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.
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?"