I was reminded of this when watching the Dateline segment about 11-year-old transgender child Josie Romero.
I missed the segment when it aired, but I was alerted to it by Kelli Busey's post on her blog Planet Transgender and Vickie Davis' post on her blog.
What struck me is how Josie was able, at her age, to talk about the kind of body she wants to have. She knows that she was born with male organs, and knows how they are different from female ones.
Some people would argue that she is "too young" to know such things. That, essentially, is the argument many people use against sex education: They believe that, somehow, keeping kids "innocent" will keep them safe, or at least keep them from doing things of which their families, communities and churches don't approve.
Young people in my generation, and those who came before me, did not grow up with the awareness Josie has, let alone the ability to talk about it as freely as she does with her parents and her doctor. I don't want to impute too much of my own experience to other people around my age who grew up feeling that something "wasn't right" about our gender identities and the ways in which we were expected to express them. But I suspect that if you grew up with such feelings and your experience was anything like mine, you probably didn't even know enough, at age eleven, to be able to tell a doctor or anyone else why you thought you weren't the gender you were told you were.
Although I felt I wasn't a boy, and I knew I wanted "girly" stuff, I didn't have enough awareness about bodies to be able to say that I was born in the "wrong" one. Or, more precisely, I couldn't tell anyone why it was "wrong." Although I knew that girls grew up to be women and that most women could have babies, I couldn't say what about their bodies made them able to do such things. Once I learned about that, it would be many more years before I realized that my inability to bring a baby into world didn't preclude me from being a woman; many other women also lack that capacity, and many others never had any desire to do so. It almost goes without saying that I also didn't understand that boys and girls, and men and women, reacted differently to the same things in part because of their biological and physiological differences.
And I couldn't even begin to ask what those differences might be until one day when a girl in my class writhed as blood ran down her leg from under the skirt of her uniform and neither she nor any of us in that class had any idea of why. The nun who taught us was of no help: She yelled at that girl and whacked her with a ruler.
Now I realize--as Eve Ensler points out in The Vagina Monologues--that many of the adults in our lives didn't know very much about their bodies, either. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to know that some kids' parents knew only that if they had sexual relations at the right time, they'd have another kid--or that those same parents had little, if any, idea of how that happened. In fact, some of the monologues show us that in the countries, cultures and religious traditions in which women are most oppressed, there are very few, if any, ways for them to learn about the intricacies and needs of their own bodies.
Even though I would never menstruate (and, of course, I had no idea of why), I felt the terror of that girl in my class. It wasn't just empathy: I have some capacity for that, I think, but I am not exceptional in that way. Rather, I sensed--although I didn't understand why--my body (and so much else in my life) was about to undergo changes that would be just as terrifying if for no other reason that I would be no more prepared for them or, more important, prepared to understand them, than that girl in my class was for her first period.
Not long after that, I would undergo my own puberty: my first one. Josie has been taking hormones, in part to forestall her the male puberty I and every other male-to-female transgender child of my generation experienced. If she continues her treatments and has gender reassignment surgery at, say, age 20, she will not have to endure another puberty later in life, as those of us who transitioned in the middle or near the end of our lives had to experience when we started to take hormones.
And she will enter womanhood with an awareness of her body none of us had when we were growing up, or even as adults. And, just as she has adults in her life who can guide her in her journey of self-awareness, perhaps she will do the same for some other child--perhaps one of her own--one day.