Words

Gender Bending

This is how it always is

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Parenting these days is a challenge, with friendships and homework assignments, soccer carpools, birthday parties, social media, college applications and more clamoring for families’ attention. Even loving, well-adjusted, income-stable parents struggle.

So imagine what it would be like to have a child, from an early age, identify as transgendered.

Assuming no religious objections or fundamental inability to accept the child’s perception of their gender identity, what is the best way to support the child? In This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel, herself the mother of a daughter who was born a son, crafts a sensitive, realistic (yet fictional) take on one family’s approach. 

At its heart: do parents’ attempts to shield their children from all negative experiences actually do their children a disservice? Is the real lesson that life is hard, and wonderful, and confusing, and that being honest about being one’s authentic self is the path to real happiness?

Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams love being parents to a boisterous family of boys. Rosie’s an ER doc and Penn’s a writer, forever laboring over his “DN” (short for Damn Novel) while tending to his five children. When their youngest, Claude, declares at age three that he wants to be a girl, Rosie and Penn are at first confused, then supportive. 

They agree to let him wear dresses to kindergarten, even when a nervous teacher attempts to restrict him from wearing jewelry and carrying a purse. That first school year, Rosie and Penn’s primary concern is “What would make Claude happy?” But, as Frankel points out, “Happy is harder than it sounds.”

Amazingly, Claude’s classmates hardly skip a beat when he shows up at school as a night fairy, dressed in a skirt and fairy wings made out of gauze. It’s the school district that has issues, particularly with restroom assignment, insisting that Claude must choose one gender and stick to it. Over time, these issues resolve, and Claude becomes Poppy, a joyful, bright student with budding friendships.

Then a disastrous playdate pops their little bubble: a bigoted father accuses Poppy of being gay and threatens him with a gun. Suddenly, the Walsh-Adams’ liberal Madison, Wisconsin hometown does not seem safe. Rosie accepts a job in Seattle, and the family restarts, only this time they have four sons and one daughter, Poppy. 

What at first seems helpful and protective for Poppy and the rest of the family grows in time to be a terrible secret that each in his own way struggles to defend. When a mean-spirited classmate “outs” Poppy, Rosie again tries to shield her child, bringing a desperately unhappy Poppy along with her to Thailand when she volunteers in a medical clinic in a remote village.

Scenes from their experience in Thailand are some of the most interesting of the novel—not only the sights, smells and sounds of the exotic country, but the Thai people’s acceptance of gender fluidity and their Buddhist philosophy of “middle way.” It’s in Thailand that Rosie and Poppy come to perceive a path forward, one that husband Penn also arrives at on his own back at home.

Fairytales figure prominently in this novel, and the hopeful ending has a storybook quality to it.  The result is a discussion of gender identify that is refreshing and positive. Mostly, it’s a gentle, relatable way for readers to think about gender identity in a nonthreatening manner.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

Aaron Neville
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