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What's sex got to do with it?

By petra - Posted on 25 June 2013

Sometimes funders ask us to report on the sex of our participants. This is fairly easy when it comes to young parents. To start with, 97% of the parents we serve are young women. As they have all recently birthed babies we assume this is true, without asking. But when I am asked to report on the sex of the children in our community, I get balky.

First, why does it matter? Children are children. Second, how do we know? Do we decide: boy/girl based on appearance? Behaviour? Do we ask parents to identify the sex of their child? Or do we wait for the child to decide? And what if, as is likely given the numbers of families we serve, a few of those children aren’t sure, or identify as neither or both? I avoid these deliberations by reporting on the number of children we serve, as this is the only information that I believe to be relevant.

If this seems excessively politically correct, I’d like to tell you about my cousin. My cousin was named Ben at birth, a family name after a favorite uncle of our parents (I would have been Ben If I had been a boy), and Ben was the only one of my ‘boy’ cousins who I liked to play with when I was a kid. Ben & I were like Ferdinand the Bull. While the other cousins would run & jump & butt their heads together, Ben & I would sit just quietly & smell the flowers. We would talk, imagine things & play quiet games. We were like this from the beginning; check us out in the photo above, circa 1976 (we’re the two in the back, Ben in the yellow sleeper & me in the wicked bellbottoms.)

Despite our compatibility as kids, we had little in common as young adults. I had my kids early and Ben moved far away and had (what seemed to me, drowning as I was in lego, diapers & sippy cups) a glamorous, shiny, fun life as an urban gay man.

What seemed to me.

It may or may not have been glamorous, shiny, & fun, but ‘Ben’ was not necessarily a man. When I heard through the family grapevine that my cousin had changed her name to Missy, and was in the process of transitioning from male to female, I was thrilled. Maybe once again we’d have something in common. Maybe we could go shoe shopping & paint our toenails & do other ‘girly’ things! I wanted to be sure Missy knew she had the support of her family, so I e-mailed & facebooked right away, but I got no response. It seemed to me that maybe the glamorous, shiny, & fun urban life of my imagination was still all my cousin needed, and I felt a little rejected. Maybe I wasn’t queer enough, breeder that I am. That’s how it seemed to me, until I heard that my cousin had killed herself.

I say herself because of the limits of the English language. I now understand, that unbeknownst to me, or maybe anyone, she didn’t always feel entirely aligned to a male or a female identity. Latterly, s/he changed her name frequently, using both male & female variations. I don’t know to what degree this lack of affinity with a binary sex identification contributed to her suicide. I don’t know how much family support might have helped. Transitioning from one sex to another is hugely challenging, without the complication of feeling both/neither.

So this is why I get a little tetchy when I’m asked to report out on the sex of the children we serve. How am I to know? Why is it relevant, anyway?

To minimize the ways in which we are contributing to the idea that only two options exist and that these are determined for us at birth, we are no longer dividing the baby & children’s clothes in our free store into ‘girl’ clothes & ‘boy’ clothes. I’m not sure how that partition even occurred, but it is precisely the kind of compartmentalization that exists everywhere in our culture, invisible to most of us, but devastatingly exclusive for others. It’s exactly the kind of message that told my cousin that s/he did not belong anywhere in this world.

Our free store is easy to fix, so we'll start with that.