Yesterday, I stumbled upon a rather dark and artsy film that explores what it’s like to be socialized as a boy. I found it to be disturbing, familiar, angering, and saddening. After I finished watching it, I was reminded of why I decided at 17 that I was completely done with being male and would never identify as a man.
There is also a rather interesting study guide that accompanies the film.
I’m aware that not all boys go through this kind of training. Thankfully, not all communities raise their children in this way. Nevertheless, enough do, and I believe that it’s incredibly damaging to the children who endure this, to those who are close to them, and to society as a whole.
When we subject our children to these rigid templates of being—boys and girls alike—we limit them in ways we can not fully fathom.
For me, the damage was quite palpable. I did not experience a full range of emotions until I gave up identifying as male. This is not hyperbole. It is a sad, stark truth.
When one’s perceptions of self shift, strange things can happen. Letting go of one gender identity and embracing another is a largely uncharted experience, imbued with many unexpected changes. During my early twenties, a scant few years after relinquishing my identity as male, it was as though my life shifted from black and white to color. I felt emotions that I didn’t know I had. I felt my emotions descend to piercing depths and I felt them to soar to dazzling heights. I was able to feel a level of connection with people that I didn’t know was possible. It was both strange and welcome.
Many trans women relate similar experiences and they often connect these experiences with taking hormones. I don’t doubt that a sudden shift in body chemistry can make emotions do unusual things—at least until one’s body adjusts to the change. After all, a strong cup of coffee (yum!) can do that as well. When my emotions began to deepen, however, I hadn’t taken a single tablet of estrogen. Not a one. This change happened several years before I embarked upon my own medical transition. All I had done was shift my assumptions about who I was. I stopped seeing myself as a boy. Instead, I decided that I would see myself as a woman, regardless of the body I inhabited. With that shift in self-perception, I was able to let go of some terrible emotional baggage that came with being raised as a boy. I was able to shed emotional walls of concrete and steel, whose existence I was only marginally aware of.
I believe there is far more to this than an unfortunate quirk of gendered biology. I believe that in many communities, we raise our children in ways that stunt them: girls, boys, everyone. We inadvertently lead our children into a rigidly dualistic way of being, forever stuck on one side of a pink and blue binary. As a culture, many of us believe that we live in a society that has moved beyond sexism and yet, we raise our children in ways that still reflect a strictly regimented way of dividing human beings by sex and gender.
But hey, that’s what we grew up with, right? It worked for most and so it is best for our children. It builds character. It teaches children the proper way to conduct themselves as male and female beings. It prepares children for the world.
Is this really true?
When young minds are just learning to organize the world into patterns of understanding, binaries can be quite enticing. It is the simplest form of organization available. Either, or. White and black. Good and bad. Male and female. God and Satan. Friend or enemy. Countryman and foreigner. Masculine and feminine. Normal and abnormal. I am like you. I am not like you.
Some adjust to this way of seeing themselves, the world, and it’s people. Some do not. Some never find a comfortable space in these dualities of being. Some find themselves on the undesirable side of these binaries. What happens then? What do we do with children who do not fit? What do we teach our children about the less favored side of these binaries?
If we are honest about the complexity of the world, we realize that no one entirely fits within the boundaries of such simplistic forms of understanding. Given that few people truly fit into these binaries, is this really the best way for our children to learn about themselves and the world? Is it really best to teach our children that the world ultimately breaks down into desirable and undesirable positions on a series of binaries?
Aren’t many of our prejudices based upon thinking of the world in terms of rigid categories? How often do people carry a simplistic understanding of the world into adulthood? Who stands to suffer from these prejudices? Who stands to gain?
I dream of time when we gently guide our children into young adulthood, seeing the world in full spectrum color, rather than faded sepia tones of tattered black and white. Yes, I know. This seems like crazed, woolly-minded idealism, right? Speaking as one of the people whose childhood was warped by the current system, and speaking as someone who occupies the “undesirable” position within several binaries, I can assure you that change is warranted… and now is a lot better than later.
Does that make sense? Or am I deluded? Ah yes… another binary. 😉