Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

My Tomboy Heaven

Let’s not be so quick to deem kids transgendered

The transgender trend has reached down to children. I wonder what people would have thought of my gender identity as a child. My experience says, yes, gender identity is complicated, but no, we shouldn’t be making life-changing decisions based on the impulses of kids.

In my earliest memory, I stand next to my mother, and there are strange women around her. I am outraged at being down here while everything interesting is going on up there.

My mother’s memory of this first and last cocktail party in our home is that, in a panic over the other faculty wives’ snottiness (they all lived in town, and we didn’t), she downed a couple strong ones early on and was too numb to intervene while my two siblings and I crumbled the unfamiliar potato chips onto the carpet and danced on them. Well, it was all for the best, she used to say years later.

The way-up there and the way-down here are more or less the story of my happy childhood. I loved grass and weeds and dirt and bugs and rodents and barnyard fowl, engineering- and transport-type toys that you spread out on the floor, and wrestling — with boys, because girls either didn’t follow the rules or didn’t put their will into it. Meanwhile, I could spend hours merely hunting sorrel to eat, or milkweed pods or other interesting seed-heads to take apart.

I didn’t actually hunt; I learned how to shoot with a rifle and a shotgun but hated killing animals and refused my father’s invitations to the hunting camp where he went with other faculty, and where women and girls were welcome. But I wasn’t suffered to be “prissy” about putting animals out of their misery — those hit on the road, for example: If I found it and could conveniently kill it, I had to. It was impressed on me how evil it was to indulge prim sensibility at the expense of another creature’s pain.

I remember only once devoting serious time to a thoroughly girly toy. I owned (who knows why? — I certainly hadn’t asked for it) a prettily dressed and coiffed, battery-powered walking doll, and I switched it repeatedly on and off and stared at its rooted-looking shuffle, to try to understand why such objects might appeal to other girls. (My sister and I inherited a large collection of Barbies and their clothes from our teenage cousins, and my best friend Jessica had a Barbie car and a Ken-type doll — but not a real Ken: This one not only had a smooth, inauthentic crotch, but also sat with his legs at almost a 90-degree angle. I will leave to your hopefully inadequate imagination, gentle reader, what Caligulan perversions this and the bizarre shapes and tarty outfits of the female dolls prompted us to put the playthings through. Such, such were the joys . . .)

More than the ground and its denizens, I loved climbing, and I was very well circumstanced for that. We had only an acre and a quarter (plus another rented acre later on for my pony), but this had been the headquarters of a large farm, and our barn was a giant old one with the inscription Chew mail pouch tobacco treat yourself to the best on one end. Up above the chew was a tiny window reachable by a ladder from one hayloft. A small platform, really just a perch, in front of the window allowed you to sit and keep watch for a mile or so, across the fields and down the highway to the university’s forest, used for biology teaching and research.

That forest contained my usual targets for climbing, the timber that, though second-growth, was untouched for many decades and thus densely set and massive. What contributed a lot to my sense of good luck in being alive was my great diversity of options for nice places to read. I could of course lie on a shed floor or in the weeds and read, out of the way and undisturbed. But the forest had a number of thick and sturdy wild grape vines that could be used almost like hammocks. I recall seeking out a favorite vine at the age of — maybe — 14 to see what all this fuss over Leaves of Grass was about. Not much, in my opinion; I sympathized, and still do, with John Greenleaf Whittier, who threw his copy into the fire. The only thing that proved painful about my study of ancient languages, which started at 16, was that the books were so big that you needed to keep them flat on a table or desk.

Even when I went to the woods to read, I would also make a lunatic expedition up some monstrous oak or maple; up past thick foliage to where there was an actual view; to where you would sway in the wind; to where you couldn’t stay long, because there was a raptor nest nearby and the mother was circling you and screaming.

My parents knew all this but didn’t intervene, partly because of an episode from my toddlerhood. To help me and my siblings climb to our tree house, they had installed a rope ladder. I fell off the ladder and broke my left arm at the elbow, the type of injury that in toddlers usually comes from an assault, not a fall. Several of my cousins, summer guests, had witnessed the fall, so the inquiry quickly reached an impasse. “Well, what’s a four-year-old doing climbing a tree?” the social worker asked my mother. My mother replied that I had been climbing for years.

In fact, part of the post-op physical-therapy solution, to start the bone and muscle growing again and keep the arm from withering, was more climbing, and a pair of gymnastic rings hung between the kitchen and the laundry room, where I was allowed to twist and ricochet and roll through the air at will. I was never told anything that would make me fearful, and especially nothing that would lead me to favor the left arm. (“You are strong,” gasped the amateur mountain climber, a Swiss fellow resident of the graduate dormitory at Harvard a decade and a half later. He had won our arm-wrestling match, but not easily.)

Of course I hated girly clothes, which would have proven highly impractical and embarrassing. But I didn’t stand out: This was a rural community, teeming with tomboys encouraged to develop the toughness and versatility they would need as farmwives. What proved embarrassing was my freakish decision, one day in sixth grade, to wear a dress to school. People identify a boy in a photo of me at 13, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap.

But I now rack my brain for a juncture, in all of that, when I doubted I was meant to be female or wanted to be male. Thank God no one suggested it, given my (stereotypically female) taste for drama. These days, a girl such as I was can easily be induced to change her name, pointedly cross-dress, delay puberty with powerful drugs, and demand mutilation and sterilization, to the profit and aggrandizement of gender-identity consultants.

The greatest bliss of my life comes from the chance to work out gender roles for myself, complicated as they are: so that I can display to my husband Tom the tree-stump root system — like a deformed giant squid — I’ve dug up with my bare hands; and so that he can present me with his latest coleslaw variation, bragging, “I am a river to my people.”

– Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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