His hair is soft, smooth against my fingers as I sooth it down from the brush’s static. He brought me the brush, and a hair tie, presumptive in his certainty I would do this for him, brushing-braiding-primate bonding. As he should be; as he has no reason not to be.
“Do you want a braid or a ponytail?” I ask.
“Ponytail. No, braid! Braids are prettier.”
I change the brush’s angle now, gather the gold in my hand, divide it by three with these two practiced fingers. His voice pipes up while I plait:
“Some people might laugh at me, because they don’t think boys should wear braids.”
My hands don’t stop, even as my heart does.
“That’s true. Some people might.”
Braiding, simple braiding like I am doing, is a series of trades; left for middle, right for middle, twist twist twist, trading turns each time.
“What would you do if someone did laugh at you?”
“I’d run away.”
“Or I’d find someone who wasn’t laughing, and I’d tell them.”
“Or I’d use my words, and tell them to stop.”
“Those all sound like good plans.”
“Do you think anyone at your school will laugh at you?”
His answer is swift, certain, a full stop.
“Good.” I bind the braid, prevent its unraveling with a simple strand of elastic.
“There you are!” I pull him close. “My pretty boy.” I let him go.
What does it mean to be gender non-conforming? Can a child raised in gender diversity, without expectation of conformity, be gender non-conforming? My firstborn rejects nothing; we give him nothing to rebel against. He embraces all: pinks and browns, blues and purples, and everything, everything red.
I could describe him one way — how he bounces around the room, turns sticks into light-sabers, plays ceaselessly with his private pretend army — and garner proclamations that “he’s all boy!” Or another — his love of long hair, his doting on his baby sister, how he hugs everyone who stands still long enough — and get a much different reaction. Both are true; both are incomplete.
Contrary to the warnings long-given by naysayers of low-gendering parenting, the Boychick is no ignorant innocent: show him any stereotyped advertisement (or book, or film), and he will tell you exactly which is supposed to be the girl, which the boy. Despite my secret subversive desires, there is no idealistic confusion here. But nor, though on anyone else he would proclaim them to be so, does he seem to have any concept of his own clothes as “boy” or “girl” garments; they are only the red-with-heart, or red-with-dragon, or the brown dress-shirt, or the blue with the beautiful bird. They are only clothes, loved on their merits. They are only his.
Is this gender non-conformity, this lack of rejection of that we deem feminine? How can it be; how can we stand the double standards, when his sister inheriting the same mixed wardrobe would be seen as fully “normal”, not even so much as a tomboy, but nor an especially girly-girl? How can I allow a pathological interpretation of one child for an equal love of hair braiding and hare-brained ideas that would be deemed fully healthy if found in my other?
“Some people might laugh at me.”
He’s not wrong.
It is, in fact, something of an understatement. According to TransActive, “Gender non-conformity is the third leading cause of school bullying” (and “#2 is actual or perceived sexual orientation”). And from a newly published study from Harvard School of Public Health, “Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not.”
Sometimes gender nonconformity is conformity to an unacknowledged gender. Sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes gender nonconformity is because society doesn’t give kids any model for their gender. How can they conform to the expectations of their gender, when according to their family and their schools and their culture, their gender — not fitting neatly into the two accepted and exclusive slots of “male” or “female” — doesn’t exist at all?
Perhaps that is my child’s purview, a both or a neither or a something else altogether. He’s not entirely unfamiliar with the concept, though it’s not like ze or the singular they roll off our tongues as easily as I could wish. But so far, he says not: playing she or both at his fully accepting, gender-full school is well and good, but at the end of the day it is, he says, but a role, and he becomes he once more.
I want to have a neat wrap-up, a ten-point list, a how-to guide. I want to twist a tie at the end and be done, left with simple beauty, woven into being. But like his braid, the question of my child’s gender — of any child’s gender — frays and gathers gunks and fly-aways, and will need to be taken out, smoothed and soothed and brushed back, to be put together again, and again, and again, as often as he asks it of me.