Some New Shade of Purple

In 2009, I attended a workshop at the Gender Spectrum Family Conference. Parents were talking about their children’s challenges in class, in the locker room, and on the playground. I raised my hand to ask a question about how to support my son, who was being hassled in the bathroom at school.

I began: “My son Sam is seven. He’s not transgender. He has long hair, and loves pink, and sometimes likes to wear a dress. He also loves Lego and Star Wars. He defines himself as a boy who likes both masculine and feminine things.”

The workshop presenter said: “Your son is transgender.”

I argued about this: Sam doesn’t say that he is a girl living in a boy’s body. His gender identity—which has been remarkably consistent since he first put on a pair of pink sneakers at age two—just doesn’t fall into either of the boxes that most people use.

But the presenter and I weren’t seeing eye to eye. He—born a girl, transitioned in adulthood, now a man—saw the world in a binary way, and assumed my child would also choose one gender or the other. But Sam is not interested in being just one or the other. After the workshop several parents came up to me and told me their kid is just like mine, an in-between kid.

I never did ask my question, which was how to talk to my son’s school about bathroom safety. It got lost during the presenter’s effort to define my kid. Which is just what I don’t want to see happen to my son: I don’t want to see his concerns get lost as people argue about what or who he is.

It’s amazing that the world is starting to talk about transgender issues so openly, that parents of transgender kids can attend a conference where they can hear from transgender adults who understand many of the issues they face. But I worry that we haven’t quite carved out a space for kids with non-binary gender expression, kids who don’t want to transition, kids who don’t fit neatly into the boy or girl box, kids who just want to be their own quirky selves.

I support the rights of transgender people to transition and live in their affirmed gender without fear and without having to explain themselves at every turn. And I also want to see people who are half pink and half blue or some new shade of purple be who they are. Without fear. Without having to explain themselves. And without having to fit into some box that was not made for them.

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Comments

  1. Megan says

    Your son *is* transgender, he is not however a transsexual. Transgender is anyone who doesn’t fall under the strict definition of “normal” where someone is born with a matching body and mind, and fits into societies perceptions of either male or female.

    • shoffman says

      Megan, I had the same thoughts when I was writing this post. I often think that “transgender” is a beautiful umbrella term for all people who cross gender bounds, and could be used more broadly than to describe a person who has transitioned from one gender to another. But because it is so often used that way, and because “transsexual” is often used in a derogatory way, I decided to use the more rigid definition of “transgender.” The best term I’ve heard for someone who doesn’t fit traditional gender norms is “gender queer,” though I haven’t yet heard people applying that to young kids. Our strategy as parents has been to give Sam all the rhetorical tools in the book and then let him decide what applies.

  2. says

    I’m afraid that the trans world is as locked into the gender binary as the rest of the world. I think that a lot of trans people like me are possibly even more strongly gendered than most others (it takes pretty strong gendering to go through the trauma of transitioning).

    Unfortunately, as the more ‘public’ face of gender variance, we get to make statements about gender variance in general and being trans is just one of the many ways one can be gender variant. It’s a shame that we don’t see that and include that in the message which we’re sharing.

    If Sam is transgendered or transsexual, the only person who can say so is him. Placing a label of ‘trans’ on him is just as dangerous as forcing him into the gender binary. In my opinion, you’re doing just the right thing in giving him the framework to find his way to defining himself.

    He’s very lucky to have a mother like you.

    • shoffman says

      Emily, thank you for your thoughtful and supportive comments. One of my greatest fears is that I will offend people in the trans community, when that is the opposite of my intention. So I am relieved to hear that you (my faithful reader, thank you) understand where I’m coming from: wanting to give my son, and other kids like him, the space to decide for themselves who they are.

      It isn’t the fault of transgendered people, who are just trying to be the gender that they are–and, as you’ve said, are the more public face of gender nonconformity and often more strongly gendered than others. My next posts will deal with why I think there has been so much focus on trans and so much less on the many other ways people can have different gender expression–the many other shades of purple. Please keep commenting!

