Elissa yearned for a toy truck. She received a pink Jeep, a pale facsimile of what she had in mind. And I have a memory of browsing the aisles of Kiddie City, mesmerized by some kind of building kit and watching my father shake his head. “Nope, those are for boys,” he said, as he nudged me toward the dolls.
It was a long, hot drive through Spotsylvania County. I felt distracted by the story I was chasing (methamphetamine bust in a one-traffic-light town ) and I’d waited too long for a bathroom stop.
So when I hurtled toward the sanitizer-scented corridor of the nearest Burger King, I was more intent on avoiding an accident than on examining the door signs. I didn’t realize my blunder until too late: four moist, gleaming urinals, complete with pink deodorizer wafers. Fortunately, no customers.
What to do but pivot out the door in post-gaffe posture: eyes whoops-wide, palms splayed in a gesture of “Oh, silly me!” Was the Dick-and-Jane family in the nearby booth — freckled boy, ponytailed girl, one mom, one dad — really giving me the side-eye, or was I just imagining that they, along with everyone else in the joint, had noted and censured my mistake?
What I remember most is the hot ripple of shame, the sense of transgression. I’d entered the wrong bathroom. I slid into the women’s room, peed as efficiently as possible and ducked back to the parking lot.
On the eve of this July 4th, anniversary of the radical, ragged, unfinished act of creating this nation, my partner Elissa and I, along with our housemates, read aloud from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Who knows what the “pursuit of Happiness” meant to a gaggle of twenty-something revolutionaries in 1776? But even if vague, it’s a remarkable concept to be embedded in our country’s origin statement: that it is our right — an unalienable right — to figure out what gladdens us.
At age 3, Elissa yearned for a toy truck. She received (from her feminist, Friedan-reading, consciousness-raising-group-attending mother) a pink Jeep, a pale facsimile of what she had in mind. And I have a quartz-clear memory of browsing the aisles of Kiddie City at age 9, mesmerized by some kind of building kit — Lincoln Logs, maybe, or an Erector Set — and watching my father shake his head.
“Nope, those are for boys,” he said, as he nudged me toward the dolls.
Here’s the thing: I liked dolls. I also liked to launch my body over the knobbed arm of the beech tree in my best friend’s yard. I liked to stand on the pedals of my blue Schwinn and pump uphill, then come home and sew tiny calico curtains for my dollhouse.
Years later, I dressed for a formal dinner in a houndstooth overcoat ($7 at the Salvation Army store) atop a ballet-length black chiffon gown. I fastened a tuxedo shirt with my grandfather’s pearl studs, then wore it to my parents’ 25th anniversary party — the same occasion for which I spent 45 minutes trying to flatten the frizz from my hair. In high school, I was in love with a boy. At 27, I fell in love with the woman who remains my ally, co-parent, best friend — and, since 2014, legal spouse.
Does all that add up to being a bundle of contradictions? To being queer? These proclivities, lusts, and habits only seem at odds — only seem worthy of mention, in fact — if we posit a world bifurcated by gender, two distinct categories labeled as inviolably as those Burger King bathrooms.
I didn’t think much about gender identity until I came out at age 23. That’s the privilege of being in the normative group (or being treated as if I were): It’s the quality I never had to consider. Like being white. Being native-born. Speaking English as my mother tongue.
Or like being cisgender — that is, having an identity in sync with the gender I was assigned at birth. Now there are newly visible and vocal kids on the block — transmasculine and transfeminine, gender-fluid, gender-flux — challenging us to ponder the privilege cis folk carry. They are questioning something even more foundational than sexual orientation: the very notion that gender is binary, predictive and fixed.
Take an imaginative leap. Follow me to the King of Prussia Mall. (At our house, we refer to this shiny nexus of capitalism as the “King of Pressure Mall.”) Imagine seeing, on the directory, not “men’s apparel” and “women’s apparel” but simply “clothing stores.”
Imagine a boutique where a gender-queer twenty-something headed to their grandparents’ 50th anniversary party could find a suit (jacket, slacks, bow tie, the works) that fits in both style and shape. Where a trans woman would be comfortable browsing for a beaded gown and size-14 strappy heels. Where a pre-teen dyke could shop for polo shirts printed with images of monsters instead of princesses while her gayboy friend tries on the twirliest skirt, and no one would feel a lick of shame.
Absurd, right? Can’t picture it? Yeah, it’s a paradigm wrench, but so were the legislative and attitudinal changes that confirmed African-Americans as people and not as property, or women as creatures capable of exercising the vote, or lesbians and gay men as human beings entitled to marry the partner they love.
History is a clumsy dance — rock forward, stumble back — of acknowledging and rectifying false distinctions and the power structures raised upon them: between native and colonizer, enslaved and owner, black and white, women and men, queer people and otherwise. And just as mixed-race people confound our impulse to divide humanity based on skin tone or hair texture, non-binary folk prod their cisgender sisters and brothers to question whether gender is a meaningful way to bisect the human race.
I think what we’re learning is that it’s not. I think we’re on our way to new sensitivities and practices, such as group introductions that invite people to state their pronouns (he/his, she/hers, they/theirs) along with their names. Or the increasing number of all-gender restrooms in our city’s public and cultural spaces.
When I was a kid, one of my happiest places was Tommy Fried’s hardware store, crammed floor-to-ceiling with PVC pipe, window screens, toilet floats, and socket wrenches, along with more kid-friendly items: Plasticine clay, model planes, Pick-Up Sticks, marbles, jacks, jump ropes, giant sketchpads of oaty paper, and sets of 64 crayons sharpened to a rainbow of waxy promise.
I’d haunt Tommy Fried’s for hours, allowance hot in my pocket, deciding how I wanted to play, who I wanted to be. Plywood and glue to build a dollhouse? Water balloons for drenching the boys down the block? There were no “boy aisles” or “girl aisles,” no pink or blue semaphores, nothing impeding the pursuit of happiness, the delighted discovery of what might make me whole.