Photo credit: Yuri_Arcurs/ iStock/360/ Getty Images
Timberlake Christian School (TCS) in Virginia recently sent the grandparents of 8-year-old Sunnie Kahle the following message: "We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education" (source). Her grandparents promptly removed the "tomboy" from the school.
According to the letter, the girl's appearance and behavior did not adhere to the school's "biblical standards," and "students [had] been confused about whether Sunnie is a boy or girl" (source). The letter also states: "administrators can refuse enrollment for condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity" (source).
This is of course a religious institution and as such they can do whatever they want. If the school wants to discriminate against kids for not acting girly enough, fine. It's disgusting, but whatever.
Bigots are bigots and fanatics are fanatics.
Sex vs. gender
What I want to address is the idea that there is some inherent connection between sex and gender, as if having a vagina should make me act "feminine" or having a penis should make you act "masculine." And if it doesn't, there's something wrong with us.
But first we need to clarify that sex and gender are not the same thing. Sex is biology (penis or vagina). Gender is "a socially constructed system of classification that ascribes qualities of masculinity and femininity to people" (source).
In other words, sex is genitalia and gender is how I'm expected to behave since I have that particular genitalia.
Or, just to say it one more time: What it means to be a "man" or "woman" is determined by culture, not biology. There is no inherent connection between vaginas and long hair, dresses, pink stuff, tutus, makeup, nail polish and dolls. There is no inherent connection between boys and short hair, blue stuff, "boy" clothes and "boy" toys. Those are characteristics we as a culture have ascribed to each sex. That is the gendered construction we have created in America.
Some would argue that even stereotypical personality traits (nurturing, affectionate, emotional women vs. stoic, aggressive and intellectual men) are not biologically constructed but rather socially created. I am among those people, but let's stick to appearance for the sake of simplicity.
Gender is fluid
How do we know there is no inherent connection between "vagina" and "feminine" appearance? Because the definition of "feminine appearance" has changed throughout history and across cultures. At one point in this country, pink was considered more appropriate for boys because it was "stronger." Blue, the weaker color, was best for girls.
Do you see what I'm saying here? Pink is not "appropriate" for girls for any reason other than because that is what our culture currently dictates, and yet, innocent little kids are viewed as deviants or social defects or, my personal favorite, "sinners," because their personal expression or tastes don't conform to current social expectations of gender. They choose to enact "female" in a way that deviates from social norms, and for that they are often ostracized and discriminated against. Despite the fact that these gendered norms are arbitrary, meaningless and unstable (they will change again I assure you), people like the Timberlake Christian School administrators infuse them with a significance that defies all reason and logic. It is the same as saying "Americans eat hot dogs. If you don't eat hot dogs you are not an American." Nope. That's a matter of taste, of individuality, of self-expression.
That little kid is a girl because she calls herself a girl.
Her expression of "female" is as valid as any other, as all others. Her performance of gender is right and perfect because it is hers. Period.
For our kids
My son used to wear his embroidered flower purse and pink sandals and scarf he picked out of the women's section of Old Navy. He's 8 now, and doesn't do that so much anymore. I wonder sometimes if it's because he's afraid.
My 3-year-old has not yet decided if she's a boy or a girl, though she's having fun exploring genders on a daily basis. I'm not rushing her, and whatever she decides is fine with us. She decided she was a boy when she was about 18 months old. A few months ago she announced she was a "girl now," but since then she's been shifting back and forth. There is nothing wrong with her. She is not a deviant. She's not confused. She's exploring her gender identity.
Gender is an act. It is a performance, and that performance is fluid and inconsistent, exposing the fallacy of the constructed binary "male" and "female." There is not one gender for each sex, and there is no intrinsic connection between the two.
My heart breaks for kids like Sunnie. We have a long way to go, and that's why we need to think twice before we tell our boy, "Those are girl shoes" or demand our girl, "Act like a lady." These cultural narratives are downright dangerous, as we see through situations like this one, and significantly more tragic stories of hate crimes and violence.
It's serious. It's real, and our kids need us to let go of old ideas and accept them for who and what and how they are.