I have a grandchild whom I will name Z, who has felt and seemed more like a boy than a girl even since toddlerhood. Not just to Z but also to others after the first three or four years. Not a tomboy, not really. Just more male than female, somehow. There was a way of moving and interacting, of expressing ideas and needs that didn’t seem to line up with what society deems feminine. If that sounds sexist, I guess you would need to experience what I saw and felt as I have gotten to know Z. There must be some essential difference between “boy” and “girl” well imprinted before birth, then more asserted earlier than later, and not just outwardly but via personality. Yet if anything in the beginning, Z seemed behaviorally more gender-less to me than female, or not. I was just waiting to see what happened and thought nothing more.
Then I didn’t see Z for many years due to a divorce from Z’s grandfather. I also moved far away. I had pictures, though, and it always seemed Z was well, almost masquerading. The usual school and family pictures I studied displayed two granddaughters side by side, both in frilly dresses, hair in tiny rows of braids with fussy ribbons (Z) or straightened and glossy (older girl, Y). Yes, Z and sister, Y, are bi-racial, more Black than white if they cared to say so when asked (my husband is bi-racial). In the photos, though, the gender contrasts were remarkable: Z looked constrained and out of sorts and overdressed while Y was happy, at ease and already elegantly pretty. She danced, sang, painted her nails, fussed iwth her hair. Z cared for comfort in clothes, headed out on the bike, and made noise enough for three. Z’s mother stated that Z didn’t like to hang out with girls any more than before. Z and Y had fights galore; they were so unalike. Z was more defined by increased traditional male-identified behavior and perhaps attitude with each passing year.
It had become problematic–that is, there was real confusion in the other kids– by second and third grade at school and in the neighborhood. Fusses and questions. And then Z began to hint that Z felt not like a girl but a boy. Was, in truth, not really a girl. And things got harder. Bullying commenced; distress intensified for Z. And in some manner, the family.
When a few years later that daughter and two children moved to my city, I waited for them at the airport. And there came the jaunty, grinning, enthusiastic, hearty Z with hair shorn and fashioned into a mohawk. The stance, the walk: Z was sending a signal and no one would shrug and say well, Z was really still a girl. Despite biological facts and the hormonal changes on the horizon; Z was 1o by then. I was faintly disconcerted at first. Maybe quietly stunned is the better descriptor as the days and weeks went by. Sure not less impacted. This child was someone other than who everyone else had determined. And Z had already suffered consequences. It was almost like Z “passed” as male although Z really was truly struggling to “pass” as a female everywhere— when it didn’t even resonate one bit. Z’s skin color–dark brown identifying Z as black, Z’s whiteness almost like a footnote–was not debatable and so was less an issue than the other. Or so it seemed at first. That was another matter, further revealed as the middle school loomed.
I wondered what the new city would offer, as Portland has generally had many resources for folks other than heterosexual, even young teens. And as a side note, one of my sisters was a Director of agencies that provided some of those services. Z and family had migrated from a conservative suburban area to a much better situation as far as supports were concerned.
I had already observed over the decades that a great many people leaned toward androgyny. Our gender appears to be a matter of how much or little of hormones born with and our more mysterious inclinations, I suspect. We are a fantastic conglomeration of parts, chemicals and genes that hide or reveal innumerable variations. It seemed testosterone and estrogen were only part of the story. There are those who apparently have more of one than the other. Appearance of one gender or the other, noted or searched for in people’s faces and even bodies can be tricky, I thought and still think. I have always found gender identity a beautiful yet peculiar aspect of being human. Because, in the most primary ways I’ve identified as profoundly female, yet intellectually and creatively I’ve experienced realms beyond gender while engaged in exploring ideas and creating. It seemed irrelevant to me that I was a girl growing up in those crucial ways–and that was perhaps odd, considering my femaleness was also victimized as a child. So, being a girl could be socially daunting even as I felt it deeply mysterious, thrilling, to grow up. And yet–I was a female who thrived in places that anyone at all could live and aspire and succeed: in mind, spirit and heart. And why not? Being female was sort of an aside when I was in thrall creatively. While it was the boys who distracted me and then opened up other worlds, to be sure.
But the reality for Z was that, regardless of birth identification as female, the other reality prevailed: Z adamantly felt and so must be male. Z finally made this clear to family, then changed her name to a masculine name, even asked for male pronouns. The name has stuck for years now; the habit of different pronouns has been established. I think it must have been long sought and practiced privately before spoken aloud. Changes began to happen and complications occurred.
It hasn’t slowed down seven years later. Z. takes testosterone hormone shots, something I found almost scary, certainly jarring when first informed. There has been a lot of therapy. And Z talks, behaves and portrays his more singular self as who he feels he truly has been, is, will be. Few find him other than what he wants the world to see, even though it can’t be easy at in high school, either. I know there has been a lot of pain and anger, hope and courage and a new freedom with newer constraints all mixed up together. There must have been bargaining of one sort or another with himself, with his mother and father and sister, with friends and enemies until finally: enough! Z was Z and that was that.
Being open-minded has been critical. There is a child’s future at stake. There is love that is at the center of things and hope for his future, one that may be safe and fulfilling. Yes, it has been a challenge, at times. I felt I once had a granddaughter, now more and more a grandson. We get double takes sometimes when out and about. Some of the family does not feel even close to comfortable much less accepting. I find myself glimpsing Z and seeing more and less, the girl, the boy or all that may be in between. And I wonder who this person is becoming. I can’t say I have no uneasiness to wrestle with, or no fear or worry for Z. I can’t say I understand, that it all makes sense to me with no further thought necessary. Because I have been at home as a woman only so cannot begin to imagine, not really, how it is to not feel aligned internally and externally regarding one’s identity as a whole person. And I suspect that is what it’s all about in the end: not Gender, even, as much as being allowed to be one’s own unique self. And that’s hard for all and for certain much harder for some others. But we all fight for and work toward what it is that matters most.
I will simply care for Z, no matter what. Because I want Z to–as a human being first and last–experience peace and joy, to know and give love, to reach for and attain valued goals and dreams. To be who Z wants to be/become. And I say this although right now Z is not close to me. We used to take good walks and talk a blue streak, used to play board games and share more meals and plenty of laughs. For now, Z’s journey is about heading out in another direction. But I’m still here.
Perhaps being open-minded asks us to make a responsible commitment to gaining greater information. To be willing to at least try to understand the best we can, despite different, sometimes opposing experiences. I ask myself to first to feel and act compassionately–this must reach beyond my lack of direct, personal knowledge and comfort zone. I am a true believer in kindness, and possess a lifelong desire to learn what I don’t know.
Note: This is not my usual Wednesday nonfiction post but a response to the “Discover Challenge” word prompts bloggers are invited to write about if desired. The topic of open-mindedness got me going. I will post my regular nonfiction piece, as well. Thanks for reading.