By Mimi Lemay
Life has become an endless merry-go-round of names: Jackson, James, Max, over and over. Sometimes a name will last several days; other times, only an afternoon. There are a few moments, scattered here and there, when she goes back to being Em at home. During briefly lived names, I invariably screw up. Instead of Jackson I call her James or, worse yet, Em. Then she either corrects me forcefully or yells, swinging her fists, and is on her way to the inevitable time-out. I don’t know who I am going to get each day, not the moniker or the temperament.
When she leaves the house, she is Em. Always Em. I will not play this game in public, and she hasn’t asked me to since bringing it up at school that day.
“Have you asked her why she wants to be a boy?” inquires my friend Jill. “Of course,” I answer glumly, “many times, but she always says different things. It’s hard to tell which, if any, is the reason.” One day, boys have better toys, the next day they have more toys, and another time, girls are stupid. Joe is overly generous when he responds, “But Mommy is smarter than me!” and I am quick to add that we have different strengths.
Regarding the toys, I point out that Em’s sister, who is older by seventeen months, has more toys than she does (a dangerous statement, but I’m that desperate) and that there truly isn’t such a thing as a boy-only toy or a girl-only toy. “You can play with whatever you want!” I tell her again and again, and just to settle the argument definitively, and in case she’s hearing otherwise elsewhere: “Anyone who says something is just for boys or just for girls is st— is not being smart.” The girls look at me suspiciously, and I know they are wondering if I almost used what they’ve taken to calling the S-word that’s banned in our house: stupid.
Though it’s aggravating that cultural gendering seems to be tampering with my daughter’s psyche, at least, Joe and I decide, this gives us a way to combat it, and so we go about transforming our home and lives into a gender demilitarized zone. Our gender DMZ means that there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding toys or even clothes. No gender rules, that is.
I search on Amazon and in the bookstores for picture books that highlight women who “broke the mold,” buying a cute graphic novel about Amelia Earhart and a picture-book biography depicting Jane Goodall’s early life, among others. Women can do what they want, wear what they want, and be what they want. We are firm and consistent with this messaging, to the point that it be- comes something of a family dogma. Ella is an enthusiastic proponent of this idea, as she can see clearly how it benefits her. She corrects us when we slip up (as we still do) and assume some object is for a boy or a girl.
Ella has become my loyal partner in crime as we conduct conversations within Em’s earshot about why we just love being girls. Joe is a good sport when our conversation turns to why being a girl can be “so much better, even,” than being a boy. Em observes our efforts with stone-faced scrutiny. I try to shake the disturbing feeling that to Em, it is not her but the rest of us who are putting on a performance.
One day, Em gets her first invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. I click on the link to the invitation but my heart falls when I read the words: Calling all princesses! Dress in your finest!
A princess party, just great.
When Em sees the theme of the party, she shakes her head. “Honey,” I say, “you can go as a prince. What about that? “No, Mama.” Still, I am determined that we are going to make this work, come hell or high water.
I sidle up to Lindsay, the birthday girl’s mom, after drop-off the next day. “So . . .” I start. “This is kind of silly, but Em is very much not into the princess thing. I wonder, would it be okay if you had a pirate or something at the party too?” “Oh my God!” Lindsay says, beaming. “Of course!” She admits that she was a tomboy too as a kid and wouldn’t have put on a princess dress if you paid her, and now that her daughter Sage is into that stuff, she’s kind of at a loss. “Don’t worry,” she says now, “I have some ideas! Tell Em we would love to have a pirate at our party.”
“We will be there! Thank you!” I give her a spontaneous hug. When we show up to the party it’s Princesspalooza, fresh flowers and tulle everywhere (the benefits of working in a flower shop, explains Lindsay). My little pirate hesitates on the doorstep and I give her a tug over the threshold. Before we’ve crossed the hallway, we are nearly barreled over by two identically dressed princesses in yellow dresses and little slipper heels. Their hair looks professionally done and they are iridescent with glitter. They stop and stare with open curiosity at Em. For a minute I think of cutting and running, but Lindsay appears, takes our jackets, and welcomes us in with a huge smile. “Em, you look great!” she says, and I know she means it.
Em seems content, but as usual, she’s not mingling with the other kids. She holds my hand for a few minutes, then settles down with a cup of popcorn. I’m surprised by how many moms give me the thumbs-up for “letting” my daughter be a pirate. Some of them also have stories about not being a girlie girl. I smile and thank them, wondering what their response would be if they knew what might be going on with Em. Have they even heard the word transgender? I hadn’t until just a short time ago.
A few more minutes and the games start, to my relief, followed by prizes for everyone. They come in pretty little gift bags, and as the kids start pulling out princess-themed toys, my heart is in my throat. Lindsay looks over at Em’s sullen face and dashes off into one of the bedrooms. When she comes back, she’s got a gift bag with a pirate ship on it that she hands to Em. Inside is a Captain Hook doll. “I thought you might like this.” Em’s face lights up. I look at Lindsay and she mouths, Is this okay? I nod vigorously and mouth back, Thank you, placing my hands on my heart.
Then I walk casually, not so fast as to draw attention, to the bathroom, where I lean against the sink and gasp for breath, trying to force the tears back, focusing on the cheerful shower-curtain print, the soap dispenser, even pinching my arm hard to stop myself from losing it here.
Mimi Lemay is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. As an advocate for transgender rights, Mimi has published op-eds in the Boston Globe and appeared on TV and radio. This essay is an excerpt from her new book, What We Will Become.
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