Originally published at Paperhouse by Sarah Ditum
My girl is eight years old. She is clever and kind and tall and strong and funny and stubborn and beautiful – well of course I think all of these things, because she’s my daughter and I love her. “Am I a girly-girl or a tomboy?” she asks sometimes, and I can never tell from the way she asks which of them she wants to be: she knows that to be a girly-girl is to belong (she has learned from experience that getting “girly” right will be rewarded and protect her from certain kinds of sanction), but she knows too that “boy” things are laudable and tomboyishness has a cachet that girliness does not. Anyway, the answer is always the same: “You’re you, darling. Whatever you like is right for you.” With her long treacle-coloured hair and her undercut, her perfect cartwheels and her graphic novels, her Taylor Swift dance routines and her speed up a climbing wall, on her rollerskates or in her football boots – yes, she is perfectly her.
Last night the conversation took a different turn. She had been watching an episode of the CBBC documentary series My Life, and the subject was a 13-year-old transboy called Leo. In an article on the production, one of the executives explains that making a documentary for children meant they couldn’t be “explicit”: in other words, if Leo has always felt profoundly that he should have a penis, the programme can’t mention that. Instead, the experience of being a boy is crystallised in an anecdote about Leo (then Lily) deciding he wanted short hair and cutting it all off, and the fact that he preferred “boys’ toys”. So I asked my daughter: “How do you know if you’re a girl or a boy?” And she said, repeating the line from the documentary: “It’s the way you feel.” Oh, my girl. How can you know “how you feel” when all your life people have been telling you what you are? When your gender has been constructed for you and your limbs and brain arranged and shaped to fit it, by family, carers and strangers, from when you were the tiniest thing?