They Belong to Themself

We do not possess the intellect, identity, or sexuality of our children. We are only witnesses to their journeys.

lilartsy

I am picking up clothes from my daughter’s bedroom floor. She washes her own clothes, but this has become a rare task. So once in a while I do a sweep, using my nose to decipher what needs washing and what can be placed back on the floor. I am trying to do this discreetly, as I know she won’t like it. Her room is her space. She is fourteen now. She is no longer the little girl who had waist-long hair that I twisted into one hundred tiny braids on an airplane ride to Hawaii. Years have passed since I chose her clothing for her: long flowing dresses with stretch pants underneath. Now she dyes her short hair black and purple and prefers to dress in oversized jeans and flannels.

Among the clothes on the floor, her sketchbook catches my eye. I open it. Is this an intrusion of privacy? I wonder which is worse: washing her clothes or looking in her sketchbook. I can’t stop myself. I am looking for answers. She is so quiet, observant, and analytical. She is sarcastic and precise, never tolerating exaggeration or demonstrative affection. She has always been this way. She came into the world like this: quiet and blinking with vernix coating her eyelids, scarcely making a sound, but eyes wide open. She had been known as baby A. Her twin brother, prenatally known as baby B, came second. He screamed the first hour he was in the world. Both children have retained these qualities.

Since our public health response to the coronavirus pulled her from in-person school and athletics, she has been mostly alone. Her anxiety elevated to the point that her pediatrician recommended therapy. We are still on the waitlist. I am concerned that she spends too much time on social media. I have an app that limits her consumption to three hours a day, but she has devised a system of downloading videos to be viewed later, allowing her to prolong the exposure. Her TikTok feed is mostly content generated from young LGBTQ+ community members. Her Instagram posts usually go over my head, as I don’t know the YouTubers she references or the musicians she quotes.

I am flipping through her sketchbook and admiring the extraordinary talent she wields with a pencil. Her faces are all distressed. They have dark circles under their eyes and pursed lips. She is into character development. Labels like “anxious,” “friendly,” and “low self-esteem” float above their heads. The faces have pronouns. One character with the pronouns “he/they” apparently has “#mommyissues.”

She recently announced that she wants to be referred to by a different name. She wants to be called Ray. She wants to use “they/them” pronouns. She now identifies as nonbinary.

After COVID-19 prompted policies around social distancing and quarantine, I started requiring Ray to walk with me in the afternoon. When Ray is feeling lighthearted, we walk and talk about gender identity in a theoretical manner. In these precious moments, we talk about using gender-neutral pronouns for them. I want to do this for them. I want for them the clarity that will create some ease in this process.

Yet I haven’t started using the pronouns or the different name. Her disclosure was delivered to me in private on one of the mandated strolls. She didn’t want me to tell her brothers or her dad. I don’t know how to refer to her when we are in public. I am confused about when to use the pronouns and the name.

I still think of her as “my daughter.” I still speak of her as “she.” This is not to disregard her identity development, but it’s a symptom of many years of habit. Perhaps my delay is due to their own hesitation. Ray continues to use her birth name within our family and her school; no one yet calls her “Ray.” She is still referred to as “she/her,” not “they/them.” Am I culpable in this delay of Ray stepping fully into their newly claimed identity? My sense of possession of her is subtle, mostly indecipherable, but firmly rooted.

I think of Ray as “my kid,” but they are not mine. I conceived them in partnership with their father, to whom I was married for sixteen years. Our marriage ended in a fashion I refer to as imploding. Too many issues drove too vast a distance, and we couldn’t build a bridge. The marriage was not my own either.

I nurtured Ray in my womb. I breastfed them. I pureed home-cooked baby food. I changed their diapers, read to them, sang to them. I taught them how to ride a bike, to tie their shoes, to cook an egg. I brought them up with diligence and dedication. I always thought of them as “my daughter.” But they belong to themself. Or perhaps they own me. Certainly my identity has been shaped by being “mother.”

Gender identity and our culture’s evolving understanding of it is not a new topic. I studied it in graduate school at Portland State University. It was the year 2000 when I first learned about gender being a social construct and existing on a continuum. I read critical theory by authors like bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, which taught me that race and gender are constructs that reinforce systems of domination. I have since been examining how these social constructs shape our cultural institutions. Specifically, I have been intentional about how these constructs affect policy relating to K–12 education, as I am a director on the board of education in my local school district.

In this policy work, I have faced cultural opposition to evolving understanding of gender identity. Last year, our district announced that it would include gender-neutral bathrooms as part of all new construction in our local schools. This plan elicited a flurry of emails. Adults cite safety concerns, beliefs about feminine hygiene practices, and privacy matters. Some parents and students write to praise the design, but the most organized stance is one of opposition.

