Is that a boy?



This past weekend, we took Zeca and a close friend to the YWCA to go swimming. She wore her white swim shirt with the little silver shark on the sleeve and her blue and green shark swim trunks and looked absolutely adorable. We showed our cards and headed towards the girls’ locker room and she took my hand and said, “Mama, can we use the family locker room?”

She spent the summer passing as a boy at the community pool because, though she identifies as a girl, she’d rather pass than deal with strangers’ assumptions about her and the awkwardness when those assumptions are challenged.

As someone who still gets the occasional double-take in  women’s restrooms, I get it but I hate the family locker room because it’s not as clean and there is always wet hair on the tile floor.

“Since Miguel’s not here, I want to go to use the girls’ locker room.”

She nodded and I added, “Besides, you don’t need to worry. Your hair is longer and you are wearing a swim shirt.”

She didn’t argue and we made our way into the girls’ locker room.

Luisa, Zeca and her friend changed, got their towels and headed to the pool while I went upstairs to the track. An hour later, I met them in the pool and I watched the girls swim and, after they’d shown me their tricks, we headed to the showers.

Zeca and her friend started a couple of showers and Luisa went to grab the soap and shampoo. When we returned a minute later, there was a woman clutching her towel to her chest, staring at Zeca. The woman turned to Luisa and said, “Is that a boy?”

Luisa gave a look that was equal parts perplexed and annoyed and said, “No, she’s a girl.” The woman exhaled dramatically and said, “Oh thank goodness.”

The woman walked away and even though Zeca didn’t seem to notice the interaction, I was seething.

Since the girls locker room is only for girls, why wouldn’t she assume that Zeca was a girl? What was so frightening about my child that she gasped and questioned and then exhaled with marked relief? Was she worried this “boy” would objectify her? If so, shouldn’t she be more worried about me as a lesbian? Or was she worried that she would have to see “him” naked? If that’s the case, why would she be looking in the first place?

This woman’s behavior is the precise reason why my daughter doesn’t like to use girls’ locker rooms, why she didn’t want to go back to overnight camp, why she was hesitant to try out for the girls’ soccer team. She’s a girl who looks a little different and gets tired of having to explain that to everyone.

I was too stunned to say anything to the woman at the Y but, if I had another chance, I’d tell her to stop policing my child. My daughter gets to decide what being a girl means to her and how she wants to look. My daughter is entitled to feel comfortable in the girls’ locker room and feel safe. If I were feeling particularly gutsy, I might also suggest that she deal with her issues instead of projecting them onto an eight-year-old kid. And I might suggest that, if she couldn’t do anything else, she could at least respect the cuteness.


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  1. I hope you do see that woman again…and kick her in the shin! Ok, no. But, I am seething also. Happy that Zeca did not seem phased by the exchange, but I wish we all had that ability to call upon responses at the moment that educate and inspire self-reflection. Maybe there’s an app for that.

  2. Wow I was sleepy but this post sure got my blood boiling. What the bloody hell is wrong with people???

    Shin kicking is not lemon sconing.

  3. This makes me so mad. What is WRONG with people? Did you tell Zeca what happened?

  4. That particular Y has had it’s share of issues around gender and trans* stuff; I’m definitely not suggesting that Zeca is trans* – more that any sort of gender that doesn’t conform strictly to society’s expectations has been policed in both locker rooms. It really sucks, and they’ve been waving off that sort of behavior (and worse) from their staff for years.

    Zeca’s amazing! Why don’t they just make a “HOLY CRAP YOU’RE A SUPERSTAR” locker room so we can leave them all alone to their status quo?

    • Yes to the superstar locker room, please. Miguel said to Zeca the other day, “I’m just not as emotionally strong as you are Z. You have to be strong to be different.” That said, it also takes a toll sometimes.

  5. I used to get called a boy a lot when I was Zeca’s age. It was irritating, to say the least.
    I dont really get what this woman thought she was accomplishing by her reaction. Sometimes, people leave me perplexed….and pissed.

  6. Should it really be so hard simply to be yourself? No. But it is. And reflections like this one are the (heartbreaking, eyeopening) tools we need to show people that gender policing (and so many other kinds of policing) hurts. With one kid deeply entrenched in self-consciousness and another dipping his toe in the edge of it, I am hypersensitive to the policing kids do to each other. When adults do it? Oh, were I in that locker room, i think my head would have exploded!

