Suburban Butch Dad Report: responding to gender ignorance/policing

I was standing on the sideline of my daughter’s soccer game this weekend when a prime teaching opportunity presented itself.  The topic was gender nonconformity, the potential student was another parent, someone I consider a good friend.

I was presented with a wonderful opportunity and I choked.

The other mom, who shares my name with a different spelling, made a comment about the very boyish looking player zipping around the field for the other team.

“Is that player a boy?  It looks like a boy, don’t you think?”  Kasey said this to my wife and I as we stood watching our girls play.  She seemed very concerned, worried that the other team was getting away with having a boy on their team.  Kasey is someone we’ve known since our daughters were in kindergarten together, 6 years now.

I looked to the far side, watching the player in question running hard with the ball, our goal in her sights.  She was shorter than most, a bit stocky, with short dark hair. and small, but visible, breasts.  There was no question in my mind that she was a little girl, even though she was very, very unfeminine compared to her peers.

“No, she’s a girl” I responded, and my wife replied as well.

This did not end her line of inquiry, however.  Off and on throughout the half, she made comments about that girl.  At one point, she was playing on our side of the field.  Kasey once again, in an exasperated voice, stated her opinion that the player was a boy,”Are you sure she’s not?  Because she really looks like a boy.”

Her obsession was odd and uncharacteristic.  She really wasn’t someone I expected to be so ignorantly disrespectful about gender variance.  I said to her,”Kasey, when I was that age, I looked like a little boy too.  In fact, I was mistaken for a little boy until late middle school.”

She considered that for a second before returning to her obsessive observations.  I tried to make light of it, resorting to humor to cover for my increasing discomfort.  We were soon interrupted by a big play and my need to follow the ever wandering Little Bit.  I didn’t mind, though, because the whole thing had rendered me nearly speechless.  You’d think I’d have handled it well, given my years of being an out queer, an out gender outlaw and having experience answering questions and leading discussions on those topics.  I’d have thought so too, but apparently there are still occasions when I can be reduced to speechlessness.

My wife later told me it was likely because it took me back to that point in my life, when I was powerless and didn’t have all the answers.  I just know I was stymied and now wish I’d had more presence of mind.

My wife was not held back by any past life experiences.  After I wandered off in pursuit of Little Bit, my wife had a further conversation with Kasey.  When Kasey made yet another comment questioning the sex of that player, my wife looked her in the eye and said, “Have you met my wife?”

“Oh, well, I know but that kid…”

“No, Kasey, have you met my wife?”

“I know, but she’s only 9 or so….”  as if, somehow, expressing gender variance wasn’t something that happened to kids that young.

“Casey was just like that at that age.  People thought she was a boy, she got a lot of shit for it.” She was trying to get our friend to make the connection between that kid she was opening questioning and the person she considers a friend.  And let me give you a visual, that day I was wearing my faded button fly 501s, packed, my work boots, over-sized sweatshirt and a ball cap that covered most of my very short hair.  But she wasn’t questioning my sex or gender.

My wife went on, asking her if she’d heard about the kids who’d committed suicide recently because they’d been harassed and bullied over perceived gender and sexuality transgressions.  She said she had and that she was distressed about it.  My wife pointed out that what she was doing, openly and repeatedly questioning a child’s sex, was part of the problem.  That this kind of questioning and criticism created an atmosphere where bullying can grow, where kids can feel marginalized and victimized.

Kasey protested, “But I wasn’t saying it very loudly, I was only saying it to you.”

“And you said it to Casey” my wife was waiting for that light of recognition, but it didn’t come.  Kasey just didn’t see the connection between that girl and me, or that by being so disbelieving and critical she might be offending me.  And, believe me, we weren’t the only ones who heard her, I saw a couple other nearby moms looking over quizzically, but no one else was questioning that players gender.  I’m really hoping that little girl didn’t hear her as well.  I remember being pretty hyper sensitive to people talking about me, no matter how softly or stealthily.   And other kids, they pick up on this stuff the way wolves figure out who’s weakest in the herd.  I was a bit worried that our players would over-hear Kasey and start their own conversations, on and off the field, potentially exposing the short-haired girl to their ignorance.

My wife tried to open Kasey’s eyes to how insensitive she was being, not only about the kid, but about me.  Maybe I’m just so well adjusted that she didn’t even consider she might be raising the ghosts of harassments past for me.  I know I could have done more, maybe walked her away from the group myself, but I was also conscious that I didn’t want to make a scene.  I like Kasey, I like the other soccer families.  I also know how Kasey is when she feels badly about something she’s said or done, she kind of goes overboard in apologizing and beating herself up.  And maybe I just chickened out.

My wife related her one-on-one conversation last night, and explained that she’d look for a further opportunities to talk to Kasey about the issue.  Once I was away from the weird partial muteness that I experienced on the sideline, I was able express my frustration with Kasey, and talk about the feelings it had stirred up.  I don’t know that little girl, maybe she thinks of herself as a tomboy, maybe she just hasn’t gotten caught up in all the girly-girl stuff her peers are into.  I don’t know how she identifies, but I do know she should have the freedom and support to figure out who she is and how to express herself, without having adults ignorantly question her right to be.

I want to stress that Kasey is not a big, bad bigot, or conservative, or normally an insensitive person.  That’s what really throws me about this.  It’s really telling that this kind of ignorance is pervasive even in people you’d consider pretty hip and with it.

I learned something about people, about how easily people can slip into harassing speech and attitudes.  If we’re concerned about creating a world where people are free to explore sex and gender and expression without harassment, discrimination and fear, we have to be watchful even in our circles of friends.  I learned that I’ve got some barriers to overcome in myself so that I can do a better job of responding to situations like the one on the sideline.  And I learned that even though my wife doesn’t say much to me about my gender identity and expressions, she’s paying attention and she’s ready to defend me.

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