The opposition is sometimes direct; it points to biblical beliefs of God creating men and women as naturally embodying certain qualities. Sometimes the opposition is more political than biblical, citing concerns about the perceived indoctrination of impressionable minds toward a certain ideology. I also read emails of support. One message from a gender nonconforming student describes how he didn’t drink or eat while at school to avoid the bathroom experience altogether. This same student dreaded weightlifting class because that’s when the dehydration would hit.

The issue of gender-neutral bathrooms landed on the school-board agenda around the same time that Ray disclosed to me their nonbinary identity. This isn’t the first time I’ve worked on public school K–12 policy issues related to creating welcoming and inclusive school communities for all our students, but it’s the first time I’ve worked on an issue so intimately connected to my own child’s personal identity.

I have served on the local school board for six years. In 2018, when we were undergoing a state-mandated public process to update our comprehensive human sexuality curriculum, I conducted extensive outreach and engaged in dozens of conversations with community members. I read statewide data from the 2017 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey about how gender nonconforming students are more likely to be bullied and harassed in school, more likely to self-harm, and more likely to attempt or die by suicide. The updated standards would teach our students about gender fluidity and sexual orientation alongside reproductive health and sexual consent. These were improvements—in my opinion—and also an ethical response to the data.

As part of the process of updating the curriculum, we held a public meeting where more than 300 adults showed up to express their opinions about whether or not gender identity should be taught in our schools. I sat at one table where two cisgender women conversed. One of them was married to a trans woman. The other refused to let her child participate in the Oregon Battle of the Books reading competition because Alex Gino’s book George, about a transgender fourth-grader, was included in the reading list. The first woman explained that when she got married, her spouse had presented as a man; years later, her spouse claimed her female identity. Their marriage struck me as a revolutionary story of acceptance. The mom who would not permit her child to read George said she was committed to retaining her child’s purity, wholesomeness, and innocence.

On that winter night, in a packed middle-school auditorium, I was in awe of the intensity of meaningful connection. I sympathized with the woman who accepted her spouse’s identity. I tried to understand the other mom’s resistance to her child’s reading list, but I couldn’t yet grasp her sense of entitlement over her child’s understanding of gender. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t own her child’s intellect or sexuality, but I could only behold the difference between these two women. Now, I realize that I missed an opportunity to propose that releasing ownership of a loved one’s identity is the only path to togetherness.

In another conversation, I talked to a mother whose child was in the hospital for a second suicide attempt. She was supportive of the new standards, but she would not submit a public comment. It took everything she had to survive the trauma that she and her child were enduring. That night while I sat on my sofa making phone calls, I believed myself to be safe from the threat of my own child attempting suicide. That has since shifted for me. Knowing the statistics and observing my own child’s increased anxiety and social isolation, I have adopted a certain gentle vigilance.

After listening to these stories and others, I knew that all students need to have a sense of security and belonging at school, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. I understood that this issue is vital to the well-being of our students. I was now doing the work for my own child, not another person’s child. My efforts at equitable policy decision-making had become both personal and political.

In 2020, the topic of debate in my community shifted from curriculum standards to gender-neutral bathrooms, but the question at the heart of the conflict remains unanswered: can we control a child’s gender identity and sexual orientation?

In my role as a school-board member, I sent an email to some contacts explaining the gender-neutral bathroom design and how we had been hearing from an organized opposition. I wanted community members to understand the plans and, if they were so inclined, write a letter expressing their support. I was once again having dozens of phone conversations.

Winter solstice was nearing. It was raining. I was sitting in my minivan in the parking lot of New Seasons, waiting to conclude a phone call before grabbing some food and coffee. It was getting dark outside even though it was only 5:00 p.m. I was on my cell phone, answering a woman's questions about the bathroom design. She wanted to know if the stall doors would reach from the floor to the ceiling and where the handwashing sink would be located. Her questions annoyed me. My irritation had nothing to do with the individual woman. It was the conversation that frustrated me. I was exasperated that we had to have this conversation at all.

The woman is a minister in a progressive Christian faith, and she and I have been involved in starting a citywide alliance aimed at creating an equitable and diverse community. I know that she is a lesbian who is well versed in advocacy for LGBTQ+ youth. Still, I surprised myself when I disclosed to her that my own daughter recently came out as nonbinary. She caught me off guard when she told me that it’s okay if I experience grief. I started crying.

In my efforts to be accepting and supportive, I had neglected the part of me that was scared. I was fearful of how the world would receive my child, and I was anxious about my own ability to embrace the person they are. I still saw my child’s innocence. How could I preserve that innocence in the face of opposition to our changing cultural understanding of gender? Was it even possible to generate this outcome in our schools through policy? I warded off a sense of wariness as I pressed forward in the conversation.