    • I think I was too stunned to think clearly about what to say to her and then I was so angry. My response was to shower and then text people about it. ha ha.

      • That’s pretty much what head exploding looks like for me too.

        • On a more compassionate note (the one that usually chimes a few minutes after my head explodes and the urge to kick a shin subsides), that woman sounds not only deeply unaware of her impact on others, but also really, really scared. I can only imagine what experiences would lead to a grown woman feeling that frightened by the thought that a male child might have entered the locker room? I mean, look at Zeca. What kinds of life experiences would lead a person to have a terrified reaction to someone who looks so dang sweet?

  7. The majority of people suffer from ignorance induced by decades of media fed images of what gender is. The identifiers for boy and girl were and still are laid out in pink and blue.

    • Very true.

      • Yes. And yet, when my daughter was little and had no hair and was dressed all in pink (I want to say my choosing, she was too little, but these are the gifts we were often given) people still said, “Boy?” – it’s amazing that it goes that way, but it does. I’m trying my damnedest to be sure that my daughter knows she can wear whatever colors she wants. She may love pink, and purple, but she loves black and blue and more, too! I’m sorry you had to deal with this. At the very least if the woman was concerned she could have just kept on moving, ya know? Respect the children a little. So much time is spent on griping how kids don’t respect adults, and so many adults don’t get that kids need respect, too. That’s a tangent and a ramble. I’m sorry you had to experience this woman’s reactions and I totally get why you spared your child from dealing with them.

  8. That last paragraph, ALL OF THE YES.

    My son has long hair and we deal with sort of the opposite. He’s only four so we’re not quite at the place where he picks up on it or has to deal directly with judgement/taunting, but I know it’s coming.

    You’re doing the right thing by Z, close-minded gender conformists/policists be damned.

  9. I am continually surprised at the level of gender policing that goes on these days. Are there higher levels if fear now? Or am I just more aware of it?

  10. And there is an awful lot of cuteness there to respect.

    How obnoxious, though. Seriously. Even not at the Y, though, I’m finding it really interesting the kinds of places where I end up having conversations (or, well. lectures.) about gender stuff. N is occasionally referred to as a boy, but she’s young enough that she doesn’t really get it (and still young enough that she occasionally refers to herself as a boy, as she’s trying to figure out all this gender stuff – it’s complicated!). I imagine it only gets more rough as they get older.

    Zeca’s a rockstar, though. And I can’t say I’d feel any differently about girls camp/soccer/etc in her place.

  11. Why does someone’s gender matter so much in our culture? In many cultures? It’s one of the first things that we identify with and use to stereotype people. And if you don’t line up with one of the accepted majorities? Well, then. Prepare to struggle your entire life. It makes me sick.

    My 5 year old will ask if she’s not sure “is that a boy or a girl.” I struggle with what to answer with. Because on the one hand, she’s 5 and just asking. And on the other, I wonder why she has to know. Does that impact how she treats the person? Judges the person? Probably. Part of human nature, I suppose.

    We talk alot about how boys can have long hair and girls can have short hair. How boys can paint their fingernails and wear jewelry and how girls can wear blue Thomas the Train sneakers. I hope it sinks in at least a little.

    Maybe the best answer to questions like that are “Why? Why do you need to know if my child is a boy or a girl?”

  12. P.s. Tell Zeca she’s beautiful just like her mama.

  13. oh… Yup. Angry.

    As two moms of two boys, we are generally in the family changerooms (at least all the change rooms where we swim are equally gross), but as a parent to an 8-year-old boy with a ponytail halfway down his back, now I guess I have another reason to be there. we had a situation this summer at a soccer game, where parents on the other team kept making comments about R: “Is that a girl? Are you sure? Why is his hair so long?”

    For the record,my kid was kicking their asses on the field. But his donor/dad, who brought him to the game, was seizing on the sidelines.

    I love the idea of a HOLY CRAP YOU’RE A SUPERSTAR locker room for all the truly cool kids.

