My paternal grandmother and I were very close. She was intelligent, curious, a dedicated self-taught student and a wide, smart reader. The margins of her many books are crammed with notes. She kept journals full of questions and ideas. She read Shakespeare for fun.
She had to, because she got married as soon as she graduated from high school, never went to university, never dreamed of going to university, never imagined there was any reason she should, never even contemplated having a career. Girls didn’t study, didn’t go to university, didn’t get jobs. Girls got married and had babies. That’s what it meant to be a girl.
Like me, she wasn’t especially fashionable or concerned about what was in vogue. She had little use for fancy dress or coiffed hair or polished outfits. She dressed comfortably and modestly and always warmly, even though she spent the last decade of her life with her apartment thermostat set to 30 degrees. But she died at age 92 without ever having worn a pair of trousers.
She loved me unconditionally and was impressed by even my least impressive accomplishments, but she was alarmed by my jeans. She was alarmed when I joined the swim team, in the first place because who knew what germs lurked in swimming pools, but in the second because girls did not participate in sports. She was proud of me when I went off to university and then graduate school and then into the workforce, but I think it was a little bit like I went off into space. When I got engaged and told her I was keeping my last name – which, after all, was her last name as well – she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, you’re one of those.”
For people lucky enough to live into old age, gender norms change hugely over the course of their lives. My grandmother would have thrived at university, but it was never even on the table for her. She never considered wearing anything but a skirt because women did not do so when she was growing up. That they then started to did not remotely tempt her to take up the practice herself. These norms are sown early and planted deep. Nice girls, normal girls did not wear trousers or ride bikes or leave home and family to study literature and philosophy. She had neither the need nor the ability to question this, even as she watched it change around her, change among her own.
One mere generation later, my parents dressed me in tiny adorable baby jeans. They had me in swim lessons before I was a year old. They actually worried when I came home clean from nursery school. “Why won’t she get dirty?” they asked the teachers. “How can we help her have fun and fit in?”
So, when my little boy became obsessed with dolls and pushing them around the neighbourhood in a pram, I wasn’t worried about him, and I also wasn’t worried about what my mom and dad would think. What it meant to be a boy and what it meant to be a girl had changed so much from their parents to their being parents. When he asked only for Barbies for his birthday, when he begged to have his toenails painted, when he cut his camp T-shirts into bras, no one was concerned. When he spent the summer before first grade playing dress-up in a floor-length sparkly green gown, my parents were OK with that, too.
It wasn’t until he wanted – needed – to wear a skirt to the first day of first grade that they panicked. My dad’s advice was to just say no
It wasn’t until he wanted – needed – to wear a skirt to the first day of first grade that they panicked. My dad’s advice was to just say no. My mom was unable to tell me the only thing I wanted to hear: that it would be OK. She wasn’t convinced it would be. As the dresses went from sometimes to all the time, from play to every day, from home to school, from optional to imperative, as the pronouns went from male to female and stayed there, as the name changed, as my son became my daughter, we all saw that this was a different thing than accepting a girl in trousers or a boy who liked to play with dolls.
One of the things that comes up all the time in the discussion group I’m in with other parents of transgender kids is how to tell the grandparents.
On the one hand, grandparents are dispensers of cookies, extra layers and unconditional love. It’s so much less complicated to be grandparents than parents. It’s so much easier to love little people you get to give back at the end of the day when they get cranky, to care hugely but without all the weight of responsibility for every decision and all behaviours, to be close but with enough distance to see what’s really going on with clear perspective and gentle openness.
On the other hand, their adult children worry, grandparents are old. Or, they’re old-fashioned. They’re set in their ways. They’ve never heard of transgender kids. They still haven’t accepted “the gays". They don’t know anything about non-binary identities or cultural determinism. They already have trouble remembering names or keeping track of who’s who. Their kids worry they’ll never get it. Their kids worry that confusion and fear and loathing will override that unconditional love and lead them to reject their own grandchildren
My family is lucky in that there is nothing – nothing – that would result in my parents rejecting my child. I never doubted they would understand and be supportive. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have questions, don’t still have concerns or don't always get the pronouns right.
Their fears are the same as my grandmother’s were. She didn’t worry that because I wore trousers rather than skirts there was something inherently wrong with me. She worried that because I wore trousers rather than skirts no one would love me, that I would find myself rejected by society and my community for breaking social norms and traditions and expectations, that I would be weird and therefore unhappy. My parents’ concerns boil down to the same: that their granddaughter will fail to fit in and find friends, will be bullied or relegated to the sidelines of her community, that she’ll be weird and therefore unhappy. That she will find no one to love her but us.
Grandparents have seen that history is long, that progress is often invisible while it’s happening, that the steps back are painful but smaller than the ones forward
I have the same fears of course, but I am enormously heartened that they have them as well, not because they validate mine, but because they invalidate mine. My grandmother’s worries were perfectly understandable, but also perfectly absurd because they were worries from another world. By the time I went off to university, fear that a girl would be rejected for doing so, never mind for wearing trousers to class, was silly. My hope for my child – and, frankly, all our children – is that, by the time she goes off to university, the fear that she’ll be rejected for being gender non-conforming will seem just as absurd. The world is changing. And she is changing the world. That is as it should be.
On the one hand, so much has changed since my grandmother was a child, when being gay was still illegal, when spousal rape was not illegal because there was no such thing, when being a girl instead of a boy narrowed life to the confines of your home, when being a boy who realised he was a girl meant, simply, misery or suicide. It’s not that I’m not grateful to be living in a world of such expanded freedom and openness and tolerance. It’s that it’s not enough.
Because, on the other hand, we are living in a time of closing off and dragging down, where the people who would curtail and rollback our freedoms are winning, the ones who are threatened by gay people heading families or women heading states, who see equality for all as a punishment for themselves, who imagine that reducing the suffering of others increases their own, who are frightened by difference and angered by change.
And here, maybe, hope comes from being led by the grandparents. They have seen more than we have. They have seen bigotry and oppression and fear-mongering and hate and intolerance and even evil rise and then get taken down again. They have seen that history is long, that progress is often invisible while it’s happening, that the steps back are painful but smaller than the ones forward, that when we get smacked down, we land in the crouch that launches us someplace even further ahead.
The more parents of trans children I meet, the more I discover this: the grandparents tend to surprise their kids more than anyone else in their lives. The grandparents who they think couldn’t possibly understand are often the people most ready to embrace their grandchildren, whoever they turn out to be. They are often more ready than anyone to love uncomplicatedly and no matter what. They have seen a lot in their long lives and are therefore fazed by less than we imagine. They’ve witnessed great change, weathered it, spearheaded it sometimes. Often, and in many ways, their perspective, their faith in us and ours, and their love are wider and more agile than anyone’s.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is published by Headline Review in February, and will be featured in The Pool's Bedtime Bookclub.