Hair donation leads to lesson in misgendering

When our son got a haircut in the summer before Grade 3, we had no idea he wouldn’t let scissors touch it until almost the end of Grade 5.

More about that here

Growing his hair long was never something he planned. It just kept growing, little by little, and he kept preferring to keep it that way. It spilled over his eyes until it could be tucked behind his ears, and it crept over his collar and past his shoulders until it was halfway down his back.

People asked him when he’d cut it, and he’d shrug. They’d ask how long he planned on growing it, and he’d shrug again. He really didn’t know.

His hair grew so long that he grudgingly agreed to wear it in a ponytail for taekwondo because it was uncomfortable having it hang over his neck, thick and sweaty. It started to tangle when I brushed it in the mornings before school, and he hated that, too.

When I measured it and told him it was long enough to donate to a charity that makes wigs for sick children, he loved the idea and decided we should book a haircut. We divided it into rubber bands, just like the donation website specified, and I held my breath while our stylist chopped off his long, thick hair.

Holding two long ponytails in his hands, the first thing he exclaimed was “It’s so short!” The second thing he said was “Now people won’t call me a girl anymore!”

He didn’t mind at first.

He got used to the comments because he heard them almost daily.

Walking into a store with me and his sister, we’d hear “How are you three ladies doing today?” or “Can I help you girls find anything?”

He originally ignored the comments, but then he decided to start speaking up. “I’m a boy,” he’d tell them, or sometimes just “I’m not a girl.” I found it fascinating that instead of apologizing, many people denied having just called him a girl. “Oh, I know!” they’d say quickly. Um, but you just said …?

Wearing face masks only made things worse, because people looked at him and saw a thick, swinging curtain of long hair. Month after month, he was mistaken for a girl in every single public place where a stranger interacted with us. 

It didn’t matter that lots of boys have long hair. It didn’t matter that he loved his long hair. He cut his hair partially because it was getting to be a pain, but mostly because he was sick and tired of being misgendered.

His new haircut is very short, and he loves it. He says it’s strange feeling a breeze behind his ears, and sometimes his neck feels cold. But mostly, he loves that not a single person has mistaken him for a girl since he’s gotten his hair chopped off. 

The whole experience with our son’s long hair has taught me a lot about the way we assume we know people’s genders. 

There was once a time when I, too, would have looked at all that beautiful wavy hair and innocently assumed he was a little girl. Hell, I was called a boy twice as a kid, and I’m still talking about it 30-something years later. (I also have never cut my hair higher than chest-height.) 

There was a time when I would have seen two children with long hair and asked my kids “Do you know those girls?” Now? I try not to assume. Instead of “boy” or “girl,” it’s just as easy to say “child” or “kid” or “student” or “person.” It’s also just as easy to refer to someone as “they” if you don’t know their preferred pronouns. It gets easier the more you do it, too.

The reality is that you don’t know how a person identifies until you talk with them about it, so we need to stop assuming we know — especially based on something as arbitrary as clothes or a haircut. 

The kids and I were watching a YouTube video recently where someone was giving a Barbie a full makeover. The crafter had a deep voice and sparkly long nails, but we couldn’t see the rest of them on camera. Our daughter commented that “he” was good at making the tiny wig, and I reminded her that we should say “they,” since we don’t know. Minutes later, we were all chatting easily about how “they” had a great channel and “they” did very cool work. 

Kids get it. And now it’s time for the grown-ups to catch up.

(Looking to donate hair? We chose the Angel Hair For Kids Program through A Child’s Voice Foundation here in Canada. Visit acvf.ca to read the donation guidelines, and please include a cash donation because it takes $2,000 and 12 ponytails to make one hair prosthesis for a child.)

This column originally appeared in SaltWire Network newspapers across Atlantic Canada.

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