Expanding Gender Stories

By Elizabeth Rahilly

“Call Me Tree also opens up the possibility that it’s ok not to know the gender of a child. … We can learn through nature, history and studying cultures from all over the world and throughout time, that there are more than two ways to identify and express gender.”
– Maya Christina Gonzalez

Maya Christina Gonzalez’s new children’s book, Call Me Tree/Illámame Arbol, represents a much-needed, and growing area, of children’s literature. It expands the gendered representations of characters in storybooks, for children and parents alike. The book uses no gender-specific pronouns, and the protagonist, based on someone assigned female at birth (according to Gonzalez), sports a bright green shirt, blue pants, suspenders, and short hair. This character, whom many might perceive as “boy,” no doubt resonates with many young “girls” and children who do not relate to “female” stereotypes, or to mainstream racial/ethnic norms of whiteness, but who don’t always see themselves represented in media. child running outside

Over the last several years, I have interviewed over 50 parents, from various regions across North America, who represent 45 cases of significant childhood gender variance. Per the rich, detailed stories parents shared with me, these children persistently defied the normative expectations of their assigned sex, from the toys, clothes, and activities they preferred, to repeated enunciations about their sense of self (“Say ‘she,’ not ‘he’”). And in time, their parents started to listen and observe intently, ultimately seeking out (trans)gender-affirming information, education, and support. In the majority of cases, these parents have come to identify their children as transgender; children assigned “male” at birth are embraced as girls, children assigned “female” are embraced as boys. In their journeys, parents learn that gender is more complex than a strict sex-determined binary, and can include non-binary, gender-fluid or genderqueer possibilities—that is, children who feel like “both,” “neither,” something else, or are still exploring their identities day-to-day.

Through this research, I have become intimately aware of the importance of childhood tools and experiences that present a diverse range of gendered sensibilities in the world. To young children particularly, whose gender is assumed from birth, so often our world presents itself as black and white, or pink and blue: “Boys and girls line up”; “You’re not supposed to be in this bathroom”; “You can’t play the dad, you’re a girl”; “Why are you wearing that, are you a boy or a girl?” At special occasions, for example, babies assigned male are put in tiny suits, tuxes, pants; babies assigned female don dresses and frilly headbands. These sound like such clichés, and no doubt some parents try to resist them, but a review of anyone’s news feed on Facebook, or a trip to the toy or department store, shows that they are indeed alive and kicking, from the first moments of a child’s life. The content of the norms is not so much the problem as to whom they are assumed to apply–including, fundamentally, “girl” and “boy” identifications. On behalf of their young gender-nonconforming children, the parents I study begin to see and feel such norms acutely.

Among the myriad gendered encounters these parents manage on a daily basis—from interactions with neighbors to conversations with school personnel about enrollment, pronouns, and bathrooms—storybooks are no exception. These materials so often presume cisgender (not transgender), gender-normative identities and trajectories of their characters. Indeed, the parents I interviewed often find themselves having to make their own “edits” to the storybooks they read to their children, to the effect of: “Well boys can wear dresses, too,” or “Not all boys have bodies like that.” For parents of children who do not necessarily identify as “one or the other” in particular, navigating a social world that is so ordered around a fixed “boy/girl” binary can feel impossible. How do these parents preserve for their children the precious possibility that they can be gender-neutral, gender-fluid, or non-binary? How do parents make space for their children to express themselves as authentically as they wish, at any point in the life course, when these possibilities are rarely revealed, protected, or imagined?

Call Me Tree offers parents and children—and peers, teachers, and siblings—one pertinent possibility to see a world with wider gender horizons. The book’s gender neutrality signals the very important reality that a child’s gender is not a known given from birth, or from a sonogram, but is a very personal sense of self that will be revealed to those who love them, especially if that child is given time, space, and opportunity to do so. With early learning encounters like Call Me Tree, adults can learn to say to children, “We can’t assume someone’s gender,” or “It’s not just ‘boy’ or ‘girl,’ some people feel differently.” As Gonzalez says, “As a parent, I see the first few years of a child’s life as a time to grow into the fundamentals of who they are. This can include gender identity. Our culture has a powerful trend toward the boy-girl gender binary and conformity comes into play from a child’s earliest possible moment.” Books like Call Me Tree, which reject rigid gender binaries and stereotypes, offer a profoundly important step toward making our society more gender-inclusive, gender-diverse, and transgender-aware, presenting all budding children with a range of gendered possibilities into which to grow and self-determine.

Elizabeth P. Rahilly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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