As a kid, I remember a formative incident. I was an awkward tomboy with long hair who frequently carried a purse whilst wearing a cowboy hat — always one to walk my own way.
Around this time in my life, I recall sneaking into my parents bedroom. I decided to lay on their bed, take a clump of strands of my long hair and drape it over my upper lip. Looking at myself in the mirror above their bed (yes, folks… my parents had a mirror over their bed. Deal with it. I did – mostly.) and considered how I looked as a man. I didn’t tell them about this for no other reason other than I was curious (and I had entered their bedroom without their permission). I think a lot of kids are curious about their place in the world, seemingly arbitrary rules, and gender in general.
This brings me to a really interesting story that my dear friend Bianca shared with me. Bianca is a cisgender and heterosexual woman. When she was about 6 or 7 years-old, she identified as a boy — Bob. Living in the Middle East at the time, her parents unflinchingly called her Bob, and even encouraged her teachers to do so as well. For a year of her childhood, Bianca was Bob.
Bianca reflects, “It was more around emulating my mom (very much the ‘tomboy’), and that I just preferred toys, clothes, activities etc. that I associated with being a boy. I figured that in order to participate in that kind of stuff, I had to be a boy. At the time my sister had just chosen a new name (from Victoria to Jane), and I saw it as an opportunity to redefine who I was. Bob!”
There are those of us in the world who exist outside of gender conventions. I personally identify as female and also gender non-conforming. But, make no mistake about it. My experience and Bianca’s might elevate our level of empathy toward — but is not even close to that of — our transgender brothers and sisters. Sure, a time or two (or a dozen… or… hey, who is counting?) women have checked the icon on the bathroom door as I exited to make sure they were walking into the right one. ‘Skirt on the amorphous stick figure — check!’ (Really, ladies? You more closely identify with that than with me? Aim higher.) But, I have not walked in their shoes or felt their struggle. I have never thought, “I’m not going to eat or drink before I leave home today because I am afraid of having to use a public restroom.” “I’m not going to sweat too much when I work out at the gym today because I don’t want to be attacked or shamed or cowed in the showers.”
I walk beside our transgender brothers and sisters and hear their struggles. I support them and stand up for them when they aren’t in the room. I may question and fly in the face of the binary code of gender, but I do not know what it is to truly walk in the shoes of someone who is so certain that the sex that they were born as is not the gender with which they identify.
I wish that all parents could be as open-hearted as Bianca’s — which is also how she chooses to parent her own child today. Respect those you love for who they tell you they are. If you don’t understand, ask them without judgment. Let them share their journey in their own way and time. Know that many have been deeply hurt along the way and might not wish to share everything you are curious to know. Check your privilege. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to put your foot in your mouth. I promise you will. But, in the end, bridges will be built, wounds will begin to heal, and the world becomes kinder one person at a time.