Her own body morphing, emerging, betraying the earlier confidences she’s gained. I see her look at her reflection sometimes, her gaze landing on her changing chest. Often, distaste rides her face.
My daughter is coming to terms with her physical reality. My husband and I watch her and silently beam positivity her way.
When she was nine, I was in her room when she was undressing. Her hands held the ends of her shirt, about to bring the fabric up and over her young body. She paused, a tiny wrinkle between her eyebrows. “What if I’m transgender?” Her tone light, playful.
The question startled me, but I said, “I will always love you, no matter what.”
She pulled the shirt off. “I’m not. Just checking.” Her face beamed in smile.
I did have a touch of relief. For the challenges not encountered. For the thought of not losing a daughter. Perhaps part of my love for her, her daughter-ness, is rooted in the slim tolerance of my own daughterly ways. For me, there has been so much shame in having a female body—like too many girls and women, I was made to feel lesser than because I was a girl. It’s a story too many of us know.
When he was born, my parents already had three children—all girls. My father rejoiced at the victory of maleness by getting drunk, shooting his pistol in the fireplace, and getting bucked off his favorite horse. Finally, a real child. One for my father to see himself in.
A royal arrival indeed.
I’m twenty-one and home from college. My family, torn apart by my father’s affair, patched together again after he returned to my mother and young brother, has gone out to the town’s one restaurant. It’s chicken-fried steak for Dad, fish and chips for Mom. My toddler brother (the second boy, halleluiah!) and I split a quesadilla. The tension between my parents is a canyon too easy to fall into, so I go outside and wait for the meal to finish. Night is coming on, the steep mountains around the Leggett Valley turning to shadow and silhouette. It’s an in-between time of day, time of life. I have recently cut my hair short, just below my ears. I have an angular face, not necessarily feminine.
I’m sitting on the hood of my parents’ Ford LTD. A dirt bike pulls up alongside the car, and Jason Adams, a boy I’ve known since third grade, dismounts. His long hair is whipped up by the open-air ride, and he takes a minute to soothe it. His locks longer than mine.
As is the way with many men, he tilts his chin up in greeting. I return the gesture, having watched my father do this my whole life. Most women do not mirror this male movement, but I do. I didn’t realize that this was my habit until I was in my late twenties.
My counterpart leans against the car, and together, we look into the spreading dusk. He asks me about college. I tell him I am doing okay.
Jason’s life is snarled with damage: his mother died in a drinking and driving accident during his sophomore year; his brother died from alcohol poisoning on his twenty-first birthday. Jason’s own death is five years away, tucked inside him even at this moment. This motorcycle the vehicle he will ride recklessly one too many times.
I want to ask him how he is—how he really is—but what could he say in the limited lane he is given as a male?
The silence builds, and I can feel him looking at my sharp profile, assessing.
Finally, he says, “Are you a dude?”
Shame crests through me. Sometimes, it feels like there’s no winning: too girly in my eyes of my father even though I didn’t wear dresses that often, make up even less. And this former classmate piercing the social bubble with this horrible, revealing question. I know there was a bet in high school about which guy could be the first to have sex with me—a wager that remained un-won. For this long moment and the years afterward Jason’s dusk question, I will wonder what it is about me that spurred this question—if I’d had sex with him, or Chad or Matt or Jimmy, would that make me girl enough?
I don’t remember how I respond.
Big Hero Six:
We go as a family—my husband, my daughter and I—to see the movie Big Hero Six in 2014. The next night at the dinner table, we’re talking about the animated film and how Disney is getting so much praise for having a mixed-race character as the protagonist. I tell them that I read an article that said Disney could’ve gone so much further by having a biracial, female character.
My husband says, “Or a character in a wheelchair.”
Our daughter says, “They could’ve done something really cool and had a transgender character.”
I am struck by the wisdom of her words. Why don’t I make such points myself?
