Livvy James strikes a pose for the black and white photograph on her Facebook page. She wears black eyeliner, a heart carefully painted on her pale cheek, and a black bowed headband perched in her sleek blonde hair. She glances upward with the attitude of a little girl playing dress up and dreaming of being a moody model. She fits the bill for ten-year old girl.
And then we glance below her tilted chin to the title of her page:
Transgender Life Livvy James: There is love here in this place unconditional, unstoppable, unending love for all – Transgender Life ♥ ♥
Immediately we begin to look for the “differences” in the photos of Livvy that grace this web page. We imagine what she must have looked like in her first few years of life as a “boy,” and we listen for hints of maleness in her tiny voice as she speaks eloquently in news interviews and lends her voice to transgender acceptance campaigns. Her mother insists that she has always been female, but simply was trapped in a male body.
Livvy has dedicated her young life to promoting tolerance. She uses facebook, traditional news media, and face-to-face contact to spread information about the bullying that comes along with being transgender. She puts out links for petitions urging the correct pronoun usage and teenage suicide prevention. Unlike Agnes, she uses her position as a transgendered person as a platform. Livvy identifies as a girl with “gender dysphoria.” Born a boy, she has always wanted to be a girl and identified with the female gender. From a very early age, she preferred stereotypically female activities and dress to male.
Last September, Livvy returned to her school as a female after having left in the Spring the year before as a male. Despite the initial controversy and comments that followed the change in Livvy’s presentation transformation, she has received widespread public support and has used it to work toward social change.
One of the more hurtful criticisms of Livvy’s shift in gender presentation is the notion that she may just be going through a “phase.” Because she is only 10 years old, she is often viewed as a child who cannot possibly know what she wants. In an article written by the Huffington Post, the impact of Livvy’s youth upon her choices to become fully female is referenced;
[Livvy] James will have to wait until she is 12 to have hormone blockers, and 16 before she is allowed female hormones. Doctors are reluctant to give children treatment as many can grow out of the feeling they are trapped in a different body.
According to the NHS, “the exact cause is unknown” and despite increasing awareness, those who have gender dysphoria “still face prejudice and misunderstanding about their condition”.
Both Livvy and her family do not believe she will ever “grow out” of her “condition.” To them, this is a deeply offensive idea. Listening to Livvy’s mother speak about her daughter’s courage and identity, I find myself wondering about the position of children in our Western societies. Do we give them enough of a voice? How much choice should they have? Are they irreparably damaged by exposure to strict gender roles at young ages?
In Taking Account of Childhood Excess: Bringing the Elsewhere Home, Africa Taylor explores the ways young children first “perform” their identities and determine where they fit in society. She unpacks the meanings behind their observed play–impressed and enthused when the rare few cross gender boundaries. She claims that she is not captivated by the “innocence” of children, but instead by their “inherent queerness” (197.) In her systematic observations of children participating in fantasy play, she states;
My findings are in keeping with a number of other studies that have found children as young as age three to be aware of race and cultural differences and to have already absorbed the attitudes of others around them to these differences (199.)
In children’s interactions, Taylor sees reflections of power struggles and politics of the nations they were born into. Their fantasy worlds of play are microcosms for the “real world” that so many adults claim they are not yet a part of.
Taylor tells the story of 3 Australian boys playing in a sandbox. Two are white, and one is identified by the other two children as “brown.” He is not allowed to play with them, but another boy who is a “lighter brown” and “more like them” is let into the game. Taylor connects their reactions to the Tampa and Children Overboard affair–an Australian struggle with immigration in which the mantra was “We, and we only, will decide who comes into our country and on what terms they come” (Howard, 2011).
The same exclusion happens in society with children like Livvy James. Children who look like boys, but act and play like girls. In many ways, (as we saw in the cases of Agnes and Livvy) those who are transgender or gender dysmorphic are only accepted when they fully transform to their “new” gender. They work hard to fit the form of their selected gender. The lines remain black and white as they dress in dresses and pink. What makes society the most uncomfortable is those who blur the lines–who are one gender one day and another the next. Society doesn’t permit us to switch genders at the drop of a hat. This is especially true when it comes to children. As Taylor claims, “the harmony of the heterosexual family (in its distinctively Western formation) relies upon an originary notion of childhood innocence as the accomplishment of a coherently gendered child” (205). To have a child who is “unstable” in gender feels like a threat to the family.
Many parents are alarmed by sons who paint their nails or play with dolls. They worry about girls who want to cut off all of their hair and wrestle with the boys. The lines of acceptable behavior are loosening, but there is still judgement there. Even in play, children are expected to meet a certain “ideal.” They are not only held to this standard by their parents, but by each other.
Taylor is particularly fascinated by the “hybrid gender performance” in play by a boy called Reg. He brilliantly commands his fellow male playmates in a game of “police officer” at first–carrying a gun and keeping the town safe. He initiates the game and is fully in charge–until he decides to also play the mother. He carries around a baby doll and tries to get the other boys to care for it while he fights fires and takes on bad guys. The others are uncomfortable and quickly retreat. Taylor applauds his courage and points out the fact that he is playing two “normative” gender roles simultaneously–something that makes him non-normative.Why can’t we tolerate this combination of black and white roles? This shade of grey? Are we moving toward a society that will?
In our last reading for this week, we learn about the possibility of a complete change in gender recognition by society. In the proposed bill, those who undergo gender reassignment can be recognized by Irish society accordingly–reissued a birth certificate indistinguishable from the original and complete with the “new” gender. This sounds like a giant step forward, but I wonder about the complexities. Couldn’t it be interpreted as yet another way transgendered people can conform to gender “norms?” In many cases, this might be what the person wishes to happen. But why can’t we also issue birth certificates that have a more ambiguous reference to gender? Why aren’t there more than two boxes to tick? How should we teach children about gender? Understanding that they acquire and understanding of “norms” as early as age 3, how might we change what stereotypes they are exposed to and, consequently, the formation of their identities?