08/16/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Gender Notions

Disclaimer: Names and places have been altered to protect identities.

I began to identify and resist the unfair expectations of females at the age of 8. There were a handful of boys in my school that I would play with from time to time that were 1.5-3 years older than me. I fondly considered the boys in my circle of camaraderie. I climbed trees with these boys, played handball, street baseball and even got to ride their bikes. Some adults labeled me as a "tomboy" to explain the camaraderie that I developed with the boys. Even at that young age, I thought the term "tomboy" was a misrepresentation of who I fully was, so I decided to correct the adults and tell them not to call me anything other than my name. Even back then, I was a rebel.

One day, one of the boys named Danny invited me to his birthday party. I was excited about the party, but had to convince my mom to allow me to go. Why would there be an issue when these boys treated me like a little sister? My mom could not provide a sound answer to my probes and obliged my relentless pleas.

When I was a child, going to parties were a big deal. I had on my favorite dress; all white with tons of tiny red hearts all over it and an A-line hem up to mid-thigh. Hair curled, white sandals on and present in hand, I arrived at Danny's house. When I entered the party, I entered with a big smile and a very loud "HAPPY BIRTHDAY DANNY!" I intended to give Danny a big hug and noticed he was a bit stand-offish. A few male voices said "What's up Elischia," in a tone that I had not noticed before. That was the first moment that I felt that something quite strange was building.

Scanning the room, I greeted everyone, noticing that there were many more boys at the party than girls. The few girls there were either blood relation to Danny or his little sister's friends. The girls seemed into their own thing, so I asked Danny who everyone was. Danny seemed uncomfortable when introducing me to the boys. Introductions seemed rushed, unlike the introductions to the girls. "Wow, how rude," I thought. Perhaps Danny wanted to get back to the video game they were playing before I arrived? The other boys that I frequently played with seemed to be awkward in their response to me as well. I did not understand, but I chalked it up to the very easy idea that boys were weird.

I asked where I should put the present I had for him, and Danny unceremoniously directed me to a room down the hall. Most of the boys resumed intensely watching two of their peers go head-to-head in a video game. Another boy, Barry, followed me down the hall and pointed out the correct room. I thanked him and placed the present on the bed. I turned to leave and saw that Barry had the top half of his body stretched in the doorframe, blocking the door.

"Excuse me."

"What?", he said. Barry spread his legs to cover the distance of the bottom frame of the door and shoved his pelvis forward. "Go ahead."

"You're in my way, move before I f*ck you up!" I yelled. I knew Barry and had been in an altercation with him before over his inappropriate behavior. I also knew that cursing at him would make my seriousness more believable. It is uncanny how much young children understand that to threaten with violence implies power.

Barry laughed. "Ok, go ahead."

Barry pivoted in the door frame so that he was facing sideways, a move that would only allow me enough room to exit if I would brush against him. I did not move.


It seemed like Barry was smirking at me. Another boy in the circle of cameraderie, Travis, was walking down the hallway at that moment and witnessed some of the confrontation. Travis forced Barry to move and stayed near me until Barry was back at the front of the house where the party was.

When I rejoined the party, I noticed some of the boys that I did not know were whispering with Barry and staring at me. For the first time I could remember, I felt uncomfortable around a group of boys. I excused myself to go to the bathroom to check that I did not have some stain on my clothing. I even stopped by the kitchen where Danny's mother and sister were cooking to check that I looked presentable and mentioned that the boys seemed to be acting weird. The women assured me that I looked fine and that the boys will just be boys. In hindsight, I wonder if they realized they were perpetuating cultural acceptance and non-agency for aggressive male behavior?

When I re-entered the living room where everyone was, some more boys were just coming through the front door. Catching up with the whispering boys, they stopped in their tracks as I stopped in the middle of the room to scan for a seat. What happened next changed the mood of the party.

Danny and Travis both seemed to alternate rapid responses to the growing awkward silence to encourage the boys to be nice. Or was it to back off?

"Chill, she's like a little sister."

"Oh yeah, little sister, huh? Is she your little sister too?"

I noticed that Danny and Travis seemed upset. Then someone asked me,"How old are you?"

"8. Why?"

"See, I told you, she's a little girl, so chill."

Suddenly, I was conscious of the stares that felt like they were going through my dress. Thoroughly embarrassed, I made a lame excuse to Danny's mom after suffering through another few minutes of what felt like intense judgmental, hungry stares and left the party.

It was still daylight so I walked home. When I got home, I confided in my mother seeking confirmation that nothing was wrong with me or how I looked. I was instructed to stay away from Barry completely, to distance myself from friendships with boys and play more with my female friends. My mom also told me that I needed to start becoming mindful of what I wear and how I look in it because I was developing fast. I was hurt. Not only did I feel blamed for developing, but I had to cut off my friendships because of it. My favorite dress was forever stained with shame and anger, so I never wore it again.

Some weeks after Danny's birthday party, I encountered Danny and Travis again. The boys told me that they had decided that we could not be around each other anymore and that I was no longer a little sister or a friend. They said that I would fully understand when I got older. I was devastated. My whole life altered without my consent and I resented it. When I vented my frustrations, both males and females would remark that it was surprising that the boys allowed me to play with them for that long, as if I should have been grateful for having a prolonged opportunity to be welcomed and respected in male circles. The reigning consensus was that it was more appropriate for me to be somewhere playing with dolls with girls.

In hindsight, a part of my free spirit died while a fire flamed in my spirit simultaneously. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world that made me wholly responsible for which gender I was around, what I wore when in the opposite sex's presence and how easily I could be dismissed. The ultimate burden I absorbed was that as a female, my body was a source that uniquely identified and draped me with guilt and shame. Be damned, my spirit refused to be completely broken. I was not going to be put in a box that I did not craft.

My resentment of the burdens that came with growing into womanhood swelled into milestones of strategic resistance as I continued to develop, but not without heavy consequences. Life as a girl evolved into a reality show involving outspoken protests against frequent gendered injustice, physical fights to salvage my dignity and a deliberate cultivation of excellence in areas socially reserved for and preferentially scripted for the positive social and professional trajectory of males.

I survived the storm and stress of puberty because I was determined to not let my sex and gender define, punish and deter me from what I wanted to do. In a way, the experience and ripple effects of Danny's birthday party prepped me for a life of resistance to the power structures inherent in gender. As I matured, I began to draw more connections with other types of struggles and challenged my responsibility to reject notions and actions that would perpetuate injustice anywhere, under any guise. Perhaps I owe this awakening in part to Danny and the other boys.