By Lynn Adams
My six-year-old daughter Margot has a problem with what she calls “boy-yee girls.” This chafes me, because my favorite aunt was such a girl. When I was a child, my parents talked about my aunt’s “roommate” accompanying us on beach vacations. Aunt Betsy and Jane were two foul-mouthed dames who drank Jack Daniel’s and chain-smoked into the evening, then slept until noon in the same bed. Come on. I made sure my children knew the truth from the start, so they’d consider my aunt’s relationship as normal as mine.
We’re not the most progressive family in the world, but we’re certainly not the least. We live in New Orleans, and our families go back several generations here. The first wedding we attended as a family, though, united two men. Racism, sexism, classism, hetero-centrism, at our house, are past-tense problems. At least that’s how we talk about them with our kids.
But this “boy-yee girl” thing really bothers me, and my daughter can tell. She first used the phrase on a woman I’ll call Cathy, a counselor at camp this summer. I’m sure Cathy noticed Margot giving her a wide berth and a wary stare, but I never got to know her well enough to talk it over. And I guess that’s the point. Aunt Betsy and Jane have passed away, so Margot doesn’t have anyone in her daily life from whom to learn about gender presentation in all its varieties. At best, Margot seems to sense that something’s out of whack. At worst, she seems scared.
Mostly it’s about aesthetics, I think. Margot is a kid who notices things. If there’s a heavyset person in a crowd of 200, she’ll point it out. Once, in church, she leaned over and said through clenched teeth, “Mom, there’s a lady in the next pew who’s wearing no shirt.” Actually Margot had a point, because the woman was wearing a strapless top in an Episcopal church, which is almost as questionable.
Margot has had more exposure to differences than I did, so I figure she has a head start on learning tolerance. I have one memory of gender bending from my childhood, and it was Mardi Gras, and he was only dressing up. A girly boy. I was three years old, and that’s prime time for children to learn about gender differences.
I had run out of the bathroom, smack into her. Blue mini skirt, fuzzy knees, red-and-white tube socks, red high heels. Or was it him? I stepped back and looked up higher. Frilly white blouse, blonde braids with red ribbons resting on crooked bosoms. Dirty blonde mustache. As the cigarette smoke hit my nostrils, he smiled and held out his arms for a hug. Red lipstick on his teeth. His wide embrace blocked the way to the kitchen.
Was that Mr. Jack?
What was going on here? Could a man just turn into a lady? What if Dad did that? Would he turn out to be a certain lady like Aunt Shirley? Would he be the mom, then? Wait. Could Mom turn into a man? Or could she turn into something else, like a bear? Would she take care of me then, or hurt me?
“Honey,” my mom reassured me, “we wear costumes at Mardi Gras time. You’re a princess, and Jack’s a lady. I think he might be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. You love The Wizard of Oz, right?” In truth, I’d only seen a bit of the movie because I was scared of those flying monkeys in the hats and coats. Cross-species dressing.
My son had a similar reaction to clowns at the same age. Once his panic subsided, he asked me, swallowing, “What are clowns? Are they … birds or something?” It takes awhile to distinguish the irregular from the threatening.
Nowadays Margot’s reaction looks less like fear, and more like distaste. And that’s no better. There’s a tradition in our neighborhood, even though we’re not on the Mardi Gras parade route. On a weekday afternoon a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the Jefferson City Buzzards, an all-male walking parade dating back to 1890, struts around our neighborhood dressed as women. My husband used to be a member. It’s roughly fifty men, exuberant after a liquid lunch. Last year, when Margot was five, a man in a black leather-and-lace teddy and thigh-high leather boots shimmied up to her and handed her a string of pink Mardi Gras beads. She took the beads and smiled, then backed away. Was she scared?
“Mom, that man has a pretty outfit but he’s too hairy for it.”
He offended her aesthetic sense, is what happened. She reminded me of my mother when she first saw a man in skinny jeans.
But that wasn’t the end of it. This summer at camp, Margot met Cathy, who was entrusted with the job of head counselor. She was also the woodworking counselor, wielding the sort of tools that impressed both my children.
At first glance, Cathy looked male. The first sign she was female was her name. Her hair was shaved on the sides, she wore roomy cargo shorts and tee shirts, and her ears were pierced in a manner that’s so uncommon in my circles I finally had to break down and research it online. It’s called “stretching,” which means that her earlobes were pierced in the conventional way, and then gradually stretched to accommodate an earring about the size of a washer. It creates a hole big enough to look through.
Despite our superficial differences, I immediately identified Cathy as my kind of person. Each time she had to discipline my impulsive son she did so by touching him, and speaking in a voice only he could hear. She never involved me. James listened to Cathy, even said she was his favorite counselor.
I asked Margot about Cathy and she said, “Cathy’s okay, I just don’t like her.”
“Does it have something to do with how Cathy looks?” I asked, and Margot bristled. She knew she was setting herself up for a lecture.
“No, Mommy, it doesn’t. I know girls can be boy-yee and boys can be girly. They’re born that way. Okay?” So something had sunk in.
If the stretched earlobes were what disturbed Margot, that was cool with me.
If Margot disliked Cathy for being a boyish-looking girl, that was going to be harder to take.
“Is it her earrings?” I asked.
“Maybe,” said Margot. My hopes surged.
“Well, how about we ask her how it’s done and if it hurts?” I replied, using my usual strategy of information-gathering to fight a fear.
“No,” said Margot. “But can we ask her what kind of underwear she wears?”
In other words, she wanted to know how deep this boy-yee thing went.
It was fine with me that Margot was curious. What bothered me was her behavior. Margot avoided Cathy all week, so she never got to know her like my son did. While James sat next to Cathy at the campfire, hollering obnoxious camp songs, Margot brooded on the fringes. All because of the way Cathy looked.
It feels like I’ve failed both Margot and Cathy.
The culture has changed between my childhood and Margot’s, but brain development hasn’t. Children still learn about all types of differences over time. So maybe I’m the one who needs to relax.
I hope Cathy’s back next summer, and that Margot can have another chance.
Author’s note: It’s only been five months since summer camp, so I can’t say we’ve made any progress. That’s okay, though. In the transition from child psychologist to mother, I’m getting used to being more patient than I ever thought I’d have to be.
Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. A former child psychologist, she now writes parenting essays about child development and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child; Salon; Scary Mommy; and other places in print and online. Find more of her work at www.lynnadamsphd.com.