The Barbies that Leo never played with

Sarah Ditum wrote in the New Statesman today about being genderqueer as a child. No I’m just kidding, she wrote about being a child who thought her favorite cartoon character was a girl.

My reasoning went like this: I am the most important person in the world and a girl, therefore the most important person in my favourite cartoon must also be a girl. And many happy games of Muskehounds were played by me, in my dungarees, oblivious to the unlikelihood of a children’s cartoon having a female lead in the first place, let alone giving that female lead the lovely Juliette as a romantic interest.

Then she realized her mistake, and grew up to be a feminist. I recognize that trajectory. A lot of us do.

But it could all have gone another way. On Radio 4’s iPM this week, the mother of a 10-year-old called Leo explained that one of the reasons she knew her female child must be either a boy or non-binary was that Leo’s fictional idols were always male: Peter Pan, Iron Man, Wolverine.

Another piece of evidence was that Leo prefers pirates over princesses as a birthday party theme. And then there were the Barbies that Leo never played with. All of this, according to Leo’s mum, showed that Leo couldn’t really be a girl but must instead be either “male mind who happened to be born in a female body” or (in the family’s current favoured explanation) “a non-binary mind who happened to be born in a female body.”

Yeah well guess what, we’re all non-binary minds who happen to be born in either a female or a male body.

(Don’t any of these credulous parents remember their own childhoods? Were they all so tranquilly “cis” that these failures to match the stereotypes simply never happened at all? Not a single yearning glance at pirate adventures or tea sets?)

Accounts of trans children consistently return to these stereotypes. Long hair or short hair. Trousers or frocks. Blue or pink. Children’s preferences are filtered through an adult rubric of gender and used to decide what sex they “really” are, despite the fact that we should know by now that sex is nothing more or less than our bodies. Our sex is a fundamental fact of who we are and how we are treated, but its ultimate truth is not decided by where we fall between the rigidly maintained domains of pink and blue. And thank goodness, because as much as I liked being a cartoon dog, I’m glad I know I’m a female human.

And a female human, furthermore, who doesn’t have to comply with the stupid stereotypes, and knows she doesn’t have to.

Laurie Penny said no that’s all wrong on Twitter.

@NewStatesman @sarahditum this is a reductive interpretation of what it means to be genderqueer/non-binary. Yes, lots of reporting is sexist

the more interesting question is why cis writers feel such a need to deny the experience of trans/NB people.

What I want to know is how Laurie Penny thinks she knows what “the experience of trans/NB people” is, and how she thinks she knows it is experience as opposed to just new words people have decided to use. What is experience and what is a label?

Sarah starts off with her own experience, which is valid. But it doesn’t invalidate other experiences.

I consider myself a genderqueer woman. I was never a tomboy growing up. One of my sisters was. She’s cis.

Penny naïvely takes those labels to be transparent and reliable, when they could be just different words to describe exactly what Sarah is talking about. What does she mean by “a genderqueer woman” and what makes her so sure it’s different from “a female human”? How does she know her sister is “cis” and that that word accurately describes anything?

I’d like to know, but I doubt I’ll ever find out.

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