My Gender Story

Cousins: note our matching lack of hair. That’s me on the left!

I am a woman who was raised as a girl. What could be more natural?

Until I think about what a strange construct that is. I was born with certain visible body parts, and that determined how I was raised and what my future role in life would be. My culture not only supports this, but pretty much requires it. My parents carried this out unquestioningly.

Some of the cultural rules understood by everyone were:

  • Girls wear dresses and grow their hair long
  • Girls’ toys include dolls and cooking sets
  • Girls are not aggressive or competitive – they are supposed to “play nice”
  • Girls look after their little brothers and sisters
  • Girls’ first priorities are family and friendships, not accomplishment
  • Girls will grow up to be mothers
  • Boys are groomed for leadership and bread-winning
  • Boys aren’t domestically inclined
  • Boys are active and shouldn’t be made to sit still
  • Boys are physically strong and can do physical work
  • Boys’ toys include trucks and blocks

How oppressive to be raised as a girl! How oppressive to be raised as a boy!

My first dress

My parents had a combination of conservative religious beliefs mixed with liberal politics, a kind of Catholic semi-socialism, not uncommon in Canada at that time. I was lucky in that my parents emphasized education and accomplishment. It was always assumed I would go to university and have a career. It was deemed likely that I would marry and have children, but it wasn’t pushed. My parents hoped that I wouldn’t date until high school and that if I did, it wouldn’t be serious, because it was important to reach your personal goals first.

I never questioned my gender. I liked dresses and barrettes and dolls and tea sets. Having a brother and male cousins, I always had access to toy cars and building sets. We were encouraged to play outdoors as much as possible, and to explore the woods, learn about plants and animals, swim and skate. If anything, my brother was somewhat “disadvantaged” in boy culture by growing up with two sisters and little access to team sports.

This is probably the last time I was mistaken for a boy…

There were a few areas in which boys and girls were treated very differently. Only boys could grow up to become priests, and only boys could be altar servers at Mass. This now seems like a blessing (LOL!) but it was my first experience of outright discrimination. In those days, there were girl jobs and boy jobs. Girls would most often choose to work as a teacher, nurse or secretary. You knew you could be a doctor or an electrician, but it would be a hard road to travel. You would face outright hostility. Boys did not have safety fears drilled into them as girls did. Boys could hitchhike to work or stay out late. Girls who did so would be seen as bringing it upon themselves if they were raped or got pregnant. Girls could get a reputation as a slut. I suppose it is a measure of progress that we are now concerned for the safety of both our boys and our girls, and either of them can be called promiscuous?

One my pet peeves as a child was that as a Girl Guide, we did crafts and baking and camped in lodges or tents, while the Boy Scouts went winter camping, built their own lean-to and learned how to start a fire!

Of course, girls who were active and less concerned with their appearance were called tomboys, and in some families, they would be fiercely moulded into “proper” young women. Boys who were scholarly or compassionate were called sissies and they would often be forced to toughen up and act macho.

I was fortunate because my life and goals were not too constrained by my birth gender, and I didn’t chafe too hard at the appearance rules, behaviour rules, and expectations that were given me. But I was always aware there were those who did, and life seemed unfair for them. My heart especially went out to bookish, delicate young men who were mocked and forced to demonstrate “manliness” – often by teachers and coaches who were trying to make an example of them. I was never scorned by a teacher for being too academic or not athletic enough!

In fact, I don’t remember ever wanting to be a boy. Perhaps because of having a younger brother and cousins, my first impression of “boy bits” was that they were rather pathetic looking and made them extremely vulnerable! I was curious about what it would be like to pee standing up, but since I was not successful in that endeavour, it was soon forgotten 🙂 I later grew up to like penises a lot, but I just like them as a heterosexual woman – quite simple, really. My sexual orientation was also laughable simple – I knew I liked boys ever since my first crush at 5 years old.

I do have one difference from most of woman-culture, though. As a quiet and reserved person I have always liked to have just one best friend and confidante. Through the years, that came to be my male partner. So I haven’t really maintained that sense of female bonding and sisterhood that many do. Perhaps it is my loss, but it is just in my nature to be more solitary. I do find I’m kind of cerebral, and oriented toward accomplishment and activities, which is a trait I hold in common with the aforementioned bookish men. That is a problem with a lot of us academic types – we don’t always form a united clan because we are not social enough!