The minister assured me that it’s normal to feel some loss, that I have likely always thought that my daughter would be a certain way, and now I am losing that belief. She reminded me that it is possible to hold multiple, seemingly competing truths simultaneously. I can be supportive of my daughter, seek to embrace her gender, and also experience sadness and a sense of loss. The minister could see my fear, could sense my struggle to release dominion over my child’s life trajectory, and she connected with me in that space. I was once again in awe of the intensity of meaningful connection, of being seen and understood even while struggling with resistance and acceptance.

I wasn’t the type of mom who bought all pink or insisted on Barbies. I intentionally bought clothing in all colors, and my daughter played with toys that would traditionally be labeled as for boys. This was an outcome of having two brothers and mostly male cousins. We were an outdoorsy family, a sporty family, and she was encouraged to climb trees and throw balls just as much as her brothers were.

Yet there were ways that I put my own internalized gender norms onto her as well. The pink ballet slippers and ballet classes. The kilt, knee-high socks, and tight buns that accompanied the Scottish Highland dancing classes. The wooden doll house with moving parts. The dresses, tights, and bows. The pierced ears as a rite of passage after kindergarten graduation. Looking back, I wonder whether these things were for her or me.

The work of school-board policy is often structural. Curricula determines who is represented and what is presented as fact in textbooks. Bathroom design decisions determine whether students have to choose male or female each time they need to use a restroom, or even forego hydration and nutrition to avoid such public declaration. The work of parenting a child with an evolving sense of self was more nuanced and complex; it involved unpacking a social construct.

I am a cisgender woman, identifying as the sex I was assigned at birth. For all the ways I have been negatively affected by sexism, I know that I have also benefited from traditional gender norms. When I was coming of age, I didn’t have to think much about the bathroom I would use or the images reinforcing gender norms and heterosexuality that I saw in textbooks, movies, advertisements, and children’s books. Since I was born, I have seen my gender and sexual orientation represented in the world around me. It has been easy to claim myself as a woman; I look the same on the outside as I feel on the inside.

Ray has to think about these norms; these norms are not their own. The expression of their gender is a claim that the culture and its definition of gender roles do not own them. The culture pushes back, reminding them that they are not the norm each time they need to use the bathroom or engage with popular entertainment. What I most wanted to possess was my child’s freedom to be authentic. I was at once enamored with their courage and fearful of the risk.

I do not possess Ray. I do not own their thinking, their sexuality, or their safety. I have been praised for allowing them their freedom, for being supportive. I have been told I am a “good mom” by those who are closest to me. I see now why I have bristled at that evaluation. I realize that the woman who forbade her child to read George is also a “good mom.” Her sense of ownership over her child’s safety and values was fierce and with “good” intention. Maybe a “good mom” is one who wrestles with notions of possession over a child’s life and arrives at their own personal truth. Maybe “good policy” is that which empowers each individual to claim their own identity and find acceptance.

Ray is not “my daughter.” They may not even be “my child.” There is no possibility of my. I cannot protect them. I cannot claim them. I cannot control them. I secretly peer into sketch pads and apologetically wash clothes. I am at once a tentative and tenacious observer. I love and guide, but I do not possess. Ray belongs to Ray.

Policy decisions are not tools to control youth. They are opportunities to permit youth to challenge, rewrite, and boldly claim the social constructs by which they will live. We do not possess the intellect, identity, or sexuality of our children. We are only witnesses to the journey as they claim themselves as their own.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

I just sent you this comment after reading this essay on my phone. I've never heard of you nor do I know how I got on your mailing list. But I was deeply moved by this woman's efforts to support her child. Here is what I sent you: This is my comment to OregonHumanities.org This is an amazing piece. I stopped reading for a moment when I read, "I have adopted a certain gentle vigilance". I did that. All our children's lives seem so fragile right now whatever they declare themselves to be. We mothers were not prepared for this breaking out of the mold in our lifetime and yet, they have, they have. And here we stand to understand something new now. My daughter is 34 and living in Scotland full time. These two years of Covid and 6000 miles has given me no choice but to let her be the boss of her own existence. What holds us together now is love. It was a long time coming, but it's old fashion love. I honor the mother who has written this message. Someone who thinks, writes, questions and stands in her humanity and authenticity. Thank you, Chelsea King.

Nancie Hines | August 2021 | Portland Oregon

Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful piece. I will be digesting it for a while. Thai backlash against gender non-conforming children is horrifying. Love to you and Ray and their brothers in this journey.

Martha Spiers | August 2021 |

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