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 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.
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.
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!)