From age 20 to age 40, I went through typical female/male relationship curves, marriage and motherhood. But I was always profoundly grateful that I devoted myself to my studies, got a professional certification, and can support myself financially, come what may. I do have my parents to thank for that.

Maybe it’s a function of maturity, or contented marriage, or having a gender queer child, but I now don’t give a hoot about my gender or anyone else’s. Except for gender discrimination and oppression, I have my gender blinders on these days, and have become very competent at treating people of all ages and genders as Human Beings. I have completely changed my everyday language to avoid any unnecessary or unwanted gender references. I am deliberately inclusive when I refer to things that people might like or might do. And I meet enough gender variant people to know that I am on the right track, and it is appreciated, even by cisgender people.

How I wish I looked, well, maybe in 1983, LOL! (Photo: tumblr, source unknown)

How I wish I looked, well, maybe in 1983, LOL! (Photo: tumblr, source unknown)

On the other hand, as someone who has never been mistaken for another gender even when dressed very androgynously, I do inhabit a place of privilege where I will never be attacked for how I express myself.

What is your gender story?

Further reading: My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein (new edition being published this week!)

29 comments

  1. My gender, well I am definitely female and have never wanted to be male, but I have always been a tomboy. I loved catching snakes and spider (non-poisonous that is). I would prefer camping outdoors to a luxury hotel any day. I had two boys who I tried to raise gender neutral. My biggest problem was with strangers/friends who liked to share their opinion of my parenting. My boys had both dolls and trucks for example. The biggest challenge to me came when my oldest was 4. He wanted his ear pierced. I thought about it and knew he was old enough to take care of it, I realized I wouldn’t even be considering the question if he had been a girl so the next day out we went to have his ear pierced. My youngest followed suit at the same age. Today neither of them wear earrings but they say they are happy I never said no just because of their gender.

  2. I wish things were so simple…
    I was designated male at birth, but I identify as female. My parents did everything short of kill me to make sure I turned out to be a “real man.” I had only male friends throughout my childhood and they made sure to reenforce the male stereotype in any way they could including clothing, toys, and activities.
    I struggled with my own identity my entire life. I suffered through depression, and self image issues. All while trying to be something I knew in my heart I wasn’t.
    I had to, finally, give up that charade in 2011 when I reached a point of either admitting the truth about myself, or dying. I know it sounds melodramatic, but it is also true. Trying to maintain the self deception had driven me into a suicidal depression and if I had continued on as I was, I would have killed myself.
    Today I am open with myself about who and what I am and I am slowly working to reclaim my identity and my life.

    • Thank you for commenting, Kira. I know that my story is a very easy one. Not so for my child, who I will talk about in my next post. It is through them that I became a queer and trans ally. I hope you can keep taking steps towards openly living as your true self.

  3. Thankfully there are people like yourself in the world, those who are can be open and accepting. For trans children, this makes all the difference. In a world where they are still misunderstood, knowing there is a safe place with people they love is worth more than anything.

    As for myself… I have survived and for that I am thankful.

  4. Fiona

    I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who actively encouraged their girls to overcome some of the cultural limitations of gender…we were allowed (even encouraged) to be tomboys, and education was a tremendous focus.

    But those things were still only minor blurring of the gender expectations. If my brothers in particular (but also we girls) had seriously diverged from the dominant gender norms, it would have been another thing altogether.

    Very sad to read the comments above. What an incredibly (almost impossibly) difficult thing it must be to grow up always swimming against the current of cultural expectations.

    • I didn’t experience it myself. It is scary and dangerous and isolating. I can’t claim to know what it feels like, but I try to speak out publicly as much as I can.

  5. LOVE this. I am cisgendered and also enjoy a certain amount of privilege with that. I do often find, though, that my beliefs and attitudes, and sometimes behaviors, don’t fit into what is assumed ‘normal’ for a heterosexual female. For instance, I don’t want kids. Never have. I’ve known this since I was very young and still know it know, in my thirties. I don’t get gushy around babies and don’t find child antics particularly cute or endearing. (I’m fine with kids, in general, I just don’t respond the way many other people do) I have encountered SO much backlash, disdain, judgement, and disbelief for this. As a woman, it is not ‘normal’ by most people’s standards.

