Slate ran a story last week about a camp for boys who prefer to bend gender. Photographer Lindsay Morris has created a photo-documentary of the boys at camp. She gives the camp a pseudonym (for obvious reasons). She calls it “You Are You.” I like avoidance of gendered pronouns in the title she selected. The images are wonderful. They depict an space in which playing with gender boundaries, meanings, and more is the norm, not the exception.
Children become socialized into the world we know in various ways. And I believe that if we want the boys, girls, and more from our children’s generation to live in a world with less gender and sexual inequality, we have to not only teach them to question and push boundaries, we have to be willing to let them teach us. Children still ask questions about things that we might have learned to accept without thinking. And we can learn a great deal about gender and the potential for change from examining the aspects of life they might be better positioned to question than we are.
In a recent post with D’Lane Compton, I shared a story of a young girl coming up and pointing at my son in the grocery store, asking her mother a series of questions about him that ended with, “Will he always be a boy?” The mother assured her daughter that he would, and I couldn’t help but think, “Well, with repeated acts like that over the course of his life, he’d certainly think twice before deciding otherwise.” I didn’t share these thoughts with her or her child, but it was an experience that left a mark (on me anyway). At You Are You, it seems as though that’s not a question considered worthy of asking or answering—at least when they’re at camp.
The Slate article is sure to sneak in the piece of information in which they’re assuming most readers would be interested here: Are the boys at “You Are You” gay? Are they trans? Will they be? And certainly the boys, their parents, and anyone else associated with them navigate questions like these throughout their lives. Indeed, Morris is interested in following them to learn more about who they become. Yet, one of the aspects of You Are You in which Morris is so interested is the provision of spatial and temporal relief from these questions. And in truth, these questions are less important—at least right now.
I found myself thinking of Agnes while reading the article. Having been raised as a boy, moving away from her home in her teens, seeking out the research program dealing with “gender identity disorders” at UCLA after hearing a call for participants on the radio, researchers initially met Agnes in her late teens—a young woman about the start her adult life. I’m not actually sure whether she was granted a gender confirmation surgery as a part of the UCLA program or not.
When we teach West and Zimmerman’s “Doing Gender” to students, we reexamine Agnes’ life at this very specific juncture. She appears to us at a cross-roads. We wonder: Will her boyfriend “find out”? Will she be granted a surgery? What happens next? I’ll often ask students to consider Agnes’ life before meeting Harold Garfinkel, growing up, and leaving home as well as what might have happened to her since–a discussion about which Raewyn Connell writes beautifully (here). For instance, her decision to leave home at such a young age is structured by her need to develop a biography as a woman–one that is made all the more challenging if she chose to remain around a group who could say, “I remember when you were just a little boy…” Her choices about where to live, where to work, with whom to socialize, etc. All of these choices are in part shaped by a continual assessment of the safety of different people, spaces, locations, etc.
I couldn’t help thinking that had Agnes had a camp like You Are You when she was young, perhaps her life could have been better—or at least parts of her childhood. Rather than learning about “passing” as all-or-nothing with life and death stakes, she might have had been able to learn about the intricacies of gender performances in a environment that allowed her to play with them and celebrated her efforts and interests.
To me, this has always been the brilliance of Garfinkel’s famous chapter on Agnes. Rather than attempting to examine “why” Agnes sought a gender confirmation surgery, what led her to this decision, how well she might be able to “integrate” into “normal” society, or any other number of questions dealing with considering Agnes as individually “problematic,” Garfinkel sought to learn from Agnes. Part of Garfinkel’s realization was that Agnes made visible “the accomplishment of gender.” But, his larger insight was that Agnes wasn’t the only one doing gender—the rest of us are, too. Creating spaces that celebrate the full potential of the capacity for change embedded in the “doing gender” perspective like You Are You is a critical step toward deconstructing the ideologies, normative ideals, policies, structures, and institutional boundaries that help too many of us forget the pleasures of playing with gender.