Thursday, June 5, 2014

Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes... Or Not

Almost a week ago a friend shared this video on Facebook with the assurance that the incredible story portrayed would have me "ugly crying...and then cheering".  The seven minute video tells the "inspiring" story of the Whittington family and their transgender child.  The video was shared by the family at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast, where the Whittingtons accepted this year's Inspiration Award.

Ryland Whittington
The Cliff's Notes version of this fairy tale happy-ending story goes something like this:  Jeff and Hillary Whittington welcomed their first baby in 2007, a daughter (by all observable biological evidence) they named Ryland (Interestingly, although arguably irrelevant, I know 3 people named Ryland...and all of them are male).  As Ryland grew up, she seemed to go through a tomboy phase, rejecting things girly and embracing superheroes and boy's clothing.  Realizing that this wasn't "just a phase" they sought professional help and their suspicions were confirmed...Ryland, although plagued with the biology of a little girl,  identifies as a boy.  Faced with the staggering suicide rates among transgender people, the Whittingtons refused to let their child become another statistic.  So they let Ryland be "his true self".  Five year-old Ryland got a make-over, close-cut boy's hair, bow ties and boys swim trunks, and a whole new bedroom (out with the sissy-girl pink and lace).  They sent word out to friends and family that Ryland would be raised as a boy and switched masculine pronouns for the feminine ones they had been using.  And according to Ryland's parents, he's never been happier.

My friend's promise of a good long ugly cry were not met (although I don't cry easily.  I'm kind of a soulless thick-skinned person with no heart.  I did cry at the end of Ol' Yeller, though, if that makes me seem more human in anyone's eyes).  In fact, I walked away from the "inspiring" video kind of shocked.

I'm all about embracing our authentic selves, and the Whittington's sentiment that parents should love their children "with no strings attached" is one I applaud.  But I've tossed around this whole gender identity thing in my head rather obsessively for several days now, and the Whittington's decision to raise their biological daughter as if she were a son seems extreme.

I freely admit to not understanding the concept of transgender people, and even after doing some thorough research on the internet, I don't think I understand it one bit better.  The information is confusing and contradictory and often incredibly vague.  The transgender classification is a fairly recent addition to gender and sexual issues, so there isn't a whole lot of research out there.  Some experts classify transgender as a psychological issue.  Others as a physical one.  And suggested treatments vary from simple counseling to hyper-invasive hormonal treatments and body mutilation to achieve "gender reassignment".

The symptoms of gender dysphoria (the distress a person feels when they perceive a mismatch between their biological gender and their perceived gender) are not physical.  There is no blood test or MRI to confirm diagnoses.  There are only vague psychological symptoms.  Most parents of transgender children report that the first clue to their child's transgender condition is that their children severely dislike playing with toys or otherwise engaging in activities that would typically be associated with their gender,  while simultaneously being attracted to toys and activities that would typically be associated with the opposite gender.  And it doesn't seem to go away, so it is more than "just a phase".  This is in fact, the first thing that clued in the Whittingtons to the notion that their daughter might actually be their son.

And here is where I have a huge, huge, HUGE problem.  Because we are constantly encouraging our daughters to bust through gender stereotypes.  We tell them that it's okay to play with trucks and to get their hands dirty and to be bossy (Oops.  Sorry I mean, "assertive").  We tell them there is more to life than raising children and cooking and cleaning and making men happy, and so encourage them to pursue higher education and fast-paced careers.  We even push them toward careers in fields that are traditionally masculine like science, technology, and engineering just because there don't seem to be enough women there (What is wrong with women these days?).  On the other side of the coin, we are pushing our boys to be more sensitive and emotional and creative.  We allow our boys to paint their toenails and carry My Little Pony backpacks to school...because they should be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they want, no matter their gender.  Let's break down these confining gender stereotypes and the world will be a better place!

And yet...when a little girl hates the color pink, and frilly dresses, and long hair...and instead craves pants and sports and superhero costumes...we begin to suspect that there must be something seriously wrong with her...she might just be a boy.  So much for breaking down those confining gender stereotypes.  It makes me want to spit (and that would certainly not be very ladylike).

Before you pounce on me and start screaming vitriolic hate about my closed-mindedness and accuse me of missing the bigger picture, insisting that there was much more than just a tomboy phase going on here,  let me confess that there were apparently (at least by the parent's accounts) more distressing signs of Ryland's gender dysphoria.  Yes, I do realize that I am over-simplifying Ryland's condition.  But across the board, parent's claim this as the first clue to their child's identity issues.  And, having been a child who was an extreme tomboy, who refused dolls and dresses and instead loved Tonka trucks and StarWars storm troopers...and being a woman today who abhors pink and Nicholas Spark's novels while engaging in stereotypical male leisure activities (like hunting and fishing and karate and weight training)...I have to wonder what might have happened to me if my parents had been the more liberal open-minded activists that Ryland's parents are.

I can't say what I would do if I found myself in the Whittington's shoes.  I've thankfully never been there.  But I am a mother through and through with a fiercely protective all-consuming love for my children.  And while I don't know how I might react to my child's insistence to being the opposite gender, I can assure you that if I decided, with the help of professionals, that my child needed to switch his or her gender identity, I know from a deep place of mother bear conviction, that my child would most certainly NOT be plastered all over the internet as the newest LGBT poster child for tolerance and acceptance.  Unlike my friend who promised ugly crying over the "touching" video, who lauded the Whittingtons as "fantastic" and "amazing" parents, most of the world isn't so accepting.  In fact, violence and discrimination is the norm.

No, even if I decided to raise my daughter as my son (a stretch for me to imagine), there would be no mass announcement to friends and family.  There would be no fanfare.  There would be no Youtube videos or national awards acceptance.  I would quietly and privately raise my child, protecting them from the cruelties of a harshly opinionated world, while lavishing them with all of the love and acceptance I could muster.  Call me crazy.

But maybe the Whittington's have an agenda to push.  I hope it's worth it.  Because for every word of praise and encouragement for the family that I've read online, there have been five negative comments of disgust and revulsion (mostly toward the parents).  This child will forever be in the public eye under the microscope of social scrutiny.  I hope it was worth it, Whittington's.  You just sacrificed your child on the altar of change, acceptance, and progressiveness.  Maybe you're the crazy ones.

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