago, my son’s friend invited him to her birthday party. When I inquired about what the little girl would like for a gift, her mother told me that she wanted “girl” legos. Legos for girls! The very concept disturbed me. What made them “girl” legos? I wondered. And then I took a trip to the store and discovered that girl legos were pink and purple. When I looked closely at the recommended ages, I noticed a disparity between the labeling on “girl” legos verses the ones my son enjoyed putting together. Why, I wondered, did the marketing department think that girls would find the task of assembling legos more challenging than boys?
Not only do parents shop for toys, they also shop around for extracurricular activities. In the process, they use the child’s sex as a guide. Girls certainly outnumber boys in dance classes and while there are more girls playing sports today than when I was a child, come spring, far more boys wear tee-ball uniforms. In high schools, boys and girls play sports, but your odds of making the team are greater if you are a girl because there are fewer girls interested in competing for each available spot. And please explain to me why girls are still playing softball? Why do they need a larger ball and more players on the field? If you look beyond sports, you will see that boys dominate science and robotic clubs where as girls are more likely to join cooking clubs and literary magazines.
When I was six years old, my mother – who had always wanted to take dance lessons as a child – enrolled me in dance class. From moment I stepped into the studio, I hated it. I felt awkward and self conscious, but I endured the lessons because I didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings. I didn’t want to disappoint her by speaking the truth. While the other girls followed the instructors with a passionate flare, I moved like the Tin Woodsman, with clunky steps and jerky hand gestures. When my mother finally realized how much I disliked dance she encouraged me to quit. The following year, I joined a basketball team. I loved it even more than I hated dance. In playing sports, I could pretend that I was one of the boys. I excelled in which ever sport I played, but eventually, excelling in sports called attention to my gender defiance. Despite looking like girl with long hair and dressed in my school's uniform skirt, I identified as a tom-boy. By seventh grade, the disconnect between what I was supposed to be and how I felt inside inspired a hail storm of name calling. In refusing to embrace my assigned gender, I had granted permission to my classmates to ostracize me. Peers told me that if I acted more like a girl the abuse would stop, but how could I be something that I wasn’t?
High school didn’t help my budding insecurities regarding gender. One unit in my sophomore year dictated that boys were required to take track and field. Because I was a girl, I was condemned to modern dance. Infuriated by the division, I wrote a letter to the principal and asked if I could please take track with the boys. If I took dance, I would fail. However, even if I had to compete against boys without the added benefit of testosterone, I felt confident that I would do well. In response, the principal told me that he could make no exceptions. The rules were in place for a reason – though what that reason was he neglected to inform me. I was technically, biologically a girl, and therefore, I had to remain in class with the girls. And so, my GPA suffered.
As an adult, I can relate to other mothers because I am a mother. When the conversation revolves around our children there is common ground for me to participate. But when the conversation drifts, I feel stranded. When other mothers discuss day trips to the spa or shopping sprees, my eyes glaze over and I think ahead to the weekend when I might be able to coax my son into taking a hike. Somehow, being a mother has permitted the gender rules to become more stifling. I’m a woman who feels more like a man, yet I defy masculinity by embracing the traditional role of a mother. I fit into none of the available boxes.
My friend on Facebook asked of the curious boy from class, “Wonder how he’s being raised?”
He is being raised no different than any other child regarding gender. And we can’t necessarily blame his family. My son, who is growing up in a house where gender lines are obviously blurred, went through a phase in which he insisted that all people with long hair were girls and all people with short hair were boys. He didn’t learn that at home.
Another friend commented, “Wow. How about, ‘I’m a person. Treat me with respect?” I will argue that the little boy did just that. For the first time in my life, a person took the time to ask me how I wanted to be treated, how I identified myself. And instead of offering him an honest answer, I evaded him completely. The boy’s question was innocent. There was nothing disrespectful about his confusion. Treating me with respect means allowing me to embrace the gender that feels right. It means allowing me to be who I am without condemnation or criticism. In that regard, society – friends, family, employers – have failed me on numerous occasions. The little boy did not.
Elizabeth Jaeger is currently finishing up an MFA degree in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she has worked under the mentorship of Minna Proctor and Thomas E. Kennedy. The assistant editor at The Literary Review, Elizabeth's work has been published in Literary Explorer, Atticus Review, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. A recent essay was featured on the podcast No You Tell It.