I’ve definitely learned a thing or two hundred over the years about gender identity and gender expression from my now 25-year-old kid Harry, who just happens to identify as genderqueer. Lately it’s been to clarify the understanding of things as a gender-flexible toddler of the early ‘90s.
It turns out that what I thought they* were thinking and what they were actually thinking wasn’t even close. I’m not talking about the time Harry was two and told me, “Inside my head I’m a girl,” because she doesn’t remember that. But he does recall other times, and I’ve been brought up to speed.
When Harry was little I’d cut up the meat on his dinner plate before serving. “I’m going to cut off the fat, too,” I’d say.
“I like fat!” was their reply.
While I knew that fatty meat wasn’t healthy, I just couldn’t imagine Harry liking the texture of it. I thought he were just being Harry Contrary, wanting to do the opposite of what I had suggested. But then I figured if my grandfather used to want the fat left on his corned beef sandwiches, why not Harry? Being one who always ordered super-lean corned beef, I was mystified.
“Really? You like the fat?”
“Yes!” she insisted.
“Okay, then. I’ll leave some on.”
This year Harry remembered why he wanted to eat the fat on meat. At the time, their three-year-old mind recognized that only women got pregnant. And pregnant meant getting fat. So Harry thought by eating fat he could turn into a girl.
“If a t-shirt’s long enough, then it’s a dress.”
My heart swelled with love when I heard that precious story. I would never have guessed that was Harry’s reason for wanting to eat the fat. I had the same reaction when I learned the significance they gave something as a four-year-old.
When Harry’s third pair of Superman pajamas got too small, his dad Ken suggested switching to a nightshirt. Harry’s face lit up, so Ken offered a bright orange XL t-shirt he’d designed for his softball team. But Harry had a different shirt in mind, a t-shirt with cats. Ken wasn’t sure what shirt Harry was talking about, so the two of them looked through Ken’s drawer together.
“This one!” Harry said, pulling out a red, yellow and black graphic Indian print of cats dancing on their hind legs.
“Sure,” Ken said. “You can have that. Do you want to pick another one, too?”
Harry squealed, and then picked out a colorful print. Ken and I exchanged perplexed smiles over our son’s excitement. Who knew a kid could get so excited about a hand-me-down from dad. Harry’s delight over the nightshirts remained a mystery until last year.
“If a t-shirt’s long enough, then it’s a dress,” Harry informed me.
“Aha,” I said, remembering how often Harry liked to wear nightshirts during the day.
I had no idea what Harry’s gender would be as an adult. That was for Harry to discover, for him to know. To be honest, genderqueer wasn’t even in my vocabulary until Harry was in college. But I understand now what I wish I’d known in their early childhood years: gender is a broad and flexible spectrum.
And just as it’s impossible to name every point on a continuum, neither can we even try to label each individual child’s gender identity or aspect of expression. What we can do, I’ve learned, is trust our children to know themselves. And when they’re ready, they’ll tell us exactly who they are.
*Note: Harry uses he/she/they pronouns interchangeably. When I’ve asked if one is preferred over the others, Harry tells me, “Mom, I really don’t care what you call me.”
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