Raising Penel(ope)?

We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the experiences of transgender Americans. How they realized at young ages that something felt very misaligned between who they knew they were on the inside and their outer bodies, and that they, in fact were born in the wrong body.

I’m deliberately skipping the current PC verbiage “assigned,” and won’t get into any debates around whether transgender people were born or “assigned,” since the whole conversation seems silly. We were all born in one way, shape or another, which can’t be denied. We are mammals and mammals bring their offspring into the world through live births, not by hatching or recycling them. And if the African-American (except for Raven Simone), Black, Negro experience is any indication – if not a template — then the terminology framing the transgender will probably change soon enough.

Penel EssenceAnyway, this all came to mind when I read a personal essay in the latest “Essence” magazine (November 2014) called “Raising Penel.” In it Jodie Patterson describes her experiences raising a transgender child. Penel was born — the essay’s verbatim opening, ironically enough — a girl and went on to have a doozie of the Terrible Twos. She was shoving kids around at school and throwing toys. When Ms. Patterson asked what the matter was, she said her daughter told her that everyone thinks she is a girl, but she is not. If you read the essay, you’ll se that Ms. Patterson takes painstakingly avoids calling Penelope “she,” even in the context of recalling Penelope’s existence as a girl before she told her mother that she felt otherwise.

The essay goes into a few other details, which are carefully written with touching emotion. I was more than open to hearing about this family’s journey, until I noticed two other glaring details about the piece — the photos. In one, Patterson is pictured with three of her five kids and “their Dad Joe.” To me, it suggested that the two absent children are from a previous relationship, and they were young enough so that the father could object to them participating so publicly in the piece. There could be a number of reasons for that; I’m just guessing. And the more striking photo was the featured one, of Penel. The child (two can play that personal pronoun game ;))  is sitting in a rustic chair on the property of the family’s cabin, dressed casually in a smooth white T-shirt khakis and with a smile as bright as the sun. I took a look at Penel’s right foot, slung over the left knee, and there it was: Penel is wearing what appears to be toenail polish.

Toenail polish? I looked closer, and sure enough neat little dabs of fuschia tipped three toes on Penel’s right foot. Seems like a decidedly girlie detail for a child who, according to Patterson, felt that every passing day of life would be worse than the one before, because “soon my body will look like yours, Mama.” None of this made any sense to me. Why was Penelope so deeply disturbed about being called a girl, and at age two? What does a two-year-old know about about breasts, hips, and a curvy waist that instilled such apprehension and dread about having them? Penel, as photographed, didn’t look much older than five, maybe six years old. It didn’t make any sense to me that a child who claimed to be a boy and who would challenge both parents and all five siblings to rethink what they know about gender identity, could also happily sport toenail polish.

I know that Baby has casually mentioned to me that her older cousin, a girl, and a couple of friends at school, sometimes were nail polish. And she is always fascinated when I get a colorful manicure done, asking me all kinds of questions about it. I also suspect that one day, when she is happily rifling through my vanity unattended, she might end up with a L’Oreal color on her fingertips.

Who knows what the color really was and how it got on Penel’s toes. Maybe there was a zany family game night in which the boys competed against the girls, lost miserably and had to have their toenails painted as a penalty. They say, all too often, that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, in one photo we see an apparent lack of family solidarity about going public with this story, and in the other the child at the center of it all still seems undecided as to which way to go on the issue.

And let’s be clear that I’m not hating on transgender people’s attempts to “walk in their truth,” as I’ve heard it phrased. I just can’t set aside good-old fashioned instincts or common sense when it comes to questions like this. And I think it was also a big miscalculation on Ms. Patterson’s part to expose her child so early. Since Penel got started so early, the child (see, two can play that game) will have a long road of self-discovery ahead. In those cases, sometimes privacy and discretion are both good things.

Raising Penel



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