When "Raven" became "True" -- Navigating Gender Identity at My Daughter's Middle School
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“Raven isn’t Raven anymore. They are True now.”
Heloise announces this in the car last Friday after I’ve picked her up from school, and for a moment, I’m flummoxed. My daughter sounds like a spy in a John Le Carré novel, perhaps giving an update on the new mole in East Berlin.
My girl is simply updating me on one of her several non-binary seventh-grade classmates. They who began the semester as Raven has changed their name. This is the fourth milestone in the past year. Back in the fall of 2020, when everyone was in the confusion and tedium of Zoom school, a young woman asked quietly for everyone to cease calling them by the name on school records, to cease using gendered pronouns, and to address them as Moon. That worked for a few months, but Moon shifted to Raven just after spring break. Now, Raven has come to feel that name no longer suits. “True” rings right for them, and the teaching staff have updated their records.
“This happens a lot,” announces my daughter. True who was once Raven who was once Moon who was once a feminine name-that-cannot-be-mentioned-again is not the first in Heloise’s class to go through multiple appellations in search of something that fits an evolving identity.
(Before anyone gets tense, let me be very clear. Raven and True are themselves pseudonyms for my daughter’s classmate – but the ongoing name changes are real. And I do not write any of this to stake out a position on one of the main fronts in the culture wars, namely the emergence of trans activism in American schools.)
There’s a certain kind of dad – and I am one – who likes to show a great deal of affection through gentle teasing. You know the type: the papa who studies his daughter’s new jeans and asks if she paid extra for the holes. I was a youth leader for teens once, and I know that this is a tightrope act; it’s important to keep things light in part because early adolescence almost chokes on its own deadly seriousness. When everything is fraught and VERY IMPORTANT, it’s vital to offer a different perspective – but to do so without belittling or mocking or minimizing. There’s a difference between asking if your kid paid extra for the distress in her denim and rolling your eyes when she tells you a classmate’s identity has shifted.
I know a great many of my more conservative friends worry about what seems to them to be a sudden explosion of acceptance of gender diversity among American teens and pre-teens. They worry that their own children will begin to doubt their own identities, and begin to find acceptable that which should not be subject to consideration. I understand it’s all a bit bewildering, and I say that as someone who taught courses on the history of sexuality. The culture seems to have changed so fast, and the implications are unsettling for even some open-minded parents. Even we liberals who suffer from a deep attachment to grammar conventions (rather than any firm beliefs about God’s Plan for Gender) may find it desperately awkward to get used to saying “they” and “their” for the singular.
In the Washington Post yesterday, my old Jezebel colleague (and fellow L.A. parent of a middle-schooler), Tracy Moore writes directly to her fellow confused parents. “Take your discomfort somewhere else, because this isn’t about you. It’s about stepping up as a parent in an era that’s new for all of us, but doubly delicate for our children, who need us to support their latest haircut as much as we would the person they’re becoming — whoever that person may be.”
I think that’s right. As I tell my kids, part of civility is calling people what they want to be called. In politics, that means calling anti-abortion folks “pro-life” even if we quibble with the term. If we were to meet Donald Trump, whom the children despise, I tell them that I would expect to hear, “How do you do, Mr. President.” And when someone changes their pronouns or their name, we adapt gladly. If we make a mistake, we apologize and move on.
Heloise reported that she’s still struggling to get the pronouns right, and she worries about offending people if she messes up. She’s also not sure how she feels about the whole non-binary issue to begin with, and worries that her uncertainties make her unsupportive.
I tell her two more things. First: Respect isn’t about ideology; it’s not necessary to see the language you use as reflective of your own deeply held values. If deep down, you think True is still Raven, or even still Emma, and you want to call her “she,” you are permitted to think that. Civility commands only your speech and your outer behavior; your thoughts are free. Manners make demands that stop at your skin.
