Free to Be You and Me

By Sherry Colb

When I was a little girl, my mom bought me a record album titled "Free to Be You and Me."  The album featured various songs sung and stories told by Marlo Thomas and other celebrities and was intended to communicate to girls and boys the value of gender non-conformity and a willingness to value one another equally and without resort to stereotypes.  One story on the album, as I recall, included a character who always said "ladies first" and insisted on being first at everything, an insistence that ultimately led to her being devoured by a hungry wild animal (a tiger, if memory serves).  Another story included a heroine whose father promised her hand in marriage to whoever could win a race arranged by the father.  The girl ended up running the race along with her intended suitors, and she managed to tie with one of the boys, whom she nonetheless chose not to marry because she wanted to travel the world and become a well-rounded person before considering marriage.  One of the songs, called "William Wants A Doll" offered the  lesson that a boy should be allowed to play with dolls so that when he becomes a father some day, he'll be able to dress, feed, and "care for his baby, as every good father should learn to do."  My mom wanted me to understand that men and women are equally entitled to fulfill their ambitions, whether those ambitions center on the public sphere, the private sphere, or both.

The message of Free to Be You and Me was about both freedom and equality.  Gender roles are constraining for both men and for women, and the record album challenged children to resist the constraints of femininity and masculinity and create a world in which knowing a baby's anatomical sex at birth would tell us very little about all that the baby might one day achieve and how that baby might best find happiness and fulfillment in the future.  One of the songs that stands out in my mind outlined how people could hold counter-stereotypical jobs.  I, for example, might grow up to be a doctor or a taxi-driver, and my male friends could grow up to be comedians or cellists.  In that song, one line was "There are a lot of things a lot of mommies can do"  But then a voice-over interrupted and cautioned "Well, they can't be grandfathers, or daddies."  The same thing happens in the part of the song dedicated to boys and men:  "They can't be grandmas or mommies."

My column in Justia's Verdict this week, examines a case that is currently before the highest court in Maine.  The case involves a transgender girl, whose pseudonym is Susan Doe and whose family sued the Supreintendent of her school department, among others, after her elementary school (and later her middle school) refused to allow her to use the girls' bathroom.  The school had initially permitted her to, but then a boy began following her into the restroom -- as instructed by the boy's grandfather, as a protest against Susan's use of the girls' bathroom.  The school reacted by barring Susan from the girls' restroom and subsequently required her to use a separate staff bathroom (which no other students used).  Susan's parents and the Maine Human Rights Commission have argued that this was sexual orientation discrimination and  segregation, both in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.

In thinking about Susan's case, it occurred to me that the Free To Be You and Me album did not yet appreciate the predicament of the transgender child (or the gay child, for that matter).  The album offered the lesson that girls and boys could be anything they wanted to be when grew up, other than, respectively, men and women.  For its time, the message was quite progressive.  Some parents still become uncomfortable, even in 2013, if their son wants to play with a doll, and many families worry about their daughters if they are not married by the age of 30.  Yet the album does not address gay and lesbian sexual orientation (in the way that a similar album produced today surely would), and the album appears to affirmatively deny the fact that some of the people designated boys at birth will grow up to be mommies and grandmas.  The album treats sex, in other words, as a fixed anatomical fact that dictates gender, even if it does not dictate how one might manifest one's gender.

Now we know that some people are born with an anatomical sex that simply does not match their experienced gender.  Susan Doe, for example, thought of herself as a girl from the time that she was three years old.  She does not simply want the option of becoming a "feminine man" or a man who is sexually involved with other men.  She wants, instead, to be accepted as a female, because she fully experiences herself as a female.

Over time, we have come to appreciate how flexibly a boy or a girl might express his or her gender.  A boy can sing, dance ballet, play with dolls, and still be a bona fide boy.  He can also be attracted to other boys and remain an authentic boy.  And the converse is all true for girls.  In some ways, this flexibility can blind us to the fact that being assigned a sex can, for some people, itself be constraining.  Why, we might wonder, should an anatomical boy want to be a girl when he can do all of the things that girls can do and still be a boy?

The answer is that our identities as male or female are more than simply an amalgamation of the various activities we enjoy, the people to whom we are attracted, and the kinds of jobs we select.  It is this fact, after all, that makes people like the grandfather in Susan's case so angry at her (and so cruel to her) for using the girls' restroom.  This grandfather wants to define Susan as a boy because of Susan's anatomy at birth.  Sex has not become irrelevant -- either to cisgender folks (people whose gender identities match their assigned sex at birth) or to transgender folks.  And so long as sex matters to people, I think that it should, in a  country that values individual autonomy, be the choice of individual people to tell us whether they are male or  female.  It is not up to the majority to define as a boy the individual who says that she is a girl.

I predict that even if everyone treated transgender people with the full respect that they deserve, there would still be far more people who remained identified with the sex to which they were assigned at birth than people who identified as members of the opposite sex.  But regardless of what might ensue, a truly capacious notion of gender equality, sex equality, and freedom must allow girls and boys to be anything they want to be, including members of the opposite anatomical sex, without stigma, without penalty, and without the bullying and cruelty that Susan Doe was forced to endure.

Editor's Note (from Mike):  DoL will be back later today with more commentary on matters related to LGBT equality after the Supreme Court hands down the DOMA and Prop 8 cases.