I don’t like surprises.
That’s how I explained our decision to find out, as early as possible, if we were having a boy or a girl. And as soon as the verdict was in, out it went on Facebook and into excited texts to our parents. My mother-in-law found out while she was in an airplane, en route to Maine for Christmas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she told the whole plane.
So there you have it, right? Penrose is a girl.
But there’s more to it than observing genitals, argues Christin Scarlett Milloy in her June Slate article. She suggests that assigning gender to infants is unnecessary and potentially harmful, given that a statistically significant percentage of the population ultimately identifies as a gender other than the one they’re assigned at birth. And gender dysphoria is real, and can have serious emotional consequences. So if we take gender out of the conversation until a child can self-assign as male, female, both, neither, whatever, that possibility is eliminated.
Am I potentially harming my daughter by thinking of her as that, my daughter, and not simply my offspring? What does it even mean right now that I have a daughter and not a son or a genderless baby? It makes diaper changes a little easier maybe, no pee-pee teepee required. Though I did have to teach my husband the importance of wiping front to back. She wears pink sometimes, and neutral colors or blue sometimes. Mostly she wears her turtle footie because it’s unbelievably cute. I tell her all the time how gorgeous she is, but also how strong and smart and funny. Also she’s 8 weeks old, so I’m not sure how much she absorbs beyond my tone.
Although being a baby girl doesn’t change her pediatric care, there are separate growth charts for girls and boys. So it seems as though the simplest observable traits have some significance, regardless of what gender a person ultimately identifies as.
There’s a larger implication for what it means to be female, though. A whole world of institutional discrimination, societal expectations, mixed messages from the media to navigate. Saying “it’s a girl!” channels her onto that path, with its glories and triumphs and challenges and heartbreaks.
As a high school student, fed up with the mysteries of teen girl friendships and teen boy romance, I took a break–in my head anyway–from being female. I dressed, not very convincingly at 4 foot 10 inches and rounded, “like a boy” and swaggered around ridiculously until I forgot about it or it got too hot to wear jeans. I did something similar in my first job after college, after being told by my boss to sit on the phone with tech support for hours because “girls are good at that.” For a short time I eschewed my sundresses and came to work in baggy corduroys and plaid shirts. I felt invisible, in a good way. It’s terrible that I felt like I had to do that in order to get treated like the rest of my (male) coworkers. I don’t want that for Penrose.
If it turns out that Penrose doesn’t identify as female, whatever that means for her, I truly think I’d be fine with it. And the island in Maine we live on has a really good track record of caring for and accepting its transgendered citizens, of whom we have a statistically appropriate number.
I think the problem Milloy describes is less with gender identity and more with society’s response to gender, which is messed up whether you’re female, male, intersex, gender neutral, or something I haven’t thought of yet. Identifying Penrose as female could work out fine, or it could turn out to be a challenge for her whether or not it’s how she ultimately identifies. Until she can let me know how she sees herself (and I bet it will change regularly, in aspects beyond gender) I’m going to go with the only evidence I have, which points to female.
Or, if we go by how she’s dressed (which seems to be society’s go-to), I’m the proud mother of a little turtle.