    • Hi MEC, thanks for sharing. That particular pressure is unbelievable! And almost never experienced by men. Women are supposed to “fulfill their biological destiny” or else they are denying themselves their greatest possible experience. You would think that mothers would appreciate what it’s like to actually raise kids, and to understand when someone chooses not to. That debate is probably even more divisive that the working mom/stay-at-home mom debate, in which both “sides” can be so judgmental. Sometimes I admire the lack of judgment that men can show for parenting choices, but not so much when there’s a lack of participating….

  6. EcoCatLady

    Oh, this post brings up such interesting things for me. My parents sorta went overboard trying NOT to put me in a stereotypical “girly” role. But they kinda went to the opposite extreme. They wouldn’t let me have Barbie dolls, because they would create a “negative body image” – so I became totally obsessed with my best friend’s Barbie dolls and wanting to be Barbie thin… forbidden fruit, you know. They also wouldn’t let me read fairy tales because they didn’t want my head filled with notions that some Prince Charming would come to my rescue, and I wasn’t allowed to have pretty clothes, or dresses, or to wear a bra, or to shave my legs, or wear makeup, or do any of those other “girly” things that all of my friends enjoyed. And I certainly wasn’t allowed to have boyfriends!

    The result was that I felt like a total freak, like I was somehow unworthy of being treated like a normal girl, and I became obsessed with all things “girly” and trying to fix this thing that was “wrong with me.” I had secret stashes of makeup and razors and barbie dolls etc – and of course I had secret boyfriends. It didn’t help that my parents also told me that I was the ugliest baby/child they had ever seen, and named me after a friend of theirs who was “really ugly, but everybody liked her.” (BTW – Cat isn’t my given name… I try to avoid using my real name because it still brings up a cascading set of emotions for me.)

    Anyhow, many eating disorders, sexuality issues, and years of therapy later, I finally came to the conclusion that all of the craziness really said much more about my parents and their “issues” than it did about me. I think the bottom line is that both of my parents were/are extremely uncomfortable with their own sexuality. So while most people want their children to express stereotypical gender roles, and to grow up and get married etc, my parents wanted to wipe out any and all expressions of gender and/or sexuality, because it was all just too threatening for them.

    I spent many, many years wishing I’d been raised by “normal” people. But in the end I think it was a blessing in disguise. I was sort of forced to deal with these sorts of issues head on, while most people have them conveniently buried under lots of societal role playing. I also think that it’s not just my parents who are screwed up in this department – I think our culture as a whole does a terrible job dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. I feel fortunate that the issues were pretty close to the surface in my family rather than buried deeply under layers of religion and “proper behavior” like they are for most people.

    • The ways in which parents can mess you up know no bounds, eh? I have no idea what my own child will conclude. I’ll be posting about that soon. I really do think that cultural gender norms are oppressive. But I suppose that is the aim of culture: to create bonding within a group by enforcing the same practices. Sigh.

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  8. I believe that generally, you are just born the way you are, an individual. Thank goodness society has become much more accepting of that(although still a long long way to go in some places). My boys were both allowed to play with dolls and prams. They don’t choose to any more but they love cuddling babies! I’ve never thought of being a different gender, I’ve always liked being female but I have envied some more male attributes such as greater physical strength when I can’t get the lid off a jar! Also I envy men not having to worry as much about things such as walking alone in the dark, not that being male is always a protection.
    I have always liked looking like a female and I think that’s why I found it so hard losing my long hair and eyelashes during chemo, I felt less female.

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  10. I wanted to let this post ‘sit’ for a while before I replied/commented (and even more so with the latest post about trans parenting). I was brought up with brothers, and not particularly girly. I strongly rebelled against ballet (to my regret now). I have become an engineer, which makes me a minority group at uni and at work (and I love after 8 years of all girls education). As a function of my work (and even when I was a student), I think it’s inappropriate to be ‘pretty’ – in fact I feel strange in nail polish today at work. Though my mother and BF both strongly encouraged the nail polish (for a wedding this weekend). I don’t wish I was a man, but I don’t think being a woman is equal or even equitable to being a man, and I think that can get me angry. I might still write a whole post on this – but I also shy away from being too ‘agro feminazi’ about things, cause I don’t think you garner any support or understanding from going too extreme or hard.