Second, what was once unthinkable becomes normal over time. I tell Heloise that when my own parents married, there were family members on my mom’s side who were scandalized that mama was marrying a Jew. The anti-Semitism from some in the clan was polite and discreet, but it was real. That was the early 1960s; now, our extended family is a glorious mélange of every imaginable ethnic and religious background, and no one thinks ill of it. “Let yourself get used to things, and if you have doubts, come and talk to me. Don’t let your preconceived notions of how the world should work cause you to be unkind. You’ll grow to accept this, and using the right language will become second nature.”
I can’t help but ask, gently, if Heloise has ever reconsidered her own girl-ness. If you know my daughter, you know she presents as deeply feminine; she cares about fashion and beauty and popular culture. A double Aquarius for you astrologers, she makes artful if unpredictable choices. Her friends trust her judgment so much they call her for sartorial advice.
Outward femininity is not evidence of identity – and like any modern parent, I want to make sure she is not merely conforming to an imposed set of expectations. At the same time, I know that puberty is sufficiently crazy-making that outer expectations can be liberating as well as imprisoning; sometimes, it’s helpful to have a roadmap for how to live. Too many choices can be incapacitating, which is why school uniforms are such a help in a girls’ school. I think about all these things, but I do not presume to know my child’s inner life, and I do not presume to judge her now of young womanhood by the then of her (freaking adorable) babyhood.
“We imposed gender on you,” I say, my tone mournful but also wry. “We put bows in your hair. We put you in the cutest dresses.”
Heloise snorts. “You could have put me in a football uniform and construction boots and I would still have known I was a girl. You and Ima didn’t do anything to me. Most girls my age have gotten rid of their dolls. I keep asking for more. Nothing is going to make me stop feeling like a girl.”
(Earlier this year, she used some of her bat mitzvah money to buy more doll clothes. She has 15 or 16 dolls.)
Heloise has a point. Modern parents are quick to apologize, because we are sure we must have so much for which to say sorry. When it comes to nature vs. nurture, we modern middle-class parents overweight the latter — and assume that every battle a child fights is because we did what we shouldn’t, or we didn’t do what we ought to have done. We know the Philip Larkin poem, and we feel trapped in its certainties, even if we didn’t follow the famous advice within it. My conservative parent friends worry they are fucking up their kids by letting them stay in public schools in which the non-binary is an open (and usually, praise-engendering) possibility; liberal moms and dads fret that we are insufficiently supportive of these cultural and sexual changes that seem so novel and unsettling.
I remind Heloise that her mother and I will always support her choices, and my daughter sighs that I tell her that five times a week, and she knows, and can I please let her listen to her music in peace.
I am not an expert on anything. I’m a disgraced former medievalist who stocks soup and beans for a living. My days of opining on gender are rightly behind me. I am a dad, though, and a devoted one, even in my manifest inadequacies. My ancestors were bewildered and unnerved in their turn by the passions and politics of their children. The family legacy is that we come to accept and even support that which we do not understand. I can pass that on to Heloise, and to David, and indirectly, perhaps, to their friends.
Raven is True now. We can welcome True, and those like them, while acknowledging that the issues raised by these choices are far from settled. If we can accept without insisting that all others join us in accepting, we will get through this remarkable season. And if we’re very lucky, we’ll live long enough to see our grandchildren confound and flummox their own parents in turn.
Dar Williams just released her new record last week. I had one of her first hits on while I wrote this, and it’s an appropriate one. Released in 1994, the year my adjunct position got upgraded to tenure-track, I suppose it’s still deeply relevant. Or maybe, it’s just here to put a lump in the throats of aging Gen Xers.
How delightful Heliose is at ease in opening up about happenings at school. That marks oodles of positives for those involved with her parenting.
Speaking of which, congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.
It’s my feeling that there are no ex’s or previous marriages, just love as long as it’s destined to last and it could be for one day, an hour, or for as long as you live.
Keep writing on.