In the back of the kindergarten classroom, there was a play area. Every day, we kids were allowed free time to play back there, at least on the days it was too cold or rainy to go outside and play on the playground.
The play area was divided in two halves. One for boys, one for girls. In the boys’ play area, there were lots of wooden and cardboard blocks, and some metal trucks. There was also quite a bit of empty floor space, perfect for creating construction zones and imagined buildings.
On the left was the girls’ play area, consisting entirely of a playhouse.
This particular playhouse didn’t have a ceiling. The walls were made of smooth, varnished wood, just a little higher than a kindergartener could easily see over. As I recall, the inside was painted and furnished to resemble a kitchen and dining room. There was a wooden stove and sink with small metal pans. A table set with unbreakable dishes. Some cabinets filled with cardboard boxes printed to resemble products we saw our moms use at home. There were various outfits and accessories we could put on, hanging on a couple short little coat racks; things like aprons and hats and necklaces. All girl stuff.
I know much more about the girls’ play area because that was the only area I was allowed to play in. I have some vague memory of asking to play with the boys and some awareness that it was not allowed. I wonder if this isn’t where everything started to go bad with the kids at school, when I wanted to play with the boys.
I just wasn’t interested in playing house with the girls. I wasn’t interested in wearing the dresses my grandmother made for me, either, but there was a dress code that required it. Even at five years old, I remember feeling embarrassed wearing dresses, but by that time I had learned there was no use in fighting it.
Since playing house was the only game allowed, I played. But I played the dad.
We all had dads and moms back then. All the dads worked. All the moms stayed home and worked in the home (though we didn’t call what they did “working” back then; they were “housewives”).
Gender determined everything. What you wore. What you could do. Where you could go. What you were expected to be when you grew up.
I was never confused about me. I knew I belonged on the boys’ side of the play area. I knew I should be playing with the blocks and trucks, building sturdy towers so high they would end up being way over my head. I knew I should be wearing pants and a shirt, not some stupid jumper and tights. I knew I should be playing kickball or dodgeball with the other boys, not standing in tight clutches talking like the girls did, or playing hopscotch or some other hardly athletic game with them.
I was never confused about me. The world was divided into two groups of people and I knew exactly which group I belonged to.
But I was confused and frustrated about everything outside of me. I was confused and frustrated by dresses, and playing house. I was confused and frustrated by having to “act like a lady” instead of running and throwing balls as hard as I could. I was confused and frustrated mainly because there was no allowance made for someone like me.
It never occurred to anyone to make space between the two extremes of boy and girl. Not my parents, not my teachers, not the other kids. It was unthinkable. Literally, un-thinkable. Because living outside of the binary gender construct was nearly impossible. Gender divisions were pervasive, and informed every aspect of a person’s life. In 1965, in Indiana, the people who were challenging it were regarded as strange, and truth be told, probably perverted in some awful, unspeakable way.
Almost all the people in my life—my family, my teachers, even the other kids—kept insisting and pressuring me in every way imaginable to stop acting so weird, and to start fitting in.
But something inside kept bubbling up. Something inside kept saying an angry “NO!” Something I couldn’t stop kept me wanting to fit in with the boys, wanting to be that kind of normal, not the normal everyone else wanted, or needed, me to be.
Nobody back then realized the psychological consequences of forcing a child to surrender their entire understanding of themselves in service of fitting in.
Can you imagine what it’s like to know yourself, but have everyone else you ever encounter insist that you are wrong about it? Can you imagine the frustration that comes from being shamed when you try to live and behave in the only way that feels authentic? Can you imagine the anger that results from a child’s internal reality being consistently and pervasively invalidated by everyone they know?
And I can tell you what happened to the little kid. He learned how to turn it all off. All of it. The knowledge of himself. His feelings. His desire and ability to live authentically. His awareness of his own body. He even managed to turn off a few years of his life, which are, fifty years later, still somehow unavailable for the remembering.
People, and especially kids, are resilient. Eventually, a kind of woman emerged from the boy. This woman learned that life felt much more comfortable when she was able to become what other people needed her to be. This woman learned that life felt much safer when she behaved in non-threatening ways. This woman learned to carefully, compassionately, urge other people to believe in, and become, their own authentic selves.
The irony is not lost on me.
For many of you, the gender binary simply exists as a pervasive framework around which you build your life. As a child, you accepted it. You existed within it. It wasn’t until adolescence or adulthood that you were required to understand it and decide how to respond to it.
But for people like me, the framework is a scaffold. We are forced to live lives balanced on an unsteady plank, ever conscious of the noose around our necks. As children, most of us had no choice but to create careful lives of hypervigilance, teaching ourselves how to numb the fear and frustration and anger of being thus restrained. But as adults, some of us are fortunate enough to gain some understanding of our own agency, realizing that we do, in fact, have the ability to decide whether or not to kick the plank out from under our feet. Those who do so, courageously die to the powerful grip of the gender binary, intentionally subvert its restrictions and demands, and in this way stake our own claim to what we know as the singularity of personhood, or what my friend Virginia so eloquently describes as omnigender. But in so doing, we also frequently lose much of the only life we have known, including friends, family, and faith communities.
Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a day set aside to remember all the gender queers who have lost their lives as a result of making difficult choices. People who were murdered for becoming the person they knew themselves to be. Look down the list. Shot, stabbed, dismembered, stoned, or simply found dead. What a price exacted for the reasonable desire to live authentically.
So today, as I heartbreakingly remember my trans* siblings who have lost their lives to physical violence, I will also remember and grieve the innumerable others who have lost our authentic selves in a tangle of time and insurmountable circumstance.
May we all remember what has been taken, from the living and the dead.