I’m nine years old, riding in the car with my teammates to a Little League game. There are just three girls on the team, but I’m the only one in this car. Jason Adams and Chad Richardson and my golden brother and I ride in the backseat. We sweat in our polyester uniforms, the rough outline of our numbers pressing the skin of our shoulders. The car winds through the redwoods of Humboldt County on our way to Garberville. Shadows and light flicker through the windows. We are stuffed into this car and have another half an hour before we will arrive at the ballfield.
Chad is to my right, my brother to my left. Chad pushes my leg with his. “Close your legs and sit like a girl. Boys get more room.”
Not a Junior:
My oldest sister is named after my father. Slightly different spelling. All of her childhood, she was called “Little Jerrie.” She is fifty-four now. She will still tell you, certain venom curdling her words, “The only reason I’m not a junior is that I don’t have a dick.”
It’s 2018 and the student enters the classroom wearing sandals, a green shirt, a green hair bow—and a skirt. And yet, my brain “reads” this person as male. Her name is Chris, and, I repeatedly botch how I identify her. I say “he” and “his” too much, and it is as if the volume of my voice raises when I do.
After the second day of my misgendering this person, I ask to speak with her after class. I start by apologizing, by saying I should’ve asked which pronoun she uses. She is immensely gracious, assuaging my guilt. “At least you are trying to get it right which is a lot more than most teachers. Or even my family.”
Her making me feel better is problematic, I know, but feels great in the moment. I walk away, with this question ringing through my head: why do we expect the people we offend to make us feel better about the offense?
The ruts, the associations, the calcification of my thinking startles me. I want the agility to transcend the constructed rules. My child’s mind has a flexibility concerning gender I long for.
I make mistakes everyday. I am grateful for the patience of my students.
“Mom, I got permission to text you. I just learned that K— tried to commit suicide. Don’t reply, we can discuss this after school.”
K—does not identify as a girl, yet goes to an all-girls school. As far as we know, his parents are not supportive of his desire to transition.
I text my daughter back, ask if I can call her—I am too panicky to wait to talk after school. The magnitude of potential suicide blooms inside of me—my sister who tried to take her own life at eighteen. Little Jerrie swallowed so many pills and ended up at the hospital with her stomach being pumped.
My phone rings, and my daughter and I connect—when we hang up, I call the school counselors to make sure they know what the students are trying to handle on their own.
In my phone, I now keep a list of my daughter’s classmates’ old names and their new ones in case I want to reach out to a school counselor about them. My daughter tells me that the previous names are called “Dead Names.” The list of old names is deeply feminine: Lily, Rose, Jessamine. Many of the students are known at school by the new, androgynous names, and at home, go by the names they were given at birth.
We have a movie watching night one Saturday. I learn both sets of names so as to not out my daughter’s friends to their parents. I make sure to use the true names once the parents are gone. I want to be an adult who gets these young people. I have only an inkling of their challenges, the ways the world wants to lock them into clear identities.
My daughter’s friends tell her about RuPaul’s show and we begin watching nightly. At first, my husband and I scoff at the drama, the affected nature of conflict, but soon, we come to admire the strength of RuPaul’s vision, his love for people, his use of platform to educate and elevate.
The drag queens are stunningly beautiful—they transform themselves into queens and dames, belles and ladies. Their faces glow with bronzer and pride; their bodies sashay down the runway with rich movements of their hips and legs, their smiles beam like suns when RuPaul speaks to them with kindness and respect.
One night I say, “How do they do it? They are amazing.”
And my daughter says, “Mom, they just let the women in them rise to the surface.”
The failure of imagination encoded in our pronouns baffles me.
I resolve to cultivate a nimble mind, to let of my rigidity, to let this new movement re-arrange my gendered past. I resolve to let my daughter be my greatest teacher.
I’m not a dude, but I will take up space. In the classroom, I want to be an ally and a support—not another barrier to what my students imagine for themselves. I don’t want to have to be a test they need to pass.
My daughter mends and educates, enlightens and advises.
She is my word for the future. Her name is Hope.
And perhaps that will change for her, as well.
I’m not locking into who I think she is or should be.
And in this, I am learning to expand my own sense of self in what it means to be female.
© Charlotte Gullick
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Charlotte’s interview]