I am lucky enough to live in a small town where different is fairly normal. One of my favorite moments was noticing a thrift store’s racks of coats labeled not ‘men’ and ‘women’ but ‘butch’ and ‘femme’. It was so pleasing, such a small thing that felt like recognition. It makes room to celebrate these clothes as costume pieces, loose parts for grown-ups.
Gender can be a topic for play, and tightly policed. It’s something that children can be acutely aware of and are often fascinated by. Over the years, some kids have carefully explained the ‘rules’ of gender to me. Pink is for girls. Boys are always stronger. I’ve usually nodded silently, not wanting to push my agenda – a choice which is not easy, let me be clear. My feminism is not usually a silent practice. But I’ve also seen moments of organic realization that made my heart sing, like the shock of a girl at Parish when she heard that the inimitable Jill Wood was in charge. Eyes wide, she asked “a girl can be… the BOSS?”
For years, children were also the only people to ask about my gender.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Any nearby non-playworkers would usually laugh awkwardly and tell the child to hush, adding some version of “that’s rude to say. Of course she’s a girl!”. Most folks seem pretty attached to the gender binary, or at least view an unclear presentation as failure or shame. I don’t think they realize that they are the ones being rude. Usually I ignore the adult, and speak directly to the child.
“What do you think?” I might say, or “right now, I’m a helicopter”. Once I looked at the child asking me, a solemn face peeking around her well-intentioned grown-up, and said “I’m mostly a girl, I think”. She nodded solemnly and went back to her plastic truck.
Children have asked me about gender when my hair was cropped short, and when it hung down past my shoulders. Whichever side of the store I’ve bought my clothes, eyeliner or no, they’ve asked me just the same. Interestingly, those markers never mattered much to adults, who relentlessly called me ‘ma’am’ no matter what.
I wonder if this is connected to how, on projects without male play workers, I get sought out first for rough and tumble. Is it the way I walk, the set of my shoulders? I have been cast as the groom in so many weddings, I probably should have registered for gifts. What cues am I sending? What affordances do I provide?
Since reflection happens alone and with colleagues, I’ve been lucky enough to have gorgeous conversations with some other playworkers on exactly this topic. It’s even part of my PhD research! There’s one story to share tomorrow, and I’d love to hear yours, by comment or email.