Gender and the Sense of Belonging

As the youngest member of our family, I didn’t have a lot of experience with or interest in babies. But my friend Carolyn up the street got a new baby brother one night, to great neighbourly excitement. Even my mother seemed a little charmed by him.

Carolyn was much more worldly than me. She swore like a trucker and went barefoot from the moment the snow melted in the spring until it returned in the fall. She knew where to kick boys and mean it. She also knew how they determined her little brother’s gender.

“Know how they know if it’s a boy or a girl?” she asked, posing a question that had never yet occurred to me.

“They look at their CROTCH!”

This seemed wrong to me. Surely, I thought, there’s more to being a boy or a girl than that?!?!?!?

In grade one, because I was a girl, I was issued with a scratchy wool plaid jumper. It was navy blue, the colour Mary wore! White cotton blouse. For footwear, we were given a list of allowable colours and materials. No canvas shoes. No pantyhose until puberty. No jewelry.

The uniforms were fairly horrible. They itched. They made all the little girls look fat. They were completely unstylish and my knee socks always fell down.

Despite that, I remember sitting in class one day, looking at one of the boys. And even though he got to wear pants, which looked way more comfortable than what I was wearing, I had the sudden realization that I was glad to be a girl. For no real reason that I could put my finger on, I was glad that I was a girl and kind of sad for the boys because they had to be boys.

It has since been pointed out to me that lots of boys actually like being boys and even though it’s unfathomable to me that they would, I’m glad for them that they do.

Years later, when I first found out that there are girls and boys who don’t feel quite as at home in their assigned gender, I remembered that moment. I’d like to think it maybe gives me just a little bit of insight into what it might be like.

When I was twelve, I was tall, short-haired and flat-chested. My parents asked me to mow the back lawn. We had a rusty old reel mower and a hill. It was hot, sweaty work, made all the worse by the fact that my parents were close by so I was not allowed to swear.

The mother of the woman who lived next door was puttering daintily in her garden, occasionally offering me a sympathetic smile. When my mother wandered over to see how I was coming along, the woman called to my Mum, “Your son seems to be having a bit of trouble with that lawn-mower!” and I wanted to die.

“What?” said my mother.


“Oh, that’s not our son!” laughed my mother. “That’s our Barbara! Our little girl.”

There was an appalling silence, during which I made an abortive attempt to take another swipe at the lawn. Leaving the mower at the top of the hill, I headed for the house. “I’m done here,” I muttered as I brushed past my Mum.

“It’s just because you haven’t filled out yet,” she tried to assure me later.

“Maybe if you grow your hair,” my Dad suggested.

Many years later, I jumped on the brush cuts for girls bandwagon. I was a huge Sinead O’Connor fan and my hair and I have never really gotten along well. I was at the time working retail in a small hobby-supply shop. A man walked up to the counter with a question.

“Excuse me sir,” he said and then noticed my earrings. They were roughly the size of dinner plates. Kind of hard to miss. “….or ma’am…  …..or whatever you are.”

Then he asked if we carried I can’t remember what, while I silently shook my head at him.

There were other times, too. But occasional miscues and mistakes are not the same as people always getting it wrong. I’ve never been thrown out of a bathroom for being in the wrong one. But at nearly six feet tall and mostly favouring short hair, I have been the recipient of a few double-takes by the nearsighted.

And it’s happened often enough that, when I’m invited to a women’s only event, I wonder if I’ll be let in, if I’ll have scored enough girl points that I’ll be accepted as one of them.

Because I see the gender binary as more of a nuanced continuum, an essay question in the exam of life rather than a simple true/false or multiple choice.

I am female. I’ve got the crotch and the outlook, mostly. But does the fact that I’ve never given birth cause me to lose points? In lots of circles, it does.  There are assumptions made about members of the girls’ club that I don’t live up to and I think, if asked, most people would admit that they don’t either. And that can be a scary admission to make because more than what our crotches look like or how we see ourselves, gender is a set of social pressures. And even though some of them have eased up through the years, they’re still there, even when we try to ignore them. We all know they’re still there, waiting to trip up the unwary, waiting for judgement. And it’s that judgement that makes gender such a minefield. The world at large decides if you’re a boy or a girl and what’s in your crotch and what’s in your head or your heart doesn’t really matter. There’s some outside force that decides where or whether you belong.

And that’s just not fair.

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2 Responses to Gender and the Sense of Belonging

  1. Oh Barb. You made laugh out loud…and, you brought back the awful memory of being tossed out of a girls’ bathroom by a dumb old lady. I’ll never forget how the phrase “The boys’ bathroom is on the other side” made me feel. My friend and I waited outside the restrooms with ammunition of mud balls. My recall doesn’t include whether or not we threw them at our target.

    You see, my adoptive white mom cut my Afro herself. A little off this side, a little off the top, a little off this other side. Oops, that’s not even…a little more off this side. You get the picture. I looked like a boy. My mom’s attempt at humour (putting “I’m a girl” on a sweatshirt) kinda missed the mark. I laugh now though. Things are often much funnier in hindsight, aren’t they? Annnnnd…I now cut my own hair and wear it man-short.

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