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  • Susan David Bernstein (bio)

I’ll begin with an incident when my child was seven years old. Nora and her father, Daniel, take a bike ride with Hannah, also seven, and her father, Roger. They have matching “alley cats,” third wheels with seats and handlebars that attach just behind the seats of their fathers’ bikes. This way, they can pedal when they like and get some sense of what balancing on a bike is all about, yet they’re always being pulled along by the master biker up front—an interactive metaphor for modern parenting.

When they take a water break, Nora mentions that she wants to have a “sex change.” Hannah asks, “Daddy, what’s a sex change?” at which point Roger, who occasionally works as an EMT, launches into a rather long-winded and detailed explanation, much more than we imagine Nora could possibly know.

As Daniel tells me about this sex change exchange, I cringe at what Hannah’s parents probably think—what responsible parent would tell a six-year-old about gender reassignment, transsexuality, and the like? Well, I would, although not with graphic accounts, but simply to open up the possibilities of gender; after all, it’s a commonplace to encourage children to try on all sorts of identities. But I quickly learned that many adults prefer the disciplining of gender in children rather than the threat of experimentation.

When Nora was around four or five years old, I read her a book published in the 1970s, called What Is a Boy? What Is a Girl? by Stephanie Waxman. Photographs of children are coupled with text that runs like this: “What is a boy? Some people say a boy is someone with short hair. But Mimi has short hair. And she’s a girl.” All the usual suspects in gender-profiling parade across the pages with a child of the opposite sex pictured to upset the typecasting. The finale, Nora’s favorite bit, sports in a row of pages four photographs: a girl, a boy, a man, and a woman, all fully and frontally nude, with the females pictured on a beach with plenty of ocean in the background, conjuring up Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The text here nails the thesis down: “Then what is a girl? A girl is someone [End Page 271] with a vulva and a vagina. Every girl has a vulva and a vagina.” And for the adult version: “If you are a girl, you will grow up to be a woman. Every woman has a vulva and a vagina.”

Because I admired the book’s eloquently simple boldness, I had given a copy to a friend’s daughter. This friend laughed at the certitude, the essentialism, of this argument: “Judith Butler wouldn’t agree with that!” Butler’s Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender make mincemeat out of the notion of an unchanging gender identity fixed at birth by the “nature” of someone’s genitals. I think it was probably in the spirit of gently troubling gender that I said to Nora, when reading the pages about the sex paraphernalia of “every man” or “every woman,” that once in a while boys grow up and decide to be women, and the other way too. Had I known someone who’d gone through gender reassignment, I might have offered an illustrative story. So I left the matter as a rather abstract aside, but apparently in Nora’s variously asserted plans for the future, the idea stuck.

I soon learned that it’s not possible to “gently” undo gender, because adult tolerance for transchildren is low. A friend who teaches a women’s studies undergraduate course on gender and sexuality asked me to describe to her class some of Nora’s gender-bending episodes. One student responded by asking if I had enlisted psychiatric counseling for Nora’s “disorder.” Another wondered why I would “allow” my child to assume a transgendered identity at the age of seven. In that classroom discussion, I had been careful not to use the lexicon of the new gender politics while exploring Nora’s mixed-gender expressions precisely because I understood such experimenting with “sex change...


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pp. 271-278
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