In exactly one month to the day, I’ll be a dad – responsible for bringing someone into the world. My wife made the choice of not knowing the sex of the baby which I’m happy about. Many people comment to the effect of, “that’s great – you’ll love the surprise!” I suppose it’s also about giving the kid a chance to be themselves before we’ve had a chance to work it out and there’s something liberating about that.
Like all keen parents, we’ve been working around the clock to set up the new space. After numerous trips to shopping centres and factory outlets, we’re reasonably au fait with the range of toys, gadgets, clothes and kiddy creature comforts. My wife complains that everything seems funnelled into the visual categories of bright pink and baby blue; it seems, as a society, we’re still wanting to label our children as boys and girls – and the pink/blue binary seems to suggest that mums and dads are deciding that their child will be recognisable from birth as a boy or girl. Perhaps this also represents some kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the gender freedom movements of the 70s that advocated, for example, the denial of baby dolls for girls as a form of resistance to patriarchy. Perhaps it’s just indelible the way we are.
My own story of gender is one that is so inextricably linked to my life growing up in a boys’ school and, more recently, my work as a teacher, for the most part, teaching girls. These experiences are a mix of chance, choice and opportunity – but I seem unable to escape the questions that so fundamentally define who I am as a human being and the notion that these questions should guide the way I think and act as a parent or teacher.
My own schooling was galvanising at best and traumatising at worst. A Catholic boys’ school with a strong sporting culture, rugby players six feet tall with teenage stubble, broken voices and menacing scowls ruled the playground like gods. Masculinity was the currency hard-faught for and, for those a little too pale, skinny, articulate, emotional – a little too different – this kind of masculinity was a currency rarely won. Words like faggot, pansy, poof and queer were necessary weapons for asserting yourself over others. Very often, such weapons were used by teachers in positions of power (almost always the gruffly-spoken male teachers that had been hired as role models, usually less capable than many of the female teachers who would later serve as role models for the teacher I wanted to be). These words had hardly anything to do with sexuality (many of the boys who were called “poofs” were heterosexual and, as a quick Facebook survey reveals, now with wives and children to prove it) but everything to do with how we were supposed to think, behave and interact. It seems as interesting to me now as it did then that the personality traits that so readily had you labelled as homosexual (concern for others’ feelings, admitting you were scared, or wanting to stand up for someone else who was being bullied) were as much, perhaps, about not being close to female as about actually being gay. In between the bullying and the Catholic church’s negative stance on homosexuality and the relative subjugation and glass ceiling of female leaders, I was never very sure where the God of compassion was. As a an extremely shy and anxious kid, I never really had much opportunity to talk to girls let alone work out how boys and girls might, when it all boils down, be more similar than different.
In this respect, statements like “man up,” “act like a man” and “don’t be a girl” are as much about hiding the traits that might be considered feminine in an effort to be a part of the problem and ignore possible solutions. As many like Tony Porter have argued, this is a form of misogyny – and for me, these were the lessons of the classroom and the playground that were my reality for eight years. They were lessons reinforced by teachers who, in their “dark sarcasm” were hardly any better than the kids who in groups would ambush you to “teach you a lesson” in a quiet corner of the street as you walked home. A lot of people argue that bullying makes you strong, but for those who feel the pain inescapably, it can just as easily make you weak.
“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
A Call to Men – Tony Porter (TED)
In more recent times, I’ve seen another side of Catholic education – one that involves genuinely caring for the individual, the celebration of social justice, gender equality, positivity and following in the footsteps of some remarkable men and women. This environment has taught me a different lesson and very often, my teachers have been girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen. I chose this environment partly for something different and partly because I wanted to run away from the boys that had made me weak.
What extraordinary lessons I’ve learned when, like many teachers, I claim to have learned far more in my time in the classroom than I have “taught.” It’s from women and girls that I’ve learned what real strength is. Our world is full of life-changing stories of females that have half the physical strength of their male counterparts, making up for it tenfold in emotional strength and compassion (and we all know that that’s the real strength). In particular, it’s through the women I’ve known that I learned to let my guard down, open up, feel emotion and ultimately be the person I wanted to be. The qualities that I sought to hide, dismiss or even have disappear – the love of language, perspective, sensitivity, expression and compassion – are the same qualities that women have valued in me. Perhaps more important than anything in this world, women have taught me empathy. Maybe that’s why those like the Dalai Lama believe that women can and should lead on a much larger scale than before:
The Power of Women – Dalai Lama
Ah, but that’s the problem – doesn’t it sound easy? So many women can empathise with the kind of bullying, violent behaviour and subjugation that I experienced. New data from WHO is telling us that more than a third of the world’s women are victims of violence. In light of these and other statistics, I’d be a fool to think that my childhood experiences (now well in the past) can really help me to fully appreciate and completely empathise with the violence and suffering that so many women in the world endure, from the time they are born (just think of female infanticide) to death (think higher mortality rates in many areas like domestic violence, crime and childbirth in the developing world). When I walk the streets in my male body, I’m in a different space – one that’s far removed from the kind of violence and bullying that plagued me as a child. Perhaps for me, the nightmare is over – but it would be naive to think that other’s nightmares are as short-lived.
On the other hand, perhaps what I’ve been through and done counts for something small? As a male teacher teaching girls, I knew I wanted the best for them (that’s really not saying much: all teachers want the best for their kids). I knew that I could use my emotional strength to help them to become stronger. I learned from research that indicates the positive role that male role models can play in the lives of adolescent girls. I took as much time to listen non-judgementally – and while I knew I couldn’t fully relate, I’d let them know, whenever possible, that I would try as much as I could to relate. As a Music teacher, I taught my girls to be angry about the fact that western art Music is a five hundred year story of dead, white males. As a technology teacher, I was fascinated by the girls whose understanding of how computers work at times eclipsed my own understanding. As an English teacher, I told the stories of women burning bras in the 70s. I embraced writers like Jane Austen and her satirical critique on the dependence of women on men – the need to “marry well” – as a socially-constructed economic reality that could be changed, and has since changed because of the thoughts and actions of countless women. My wife once told me that the younger girls “need to hear these stories from you – otherwise they won’t really appreciate them.” Listening to girls and women decry feminists (one girl once told me that women who promoted equal rights “were just a bunch of Nazi femo-cows”), I can sometimes see this.
In the time since I left high school, my confidence has multiplied tenfold. I’m more aware of who I am and what really matters in life. As a teacher, I’m probably over confident, a quality that – through what educators call the “hidden curriculum” – has meant my students appear similarly confident, ready to stick their hands up, express opinions at the drop of a hat and dive into tasks even when they’re not entirely sure of what to do. Maybe these are all good things – and maybe our gender has some deeper meaning to the purpose of life – or maybe we simply are who we are?
So, does it matter whether my wife and I have a boy or a girl? Not really. As I said before, in spite of the coloured clothes, childhood taunts, economic realities and grim statistics, we’re probably much more biologically similar than different. Like any parent, I’ll do the best I can in the time that I have. But like all of life’s great mysteries, you have to know the rules before you can break them. I hope to give them, at least, a little head start on that score.