  3. says

    When my pink boy was four, liked dresses, loved all the Wizard of Oz windows in SF where he visited on holiday everyone said, “gay boy.” I said, four years old!
    Long hair, dresses sometimes, Alice in Wonderland. No cars trucks or trains. No construction.

    Never said he thought he was or wanted to be a girl. Was going to marry his brother & live with their friends in Central Park.

    Fast forward.

    Turning 15. Short hair. Likes fantasy & cooking, politics, Buffy. Doesn’t think he’s a girl or want to be a girl. Isn’t at this point saying he’s gay either.

    All to say, I wish for more freedom to like things w/out gender or sexuality or identity coming into play when kids are kids (& probably when grownups are grownups). The world has a ways to go…

    Safety in the bathroom trumps the rest, though & I hope Sam gets that. And room to define the rest himself.

  4. Stephanie Atterbury says

    Really appreciate your post & point of view. Sorry to hear you couldn’t get your question answered. I’d love it if we could join together to fight for equal rights for all and stop worrying about labeling the segments that comprise “all.”

    I too have a child who likes the in-between but, have had several try to tell me what his or isn’t and what he will be down the line. I feel it’s a waste of time. Just trying to support and understand who he is today. None of us are stagnant beings. So why the push to predict so far down the line? Day to day can be wonderful, hectic and challenging enough with these little people we’re working so hard to raise.

    Sounds like Sam and my son would have a lot in common. Just ordered his first dress & a wig for his upcoming 8th bday. It’s all he wants and can talk about since we said okay. Not sure we’ll be able to hold off til the actual date with it almost 3 weeks away.

    Thank you so much for your blog & your presentation at the conference!

  5. Bedford Hope says

    That umbrella term ‘transgender’, meaning transexual and ‘gender non-conforming’ isn’t what most people think when they hear the word ‘transgender.’ It’s frustrating, because our kids are transgender–they span genders– what they aren’t is ‘born-in-the-wrong-body.’ People think that transgender means ‘born-in-the-wrong-body.’ So unless you want to have a really long conversation about how you aren’t having your five year old castrated (how the uneducated see it) it’s not a convenient label at all.

    It is maddening; I bumped into this trans-orthodoxy while arguing about a few words in my slate piece. I finally got my critics to admit that, no, I wasn’t in denial, my kid wasn’t trans, exactly. I knew my kid; my kid knew himself; he presents as female, has no dysphoria, and is comfortable with either pronoun.

    The orthodoxy sort of shakes their head and says, “Well, he’ll figure it out someday,” and you can’t argue with that, because he might.

    But given the 3000 word backstory, everyone so far has accepted that my child truly is who he is, now, and that I am not disrespecting him by calling him he.

    I’ve had listserve members laugh at me and say ‘we all know your kid is trans,’ because of how pretty he looks in photos.

    “It’s up for my kid to define himself, not me.” I tell them. And they shut up. And wait for my kid to ‘figure it out.’

    I think he has figured it out. It’s the rest of the world that has to catch on.

  6. Jackson says

    I have to applaud you for not getting angry or upset. It frustrates me no end that transgender people (especially the medically transitioning ones) still adhere to the binary. In my opinion, as a medically transitioning transgender person, we by our very nature don’t fit that binary and I can’t stand being auto-labeled. I identify as transgender and non-binary, not as “man” or “woman.”

    I do see that slowly, more people are pushing for “genderqueer/non-binary identities” to be recognized. Have you thought about forming some kind of group for these types of issues? I and a friend started one in my city, though only post-pubescent people show up. It might help to discuss it with other like-minded individuals.

  7. Tom says

    Sarah, I have to agree with you that your son is not necessarily transgendered. I’m an adult “pink man”. I grew up thinking I would eventually transition, at least partially because that’s the way society thinks it’s supposed to work. I too like to mix masculine and feminine. I like skirts, but most denim and black, nothing frilly or lacey. I have pierced ears, but no big, dangly earrings. You get the point, I’m sure. I consider myself somewhat androgynous, but not really transgendered since I’m not interested in surgery, nor am I trying to look or act “like a woman”. Like your son, I am somewhere in the cultural middle and not really interested in moving to either end.