  14. i am the mom of a nine year boy who has been growing his hair out since the end of 1st grade, with the intention of donating it. In 2nd grade, his hair was shaggy and in his beautiful face much of the time. When it started to get in the way while he was doing karate, he began to wear a headband… he was a little unsure, but i showed him pictures of guys wearing them (mostly soccer players – a sport he loves). At his studio, they greet one another with a high-five one and say, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” It’s intended as a respect thing, which i get… but many mistook my son for a girl and called him ma’am, and i began to wonder whether or not the students could greet each other respectfully, while using a more neutral word. i kind of worried about it, so i asked him. He told me how this kid’s dad always called him ma’am, even tho the kids played soccer together. i asked my son how he would feel about gently correcting this father (or anyone). “Nah, i don’t want to do that. It might embarrass his dad since he’s been calling me ma’am all this time. Besides, i know what i am.” As the hair grew longer, i convinced my son to wear it in a ponytail in the summer, to help keep him cooler (since it’s so thick). He was a little hesitant, but came around to the idea as long as i kept it a low ponytail. Since he’d been wearing it up all summer, he decided he’d wear that way for the first day of 3rd grade. We figured it’d set the tone for the school year. To some kids, a boy having a ponytail in the 3rd grade is kind of as cool as having a mustache in 7th grade… it’s like being ahead of the curve just a little. There were of course kids who told him he looked like a girl. But the night before, we practiced things he could say in response. i insulted him; said whatever i could think of that kids might say, i even said it in a harsh, teasing tone. i hated hearing these things come out of my mouth to my lovable and sweet child. But i wanted to prepare him, i didn’t want him to be thrown off. And i believe that in hearing those things, he toughened his skin a little. Even better, he came up with responses he was comfortable saying. What amazed me most about my child was that the things he said weren’t mean or harsh. i realized he wasn’t going to match their insults with insults. He simply said things like, “But i’m not a girl” and “What’s so bad about being or looking like a girl?” The kids soon realized that they weren’t going to get a rise out of him, they weren’t going to get to him. They realized they had no power to affect how he felt about himself. And i think that’s an important lesson for all of us: People only have the power to affect us when we give them that power. Zecca will be the one to define who Zecca is. The rest of us will have no choice but to accept that definition. And instead of kicking someone in the shins for being ignorant, i think we should remember to be patient and to take a moment to teach that person to be kind and accepting. That person, who is made uncomfortable by someone who is not easily categorized, simply has not had enough previous experience to know that there is no reason to be afraid. A sweet child can teach an important lesson. And my son occasionally gets stopped when he’s headed into the men’s room, but he just looks up at them and tells them, “i’m a boy,” and continues on his way. There isn’t anything more he needs to say. But i know he just schooled them: you can’t judge books or people by their cover, because when you do, you just might miss out on something amazing.

    • I don’t think anyone is really advocating shin-kicking 🙂

      Yes, the only way to fight ignorance is to educate people about these issues and, sometimes, people grow weary of doing it. It’s a lot to ask of a kid.

      I’d rather ask and expect the world to change than have her constantly carry the burden of changing it herself.

      • The world will change… we change it as parents and as the people we are. However, in her small way, Zecca is changing the world just by being herself. And in my opinion, it’s a far better thing for her to be herself than to fit into anyone else’s mold.

  15. Jesus! Yes, why would anyone question the presence of a little child in ANY locker room? Obviously a parent or care giver was present. Was this woman intimidated? Was she uncomfortable in her own skin? Who would say such mean things TO A CHILD!!! Maybe next time you could retort with, “Is that a big fat old woman with no filter who lives under a rock?”

  16. ANd… your daughter is beautiful.

  17. Ann-Louise Haak says:

    Please set up a fund for the ROCKSTAR *ONLY* CHANGING ROOM, which will have a life-size picture of Zeca on the door (if she agrees). My credit card is out & I’m ready to donate NOW.

  18. This is all too familiar. And yet, my blood still boils. My son, who presents as female but identifies as male, goes through amazing machinations to avoid locker rooms, restrooms, etc. It saddens me to no end. And, I think that Miguel is right — there is such a store of courage in these gender non-conforming or gender creative kiddos. To go out and continually stand up to what the majority of folks think or expect…that is a heap more courage than I exercise on a daily basis, I believe.

