Last weekend at the playground, a little boy around three years old approached my daughter Maybelle, who’s also three. “Are you a boy or a girl?” he asked her. She didn’t answer—I suspect she wasn’t sure how to process that question. And to tell the truth, neither was I.
After a pause, I said, “She’s a girl.”
“Then why is she wearing boys’ clothes?” he asked.
This one I knew the answer to: “Everybody can like Spiderman,” I said.
“Spiderman!” Maybelle agreed enthusiastically.
Maybelle’s dad has begun commenting that when he picks Maybelle up at preschool, the kids are divided by gender on the playground. It’s not that they’re playing with different things, they just aren’t all playing together.
“Who does Maybelle play with?” I asked.
“Everybody,” he said. “She doesn’t seem to understand the way they’re dividing. Nobody turns her away.”
This is one of the interesting things about having a kid with an intellectual disability: Maybelle doesn’t really get gender. She calls her bed a “big girl bed,” because that’s the exciting billing we gave it when we made the transition from the crib, but “girl” doesn’t necessarily have any meaning to her.
Her speech therapist occasionally asks her to identify pictures by gender: “Is that a boy or a girl?” And Maybelle doesn’t know the answer.
I have to say, I’m glad that she doesn’t. I recognize the argument that could be made here: gender is a central component of how our culture works. In order to be a person who functions in the world as it now operates, a person needs to understand the conventions of gender, the backpack of cultural expectations, needs to be able to use gendered pronouns appropriately and identify girls and boys, men and women.
And yet part of what I do in my job is to try to destabilize all that stuff. I have a number of students who identify as trans, who are recognizing that they don’t fit within the gender binary that’s been taught to them from day one. I have a still larger number of students who may identify with a gender, but want that gender to be pretty significantly reworked. I identify with a gender, but I don’t believe that there are only two genders, nor do I believe that anybody should be automatically consigned to one.
Maybelle currently likes dinosaurs and big trucks. She’s a tiny bit obsessed with The Sound of Music and John Lee Hooker’s song “Boom Boom.” She plays drums, and she does “Ring Around a Rosie” with her baby doll. She rolls a stuffed octopus around the house in a stroller. One of her favorite items of clothing is her Spiderman sweatshirt. This sounds like a great collection of interests, one not at all constrained by binary gendered expectations.
When people ask Maybelle, “Is that a boy or a girl?” or “Are you a boy or a girl?”, I think the correct answer might be, “I don’t know.” Or maybe, “Who cares?” The fact that gender isn’t intuitively obvious to her might be a benefit. She might have the opportunity not to have to unlearn the damaging, sexist stuff that my students, my colleagues, my friends, and I have to grapple with.