This article originally appeared in the magazine Brain, Child. Republished here with permission.
Katy’s mother, Donna Koonce, wanted a baby girl.
The year was 1962. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.
This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the secondary sex characteristics of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the science of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs. She even enlisted the help of the community by hosting a “Think Pink” party. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought delicate dresses with tiny petticoats, and Donna tucked them away in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.
When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper, knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.
“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.
After the final push, Donna shouted “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale so Donna could see. When the fluorescent lights of the delivery room reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.
“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”
Nine years later, my parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair, so she waddled into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.
Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna Koonce’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.
Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the First Woman President.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as antidote to the bimbo-esque influence of Barbie.
Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress, and her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while Steffie fed the baby and worked the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the contradictions of pop culture.
Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was 8, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife. My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.
On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the ’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough Women’s Studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.
Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!”
In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.
Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at 2, 3, and 4—already miraculously masculine, already chaffing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.
Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pint-size Texan masculinity was culturally pitch-perfect—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with anatomy—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.
The highlight of the home movie footage was the year when Katy appeared next to the Christmas tree in full Davy Crockett costume. Freed from the confines of fussy dresses, she sprawled on the floor next to a large, oblong package. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.
Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly accustomed to celebrating childhood gun ownership…and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.
“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”
Paige Schilt is a teacher, activist, and dyke mama. Her web site queerrocklove.com chronicles the life of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South. She lives in Austin and is married to Katy Koonce, frontman extraordinaire for the band Butch County.