    • Completely agree.

      • Me three. Head shaking in overall amazement. Short-term amazement: at a fear- and ignorance-driven person like the towel-clutching woman, so narcissistic that she can’t calibrate her response as an adult knowing it’s a child. Longer-term amazement: at the courage of gender nonconforming kids like yours, in their varying degrees, and like Q, labelsareforjars’ child, whose daily experiences and courage boggle my mind.

  19. Ugh, some people don’t think before they talk.

    Two stories to add to the discussion:

    1) My son looks much older than he is. Where we live, children under the age of 7 are allowed in the opposite gender change room. When my son was five (and still not capable of changing and showering independently), I would bring him and his sister into the women’s change room at the pool where they took lessons (that pool didn’t have family change rooms, while other ones do). I also had people do the gasp, point and say “is that a boy?” to which my annoyed answer was “yes, he is a FIVE year old boy”.

    2) At my son’s birthday partly recently, one child didn’t show up. One of my son’s friends’ sister and father chose to stay at the facility where we were having the party and do their own thing until the party was over. His sister (like his mother) has short hair. When it was time to go eat pizza and have cake, I told our party organizer that one kid’s sister would be joining us. He said “no problem”. Even though I had clearly said sister, not once but twice, and she was even dressed in typical “girl” colours, he kept referring to her as “him” and “brother” when speaking to others. Thankfully, I don’t think he spoke to her directly and I hope that she didn’t see him.

  20. My eldest always said it didn’t bother him to be called a girl or my daughter from 3rd grade till 6th (when he started to look masculine, despite his very long, curly hair). I did, however, have one situation where I had a verbal smack-down with an old man at a rest-stop McDonald’s on our way home from vacation. He literally ran (as fast as an elderly man can run, anyway) to his wife ( right in front of me in line for McNuggets) and exclaimed, over and over, that there was a “GIRL IN THE MEN’S ROOM! Can you believe it? Her parents should TEACH HER PROPERLY! etc. etc.” and I just KNEW that it would be my kid. Sure enough, out gambles J from the rest room to stand beside me and this rude guy literally keeps TALKING ABOUT MY SON in front of me and making disgusted faces at me and him. And I LOST MY SHIT. I yelled at him (I don’t generally yell at strangers) and I believe I may have hurled an insult (or twelve) about his lack of intelligence and compassion and/or Bible-Belt inability (sorry to my Bible-belt friends. I LOVE YOU) to see beyond the exterior of a person and on and on and on.

    Thank God it was a short line.

    • But did you get the McNuggets?! I kid. I’m sorry your son had to deal with that and maybe you should move here and accompany us everywhere.

      • You guys should move here. Minnesota is a bit too cold for too long. Chicago has longer in-between seasons. And a better airport. And we don’t say “abooot” or “Yah.”


  21. While I’m empathetic to how frustrating it is to have people make gender assumptions or to put their gendered expectations on a child, I also feel for the woman in the locker room. I would be uncomfortable if I felt that I’d inadvertently exposed my naked body to a stranger’s child of a different gender. And I get that there was a family restroom, but at this moment, at this very moment she had a question, which she asked. I don’t think we should fault her for that.

    • I usually go to a place of compassion in most instances but she didn’t so much as ask a question as make an accusation. The tone and her body language was clear. Also, my daughter was not even looking at her…she was talking to her friend as she got ready to shower.

      I understand where you are coming from and empathy is always good. In this particular case, her reaction spoke more about her own issues and I was concerned about those being projected onto my child. Fortunately, my daughter didn’t hear her. If she had, she would have left that locker room feeling uncomfortable and like she’d been judged while that woman left feeling relieved. That doesn’t seem fair.

      • I understand what you mean, it doesn’t sound fair to me at all. I know I hate the projections I feel based on being a queer black woman in my day to day life. And while I consider myself an ally to many, I do have a long way to go, and a lot of learning to do. So thank you for sharing your family’s experience and providing such a wonderful platform for discussion and learning.

  22. Go, Zeca, go! She’s so lucky to have you and the missus as supportive, loving, no-bullshit-taking parents.

    People in locker rooms are stupid. And boorish. And often naked. I’m also thinking some of this horrified reaction stuff is more common nowadays than it once was, and is probably related to the Helicopter Parent phenomenon. Back in the 70s my brother was able to come into the womens’ locker room at the local pool, easy-peasy, no raised eyebrows.

