This piece was inspired by Suited, the HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, premiering Monday, June 20. The film follows a range of clients of the custom suit shop Bindle & Keep, which looks beyond the gender binary.
When I was a little girl I used to lock myself in the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror, and allow myself to briefly be a boy. I would slick back my hair with water, cross my arms or put my hands in my pockets, and imagine my first day at a new school. I would be quiet but confident, tough but generous, the kind of boy that other boys were unsure about but that girls really trusted. This game was so fulfilling that I had to stop playing it.
It's too simple to say that I wished to be a boy. I wanted people to treat me with respect, despite the fact that I was a child. I wanted to wear a leather jacket. I wanted different names – Grace, Jimmy, James – depending on the day. I wanted to hold hands with girls and then fall asleep in my mother's lap at night. Those desires didn't add up to a single word: boy, girl, or anything else. They just added up to me.
I came into this world knowing a lot about myself, and a lot about the things I wanted. I believe that most children arrive with a similar knowledge. It's the world and all its rules that get in the way. Before we get a chance to tell people who we are, they are already telling us how to be.
Before we get a chance to tell people who we are, they are already telling us how to be.
As a child, I was embarrassed by the clothes I was expected to wear, the manners I was supposed to have, and the simple ways that people looked at or talked to me. Now, two decades and three years into this life, I am recognizing that embarrassment as something very profound. My body – its shyness, its discomfort and shame – was telling me that the ways the world expected me to be didn't feel right.
We learn early and fast what's "normal" and what isn't. We learn that girls pierce their ears and boys don't have to wear shirts at the beach, that boys grow up to be husbands and fathers, while girls grow up to be wives and mothers. We learn that boys have one kind of body, and that girls have another. We learn that some people are beautiful, that some people are ugly. And we learn that if we don't fit in people might like us less, or not like us at all.
Last year I was hanging out with a very wise six year old named Micah, who pays close attention to the way the world works. Lying in the grass together, Micah asked me to tell him a story about who my heroes were. I told him about two women I greatly admire, both of whom were told that they were boys at birth. I explained that these women had to convince other people they were women, that some people didn't think they should be allowed to call themselves women. Micah, though he was upset by the thought of this cruelty, got hung up on whether they were, in fact, real women at all.
"What was down there? Between their legs?" he asked, looking for some deeper truth. At six years old, despite his unending compassion, he'd already come to rely on the rules he knew.
We talked for a long time, working through his questions and his discomfort. We came up with a kind of solution: instead of asking what's between someone's legs, we asked, "What's in their heart?"
Maybe that gesture sounds saccharine – but, in a simple and symbolic way, it shifts the focus of the self away from anatomy and towards emotion. It's about how you feel, not what other people do or don't see. After that, Micah would ask about everyone I mentioned, everyone we passed on the street: "What's in their heart?"
"I don't know," I would say. "You can't tell just by looking."
Swiftly, and with enthusiasm, Micah reshaped his mind, his curiosity, and his compassion around this new question. The old rules weren't better, or even easier – they were just the rules he'd learned first. ***
I wish that in the big world rules dissolved with as much ease as they did for Micah. I wish that kids weren't forced to learn rules so young. I wish that people weren't punished when they don't obey.
I wish that people weren't punished when they don't obey.
But as children learn – as I learned, as Micah learned – there are rules about how to act, how to speak, how to look, and who to love. There are different rules – harsher rules for some –
depending on the color of your skin, how much money you have, the shape or ability of your body. It's out of these rules that the world makes assumptions about who we are, what we are capable of, and what we are worth. It's not just people, like our parents, friends, and teachers, who make these assumptions; it's also schools and police departments, hospitals and the government, banks and employers. It's all of the institutions, small and large, that determine so much about our lives.
Ultimately, none of these rules work separately from any other. Whether it's who gets to paint their nails, or who gets picked up by the cops for hanging out on a street corner, all of the rules overlap and intertwine, creating the landscape of obstacles, punishments, and preconceptions we are all up against in different ways.
A lot of people look in the mirror, envision the future, and don't know how to get where they want to go. Maybe it seems impossible, or just out of reach. Maybe the work is too daunting, the pleasure too scary, or the danger just too great.
A lot of people look in the mirror, envision the future, and don't know how to get where they want to go.
But, even so, people take such big risks to show us who they are. They make clothes when they can't afford them. They wear dresses even though they might be arrested for it. They wear makeup in prison, even though wearing mascara could get them thrown into solitary confinement. They wear outfits their parents would kick them out of the house for, or their school principles could expel them for. For some people, words and gestures – not looks – are the way to communicate that you have the power, and the right, to determine who you are.
When I was younger, I imagined that one day I would feel totally like myself. I hoped that there would be an ultimate point of arrival. On some days I do feel like I've gotten there. I'm not a boy or a girl, I'm both and neither, I'm myself: an addition of the people I love, the things I believe, and the ways I exist. But, just as often, I don't know how to make this body work: no outfit feels right, no words describe me, and nothing anyone says can fix the feeling.
I have to remind myself often that I won't ever arrive completely. That's the reality of having a body, in a strict world, where knowing your self and being your self is painful for everyone, and dangerous for many. We're all infinitely arriving – the endpoint isn't completion, nor is it perfection.
Grace Dunham is a writer and activist from New York City. Her first poetry collection is available at thefool.us. Grace is currently working with Jodie to develop a crowdfunding platform for queer and trans people in jail, prison, and detention.