I do the haircuts for kids on our house. This arrangement sort of came about by accident, in part because when our oldest was a toddler, there was no way she was going to consent to a haircut by a stranger (and it took a lot of brainwashing, candy and videos to get her to agree to one from me). I’m pretty crafty, so I consulted with youtube and kind of figured it out. I never quite know how it’s going to come out when I start cutting, but usually we do OK.

Ira has some pretty amazing blond wavy hair. It started curly, and has straightened as he’s aged, but it’s still one of his most commented on features. Our impulse has been to let it grow because, well, it is really pretty. For a while he specifically asked for it to get very long like his favorite singer Doris from girlyman. When I do his sisters hair in braids, he often requests braids or hairclips and I comply (I hope I would have offered him the same even if he didn’t have an older sister). With that long hair and braids, he was often read as a girl.

A little while ago he started to notice. At first he didn’t seem to mind, and as parents we kind of brushed it off, but then I checked with him about it. I asked how he feels when people think he’s a girl, and he said he doesn’t like it. I offered to correct them, and he said that yes, he’d like me to do that (so now I do). I also explained that if he has braids in his hair, lots of people aren’t used to boys having braids, so they might think he’s a girl, but that we can just tell them he’s a boy.

Ira is a thinker, and he’s clearly been thinking about his hair. For a while he decided he thought he should have braids one day and then not braids the next day. But then he started asking for shorter hair. Not too short mind you, he clarified he still wanted it long enough for hairclips or braids, but shorter.

So, on Friday, I set the kids up in the living room with a deep supply of videos, and went to work. As I said, I’m never sure exactly what will come out when I start cutting, but for Ira, what came out was a kind of gender-neutral-ish bowl cut (H got her usual bob, and we both agreed it’s time to re-dye the purple streaks in her hair — yes, my fine salon also offers unnatural hair coloring — a skill I perfected in my late-teens and early-20s).

If I can say so myself, Ira’s hair turned out pretty good. When he went to look at it in the mirror he just beamed. The next morning, he went to look at again (asking Gail to come with him, because surely she couldn’t see it without looking in the mirror too), and ran to me saying “I love my hair so much! Thank you for cutting it!” I commented to him how nice it feels to look in the mirror and like what you see, and how glad I am he likes it.

Over the last few days the compliments have come fast and furious. He’s getting tons of positive reinforcement from the world, and that’s great. I’m glad he loves his hair (and I’m glad I got to see his joy so genuinely on his own before he started getting lots of outside reinforcement), I’m glad people are saying kind things to him, and I’m glad they look so favorably on my limited barbering skills. But my feelings are still mixed.

It’s clear that a lot of the positive reaction is due to him looking more gender-aligned. It’s not that he got any cruel reactions when he had long hair. People around here know not to be jerks. He certainly got some compliments, though he also got some confused and gently defensive reactions when I would clarify for people (as he wished) that actually he was a boy with long hair. But the reaction now that he is looking more “boy” is extremely positive, and I even see a shift in my own reaction to him. I don’t necessarily see him as more “boy,” but I do see him as older, and something else a little harder to pin down has also changed.

I heard a talk at a conference I went to a couple months ago about some of the neuroscience and hormonal regulation that may underlie gender identification. I went expecting to be pissed off (there is some really bad science out there on gender differences and it’s used to justify maintaining the crappy status quo — e.g. “women can’t do math and science” BS), but the talk turned out to be really good. I’ll stop well short of a full summary, but the speaker described an experiment where they showed kids videos of men and women interacting with different “gender-neutral” objects. For example, one video might show a series of adults, both men and women, walking up to a table that contained an apple and a pear. All of the women would stop at the table and say “I prefer the apple” while all the men would stop and say “I prefer the pear.” They then asked the kids in the study (I think they were roughly pre-schoolers) which object they preferred. The vast majority of girls would choose what the women in the video chose, and the vast majority of boys would choose what the men chose. This was in the context of a study of fetal androgen exposure in kids assigned female at birth, and they did indeed find that the children assigned female but who had fetal androgen exposure were more likely than the presumably non- or less- androgen exposed girls to choose the object that aligned with the men in the video (and less likely than the control population of boys).

This experiment got me thinking, about lots of things (actually the whole talk did — I was glad that the huge conference hall was dark and I could sit at the back, because I was in tears by the end). It got me thinking about how as adults and as parents we think about gender socialization as coming from outside of children (and in many “progressive” circles any/all such socialization is seen as bad, which mostly seems to have the net effect of everyone pretending they aren’t gender-socializing their kids when of course actually they are because we all are). But what I saw in that experiment was a glimpse of the component of that socialization that comes from inside the child, from what they see in the world, who they choose to emulate. It comes from the signals they are tuned to pick up, from the socialization that they actually engage with amidst the barrage of interactions and influences we all face in the world every day. If it had been me in that experiment as a kid, I damn well would have chosen the pear.

When I see the affectionate affirmation and kindness that has greeted Ira and his nice new haircut, I wonder if some of what trans* kids, or kids who grow up to be trans*, miss out on is that warmth, that joyous reflection of themselves in what the world gives back to them. The net effect of this, even in the best possible case without any overt hostility (which in many ways describes my own childhood), might be a sort of deprived environment, a world in which they are looking and looking for the signals and opportunities they need, that they are tuned to receive, but don’t get them, or at least don’t get as much as their cis peers.