    Love your writing.

  23. While I’m all about the shin kicking, I fear that violence isn’t the answer. When the zombie apocalypse comes she will be one of the first to go and then you’ll be vindicated. Or hiding. Either way, she’ll get hers.

  24. Your daughter is so incredibly beautiful that I just don’t know how anyone could mistake her for anything other than what she is.

    I do get super annoyed when Maddie’s Dr. always looks for a “princess” in her ears when checking for infections and what not. I’m like… you’d get a better response from MY kid by looking for a dragon.

    The other funny thing that happened recently is my daughter had her 8th birthday party. When my friends were asking what they should get for my kid, I just said… go to the “boys” toy aisle and pick something…. whatever it is, she’ll love it.

  25. Brought back an old memory. It was the 70’s. I was in Jr. High. I won a trip to the State Fair for my 4-H project (in electricity). I got in line to check in wearing a short but stylish haircut (short hair was “in” at the time), jeans, a nice shirt and my beloved jean jacket. Upon reaching the front of the line I said, “Teresa Sterns”. The woman looked at me and then began searching on her list for my name. “I can’t seem to find it”, she said. “What’s your name?” I repeat it. The long line behind me seems to press in. Then I look at the woman’s list-she’s looking at the boy’s list. I want to crawl away. I meekly say “I think you are looking on the wrong list.” She looks at me. “I think I am on this list.” I say, pointing to the girl’s list. “Oh no”, she says, “That’s the girl’s list.” “I am a girl” I say in almost a whisper. I never wore that jean jacket again.
    I really feel for your dear, beautiful Zeca. She is amazing and so are you. Keep up the good fight! XO

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  27. Suzy Soro (@HotComesToDie) says:

    Flashback to junior high. I had the great misfortune of having scoliosis that showed itself outwardly at the age of 13. One boob grew bigger than the other, which remained flat. The girls in the locker room made so much fun of me I can still hear the whispering. I told my mom and she padded my gym uniform for me. It didn’t help because then they accused me of wearing falsies. As painful as this was, looking back on it, I feel the sorriest for my mom. How it must have pained her that those kids were picking on me.

    I’m sure the fact that I never wanted kids factors in the memory that children can be so mean, and I didn’t need to contribute to that demographic.

  28. This is infuriating! She should have worried about her own body and keep her eyes to herself.

    My son hates the locker room at the pool. He refuses to go into the men’s room because he doesn’t want to see anyone naked and he doesn’t want anyone seeing him. He isn’t allowed in the room with me. They don’t have a family locker room.

  29. I am so sorry this is something you and your daughter have to experience things like this. I know all to well. I was often mistaken for and called a boy since the age of about 3 or 4. Now at the age of 43, I still get mistaken as a man. I hate having to use locker rooms and public restrooms because of this situation. I try and opt for a disabled unisex restroom instead and sometimes I use the male restrooms and try and pass. I’d rather this than have to deal with stupid, ignorant people like this woman was with Zeca. I have never in my life walked into a womens locker room or restroom and seen a man or a boy in there who had mistakenly wandered in. Has anyone else? Yet I have experienced women actually walking out of the restroom to double check they were not in the mens by mistake (even though there are usually no urinals in sight). It seriously gets very old after a while and you develop a weak bladder from having to avoid the problem altogether by holding it until you get home.

    • Hear, hear! All what you said, Andrea. I sincerely wait ’til I have the cover of a friend, usually my female (and very female-looking) partner to go in to pee, just out of fatigue over the years of stares and double-takes (and the occasional tongue-lashing). It has gotten so very old. Only thing worse than how old it feels would be to feel the sting as young (and vulnerable, and still-forming) as Zeca.

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  31. Jan Kaminsky says:

    I think that all gender-specific locker rooms and bathrooms should be eliminated. Seriously, ridiculous. Sorry that this happened to your sweetie. My middle son is gender nonconforming and has had strangers say things to him (age 6). That being said, I have also had some REALLY positive interactions around his gender expression too, so I’m hoping that the good outweighs the bad!

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