Language, particularly the language of gender, has deep, deep roots in us.
Old habits die hard; the older and more engrained the habit, the harder it is to change. When you approach an infant, or a young child without clear gender markers, the very first thing you do, and indeed the socially polite thing to do, is to ask, “Boy or girl?”
Well, OK, that’s not quite true. The FIRST thing usually called for is some declaration of amazement at the utter cuteness of the small human, even if it’s just a heartfelt “Awwwww….”. Once the baby’s cuteness has been suitably noted, then the NEXT question called for by etiquette is “Boy or girl?” The reason for this is obvious: You want to gush to the parent about the baby a bit more, or you want to ask how old the child is, or why it has one nose instead of two, and all these are somewhat awkward to ask without the use of a gender-specific pronoun or three.
There are thus only a few short seconds at the beginning of our interactions with a child when we do not treat Baby as “Baby Boy Blue He Him His” or “Baby Girl Pink She Hers Her.” Think of that: For just a tiny bit of time at the start of conversations in our childhoods, all of us are gender-neutral…for the merest of milliseconds.
I’m a wicked, custom-defying vixen, I am. I try to prolongue those few moment of Unknowing as long as possible, just to see how it affects what I say to the parents, how I speak to the child, what sort of things happen in the interaction. Of course, sometimes it’s just plain impossible NOT to know that the little critter encased in pink frills and surrounded by dollies and butterflies and kittens and bows and flowers is a wee girl child. Parents often beg the question by loading up the child and its clothing with gender cues. But in those situations where it’s not clear, try an experiment for yourself: try not determining the child’s gender for as long as you can.
What will happen is that your sentences will become awkward and full of weird constructions, such as referring to the child as Your Baby or That Little Charmer or You Rascal You; you will tend to address the baby itself more directly than you might otherwise. After all, if one is talking to Baby, one can say “Oh, you are so bright-eyed, aren’t you?” instead of saying “Oh, she’s so bright-eyed, isn’t she?” as one would to the parent. And chances are, the level of tension in the air will start to rise…
What will also happen is that the parents will be unable not to tell you. The parents desperately (and usually, quite unconsciously) want you to know what gender behaviours are appropriate in the presence of their precious babe. This is, after all, how we train children what gender is and what to do about it, literally from the moment they are born: We ensure that everyone surrounding the babe knows its gender and uses gender-appropriate cues right away. You may be able to avoid classifying the child for several minutes before the awkwardness of speech becomes too much to bear; the parents, however, will likely last less than a full minute. They’ll blurt out “We’re so proud of our baby girl!” or a more subtle announcement: “He’s still keeping us up at night, so we’re a bit punchy right now.”
There’s no judgment here; it’s simply a fact that for most of us, gender is the first thing everyone knows about us, and something that humans consider to be one of the top three most important factoids about anyone (the other two being name and age). There was a movement a while back to dress children as unisex, to cut their hair as unisex, to give them gender-ambiguous names (Riley, Jamie) in an effort to erase as much of the gender-biased treatment as possible. They’d give trucks to the girls, and dolls to the boys…and usually what would happen is the little girls would proudly use their dump trucks to drive the kitten to the grocery store, and the boys would put a stick in the doll’s hand and pretend it was Young Zorro.
Gender runs deep in us. Nothing to be ashamed about there. Like anything else about being human in this world, it doesn’t matter if there are differences between us; it matters how we respond to those differences, and the part those differences play in our thoughts, decisions, relationships, and actions. (I could go on and on about gender stuff; if you are interested in the degree to which gender-specific behaviour still affects us on a daily basis, have a look at Everyday Sexism.)
Add to this the fact that gender is rarely something one has to think about, and it’s no wonder that even I get tongue-tied when I come to a pronoun in a sentence about Melody. Boys grow into men; girls grow into women, and everyone stays tidily on their own side of the pink-and-blue divide. We desperately want our world to be binary, and to have a fairly substantial gap between the two sides. Woe betide anyone who gets too close to that line: a boy who carries around a baby doll, a young woman with heavy facial hair, a man with “man-boobs”. Those folks make us uncomfortable because they Break The Gender Rules, they blur the pink-blue divide, they confuse us and force us to actually Use Our Brains and think about Gender. And for some folks, their confusion takes the form of fear, mistrust, and anger. Those are the hardest folks for anyone who straddles the PinkBlue Divide to deal with…
We’re acutely aware of the potential for discomfort when Melody is in the room; her outward gender cues at this point in time are mixed: She gestures and smiles and uses facial expressions more as a woman would, she has a very pronounced waistline and hip-flare, she dresses in somewhat-feminine styles. However, she doesn’t yet wear skirts or dresses, she’s six feet tall, and most of us stare straight up into her Adam’s apple when we stand next to her! She’s still got a five o’clock shadow, despite hours and weeks of painful electrolysis on her facial hair. And her voice is higher than some men’s, but it can’t pass for a woman’s voice yet. Oh, and of course: No boobs. (“Yet,” she is quick to remind me.) These mixed physical cues put Melody in a sort of no-gender land, where people sense that something is different, yet are either too polite, too shy, or too uncomfortable to ask.
Usually, in my case, I spare them the struggle and Just Say It. “This is my wife, Melody. She’s transgendered, moving from male to female.” That’s pretty much all I say, unless the person looks puzzled and needs more information.
So far, every single person (welllll…OK. There are a couple of notable exceptions), has been gracious and welcoming at the news, offering congratulations and good wishes, just as one would for any new venture in life. We’ve told children, we’ve told elderly folk; we’ve told men and women; we’ve told straights, gays, and other transfolk; educated, uneducated, you name it. Nearly everyone has been the soul of kindness and welcome to Melody.
And then, just as with a new baby, what I call The Gendering begins. Just as with an infant, people start re-forming language and actions to support Melody’s true gender. Once I tell folks Melody’s a woman, she’s no longer in the land of the genderless; she’s female, and people want to make sure that they behave “properly” around her.
First: The person asks what they should call Melody, and which pronouns to use. (We answer, “Melody, and female pronouns.”)
Second: The person will admit to having a fair bit of curiosity about the situation, and asks if it is OK to ask questions. (“Of course it’s OK. This can be pretty confusing sometimes! Ask anything you want, and we’ll answer it if we can. But we’re new at this too, so there’s lots of stuff we’re still discovering as we go along.”)
The third thing which will happen, within the first few minutes after the other two, is that the person will use The Wrong Pronoun or The Wrong Name. They’ll be chattering away, congratulating or asking questions, and it will just slip out, “So what will Nicholas do about his Ph.D.? Oh, I mean Melody. I mean she.” And they’ll usually be embarrassed and a wee bit mad at themselves for this perceived social gaffe.
We’ve had so many lovely folks come up and apologise to Melody for using the “wrong” pronoun, or the “wrong” first name, and it’s very humbling and touching each time this happens. It shows that people CARE. Folks truly want to treat Melody as she wants to be treated, they want to respect her as a person and as someone seeking wholeness, and they want to participate in creating an atmosphere of welcome so that she feels comfortable to be herself. This is so amazing, that when someone apologises, I thank them for doing so–and then tell them not to worry, change takes time.
After all, I still sometimes go to the top of the stairs and yell, “Nicholas!” down to my wife in her office.