“I always imagine parents are like a GPS – they have set destinations for their children.”
As the mother of a transgender child, when I read Nevo Zisin’s autobiography Finding Nevo recently, this line really resonated.
The shock Zisin’s mother experiences when Zisin first reveals they are transgender is a familiar story. I’ve heard it from the mouths of hundreds of other parents and experienced it myself.
If there was one thing I thought I knew for certain about my child and their future, it was their gender. I was wrong.
To different degrees, we all have an internal GPS set for our newborn children.
Conscious or unconscious, none of these expectations are higher than that your child will always be the gender you were told they were at the moment of birth. Or, if you’re like me and can’t wait, during your prenatal ultrasound. A boy or a girl. That moment your child’s gender is first revealed to you means something on a personal level to each parent.
Not all of us will throw a gender-reveal party, but from the moment we are told “It’s a boy/girl!” we as parents, and society as a whole, put that child in a box.
If that child wants to break out of that box in any way they have to fight.
My child did. At the time I discovered my young child was transgender, I had prided myself on eschewing any of those stereotypical expectations other parents might struggle to relinquish. I had not imagined a daughter walking down the aisle in a wedding dress or mother-and-daughter shopping expeditions.
Even so, I had still put my child in a box. A box in which we, very naturally, put all our children. I bought dresses for my toddler. My favourite outfit for my little one was a stunning pure wool, yellow designer coat with rainbow stockings and gold sparkly shoes.
I fully expected my child would always have the name that their father and I had so lovingly chosen. And I fully expected my child would grow to be a woman.
Like most transgender children, my son had to fight hard to seen outside that box I had built for him. He had to find a way to show me that being labelled a girl would not work for him. He began by rejecting the rainbow stockings and the sparkly shoes. When he realised that wearing those labelled him a girl, he refused to wear them.
I didn’t get it. I was proud of my “tomboy”. He had to wait until he was old enough to verbalise it to me: “I am not a girl.” Many children do not have the language or the confidence to do that. Many transgender children have no choice but to suppress their gender identity.
Zisin writes that they struggled through an early childhood without the language or the support to understand the source of their anger and frustration. They transition only begins when they find that language and begin the journey of Finding Nevo.
The verdict is in. We know now that transgender children who are given the opportunity to socially transition, and are supported by their families, go on to thrive. We also know the statistics for those children who are not supported.
But this is a story not just for the parents of transgender children, but for all parents.
As a society, we are all complicit, to different degrees, in placing children in rigid gender boxes, starting from the first gendered gifts we bring to a newborn in hospital to buying gifts from the segregated “boys” and “girls” toy aisles in department stores.
But parents are the first gatekeepers to a child’s freedom to be themselves. Not just for transgender children, but for all who may not want to conform to strict gender expectations.
Most modern parents can boast of not wanting to raise their daughter as a pink princess who plays exclusively with Barbie dolls. They talk affectionately and proudly of their girls playing in mud and wearing shorts. But how many, I wonder, would allow a daughter to shave her long, luscious curls for a buzz cut?
You might eagerly buy your son a doll if he wanted one, but what would your answer be if your six-year-old boy could only feel comfortable going to school in a dress? There is a great deal of mainstream support for more gender-neutral uniforms. Why should girls have to wear a dress that makes it more difficult to play freely? But what about that little boy who is desperate to wear a dress to school? The support for him is not as vocal.
Through Zisin’s eyes, we are confronted with the expectations we put on males and females. When perceived as female, Zisin is bound by limitations on how masculine they are allowed to present. Especially when as a child they have no say in hair length and very little over clothes. The way they express emotions as a young child is responded to with gender-bound cliches. When the boys at school fight they are told “boys will be boys”. When Zisin is angry, they are told they are being “too emotional”.
As they grow older, their appearance and weight is constantly under scrutiny and they grapple with misogyny.
As Zisin transitions to male at 17, they experience the accompanying cultural expectations. Their appearance and weight are no longer under scrutiny, but they are suddenly expected to be complicit in the casual misogyny that sometimes takes place in groups of men. They felt their opinion received greater respect and admiration at university when speaking to a group about feminism, than it ever did when they were seen as female.
The narrative in our society today is full of ways we can bring equality to the genders and foster respect. We want our girls to reach their full academic potential and be comfortable with their bodies.
I don’t know how many of these negative stereotypes we, as parents, can realistically break down. But I do know that if we are serious about wanting to shift them, we need to look at our own expectations. We need to throw away our GPS.
Our children’s lives are their own and we are given the honour of protecting and nurturing them. That includes letting go of our own hopes and aspirations, supporting them for who they are, and letting them express their gender in the way that works for them – not us.