    Interestingly, my brothers are both men. But the younger wanted (and got) a bedtime Barbie from Santa. Grandpa was very very angry about that. The elder used to like his fingernails to be painted as a primary schooler. On the weekend, I looked after boy/girl twins. The boy was in a pinafore. Everyone mistook Hugo for Beatrice – so far as a parent assuming I’d incorrectly identified the kids! They are only 2, so I’m unsure whether this outfit choice is experimentation or the start of a gender identity. I am thankful (and supportive and understanding) of their mother who took it all in her stride.

    • I like your points, Sarah. I grew up a feminist during times when gender equity and pay equity in the workplace were still a big deal. It is disquieting for me to think that Link wants to “join the other side,” as it were. On the other hand, I often equate girlishness with being gossipy or helpless, and who would want to aspire to that? So definitely a lot of mixed messages there! It amazes me that women are still a minority in science, math and engineering, despite being now the majority in medicine and law.

      • I agree, and I often wonder why Law and Medicine have equalised the genders, but engineering, science and maths to a lesser degree? In some ways I like it though, there isn’t the gossipy nature (well there is, but it’s not as malicious I find, it’s hard to explain). There’s definitely mixed messages about gender, which can make things that much more confusing.

      • Yes, especially the idea that male brains are better wired for mathematical and spatial tasks.

  11. I see myself as a girl and not a woman although I am now 31 yrs old. I thought it would be great to be a boy instead of a girl but every gender has it’s pros and cons. Women seem to be too into children and shopping to me. I hate both of those things. Males are too into screwing and cars. I don’t think about either of those really.

    As far as the STEM degrees, I think women are told they need to start families while they are young and still attractive so long term education plans seem to interfere with that. When I was in grad school, most of the females were Chinese or Indian. Those cultures put a lot more stock in having educated women than we do in the US. My first year there were 2 American girls in the PhD Chemistry program. The other girl ended up getting a masters instead. It seemed like all of the American guys in my department had a wife or long term girlfriend that was working to support them both. Some times the guys seemed to have no motivation to finish quickly because they were having such a good time in school. I always felt bad for the wives/girlfriends. The guys would complain that their partners wanted to get married and/or have a kid soon and all they had to say is we should wait till I’m finished school. It seemed to me the women’s whole life was on hold and dependent on the man’s schedule. I always wanted to get an education so I knew I could take care of myself and make my own life plans without being tied to someone else. But, that’s just me. And I think this comment was too long. lol

    • Thank you for that. Despite whatever equality has been achieved, there is still such a thing as male privilege, as you’ve described! I am so, so grateful that I got my education despite being mired in all kinds of relationship issues all the way through. Some part of my brain won out!

  12. Thanks for making a place for this discussion and to everyone who has contributed so far. My own story goes off at yet another angle–more proof that there is no universal once we get down to details! My childhood household had two in it: my single, professional career mother, and me, whom she called “your father’s daughter.” Needing both all day childcare and a situation that would allow me to engage my evident intellectual curiosity and address my equally evident lack of social/familial connections, she enrolled me in a day nursery eight months earlier than the state law permitted–and then gave me a variety of pointers for acting older (ie, three, instead of less than 2 1/2). Here’s the odder part, for that time period (or maybe any, in terms of a “solution” to a “problem”): to make me “look” older, she allowed me to dress only as a boy on schooldays. This was the mid-1950’s so I spent my preschool years duded out in grey or brown corduroys and plaid flannel shirts in the winter and plain boxers and white t-shirts in the summer. And that was absolutely fine with me. I feel fairly certain (actually completely certain) that my gender identity has been generated as much from within as the influences from without. In spite of lots of female surroundings during a boarding school phase and then during another all girls school circuit, makeup, fashion, boys and the other
    then-tropes of female adolescence were off my radar. Although I am a feminist, even that was arrived at by me via a path that was more about intellectual reasoning and observation than responsive activism growing from personal experience. And yet, I have managed to be a parent (probably more than a mother) and have a ballet dancer 22-year-old son who “came out” as straight in a hilarious high school newspaper editorial (cuz American teens still assume boy dancers are gay, although gay is okay). And yes, he wore pink some days in his early childhood (all black on others). I know for a fact that doing so didn’t cause his dancing genes to emerge so fully any more than my childhood brown oxfords made me gay.

    • Thank you for telling me that! Although I was raised as a girl and always felt I was a girl, I feel that “personhood” has won out and I don’t think much about my gender any more, or especially identify with either women or men. But I am aware of my “cisgender privilege” because no one questions my gender or treats me as a nonconformist.

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