22 April 2011

The Magic Gender Spell!

All of the best conversations happen at snacktime.

Yesterday, a third-grader was noticing and telling me about the mannerisms of my coworker (we'll call him Irving). Irving is very flamboyant and a little androgynous. Some days, like yesterday, he looks pretty hipster. Apparently, differentiating between women and gay male hipsters hasn't been covered by third-grade.

So this young girl, with a strong tone of criticism in her voice, begins informing me about Irving's general presence:

-- You see that guy? He dresses funny. He dresses like a girl. He looks like a girl.

Honestly, yesterday wasn't even one of Irving's flamboyant days. He looked like a J.Crew model. (Note: he was not, to my knowledge, wearing pink toenail polish.) My response is something like:

-- Sometimes people dress differently than others. I like the way he dresses. I think he looks good.

She pulls her head back, wrinkles her nose, and raises an eyebrow. She shakes her head.

-- No, he looks like a girl.

Then, she is overcome with an epiphany. She is waving her hands in all directions as she begins exclaiming and explaining:

-- Wait! I know. You and him need to switch! He should turn into a girl and then you'll be a boy! You guys are under a magic spell! We have to switch you back!! We have to fix the spell!

I decide to run with it.

-- Hm. Who can fix the spell?

-- I know, Mr. Jackson! No, wait. I can! [She leans back and waves her arm.] Cadabra bacadbra!

-- Did it work?!

-- Awww, no. It didn't work. You're still a girl.

Her fourth-grade friend sitting with us gives it a shot. The gender-reversal spell eludes her as well. The third-grader is still intent on fixing Irving and me.

-- Okay. I'll have to check my spellbook. But it's at home, so I'll have to wait to fix the spell on Monday.

-- Okay.

-- [Seeing Irving talking to another staff member] See! He even acts like a girl! [gasp] Oh, my gosh! Look at his shoes! Those are girl shoes!

I'm pretty sure they're TOMS shoes. I start in again with my defense of gender-variance.

-- People can dress any way they want. I think those shoes just look like shoes. I like the way he dresses! I think he looks great!

-- You mean you like him?

I roll my eyes and pause, before continuing:

-- You know what, it's probably a good thing the spell didn't work. We should really have asked him if it was okay before we tried it.


-- Why?

-- I think we need to ask him if he really wants to be a girl. He might, but he might not. Sometimes how people dress is different than how they feel inside. We should ask him what he thinks.

-- No, I'm pretty sure he should be a girl.

-- [sigh]

By then, the other third- and fourth-graders were getting a little rowdy and it was time to clean up snack and move to the next activity.

I was excited, because I get excited any time students suggest that I'm actually a boy. I want to be really happy about it, but I don't think I defended my coworker as much as I could have.

The only conversation I've had with Irving about gender happened a couple of weeks ago, after a couple of kindergarteners had asked him if he was a girl or a boy. He was really surprised. It wasn't the first time he'd been asked, but it seemed like it was the first time kids were unsure of his gender. He knows he's a little androgynous, but he's definitely a cisgendered guy.

I'm not sure how much of an inner sense of being in one's body there is before puberty. Gender distinctions at that age largely are wrapped up in clothes. So it's probably unreasonable to expect a third-grader to understand the distinction between gender presentation and gender identity. What I can encourage is asking questions, and asking permission.

I think I'm going to give Irving a heads up and if it comes up again on Monday, we'll walk over to him and ask if he wants to be a girl before trying any more spells.

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