    I work for a large retail company with what is supposed to be a very friendly attitude towards transgendered people. The company recently changed its dress code, in very small part to be a bit more accommodating to those who are “presenting” in the opposite gender. I have found from talking to some people in the company that the HR folks, like most people, are really only interested in “helping” those who want to conform to one norm or another. They certainly don’t want to see a middle-aged man show up in a skirt, particularly if he otherwise looks like a regular guy. If I were to put on a wig, makeup, bra, etc., HR would be right there with me. I find this galling, as I suspect you do too.

    Bravo to you for supporting your son and allowing him to define himself.

    • shoffman says

      Tom, you are living with exactly the sort of challenges that I’ve been thinking about–there’s room in our society for men and women, and, wonderfully for many people, there is a little more room for people who transition from one to the other. But those who live somewhere in the middle of the spectrum haven’t found the same sort of welcome that some (few, broad-minded) communities are extending to trans people. With the lack of acceptance for (and, frightfully, the violence against) transgender people, I don’t want to paint a pollyanna-ish picture of the life of transgender people. But we are seeing that in some ways it is easier to pass for man or woman than it is to blur those gender bounds.

      But Tom, and all of us: have heart. It isn’t too long ago that women who transcended gender bounds were ostracized. Now, women can wear pants, play sports, have high-powered jobs, decide to have or not have children, decide to marry or not. Again, I don’t want to glorify: many women would argue that women and men aren’t treated equally in our society. But, as I tell my son often, women have come a very long way in a very short time. So, there is hope. We can fight, and we can hope.

      And in the meantime, you go with your bad-ass skirt-wearing self!

  8. Erin says

    I have to say, I had a total facepalm moment when I went back to the top of the article and realized that the person who was trying to categorize your son was speaking at a gender SPECTRUM event. gah.

  9. Linda says

    This was beautiful. It made me cry. Perfectly put.
    My child doesn’t know who he or she is – or wants to be. She is in a male body with a girl heart and should be provided the space and respect and positive encouragement – to figure it out unencumbered by others’ expectations.
    Thank you for your blog and all you do.

  10. Mel says

    I stumbled upon your blog yesterday and have been reading it from the beginning. I have to say, amazing posts! However, there is something that left me a little confused (note, I am a straight female so I haven’t personally experienced any sort of LGBT (or related) issues, which may be why I’m confused and honestly just trying to understand and not insult anyone). In a few posts you have mentioned that Sam likes it when people refer to him as a “she” and that he dislikes it when you correct them. So when you wrote in this post that Sam does not want to be a girl, that sort of confused me, since that had been my previous assumption. I’m wondering how the two fit together, him being comfortable in a boy body and not wanting to be a girl but liking it when people refer to him as a girl.

    Also, I think Sam is extremely lucky to have you and I wish there were more understanding people like you in the world!

    • shoffman says

      Mel, thank you so much. I’m glad you found me.

      Great questions. In Sam’s case, he is perfectly happy being a boy–and by this I mean that he does not hate, or want to alter, his body–but likes both masculine and feminine play things, activities, clothes, and playmates. If gender were a spectrum, he’d probably be right smack in the middle of it, with a foot in the masculine and a foot in the feminine. So Sam is quite happy to be read as a girl when he is looking more feminine, because he is expressing the “girl” part of himself. That doesn’t mean he wants to change anything about himself, or that he is unhappy being a boy.

      I think that for Sam, it would be much easier if there were no pronouns, and people didn’t have so much need to decide which children were boys and which were girls. He’s just very much himself, and that self doesn’t quite fit in either gender box.

      When I said that Sam does not want to be a girl, that was in contrast to children who are biologically male, yet feel very strongly that their true selves are female. Transgender children feel from a young age–and express, consistently and persistently–that the body they were born in does not match their true gender. That’s not the case for Sam, but it is for the children of some of my readers.

      Thanks for writing!

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